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More Than a Buzzword: Gamifying Government

24 Sep 2020
By Andre Kwok
Dice on a game board

Today, we are witnessing the exciting adoption of gamification by governments in their pursuit of the betterment of communities. However, complex design considerations must be recognised amidst this emerging approach.

Gamification has become a buzzword generating interest from many, ranging from HR departments in Fortune 500 companies to mobile language learning apps. This emerging field is broadly defined as “the craft of deriving all the fun and addicting elements found in games and applying them to real-world or productive activities.” These game elements include avatars, experience points, and leader boards. The goal is to motivate us to do activities that are often difficult, tedious, and unenjoyable.

However, gamification is more than simply dragging and dropping these features into an organisation’s workflow. Instead, it is the cohesive alignment with organisational strategy, concrete real-world outcomes, and deep understanding of end-user profiles. Innovations in technology not only offer better interactive experiences, including real-time feedback and social media integration, but gamified platforms are also now increasingly scalable.

A popular example is the language learning app, Duolingo. The appealing interface consists of incremental, bite-sized challenges that unlock content. The achievement pathways are reinforced by a “streak” mechanic which rewards users for regular practice, alongside a react function which facilitates interaction with other language learners. Duolingo’s well-designed gamified platform motivates and retains 30 million active monthly users studying over 35 languages.

Currently, the conversation on gamification is mostly centred on boosting engagement in education and workplaces. With this in mind, entrepreneur and gamification researcher Kerstin Oberprieler suggests the theoretical framework of “Fourth order gamification,” characterised by systemic gamified experiences on a larger scale. She notes that this level of gamification is largely in its infancy, but will involve entire communities, institutions, and even nations with significant merged gamified experiences with daily life.

What about gamification in participatory culture and public governance?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has utilised gamification in his app, NaMo. The app fosters greater democratic participation through the use of activity points. These are gained by sharing and consuming multimedia content on government policies and sending messages directly to the PM. This points mechanic encourages competition with an integrated leader board system that displays real-time progress of other players. Activity points are rewarded with numerous badges and, after a certain level, an orange tick resembling the highly sought-after blue tick seen on recognised profiles on Facebook and Instagram is awarded. With over 10 million downloads, the head of India’s current ruling party’s IT cell, Amit Malviya, describes this platform as “a more cohesive way of getting people to engage with the political process, and in this case, the PM himself.” The in-game notification stating “earn them all and establish yourself as a true changemaker,” received after unlocking badges, suggests how governments are adopting new approaches in engaging digital communities. By structuring the NaMo like a multiplayer game, the playful design provides users greater agency alongside tangible real-time visibility of their contributions to the political process. With the greater sense of civic participation blended with reward-based elements, the NaMo app is impactful in circulating information about Modi’s presidency. Hence, these psychological triggers prompted by the gamified experience have translated into real-world outcomes, augmenting the marketing of Modi’s political image.

The Indonesian government launched Translator Gator, a simple translation game that aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This game crowdsources a comprehensive language database consisting of English translations with a large variety of Indonesian languages including Bahasa Jawa, Sunda, and Minang. With over 109,000 player contributions in the first month of launch in 2016, the platform has fostered a strong network of language enthusiasts, collecting their insights to support social research and public policy. Data analysis has revealed that crowd-sourced translations are over 97 percent accurate. Players are rewarded with virtual currency that can be exchanged for mobile phone credit. The effectiveness of tangible real-world rewards is boosted by the scalability of the digital platform, allowing for the inclusion of other Indonesian languages in the open-access taxonomy in later updates. The game has been updated to focus on disaster-related keywords to strengthen Indonesia’s natural disaster response, representing an integrated approach with Indonesia’s diverse ethno-linguistic community. Moreover, this engaging game has generated interest from other Southeast Asian countries, suggesting growing opportunities in developing gamified computational and sustainable policy solutions.

China’s Social Credit system is another example of systemic gamification. This large-scale system heavily uses gamification mechanics in assessing citizen businesses and social reputation with “social credit.” This numerical point scoring system is part of a nationwide big data ecosystem that standardises citizen behaviours based on their “trustworthiness.” A trustworthy person with a high credit score has completed prescribed positive behaviours like donating blood and volunteering. In return, the government rewards these behaviours with benefits including less waiting time at hospitals and a greater likelihood of home loans. On the other hand, people who have engaged in listed “untrustworthy” behaviours like eating on public transport and criticising the government will suffer a lower credit rating. A lower credit rating has serious implications on one’s societal participation, highlighting the impact of this single gamification mechanism in incentivising “good” behaviour to access resources and services. Penalties include slower internet speeds, restricted access to restaurants, denied train ticket purchases, and even rejection from universities. This system, however, has raised ethical concerns surrounding the close integration with China’s mass surveillance infrastructure using facial recognition technology. This has led to criticisms about privacy and even the effectiveness of this system in adequately accounting the inconsistencies and nuanced human behaviour that are undetected through the fixed point-reward indicators.

These embedded experiences show the strengthened overlay of physical and virtual experiences, particularly the growth of gamified ecosystems accommodating higher-order behaviour patterns in reflecting state agendas. Hence, user-experience designers, game designers, interaction designers, and other members in the human-computer interaction space are involved in the junction between gamified experiences and politics.

As a design practice, systemic gamification offers creative tools for governments to better engage citizens and approach complex issues. However, it must be done carefully while considering digital literacy skills of end-users alongside a thorough understanding of context-specific requirements. It is clear that the utilisation of motivational affordances in gamification are malleable to serve diverse purposes, under both democratic and authoritarian environments. This duality highlights the importance for frequent review in accordance with ethical requirements encompassing digital rights and privacy, especially in gamified large-scale public projects and political decision-making. We are far from the endgame for gamification.

Gamification is more than a trendy buzzword thrown around by Silicon Valley corporations. Rather, it is a powerful behavioural science backed approach in motivating how we learn and work. As gamification evolves and matures, its systemic applications in the political sphere suggest emerging approaches for civic engagement and public governance. The next few years promise to be interesting as invested governments play the new game of navigating the ethical, practical, and even ideological hurdles in designing their own gamified platforms.

Andre Kwok is an associate editor of New Mandala. He studies a Bachelor of Asian Studies/Laws at the Australian National University. Andre is interested in digital societies, diaspora studies and South Asian politics.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and can be republished with attribution.