Can Games and Gamification Fix Washington?

02/04/2011 12:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Even without protests in Cairo and Tea Party insouciance, there's no doubt that most governments eventually lose "sync" with their people. Much like the software process that keeps the contacts, music and photos on our phones up to date with our computers, syncing government with the governed is challenging from a systems perspective. With so many moving parts, money, competing interests and lives at stake, it's no wonder that sometimes the only way to fix things is to do a complete wipe and reinstall.

But could the solution to reforming government -- generally making it more accountable, efficient and representative of its people -- be found in technology? Can we move beyond procedural tweaks and yo-yo elections and address some of the fundamental underlying issues that plague our democracy?

I mean, if Apple, Google and Microsoft can't even figure out a way to keep our address books current and not duplicated, what hope do we have to achieving the same in Washington? The answer may lie in using games -- or more specifically, gamification -- to understand why our government is so dysfunctional, and then work towards a fix.

Gamification is the use of game-thinking and game mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences, and is being used in fields as diverse as health care, education and advertising to create radical and profound behavior change. The first-ever Gamification Summit was recently held in San Francisco, and a question that was raised several times was, "Why can't it work in Washington?" It can, and in some cases, already does.

Here then are three ways we can begin to fix government using gamification.

Understand the Player

The first rule of game design is "know your player". And when we leverage gamification to transform organizations and systems, the first thing we try to understand is what drives the player to succeed, and what "journey" are they on. There are many cases in the design of the US system of government, where the "rules" are plainly outdated in their understanding of the player's motivation.

Take, for instance, the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice. While always generally partisan, appointments have increasingly taken on sharply political overtones. In the framer's design of the system, they assumed that Presidents would be motivated by legacy and stability rather than short-term political gain, and that their picks would act in the best long-term interests of the country. The SCOTUS nomination process carries the weight of our belief in "intrinsic goodness": winners get instant tenure (something even public school teachers dream about), and Congressional checks and balances are nominal at best; fewer than 10% of nominees have been rejected by the Senate.

Since we now know that Presidents will put ideology before the country, the process of nominating a justice must change to reflect this harsh reality. Perhaps Justices should be elected (to 10, 20 year terms, perhaps) or Presidential nominations must be ratified by a true plurality of the people and reaffirmed periodically. Perhaps Presidents should be limited to one nomination per term, or even the scope of SCOTUS should be reduced.

The bottom line: people always try to "game the system", and politicians are no different. To maintain the system's integrity you must be ever vigilant about changing player dynamics and adjust the rules as needed. To whit, tenure is normally something you "level up" into in game systems -- but in the SCOTUS nominations, it's instant. Perhaps this needs revisiting?

Leverage Games To Create Connections

Games can be tremendous pedagogical tools - but even more importantly, they can help players "model" the world in ways that would be too complex in spreadsheets or on paper. That kind of systemic thinking has been used by key experts to help governments become more responsive, empowering bureaucrats and constituents to think clearly about hard problems.

Experts like Luke Hohmann, Founder & CEO of Innovation Games have designed real-world experiences that constituents play to help governments figure out what their true priorities are. Instead of merely giving users surveys where data is often out of touch with reality, Innovation's games - like the one they just did for the city of San Jose -- put the electorate in the shoes of their officials, forcing them to make hard, experiential decisions. For example, cutting daycare or road maintenance in light of massive budget shortfalls might be too complex in Excel or too abstract on a ballot, but when it's made into a game, it gives startling insight both to the end user and city government, producing extraordinary results.

As Hohmann so eloquently said in a recent interview, "When our country was small, we had a participatory democracy -- people in town halls hashing out issues. Now with [gamified] technology, small groups of six, seven or eight citizens can attack problems in a way that's very useful."

The bottom line: use innovative game techniques to get constituents, bureaucrats and elected officials to see each other's points of view. You can model complex systems, bring people together in extraordinary ways and have fun doing it.

Gamify The System

After a while, all systems become calcified and stuck, and players can rarely keep their enthusiasm going. The same is true of complex and costly government processes and initiatives, but when they go sideways, they tend to take billions of taxpayer dollars with them.

Companies like Innocentive and organizations like the XPrize Foundation, believe that game mechanics like challenges and contests can motivate users to achieve extraordinary results. Apparently, Congress agrees, passing legislation in December 2010's America COMPETES Act that grants US Government agencies broad authority to use prizes and challenges to solve problems of national importance. This fundamentally gamified tenet of the Obama Administration's worldview has been steadily gaining steam since 2009, when White House lawyers issued what may have been the government's first position paper on the subject.

Using gamification in this way, it's hoped, will usher in a new era of private thinkers using public money to achieve greatness with minimal red tape. While the concept is not fundamentally new, the depth and breadth of the administration's thinking is startling, and will have major repercussions.

A cash-prize approach is not without its weaknesses. Game designers know that money is generally a weak motivator in comparison to other rewards. A common framework used in gamification to think about users' desires, in order of priority is Status, Access, Power and Stuff, or SAPS for short. A more comprehensive approach that focused on these longer-term motivators (the SAP in SAPS) would likely yield superior long-term results at a fraction of the cost. Remember: most great discoveries were not immediately accompanied by a large cash prize, but the players were very status ("I discovered this first") driven.

The bottom line: you can use game mechanics like challenges and contests to galvanize communities around a common idea or goal. What we used to do for Uncle Sam out of the goodness of our heart, now requires a prize -- but so be long as it works.

Fundamentally, gamification will not be able to solve all of our most pressing and complex governmental problems. It brilliantly accomplishes a lot with few resources. By better understanding how player motivations have changed, leveraging the power of games to connect communities, and retooling incentive and reward systems with game techniques, we can -- together -- achieve extraordinary things.

As any software geek will tell you, reformatting and reinstalling your entire computer can fix many intractable problems. But it always takes longer than you think to rebuild, and you'd better have a great backup. The same is true of government; perhaps gamification can help us fix what ails before we need to test the alternatives.

Research assistance provided by Jeff Lopez.