• Gianluca Sgueo

Designed to impact: A reflection on playfulness and advocacy

Digital tools play a key role among the trends that are driving contemporary activism. Digitally coordinated activism campaigns like the “Ice Bucket Challenge”, “BlackLivesMatter”, the “March for Our Lives”, and “#Metoo” have shown the immense potential of digital technology for civic actors aimed at using it to influence decision-makers and impact on social norms.

Along with the spread of digital technology, a number of sub-trends have emerged, including the use of behavioural mechanisms aimed at amplifying the impact of advocacy campaigns. Of particular interest is the incorporation of game-elements (i.e. points, badges, levels, rankings, rewards) into the marketing and communications strategies of civil society actors. The support of game elements to serve a variety of purpose such as raising awareness, network-building with key stakeholders, and fundraising is known as ‘gamified advocacy’.

A good example of gamified advocacy is ‘IHobo’, an app with a similar concept to the Tamagotchi, launched in 2010 by Depaul – a youth homelessness charity headquartered in Britain. Instead of a fun pet, IHobo generated a virtual homeless person. After installing the app, players were asked to take care of the needs of this ‘IHobo’ for 3 (real time) days. Like in the case of the Tamagotchi, if players failed to properly care for their ‘virtual dependent’, the homeless person would deplete his/her resources and, eventually, die. At the end of the 3 days, users were asked to make a donation, via mobile, of £3, £5 or £10 to Dupal.

Another interesting case of gamified advocacy is ‘Fort McMoney’ - an interactive game and documentary launched in 2013 by the filmmaker David Dufresne. Divided into three episodes, Fort McMoney let players to virtually walk around Fort McMurray, the largest industrial site in Canada, meet residents and interact with them. The game is designed to be played in real-time over a four-week period, with the aim of acquainting the audience with the social, economic and environmental problems of that industrial region. Players are also asked to vote in referendums and surveys at the end of each week of game. Through the website hosting the documentary, players could engage in debates, and gather consensus about their proposals on the future of the city.

While gamified advocacy looks extremely promising and impactful, it is not without issues. Three should be considered:

  • First, the use of games with the aim of producing social change is not new. It actually dates back decades. Art is a case in point. The New Games Movement is a well- known example. The Movement, which took off in the San Francisco Bay Area and quickly expanded worldwide, started as a protest against the Vietnam War, against a backdrop of dramatic social and economic change, fuelled by civil rights, feminism, and a looming energy crisis. What is new is the combination of the potential of games with that of digital tools.

  • Second, game-design elements incorporated into civic-driven initiatives do not necessarily drive long-term, tick engagement. On this point, one should look at Hahrie Han’s distinction between mobilising and organising. Mobilisation – explains Han – is obtained through e-mail lists or online petitions, and it normally leverages powers that already exist. Organising, in contrast, consists of capacity-building activities that create new power by bringing people to take action as a community. Organising can lock in sustained support in ways that commitment to a single issue – the type of motivation on which tend to rely the mobilising approaches – may not. Gamified advocacy seems to work well with mobilising citizens. The “attentive public” – i.e. the portion of the broader general public that shares similar issue-perspectives and values, as in the case of the environmentalists – is an ideal target of gamification. On occasions, the attentive public could be organised into a convergent strong public – this is a committed public, formally committed to objectives and values, usually via provision of membership fees or donations. In this respect, however, gamification seems to be less effective.

  • Third, and finally, we should remember that technology may actually be a source of risk for civic actors experimenting with gamification. Biases in availability may limit participation only to those with appropriate technologies, while leaving those without access powerless. Further, blind trust in technology may exacerbate the under-representation (or exclusion) of social groups that are already marginalised in online political and social discourses – the LGBT community or indigenous people, for instance. Moreover, digital technologies may not necessarily be the best medium to reach a wide and diversified audience, because of algorithmic biases. This is typically the case with social media: the feedback loops contained by the algorithms that govern most common social media may involuntarily drown the outreach of certain messages. Finally, technology may undermine privacy. Digital technologies, with no exception, rely extensively on user data. Users decrease the control on their privacy by sharing large amount of personal information.

For further analysis on this topic See Gianluca Sgueo, ‘What if Government was a Game?’ – tedxtalk 2019

Gianluca Sgueo, New York University, Florence

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