When Governments Become Game Masters

Game mechanics exploiting our need for competition, achievement and rewards can be powerful tools for enforcing citizen obedience and conformity, just as well as citizen engagement and initiative (see our recent article about China’s proposed ‘social credit system’). Whether the opportunities outweigh the threats remains to be seen but the collection of best practices and beneficial uses of gamification keeps on growing, as you will see in our quick tour around the world!


Ever since Oswald B. Lord’s Game of Politics (1935), people have been playing a great many government or political simulation games that have evolved with technology – from boardgames, through play-by-mail, to video and online real-time games. Governments were bound to tap on this vast potential and seem to have turned the tables on citizens, now actively developing gamified apps, interactive digital platforms and full-fledged simulation games. Indeed, in Gartner’s 2015 ‘Hype Cycle’ for Digital Government government digital platforms are ‘on the rise’ and gamification in government is found ‘at the peak’ of the cycle.

There are several important areas in which game mechanics have been applied with significant success, and most notably, education and public employee training, service delivery, and public awareness and citizen engagement.

From dog poop to fiscal discipline, safe driving, and participatory budgeting, here is a non-exhaustive but definitely inspiring first sample of old and recent gamification projects from around the globe:


Sweden tests the Fun Theory

The Speed Camera Lottery The Fun Theory YouTube 6

According to the Volkswagen Fun Theory,

“Something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better.”

In 2010 the idea to use speed cameras to promote safe driving in a fun way won the Volkswagen Fun Theory Award. It was a competition for ideas and inventions that prove the Fun Theory and to which we owe other gamification classics such as the Piano Stairs or The Deepest Bin in the World.

The awarded project was tested in Stockholm and several other Swedish cities by the Swedish National Society for Road Safety and has since become a textbook reference on gamification put to good work.

Basically, if you drive by the speed camera below the speed limit, you get a thumbs-up sign on a speed display billboard and are automatically entered in a lottery (using a portion of speeding fines). Over a three-day experiment in Stockholm, 24,587  cars passed the speed camera and average speed was reduced by 22%.


Taiwan and the power of lotteries

s1_538935ae2d59eImage: www.choudoufudaily.com

If you’re wondering how dog-poop and tax-collection might be connected, Taiwan provides an answer – both can be hugely improved through the mobilizing power of lotteries (which combine the lure of a prize with the excitement of anticipation).

The Taiwan receipt lottery (Uniform Invoice Lottery) was introduced as early as 1951 and is a great example of how citizens – willingly and enthusiastically – can do the work of the state tax administration.  By requesting receipts for their purchases (which double as lottery tickets) people effectively pushed businesses out of the black economy and into the light of regulated and taxed activity.

In the first year alone, the bi-monthly lottery led to a 75% increase in tax revenue (NT$51 million from NT$29 million in the previous year of 1950). The prizes have since increased greatly and now range from $6 to $600,000 USD (albeit with 20% tax due on any winnings above USD 30 🙂 And as further incentive to demand a receipt, people are encouraged to donate them to charities, with special urns placed in convenient public locations.

Moving with the times (and technologies), in 2006 the Taiwanese Finance Ministry even put in place a program to encourage paperless transactions, with a special prize pool for those who request electronic invoices.



Dog Poop for Gold

The close relation between gold and feces in psychoanalytic symbolism found a surprising confirmation in Taiwan in 2011. New Taipei City introduced a scheme to tackle the problem with dog poop in the streets and to hopefully foster lasting good habits among its residents. In a nutshell, every bag of poop a person brought in during the campaign earned them a lottery ticket with the top prize a gold lingot worth $2,200. The program was so successful that it was extended and more prizes were added. Between August and November 2011, more than 4,000 people collected 14,500 bags of excrement, earning 85 prizes, including smaller gold lingots and house appliances.


Portugal experiments with a gamification hallmark – the leaderboard

participareProjects competing for votes in 2016: http://op.cm-ovar.pt/#/proposals

Civil society organizations in most parts of the world can only dream of participatory budgeting in their local communities. But in the Portuguese municipality of Ovar (a seaside town with a population of 55,000) it was actually the Mayor himself who initiated it in 2014 in the hope of engaging more and younger people in the contentious or at best unexciting process of municipal budgeting.  The turnout of 13,598, or 25% of the population, exceeded all expectations.

With €100,000 allocated to the ‘participatory budgeting project’, final voting was preceded by an active campaign in traditional and social media. A series of in-person meetings were held in each civil parish of the municipality to present the proposals and explain the opportunity to help secure funding for the project of one’s choice. The five best proposals in each parish were selected at the meetings and were submitted to final voting.

“They organized themselves around projects they liked and used all the tools we put at proponents’ disposal to promote, and actively gather votes. They went to their families or to people in the streets and talked about participatory budgeting, about the projects and asked support… asked for votes. And they got them!
That is public participation!”, says the Mayor, Salvador Malheiro.

In good gamification style, there was even a small competition for highest attendance at the in-person meetings among the 8 civil parishes. A special participatory budget digital platform was created with a real time leaderboard displaying information about each proposal and its votes.

Mayor Salvador Malheiro: “The final result was not a surprise, as everyone could see the whole evolution along the process, but the gamification was essential for the heavy engagement we achieved.”


Check back soon for the second part of our journey around the world of government gamification when we will take you to Hawaii, Australia, and Singapore, with a stop in Dubai with the most surprising champion of gamification – the Dubai Police!..


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