Click to Participate – Games in Government

Click to Participate – Games in Government


“Each successive generation trusts government less… but millennials are one of the most pro-government generations in decades.” – Jen Pahlka, founder and Executive Director of Code for America speaking at SXSWi ’11

Millennials are those of us born since the mid 80’s and grew up in the midst of the digital revolution. Our trust in government may seem odd, as we are typically seen either in a never ending text conversation, wasting time on Facebook, or clicking on cows in FarmVille. But these “wastes of time” can serve as the foundation of a new form of civic engagement.  In line with this idea, collaboration and participation through social media is becoming an integral part of the Government 2.0 movement, and games are the next step in the process.

The interactive portion of SXSW was buzzing with conversations on the power of technology in reforming government. Some great resources for information and collaboration include Intellitics, US State Department Office of eDiplomacyTech@State, GovLoop, Code For America, and These government and public initiatives are attempting to utilize America’s strength in innovation in order to reform government by making it more efficient, more transparent, more collaborative, and fundamentally more participatory.

What must be understood is that social institutions are increasingly competing with games, not for the attention of citizens, but for their brain cycles and interactive bandwidth of players. Civic engagement is rarely seen as a fun and interesting activity and more often takes on the guise of duty. In Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal describes how organizations will need to become effective players in an emerging “engagement economy”, to as McGonigal puts it, “effectively harness the wisdom of the crowds, and to successfully leverage the participation of the many.” Saving the world of Azeroth from undead legions is simply more engaging than watching congressional debates on C-SPAN and feel more productive than a typical town hall meeting. When compared to games, reality is broken.

So how do we fix it?

Some in this country and in others others have suggested restricting games. Luke Hohmann of Innovation Games has another idea: make our existing social institutions more engaging and simply more fun. If civil society and government must compete with video games for the attention of citizens, then we must learn from the best and most practiced elements of games: collaboration, competition, and constant feedback.

In late January 2011, Innovation Games helped facilitate the second annual Budgetary Priority Setting Session, held by the mayor’s office of the City of San Jose. The city, like many others in the United States, currently suffers from a large and growing deficit, and municipal leaders require community input in order to find the right initiatives to keep and discuss which ones can be cut. The event brought over one hundred community leaders together to provide input on San Jose’s budget deficit. Innovation Games was brought in this year because the first annual meeting was, as you might expect, boring.

In order to facilitate engagement between the city and the gathered community leaders, Innovation Games utilized Buy a Feature. The game already exists as an external market research tool and for internal group prioritization and has been used by companies such as Cisco, VeriSign, and Reed Elsevier. The premise was changed to match the city’s needs: community leaders were split up into groups of around eight people and each group was given a limited amount of virtual money that enabled them to purchase a few small items – but certainly not everything that they would want. To get more money, players could ALSO cut more items from another list of funded items. Each of these budgets were reflective of the real costs and budget decisions the city must make, and subject matter experts, including Fire Chief McDonald and Mayor Reed, were available to answer questions.

At the end of the games, the results from each group were aggregated, producing a data set that revealed the priorities for the larger group of participants. The event seems deceptively simple but by bringing collaboration, feedback, and play into the equation, participants were able to build consensus in a very positive way. In a political world dominated by yelling between the Right and the Left, this type of collaboration provides a breath of fresh air. As Luke Hohmann told me, it doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, “I just want you to care”. Feedback from participants was excellent (see below), and after the event many commented that it was the most engaged they had felt within their local government.

The quantitative results from the event can be found on the city’s website and the mayor’s proposed budget was released earlier this month. The results are in, and the official document explicitly cites the budget game: residents were reluctant to cut police and fire resources but were willing to look at efficiencies. The mayor’s office has decided to not cut safety patrols, and instead turned to increasing efficiency in pensions and benefits, as well as reduce funding of nonessential efforts that fell to the bottom of the game results, namely city health initiatives and public recreation events. More on the session is available from before and after. There are still some glitches to work out, but one of the strengths of the game is that it is scalable. Hohmann’s goal is to eventually involve thousands within the city and millions in the nation to take part in these events and discuss and collaborate on the issues that affect us all, which will require some modifications to the current system. These modifications, however, are well within the realm of existing technologies.

Games are just beginning to enter the public sector, and in order to compete for the brain power of US citizens, we are going to have to explore new ways to innovate our social institutions and hopefully make them more fun and engaging in the process. Games have the ability to make the next generation into the most participatory generation in the past two-thousand years. As Pahlka puts it, “it’s not that Millennials think the government works now, it’s that they think they can remake the government in their image”. After all, in the wild, animals play in order to learn how to hunt, to fight, and to survive. In today’s society, doesn’t it make sense to play in order to learn how to collaborate, how to participate, and how to govern?


  1. The browser-based economical and political simulation game Ars Regendi is a real good way to make people participate virtually in politics too. Have a look at it. You can decide upon various issues in politics, economics and society.

  2. […] Dean Takahashi wrote about this idea on “GamesBeat”, his article and the interesting comments can be reviewed here. Libe Goad and Peter Cohen share their thoughts about Innovation Gamification on ZDNet in this article (see comments too). Eric Caoili and his friends take a deeper look at this topic in, “Analyst: Over Half Of ‘Innovation’ Companies To Adopt Gamification By 2015“. Fans of Government 2.0 and Government Agencies can leverage the concepts of Game Mechanics in their Gamification Strategy, as Jeff Lopez covers in “Click to Participate – Games in Government“. […]

  3. Great news everyone! Our Jan 2011 event was so successful that we’re going to be conducting another, even bigger, event in Jan 2012! The Jan 2012 will include both in-person and online games.

    The in-person games will again focus on budget issues. We’ll then turn to the topic of growing communities through our game “Prune the Product Tree”. This will be an in-person and online game that will engage as much of the city as possible in collaborative play to identify community projects that can grow and nurture vibrant neighborhoods.

    You can learn more about this event here:


    Luke Hohmann
    The Innovation Games Company