Play is political. A person shapes their identity through play– one develops critical thinking, learns about oneself and others, and becomes aware of their power: “Play exposes homo ludens to the expanses of their own mind and the potential of the world around them. To play is to learn about the possibilities of self and society.” (Tara Woodyer, 2012)
At the playground, kids were roleplaying a space-invaders game. I joined them. I interacted with them in the midst of playing, but my inputs were often brushed under the carpet. It was clear that I was a pawn in their game, and that the rules and the story were their own to make. It reminded me of how rarely kids are given complete power of choice. At work, I observed thousands of teenagers play a coop city-building tabletop game that offers little to no rules or competition, and that relies heavily on interaction. Teams build their own worlds and make their own rules as the game progresses. I was struck by their fire for decision-making and their will to voice their concerns for democracy. (Food for thought: the most successful teams were the ones that were less compliant with the rules.) At school, I often hear classmates say they enjoy a video game because of how much they can control their avatar, conquer places, and feel powerful. I used to think that feeling powerful was a result of agency (ie. the game gives you control, hence you feel powerful) and sufficient motivation to play. Now, I believe feeling power and having power are different factors and I am starting to think feeling power can be designed. This summer, I read Making Democracy Fun and wrote a letter to the author, Josh Lerner, that he may never read. Here, I share my thoughts on social interactions, power dynamics and democracy.
We need to talk. I agree with you, democracy is broken: not enough citizens are involved in decision-making, and games can be a tool to make participatory processes more appealing, to raise civic engagement and to decentralize power from city councils (this is a problem I have at least observed in Canada). However, in Making Democracy Fun, I think you are missing one point. Games and participatory processes are both highly social experiences. Participatory processes (PPs) rely on social interactions to function, and if interactions are at the core of PPs, shouldn’t we consider social interactions as design features rather than as results of engagement? Your work caught my attention because, of the 26 game mechanics you propose to design PPs, only one (Conflict and Collaboration) promotes the design of social interactions. The other mechanics recognize their existence but do not focus on designing them per se. While I agree that curating the type of conflict players have is an effective way to design for social interaction, I suggest we dig deeper: I want to talk about power.
Organizations like People Powered work with cities, schools, and communities to give power back to the people. This means empowering people and building structures that involve them in multi-level civic engagement, from decision-making to management. You and I agree that the empowerment of communities is an essential key to repairing democracy. In social studies, there is extensive research on the different forms of power dynamics and their impact on dis/empowerment. Throughout all this research, we can see that some dynamics are healthier than others. Power over is destructive: a person (or a group) who is repeatedly submitting to, or dominated by, someone else can lose confidence in their own ability or knowledge to one’s agency. To gain empowerment, one should aim for regenerative power dynamics: relations where power is shared among oneself and others. One should aim to feel empowered with others, through others, and within oneself.
All social interactions have power dynamics, and all dynamics have an impact on dis/empowerment. Can the social interactions of a game or a PP be designed to promote regenerative power dynamics in an attempt to empower its players?
I suggest we design social interactions by evaluating the context and the audience of a game, and the physical presence between players (including teammates, opponents, facilitators, NPCs, and audiences). Early in the process, the designer should be aware of the physical elements, the possibilities for communication, and the roles and relationships between players. Why do they interact? Does the progress of the game rely on interactions, which means players will be forced to interact? What are the frequencies and durations of these interactions? Are players required to share intimate stories? Do they interact in large or small groups, and which of these could have a harder time making themselves heard? Do players choose who they interact with? How do space and objects limit or influence the interactions? Is interaction accessible to everyone or is it by default ruling out some players? There is always one person whose voice is louder than others and will, usually by default, make decisions for others; How do we reverse this dynamic and give choices to the most silent players? There are always people who will be reluctant to share intimate stories; How do we design abstract narratives to ensure their engagement?; Some players are motivated by competition; How do we moderate it so it encourages shared power instead of domination? What amount of domination is too much for one player, such that they become hostile to other players?
Food for thoughts. I would love to meet, play, and theorize a new (yes, again) framework.