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Gamification and Motivating Civic Action

How might public policy get people to act in certain ways? The question of how a democratic society could impact the behavior of its citizens is a near constant one in our Interactivity Foundation discussion projects. One type of policy response that often comes up is the general theme of rewards and punishments, incentives and disincentives. But our thinking about such things is often a bit impoverished. We tend to think first of disincentives, of punishments such as fees or other financial penalties. If we do think of rewards, we might think of financial inducements, such as tax credits or other nominal financial rewards. There’s nothing wrong with these ideas, of course, but there’s no reason that panelists should feel hemmed in to thinking first and foremost about disincentives or to limiting their thinking to financial rewards and punishments.

In the Helping America Talk project on civic discourse, the panelists developed a couple of policy ideas that relied on the broad notion of incentives and disincentives. One policy idea relied on the supposition that the quality of public deliberation could be improved if the participants faced the prospect of gaining or losing something based on the quality of the ideas they brought forward. If the ideas they contributed to the public discussion turned out to be genuinely useful, then there ought to be the prospect of some kind of reward. The panelists brought up the notion of a financial reward, but they also talked about the importance of social recognition. They pointed out that reputation tracking systems (such as one finds in online social networks) could be one means of fostering this sort of accountable public thinking with the prospect of social acclaim as a reward for “being right” or thinking well, or a loss of social status as a penalty for “being wrong.”

At the time, more than a few of the panelists thought these ideas, especially of non-financial incentives, might not go over very well in subsequent citizen discussions. They worried that their fellow citizens might see this approach as unrealistic. But a recent public radio story, “Gamifying the system to create better behavior,” indicates their incentive ideas might have been on the right track. The story recounts how Sweden has set up a successful positive reinforcement program to encourage safe driving. They have speed cameras that catch speeding automobiles, but the non-speeders are also caught being good: for safe driving your tag number is put into a lottery to win a portion of the fines paid by the speeders.

This sort of “game playing” approach, or “gamification,” is intended to help people engage in civic space as active and thoughtful problem solvers, just as they’d engage in a game. The  incentives need not be primarily financial—and not even financial at all.  Gabe Zicherman, who has written on this gamification approach in marketing, uses the acronym “SAPS” to explain the hierarchy of incentives to which people respond:

SAPS stands for Status, Access, Power and Stuff. Zichermann says those are things people want in their lives as rewards — in that order. “It turns out,” he says, “that cash isn’t that good of a reward. Status is a fantastic motivator for getting people to do stuff.”

So the next time Interactivity Foundation discussion panelists start thinking of policies with incentives and disincentives, that’s a good time to remember the value of positive reinforcements rather than just negative ones. And it’s a good time to remember that it’s not all about the money. It turns out that money, or material reward, is likely not the most powerful motivator for civic behavior. It’s a good time to encourage panelists to think broadly about what might really motivate us as democratic citizens to act in certain ways.

–Jeff Prudhomme