The Role of Narratives and Gaming – Knight Foundation

Engagement Mechanics: Games for Change Cofounder Benjamin Stokes shares insights on how game mechanics can be powerful tools for sustaining engagement. Video credit: David Timko.

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Summit participants took time to examine some of the recent successes in community engagement and what we can learn from them. Do they hint at design principles for the tools we develop for engagement?

Recent bright spots point to the increased use of narratives and gaming. This is no surprise. If engagement is about sustaining action and involvement beyond one-off events, then engagement will naturally take the form of stories or games. They provide meaningful structures for sustained actions.

They can motivate action better than facts and figures. Just witness the challenge of getting people to exercise, eat healthy and recycle. Consider that each American plays an average of 10,000 hours of games by the time he or she reaches age 21. Is there a way to use games to get them to be more healthy or engaged in their communities?

Narratives are cleverly used by several recent initiatives that succeeded in spreading quickly, person to person, including the Harry Potter Alliance. The alliance relies on an unfolding narrative to hook people. You’re not just told a good story, you’re part of one. You don’t just donate or sign petitions, you’re writing the next or last chapter of a powerful story.

The group asks fans who grew up with the books to imagine the young wizard in this world. What evil would he fight and how could you raise your own “Dumbledore’s Army” to help him? This simple reframing, a practice dubbed “cultural acupuncture,” helped mobilize hundreds of thousands of youths to action. Together, they’ve sent five cargo planes of aid to Haiti and donated more than 87,000 books around the world. The alliance’s success gave founder Andrew Slack this epiphany: “Fantasy is not an escape from the soul of our world but an invitation to go deeper into it.” That idea has activated a noncivic network – the network of Harry Potter fans – and helped them become a civic network.

Inviting participants into powerful narratives – fictional and real alike – has long been a civic tactic. It’s also a core strategy for many of today’s best video games. Game designers help players embark on missions that feel epic (e.g., to save planet Earth), inviting them to share responsibility for the hero’s journey. In politics, so many people feel their vote hardly counts. Can new media bring a sense of agency to participants?

Narrative is just part of what makes games so engaging. While there is a good deal of controversy over their ability to have deep impact, games have the potential to expand across lines of gender, to increasingly reach older Americans, to involve physical activity and to reach mainstream audiences on phones. They have caught the attention of educators, entrepreneurs and social innovators looking for better ways to sustain engagement.

Summit participant Benjamin Stokes cofounded Games for Change in 2004 out of the belief that games can structure engagement and support social change. We already see that happening.

Participatory Chinatown uses a 3-D immersive video game to engage residents of Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood in the city’s master-planning process. Players complete missions – find a job, find a place to live, find a place to socialize – and then give input on how they would like their community to develop.

Games don’t always have to be played online. “Alternate reality games,” which are played in the physical world mixed with game quests, have become popular with social innovators who want to bring about engagement in the real world.

Examples include Re:Activism, a game that began in New York to re-enact labor history through street performance, giving a sense of place to modern social issues; and ParTour in Los Angeles, which invites residents on quests to map their city, finding hidden assets and advocating for neighborhood improvements.

Macon Money, another Knight-funded project, uses the “treasure hunt” mechanic to build community. It sends thousands of Macon, Ga., residents half of a currency bond. Their challenge is to find a matching half in their town so they can redeem the whole bond for currency that they can spend at local businesses.

Macon Money

Macon Money is a social game that sends residents of Macon, Ga., on a fun treasure hunt to connect with each other and invest in the local economy.

Stokes predicts that the success of future engagement tools will depend on understanding and mastering social patterns and structures of human participation. He believes game thinking will inevitably play a bigger role. Effective games, though, aren’t just appetizer add-ons, they are the main course.

“The more we want to engage citizens in real problems and complex issues, the more engagement mechanics will be crucial,” said Stokes. “Yet games in the real-world must be ethical, and reward the goals of participants – not just the designers.”