How online games could make government more accessible

Some communications experts say that Web-based games could help more people get a better grasp on the workings of government.

Do you remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books we used to read when we were kids — or, if you’re a bit more mature, the ones you used to read to your kids?

Inspired by those stories, one GovLoop member — a multimedia communications officer who is trying to make government relevant to young people — had an epiphany: “Why not create a website where you become an adventurer through local or central democracy — in each case becoming a hero — who has to navigate through the average week or month in that job role?”

She said the story-based approach could give kids a chance to learn “what exactly it is we all do all day.”  Similar to North Carolina’s Balance the Budget Challenge, a Choose Your Own Adventure website would enable the next generation to grapple with the tough choices that government employees face every day.

Could game-based tools also create what many are calling micro-participation? For entrepreneur Dave Briggs (and many other people), the public engagement decision often comes down to: “Read the boy a story before bedtime, or go to the town hall to talk about a planning application? Not a difficult choice.”

But he went on to say: “Perhaps there’s an opportunity here to learn from the micro-volunteering that is becoming increasingly popular. An easy, quick way to get involved in civic activity that fits into people’s lives the way they are lived now, not 50 years ago. I may not be able to give up two (or more!) hours of an evening to attend a council meeting, but I’m in front of a computer almost all day and could easily take 15 minutes or longer out to get involved, perhaps by answering some questions, providing ideas or identifying problems.”

Some GovLoop members warned that although it is important to make participation easier, we don’t want to dumb it down to the point where it’s meaningless. Lucas Cioffi, CEO of Online Townhalls and organizer of several federal open-government events, agreed with “the central premise that participation should be convenient/accessible for reasons of fairness and [consistency] with the values of a democratic society.”

But, he added, “not all participation should be simple. Some public problems require deeper collaboration where ideas can build on each other.”

So who has a good story when it comes to generating meaningful engagement?

Jennifer Cowley, a professor at Ohio State University who studies micro-participation, shared two examples:

  • SNAPPatx. It’s “the only example out there of a government going out and scraping Twitter and engaging with people already having conversations.”
  • What’s the Big Idea, Wood Buffalo? Officials from this Canadian municipality “are sending people out on the streets with iPads to get online participation.… In the first month, they have already generated something like 30K in microblogs.”

I think the choice comes down to this: Will you (a) follow in the footsteps of these local innovators or (b) risk losing the next generation of government leaders by failing to innovate?

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