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Games for Civic Engagement—What Do You Really Want?

Image via @angiechuangAt an American University Faculty Forum, new faculty member Benjamin Stokes explained what makes games for civic engagement actually work.

There are plenty of games for civic engagement, he noted, and we’re gradually learning about what works. There’s a “push” or broadcast model for games like Darfur Is Dying or Peter Packet. There are “pull” games like the many 311 apps that let citizens report problems to city agencies.

And then there’s Macon Money. Residents got half of a bond and had to find someone who had a matching half; if they did, they’d both get “Macon Money” to spend at local small businesses.

Macon Money is an example of a civic engagement app that helps people in adjoining neighborhoods get to know each other. It’s a great example (funded by the Knight Foundation) of a game that helps build social fabric and structure participation, leveraging existing social organizations and benefiting local businesses.

What were the secrets of Macon Money? Well, the designers of the game made it work well with existing F2F organizations and processes. The process was social, not individual. People could use their digital devices to find each other and celebrate their connections, not to mention publicize local businesses; at the same time, they were also moving through physical spaces, meeting each other in person, and getting to know new places in their own neighborhoods.

For Stokes, this game is best understood within the context of economic development, rather than cultural affairs. “It costs something, it always costs something,” he said. “So the question is, Is this investment productive for our urban revitalization goals, at least as effective as other investments we make?”

That’s why effective measurements of impact are so important to a game like this, he noted. You need to be able to justify the investment, and even more important, you need to learn what works and build on what does.

He also pointed out that this game challenges people to rethink the role of government, and imagine one role as structuring civic engagement.

Don’t expect it to be free, link it to economic growth and revitalization the same as other projects, and do impact measurements that let you understand its success.