Don't Be Dumb or You Will Parish screenshot from Dumb Ways to Die

Games Plus Cities: Play and Social Connections in Communities

Play can bridge divides, from chess in the park to major league sports teams. Now the digital side is raising new opportunities for cities.

Digital games are everywhere — on phones, tablets, laptops, TVs and more. Growing mobility enables people to take games everywhere from living rooms to waiting rooms, and widespread connectivity makes it possible to play in the real world.

The power of gaming is undisputed, but the concept of using games to improve communities is just now building policy interest. There’s a new class of games that have impact in the real world. From policy innovators to video game architects, experts like American University professor Benjamin Stokes are investigating the power of game design – including to boost economies, build networks and break down cultural barriers.

However, it’s not as simple as declaring “it’s a game,” and waiting for players to rush in.

Stokes — co-founder of Games for Change, the movement hub for advancing social change with games — has identified three phases of evolution for many cities.

Phase 1: Broadcast Mode

The starting point for many cities is in public campaigns – like safety or health services. A famous example is the insanely popular Dumb Ways to Die, a game about train safety that has been played hundreds of millions of times.  Broadcast games typically try to “get out the message,” but rarely give players a way to get more involved.

Broadcast or “push” mode is more focused on sheer number of users than on connecting people.

Phase 2: Gamifying City Work

Most tools to “get involved” in cities are not (yet) playful.  Their main accomplishment is that they get citizens to do work normally done by city staff. For instance, an app such as 311, which is used in Washington, D.C., and thousands of other cities, allows residents to easily identify potholes and downed tree limbs or request help with a variety of issues, Stokes said.

Turning city work into playful volunteerism has been critiqued as manipulative “playbor.” In the longer-term, Stokes warns that simply adding game elements to boring tasks is not sustainable. “Either the game has to be fun on its own,” he said, “or the work has to be meaningful – aligning the two is profoundly difficult.”

For communities, meaningful interaction is often social.  For games, it is increasingly possible to scaffold person-to-person communication.

Residents playing with Macon Money

Macon Money is a highly successful example of how a civic game can be weaved into the social fabric of a community

Phase 3: Connecting People

For a game to maximize its potential to stimulate the economy and bolster cross-demographic connections, there are several points to consider, Stokes said, including:

  • Does the game match how local people are communicating, both digitally and face to face?
  • Does the game focus on engagement over gathering data?
  • Does the game connect the digital and the physical through play?

Macon Money, supported by the Knight Foundation in Macon, Georgia, is a highly successful example of how a civic game can be weaved into the social fabric of a community. The game’s organizers released an actual currency called “Macon Money” into the community. Only half bonds were handed out; once paired with their matching half, the full bond could be redeemed for money at local businesses.

As residents worked to find the other half of their bonds, they melded digital communication — Facebook and other platforms — with face-to-face meetings and even word of mouth. The game was built to encourage cross-pollination between zip codes and social demographics, Stokes said.

The goal was to turn financial capital into social capital — and it worked. More than 3,500 residents played, with 45 percent of connections bringing together people from different zip codes — people who likely never would have met outside the game.

The financial impact was clear, too. Macon Money involved 40 businesses and spurred $60,000 worth of transactions. Among the 46 percent of participants who spent their Macon Money at a place they’d never visited before, 92 percent said they returned to that business later.

Macon Money is just one high profile example of what communities can accomplish by implementing games in the real-world, building social ties while making a difference. The more that residents feel that they belong and are part of effective groups, Stokes said, the closer they are to true empowerment: when the community can unite around shared concerns and fight for common interests.

Register for Games+ Summit

Learn more about the potential of games in cities at the Games+ Summit on Tuesday, Jan. 17, at 1776 in Arlington, Virginia. Some of the nation’s most influential names in game design theory and practice will showcase the latest concepts, designs, and prototypes that combine the energy and innovation of games with the key sectors of museumshealthcitieseducationjournalism and storytelling.

Games Plus Summit | January 17, 2017 | Washington, DC

Explore a Master’s Degree in Game Design

Are you interested in how games and play can affect change in communities and beyond? Explore a master’s degree in Game Design from American University.

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