"Games allow you to create a system that when people participate, they generate a story," says Jeff Watson, a proponent of "civic games"—play that’s not just for fun, but has some underlying social purpose. "When people participate, it’s a lot more powerful than someone telling them what to do."
Many nonprofits have adopted game playing, as they seek new and more engaging ways of reaching audiences. Now, many of the best ideas have been collated into an example-rich report. Below, Watson and co-author Benjamin Stokes pick out some favorites.
Funded by the Knight Foundation, Macon Money is a game designed around an invented currency. People get half a bond, and the game is to find the person with the other half, so you can spend the money. Stokes says it’s an effective way of bringing people together who normally wouldn’t meet or socialize. Follow-up research shows how people visited stores they wouldn’t normally go to and made relationships outside their normal circle.
Commons is a location-specific mobile game where players are rewarded for mapping issues in a neighborhood over a two-hour period. From the creators’ site:
1) report a problem in the neighborhood, or 2) recommend an improvement in the neighborhood, or 3) show appreciation about something in the neighborhood. Each "City Task" consists of a text description (maximum 140 characters), including the street intersection or geo-tag where the issue exists, and a photo. When a player submits a City Task, he/she earns experience points for each submission.
The game won last year’s Real-World Games for Change Challenge. Lead designer Suzanne Kirkpatrick talks about it here:
Developed by Watson, and two colleagues (and not in the report), Reality Ends Here is a card-trading game that encourages media experimentation, networking, and creativity. Players pick up sets of cards that fit together in random ways, setting off all sorts of collaborative activity. Watson created the idea while doing his PhD at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and the game became a big hit on campus. See the explanatory video here (it’s a bit complicated), or read this:
Now banned from Apple’s store, Situationist is a mobile app, where people sign up for random encounters with strangers. The app runs in the background of your phone, and when you come within range of another user, a message appears on the screen: "Compliment me on my haircut", "Hug me for 5 seconds exactly", or whatever situation you have signed up to be a part of. Again, the point is to take people out of their normal patterns, and show that anything can happen in the public space.
Teams race from location to location to complete challenges and use activist tactics to increase their score. A central hub coordinates the game in real time, sending the teams messages by cell phone with competitive status, clues, etc. In order to progress, participants raise awareness of protest events by creating public interactions.
Stokes and Watson say the best games combine an artistic anything-goes quality, as in Situationist, with serious intent (as in Macon Money). Games tend not to work when they’re intended to drive home a particular message, or have participants find one correct answer. The experts are also leery of treasure-hunt-type games, which Watson calls Tupperware games. They may be fun, but they lack meaning, he says.
The best games put the individual in charge—or as Watson puts it in his academic way, "foreground the agency". They are a "sandbox for the imagination", specific to their location and subject and designed with the audience in mind. There is no point drawing up a Facebook game, say, if all the likely players have moved on to other things. Obvious, but true.