Public governance is increasingly gamified, both at the national and supranational levels. Many reasons may be used to explain the growing interest for gamification in the public sphere. However, having to pick up one cause, the most important, this would certainly be the profound impact that new technologies have had on the exercise of public power. With the advent of information and communication technologies, the relations and connections between citizens and public administrations have changed dramatically.
Thanks to the spread of electronic devices, the costs of social interacting have lowered radically, and audience numbers have become potentially unlimited. Technologies – in combination with fiscal austerity (that outdates existing resource-intensive models) and the increased complexity of regulatory issues – have enabled access to (and analysis of) data in ways that have the potential to lead to innovative solutions to regulatory issues.
Obviously, increased interactions translate into higher expectations from citizens. Contemporary audiences are demanding. The “participatory civics”, to borrow the words of Ethan Zuckerman, disengage from governments institutions to (re-) engage into individual and collective use of media, markets and codes to advocate for change. It is thanks to technologies, argue Gavin Newsom and Lisa Dickey, that citizens are enabled to become problem-solvers in the public domain. These “Autonomous citizens”, to use Stephen Coleman’s words, not only contribute to solve problems, but increasingly call for creative avenues for engaging in policy-making.
Public regulators have struggled to adapt to these changes. To respond quickly to the demands of citizens and communities, and to engage them into the exercise of public power, remains a complex task to accomplish for public regulators. Hence, again, our question: why experimenting with games as a way to innovate policy-making? The most immediate answer is that, to the eyes of public regulators, gamification seems to offer an easy, inexpensive and potentially highly remunerative way of engaging demanding audiences while maintaining high level of trust in the institutions. Obviously, it is a lot more problematic than it looks.
First and foremost, the introduction of gamification in policy-making postulates a deep conceptual shift about the exercise of public power. In her book on civic innovation in governments, Beth Noveck helps us in naming these shifts by identifying the cultural hurdles that stand in the way of opening up governments to citizens. Noveck names three cultural hurdles (each of those corresponding to a cultural shift). The first is the “myth of spectator citizenship”. This consists of the diffuse belief that only professional public servants possess the requisite and skills to govern. The second impediment to opening governments to citizens’ expertise is termed as “decision making culture”. The dominant culture in public decision-making, explains Noveck, is top-down oriented and largely lacking the mind-set for experimentation. A third and last impediment identified by Noveck consists of the lack of “mental models” for knowing what the alternative would be to professionalize governance. Such models, adds Noveck, should help to create a shared understanding of the goals towards which public institutions should move. In sum, introducing gamification into governance implies a shift in re-uniting citizenship and expertise; it postulates a bottom-up approach to building public policies, and it necessities new mental models for conceiving the exercise of regulatory powers from public institutions.
Not to mention the fact that to gamify the exercise of regulatory powers requires time, investments in software and testings, skills (i.e., staff and volunteers) and does not provide public regulators with clear outcomes (not in the short term at least). Beyond the promise of high engagement and consequent media exposure it may well hide a fiasco. Hence, the dilemmas posed to regulators. First, shall gamification be incorporated into decision-making procedures? And, if so, how? In spite of their success and rapid spread, the majority of the experiences that are mapped in this essay have not surpassed the trial phase. A second dilemma concerns the usability of gamification for arousing interest and enhancing participation in governance. The benefits expected by gamified regulations are yet to be tested.
On a more theoretical level, the dilemmas faced by supranational regulators raise questions on the evolution of the exercise of public powers in the supranational legal arena. Three broad questions remain unanswered: are we witnessing with gamification into regulatory powers a new paradigm of participatory democracy? Has gamification the same disruptive potential of what Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin once named “experimental governance” to describe nascent forms of governance in the European Union? And, if this is so, is gamified governance bound to revolutionize civil society participation in policy-making?
It is to this set of questions that I will attempt to answer through this blog. In the following months I will report on the landscape of gamification, glance through its history, provide definitions and examples of its application within the private and public sectors (at the national level), and I will introduce the readers to a number of problems linked with the use of gamification. It will be a fascinating journey through the challenges faced by domestic and supranational public regulators.