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Charlie Wisoff reviews “Making Democracy Fun” by Josh Lerner

We just love Making Democracy Fun a great new book by Josh Lerner, an NCDD member and ED of the Participatory Budgeting Project. We love to work with Josh and his ideas – from hosting his great “gamification” talk during the final NCDD 2014 plenary to co-sponsoring PBP’s recent conference – and we hope you’ll read the review of his book written by Charlie Wisoff of the Kettering Foundation below.

In Making Democracy Fun, Josh Lerner addresses a key problem of democracy: “For most people, democratic participation is relatively unappealing. It is boring, painful, and pointless.” This is the case in traditional public hearings that end in bitter conflict and have little impact, but Lerner argues that even idealized forms of participation, such as deliberation, are not intrinsically fun.

To address this problem, Lerner draws on the growing field of game design. Games are defined as, “systems in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in measurable outcomes.” Lerner has in mind a broad range of games including sports, board games, video games, or play-oriented games like tag. In contrast to the paltry numbers many public engagement processes get, 183 million people in the US report playing computer or video games regularly, 13 hours per week on average.

Lerner suggests utilizing a number of game design concepts and mechanics and applying them when designing democratic processes. He outlines 27 game mechanics organized under the categories of conflict and collaboration, rules, outcomes, and engagement. He also notes that the effectiveness of games does not depend on digital technology, that face-to-face interaction is essential for democracy, and that digital games should only be used to supplement rather than replace in-person engagement.

Throughout the book, Lerner draws on a number of case studies in Rosaria, Argentina and Toronto, Canada to illustrate his points about incorporating games into democratic processes. In a participatory planning process called Rosario Hábitat Lerner notes how a map puzzle game was used to prompt slum residents to make collective decisions about where they want their lots of land to be developed. A core game mechanic highlighted here is group vs. system conflict. This mode of conflict presents a group with a collective challenge, such as limited land, orienting participants towards collaboration rather than competition over scarce resources.

Another game mechanic Lerner highlights is the importance of having enjoyable core mechanics. Core mechanics are the basic activities of a game like bowling a bowling ball or rolling dice, which should be intrinsically enjoyable in a well-designed game. In Rosario, Lerner notes how theater-like games were used to get participants moving while at the same time allowing participants to act-out a new law in particular contexts. In Toronto, during Participatory Budgeting events, simple activities like putting color dots up to rate proposals made a voting process more enjoyable.

Lerner concludes by arguing that, while there “are no simple or universal recipes,” there are certain principles that should guide the application of game design mechanics to democratic processes: engage the senses, establish legitimate rules, generate collaborative competition, link participation to measurable outcomes, and participant-centered design.

For more info or to order Making Democracy Fun, visit www.mitpress.mit.edu/demofun.

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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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