Gamification and Public Policy

Brent Barron

Policy professionals had better start getting used to playing games. Not because we’re dour individuals in need of some fun (although maybe we are a bit dour: federal layoff fears led to less Christmas spending spirit in Ottawa), but because games and friendly competition have the power to seriously change how people behave.

One of my favourite features about the Chevy Volt (I swear this isn’t a paid blogvertisement, even though it starts exactly like one) is the dashboard, specifically the green bubble on the right side. The car automatically calculates how efficiently you’re driving and gives you a visual representation of it: green is efficient, while yellow means aggressive and inefficient braking or acceleration. On the surface, this seems sort of silly; I’m sure most drivers understand that accelerating and decelerating more gradually has a substantial impact on fuel consumption (in the realm of 30%), so what good does a little green ball do us? Apparently quite a bit. Jonathan Gitlin found that his normally “spirited” driving style became much calmer in an effort to keep the ball green:

“Very quickly I found I’d adapted my driving style. Instead of hustling it around as I would another car, I became more relaxed at the wheel, doing my best to keep the ball green and in the middle. If anything, the experience was almost like an playing an early video game, except that I was on the streets of Detroit rather than in front of an Atari console.“

This is the power of ‘gamification.’ Adding elements of games, like scores, competition, and rewards can change peoples’ behaviour in ways that simple admonition can’t. It triggers something in our brains that makes us do things we wouldn’t do otherwise. In the past, I’ve gone to certain places because of a desire to get foursquare badges. People buy poor quality Playstation games just to get easy digital trophies. Friendly competition between teams is one of the motivators for donating computing power to one of the world’s largest distributed computing networks. I’ve started going to the gym more because I gain virtual levels. People play games that are helping scientists learn about protein folding. The list goes on.

So what’s this have to do with public policy? It’s just one more example of the myriad ways people are irrational, that policymakers need to understand to make effective and innovative policy during an era of restraint. Let’s go back to the Chevy Volt. In many jurisdictions there are tax benefits or subsidies associated with buying a Volt, which are motivated by the decrease in emissions from these vehicles. But an understanding of gamification complicates this discussion in a few different ways. Should we be subsidizing such vehicles even more because cautious driving reduces fatalities? Could we achieve similar emission reduction in conventional cars by mandating fuel conservation games? What about people who don’t respond to gamification?

How else can we use gamification as a policy and service delivery tool? Here’s a few ideas:

  • Ministries of health could partner with Fitocracy to create a provincially-endorsed exercise community to encourage people get in shape and reduce health costs. Maybe there could be a challenge posted to see what city can do the most pull-ups.
  • Create a Farmville-style game that gamifies rote tasks that are currently performed by public service employees and have them performed by people around the world in exchange for virtual lambs and hugs.
  • Set up systems in government workplaces that give badges on online profiles for completing certain activities. Not just things like “serve 10 clients in an hour” but also “organize 3 team lunches,” “send 5 suggestions to the workplace ideas committee,” or “receive 20 shout-outs from people in another division.”

Any other ideas? I’ll give 20 public policy points (enough to advance to level 2!) to the first in the comments.

31 Comments Add yours

  1. bednarva says:

    Yes! My “Federalism!” board game. How many points do I get?

  2. Caitlin says:

    using games to encourage people to take transit –, what up transportation policy makers.

  3. Brent Barron says:

    Congratulations! You are now a level 2 equalization transfermancer.

  4. Olga V. says:

    Love the idea! Be it implemented, public sector mundane affairs would see an incoming wave of enthusiasm from the new/young professionals, though I feel the “game” word is tabooed in the public service. Aren’t we about serious business? Just imagine the outrage by the media with the “gamification of policy” headlines 🙂 I’d die to see some changes in our conservative and old-fashioned approaches to knowledge/ideas/experience sharing, not to mention the analytics engagement…

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