Gamification is being used increasingly in contemporary political communication. In the lead up to 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton’s campaign launched a new app designed to gamify the campaigning process. Clinton’s app was inspired by gamified political campaigns from Democrats and Republicans. The binomial games-politics, however, is not exempt from critics. In spite of its promises, gamified political messages have been accused of infantilizing the electorate, or simply of not being effective at fostering citizens’ engagement in politics.
Politics and games have been flirting for a long time. Plato compared politics to a game whose scope is the efficient allocation of the available resources. In ancient Rome, it was common to provide poorer citizens with free wheat and circus games as a means of gaining political power. Centuries later, in 1714, the British Parliament established the Longitude Prize to solve the problem of measuring longitude at sea. The prize motivated a clockmaker named John Harrison to invent the marine chronometer. Few years later, in 1795, Napoleon faced the problem of feeding his troops when the countries he was invading were not able or inclined to provide food. He decided to offer a reward of 12,000 francs to the one who could invent a system to improve the food preservation methods of the time. It took fifteen years to be awarded, but eventually the prize went to a confectioner named Francois Appert. The method invented by Appert to heat, boil and seal food in airtight glass has remained the same until today.
Gamification is being used increasingly in contemporary political communication. A well-known example is the “Howard Dean for Iowa Game”, the first official video game commissioned in the history of Presidential elections in the United States. Players in the game earned points for virtual sign waving, door-to-door canvassing, and pamphleteering.
In 2004 the Illinois House Republicans released a game designed to represent their political positions on several policy issues at the centre of that year legislative election. The game was called “Take Back Illinois” and engaged users in crucial topics such as economic development, health care and education.
More than a decade late, in the lead up to 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton’s campaign launched a new app designed to gamify the campaigning process. The app, inspired by the Facebook game Farmville, offered virtual badges and real life prizes for activities such as sharing promotional videos through social networks.
Not only politics is increasingly gamified, but also the politicization of games has become a matter of growing importance. “The Good, The Bad and The Accountant” is an interesting case of gamification for political purposes. Journalism++, a communication agency, created the game in 2017. Players impersonate the general manager of a large city, and are challenged with choices concerning urban development. The scope of the game is to teach journalists and their audience about the intricacies of corruption in local budgets. The choices that players have to make in the game can involve active or passive forms of corruption. Players are “forced” to realize that corruption is a systemic issue and that to eradicate it cannot mean to simply refuse it, because this might lead to conflicts with other stakeholders. Albeit educational in its purpose, the game also aims at engaging journalists and the public into awareness on corruption in the public sector.
In “Kamergotchi”, an app created by the Dutch television show “Zondag met Lubach” to help connecting Dutch citizens with the politicians running for the national elections in 2017. The app, available for free for Apple and Android phones, replicates the “Tamagotchy”, a digital pet from the 1990s. Differently from the latter, in Kamergotchi players take care of a Dutch politician (selected among the 19 available). Those who were able to keep their politician alive up to the election game would win tickets for the show.
In “Kleptocrat” a free game available on the Apple store, designed by a private investigator and a Professor in attractive design, players impersonate a corrupt politician who has to make as many bribes as possible without being caught by the Investigator, an exemplar of the many existing anti-corruption tools. Each game on Kleptocrat begins with a bribe: for example keeping a casino open in exchange for free chips; or arranging a government contract for the mobile phone company that just hired your 16-year-old daughter as a ‘consultant’. Players accumulate points while they establish a network of offshore lawyers, enjoy the money earned, and escape arrest.
The binomial games-politics is not exempt from critics. In spite of its promises, gamified political messages have been accused of infantilizing the electorate, or simply of not being effective at fostering citizens’ engagement in politics. Others criticize political content in games. In 2016, for instance, Apple removed “Liyla and The Shadows of War” from the Apple store, because it judged it too political. Apple claimed that the game should not be enlisted in the games section but in the “news” section. In the game players impersonate a father trying to protect his daughter, named Liyla, through real life events from the conflict in Gaza. This is not the first time that Apple considered games to be excessively political to be advertised or sold on its platforms. In 2013 it removed from iTunes a game called Sweatshop. The game focused on exploited labour in the fashion manufacturing industry.