Observations on play, motivation, and social change

(A sub-section of the overall discussion on play and real-world social change.

In February of 2010, Jesse Schell’s DICE talk provoked us to consider the notion of achievementizing our everyday lives. Similarly, Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken proposes we look at the world and its most challenging real problems with a ludic sensibility in order to collectively work toward solutions.

While largely speculative provocations, these gamification impulses have sparked controversy and received a good deal of criticism to date. Poignantly, notable games journalist Heather Chaplin reminds us that there is such a thing as literal truth and suggests that a “gamelike layer on top of our daily lives” may help to “simulate feelings of satisfaction” though the actual change is perceived only. This is echoed by Theatre of the Oppressed’s adamant stance that traditional theatre transfers a coercive catharsis from the characters to the audience because there is, in fact, no dialogue between actor and spectator; the spectator accepts without participating, without an opportunity to deliberate on story and context.

A discussion about real-world achievement structures requires a close look at extrinsic and intrinsic motivations and rewards. Game designer and educator Tracy Fullerton likens some such structures to frosting that elides “unpredictable and convoluted” yet very real motivations people have to play games. Focusing on only extrinsic rewards such as badges can block analysis of these very real and complex motivations. As any parent or caretaker understands, constant extrinsic rewards do not work. In fact, they may be counterproductive because the child has been stripped of choice and of the opportunity to assess her actions through her own evaluative processes (see Jesper Juul’s blog post on external rewards as demotivators).

Matthew Jensen from Natron Baxter Applied Gaming – the developer behind the AOK game that is part of this collection, as well as other eminent projects like Urgent Evoke and Find the Future – elaborates:

Of course, there’s also the potential for extrinsic rewards to overshadow and/or devalue the intrinsic reward of civic participation. At what point could pursuit of game status even change one’s political or moral fiber?

Similarly, Suzanne Kirkpatrick – lead designer of the citizen stewardship game also in this collection, Commons – explains:

Doing activities in a thematic community, or mission-centered perspective, helps keep people focused on the objective while having fun and connecting with each another… On the flip side, I think it’s pretty difficult to rely solely on gaming (external reward structure) as the primary incentive for getting people to participate in civic engagement or to join a cause – they have to care about it or want to care about it first.

Game designer and critic Ian Bogost writes that without the opportunity for deliberation, “outcome alone is not sufficient to account for people’s beliefs or motivations.” Some of the exemplars in this collection – Akoha, Re:Activism, Interrobang, Flashback, and Community PlanIt– feature deliberation prominently. Many of these are mission-based and incorporate achievement structures like points, badges, and levels; yet lively participatory discourse and co-creation are prominently woven into their mechanics. Kirkpatrick et al’s Commons is a mobile location-aware game for urban communities that merges traditional citizen reporting tools with gamification components. The core mechanic is that of reporting a problem or recommending an improvement in your neighborhood. The launch playtest took place in NYC on May 21, 2011. Explaining that her team was worried about the fact that players would have to share iPhones because not everyone owned one, Kirkpatrick goes on to describe a key discovery:

We observed that people enjoyed having companions to bounce ideas off of, craft the wording of submissions together as a team, and share what they love about the neighborhood with each other.  To our delight, the digital game almost became a sort of discussion starter, a launch pad, to get people talking amongst themselves about their city.

These may constitute the “unpredictable and convoluted” kinds of things which Fullerton notes are a major reason why we play games. Arguably, it’s a big part of how we make games as well. As Stokes points out in this report’s discussion section Learning Within Real-World Action, the gamification debate necessarily points to the risk of manipulative – if not sinister – “incentives debasing civic acts by rewarding only behaviors that are easy to measure.” Interestingly, arguing somewhat for the flip side, for the potential value of this frosting-like engagement, Jensen again:

AOK is an experiment in gamification (for all of its faults) and civic action. The intrinsic rewards of kindness and positive social action come infused with such meaning that gamification might even be appropriate under the circumstances. And gamification is really quite good at one thing that really motivates activists: perceptible impact. The challenge is to assess player participation and provide game responses that are less abstract (points, badges) and more tangible (officials elected, laws overturned, communities empowered).

Creating game structures that encourage different perspectives and are inclusive, liberatory, alluring, highly responsive and measurably world-changing is challenging in many dimensions. Although as designers we may desire these qualities in every experience we create, it is unlikely any one game can achieve encompassing all. This is in part because freedom to risk failure is necessary for innovation and expression, and crucially, because designers cannot assume that their own perspective is definitive and need time in the process to proactively search out and reflect upon other perspectives.

Perhaps paradoxically, in the end it is most constructive to say that gamification is what one makes of it. In the context of activism in physical and hybrid space however, achievement structures require that we attend to hidden or uncritiqued stereotypes and that we actively create open spaces for dialogue among designers, players and stakeholders. Mary Flanagan – designer of the Massively Multiplayer Urban Games in this collection – writes: “If play and interaction in the streets are to be empowering, exactly who is to be empowered?” As such, the civic “tripod” aspires to contribute to an emergent and diverse community of expert and non-expert cross-disciplinary practitioners from the arts, social change, and learning domains and take part in productive deliberations about the future of equitable principles in games and game-based activism.


Read the full interviews with Mary Flanagan, Matthew Jensen and Suzanne Kirkpatrick in the Interviews section, where additional interviewees express their views on games, real-world impact and the relevance of mobile.

Special thank you to Steve Anderson, Andrea Gunraj, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, Virginia Kuhn, Veronica Paredes, Huy Truong, Holly Willis and Ashley York for their invaluable support dialoguing with me about these ideas.


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  • Boal, A. (1985). Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
  • Gunraj, A., Ruiz, S. & York, A. (2011). “Power to the People: Anti-Oppressive Game Design.” In Schrier, K. & Gibson, D. (Eds.), Ethics and Game Design: Models, Techniques and Frameworks. New York: Information Science Reference.
  • Flanagan. M. (2009). Critical Play. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 205.
  • Fullerton, T. (2011). Personal communication.