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Improving Public Engagement with Games

Public participation processes can often be boring, tedious things to participate in, and finding ways to make them more fun and engaging is a recurring issue. But that’s why a growing sector of our field and others have been turning to “gamification” as a model for making sure citizens get the most out of their participation and enjoy themselves, too.

Andrew Coulson wrote a great piece for commsgodigital about gamification and engagement that we encourage NCDD members to give a read. You can read the article below or find the original piece here.

Gamification in Community Engagement Part 1: Offline

One of the biggest franchises at the moment in both literature and film is the Hunger Games. The story of how a world, not to dissimilar to ours, pits its own young against each other as a way of sorting out an age old issue between communities.

OK, OK I’m adlibbing a bit and it has very tenuous ties to engaging the community… but I need an edge for the blog.

Many games use strategy (where to hide, what to take), team work (Katniss and Peeta) and problem management (How do we kill the others before they kill us?) to help the player achieve goals (survival in the Hunger Games), which, if used in Community Engagement opportunities, allows the right decision to be achieved through understanding barriers, working together, and setting joint achievable objects. We know gaming is not new, but Gamification in Community Engagement certainly seems to be on the rise and being used more and more in issue management and relationship building between communities and their councils.

From early use of established offline games to newly developed, all-whistles-blowing online options, games are now being used more and more in engaging the community or helping people understand and generally participate in having their say in the decision making process.

In true commsgodigital style, over 2 installments, we’re going list a number of on and offline Gamification offerings in the world of community engagement and communication in the hope you will like them and, in a spark of inspiration, look at them as options in the work you do during 2014.

(Warning: We are not advocating the use of the Hunger Games model as an option for community engagement… it just doesn’t cut the mustard with some stakeholders.)


When asking for examples using LinkedIn, a number of people shared their experiences with me on how they had used games, both traditional and newly developed, in engaging communities to do, it seems, 1 or all of 4 things.

  • To engage
  • To inform/build understanding
  • To build relationships/teamwork
  • Break the ice

Gwenda Johnson, a County Extension Agent for Family and Consumer Sciences, Kentucky, said, “I often use floor puzzles to demonstrate community and the role people play in building a strong community. Sometimes I reserve some pieces to start a conversation about people who don’t follow through with responsibility. The 48 piece floor puzzles works well in our small community. It’s a great inexpensive way to start conversation and build team work too.”

So a few of my favourite examples:

The Public Space Trading Cards by Learning from Barcelona

Do you remember as a kid those card games where some cards ranked higher than others and the object was to collect them all by outwitting your opponent with a card that scored higher than theirs? We called it “Top Trumps” in the UK.

Learning from Barcelona have developed a similar Trading Card game where neighbourhood kids are tasked with collecting sets of cards depicting places in their neighbourhood by answering questions on the back on how to improve the area. Once collected they can be played with and traded. Here’s a better description.
barcelonaThe game allows people to become a detective in the own residential area and look at the built environment in a different light as well as think how improvements can be made. This informs them on issues facing the area whilst the cards questions help the local authority/project management to collect useful insights for future development. The game also builds in a sense of ownership for the area.

Cards games are also popular with David Wilcox at socialreporter.com, London who, via LinkedIn, shared examples he had developed as well as others he had come across. Take a look at Useful Games and Ingredients and tool cards for examples.

I myself used the card option in a game format when supporting the engagement of a community around the renewal of a small reserve in Salisbury, South Australia. Using cards with potential options on for the renewal (trees, equipment, amenities, etc.) as well as a hypothetical budgetary value, we gave players a map, a budget, and a shopping list as well as a stack of cards. They then used the cards and map to plan what they would buy and then place in the reserve. Adding an element of role play encouraged discussions on the needs and wants of the community for this space. There was also a wild card that could be used if we had missed anything or they had a great idea they wanted added to the discussion.

The Game of Urban Renewal by Toronto visual artist Flavio Trevisan

This game builds on the traditional board game structure and is kind of a cross between Monopoly, a puzzle, and children’s favourite, Lego, and who doesn’t like that combination!

As a board game, it allows players to take on the role of those involved in a councils planning office making decisions on what to build and knock down in their local area to make the community a better place to live. Players use cards that depict tasks on developing areas with specific functions such as public spaces, schools, commercial buildings, and housing using a real satellite imaged map of the area and 3D blocks to represent urban development.

The game aims to get players discussing and visioning possible solutions to urban development and renewal. Find out more about the Game of Urban Renewal.

Via LinkedIn Paul Tucker, a Partner a GRIN SW, Exeter mentioned Boom Town from 1990 which seems to have similar feel. Here’s the games description:

“Famous rare game from Ian Livingstone’s company, players construct a 1950s English new town by laying tiles to show housing, shops, factories, etc. As parts of the suburbs are completed, scoring goes to the majority holder, but there are spoiler tiles, like the rubbish dump, which will reduce your score. There’s a strong element of mutual caution until somebody steps over the brink and lays those bad tiles.”

Whose Shoes? Toolkit,  My Life, My Budget and the Last Straw!

These three board games/toolkits are personal favourites of mine and are used to help the player build an understanding/appreciation around a certain topic. Often these games don’t have outcomes (as in there is no individual winner at the end) but educate those playing through promoting discussion about the topic; building empathy and encouraging learning in a fun and supportive environment.

All three are based around the health and social care of people in the community and were born out the many changes happening around the world in social care due to ageing populations and the effect of the worldwide recession on social care resources.

Whose Shoes? is a tool that encourages debate and understanding around social care and personalisation (UK) and has been used extensively in challenging Dementia. Developed by Gill Phillips during the introduction of Personalisation in Adult Care, the toolkit has been developed now as an electronic version in partnership with TLAP and is used by many local authorities and a number of universities in the UK to help students and staff understand the service user journey as well as grasp the idea of co-production.

My Life, My budget was also developed around the same time as Whose Shoes? in response to the Personalisation of care in the UK. The board game helps service users understand the concept and how personalised budgets work and can affect their lives. The game is no longer available but if you’re lucky and in the UK, your local council may have a copy.

The Last Straw! is a fun and exciting teaching tool on the social determinants of health developed by University of Toronto’s Dr. Kate Rossiter and Dr. Kate Reeve as part of a health promotion class. The website says, “Feedback consistently demonstrates that players gain a better understanding of the social determinants of health and the interplay between forces at individual and community levels.” Shared by Catherine Laska, a Community Developer, Ottawa via LinkedIn.

Final thoughts

Finally, I wanted to share this YouTube video that highlights the benefits in playing games to both break the ice with community members as well as build trust and teamwork both of which are important when engaging the community.  The video come from Jackson Dionne a Program Manager at The Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of BC.

[Unfortunately, the link to the YouTube video was broken at the time of publication. Please check back at the original post later.]

I would like to thank all those who contributed to the discussion on games in Community Engagement on LinkedIn. I apologise for not being able to mention all the contributions, however, if you would like to follow the discussion and see some other examples, please visit http://linkd.in/1g1XKiD. There are also a number of other examples via my Innovative Community Engagement board on Pinterest, including the brilliant use of a ball pit by Soulpancake, Lego pieces by Intelligent Futures, and even some of my own concoctions, including the award winning Heyford Reserve community engagement project where we used a board game to help gather and develop ideas with local school kids for the renewal of a small reserve and playspace in the City of Salisbury, South Australia. See more on my innovative community engagement Pinterest board.

Any further examples or comments on Gamification in community engagement please leave in the box below… we love feedback but please, once again, do not use the Hunger Games as a model for community engagement.

Part Two: Online Community Engagement will be appearing on commsgodigital in February/March.

The original version of this post can be found at www.commsgodigital.com.au/2014/01/gamification-in-community-engagement-offline.

Roshan Bliss on LinkedinRoshan Bliss on Twitter
Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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  1. Abbie says:

    Roshan, very interesting reading. I love the idea of using the novelty of a game to stimulate interest from young people. I am just about to engage with some primary schools to get input to playground design and I love the idea of pitching the challenge as a game. Have to hope my client loves the idea and allows the time to develop something meaningful. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Roshan Bliss says:

      I’m glad you liked Andrew’s article, Abbie, and am pleased to hear that it gave you some inspiration! We’d love to hear how your project with the primary schools go. When it’s done – or far enough along for some reflection – please think about sharing the story and what you learn with the NCDD community via our Story Sharing Tool, which you can find here: https://ncdd.org/community/storytelling-tool
      Good luck!

    • Andrew says:

      Hi Abbie.
      I have actually used a bespoke game for a reserve (Park) and playground renewal. It was a pretty simple idea using a map of the space, some ‘asset cards’ with values, a suggested budget and if you have time some role playing options. Its relatively cheap to mock up and you don’t really need to many rules as what we found was that kids ran the game they wanted giving us different outcomes. It promotes budgeting, planning as well as group and innovative thinking. I have also looked at doing this with a tile based approach and also without a budget where you determine how many cards from the pack can be placed meaning choice over money becomes the important point.

      • Abbie says:

        Thanks Michael. More encouragement for me to really try and persuade my client it is worth doing something a bit creative and innovative!

      • Andrew says:

        Here’s a picture of what we did. Shows its simplicity but had a big impact. We used a wild card to so if we had forgotten anything the players thought off even innovative ideas they could input them for part of their budget. http://www.pinterest.com/pin/157837161912272024/

  2. Carolyn Caywood says:

    Are you aware of The Harry Potter Alliance http://thehpalliance.org/ ? They are making good use of Hunger Games.

    • I love the Harry Potter Alliance, Carolyn! Are you connected with them?

    • Roshan Bliss says:

      Hi Carolyn! I have heard a little about the HPA, and I think it’s a great project! There are a lot of really deep conversations and reflections about our world to be pulled from the Hunger Games, and I hope they find a lot of success using the movies as a conversation piece

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks for sharing Carolyn. I have just pinned this to my Innovative Community Engagement board on Pinterest as its a pretty cool way of getting people to collaborate.

  3. Carolyn Caywood says:

    Andrew Slack spoke at the American Library Association meeting in January. They are looking for libraries to host chapters.

  4. World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements by John Hunter Hunter teaches gifted students, currently in Charlottesville. He has used the World Peace Game that he developed with 4th graders through adults. The simplified world of the game has four nations plus ethnic tribes, mercenaries, a religious minority, a UN, a World Bank, and a saboteur who sows discord in secret. A weather goddess introduces the effects of chance. The students have to solve fifty interlocking crises ranging from climate change to the competing rights of an indigenous burial ground in an oilfield. What makes the game unique is that the goal of peace means that everyone must win or else everyone loses the game. Despite this goal of peace, Hunter uses Sun Tzu’s Art of War to help the students think through the consequences of their actions.

    Hunter observes that each time the game passes through certain stages: first the students are overwhelmed by complexity, gradually they come to realize they cannot win as individuals or even as teams, and then there is an aha moment when the very interdependent complexity becomes the solution. He says no class has ever lost the game. As a teacher, Hunter advocates for “empty space” where a learner can think deeply and create meaning. He is concerned that the current focus on standardized testing leaves out the kind of difficult problem-solving that our society needs.

    If you don’t have time to read World Peace and other 4th Grade Achievements, or you want to know more before committing the time, you can view Hunter’s TED presentation. Hearing a 4th grader recognize and explain the temptation of winning battles is simply astounding.http://www.ted.com/talks/john_hunter_on_the_world_peace_game

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