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Communication studies

Gamification and digital participation: new impetus for democracy

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Gamification and serious games refer to the use of playful incentives beyond a game that serves exclusively or primarily as entertainment. Gamification is the more comprehensive concept, describing the “use of design elements characteristic of games in a non-game context”[1] (author’s translation). Gamification can be understood as a subtle persuasive technique that is intended to influence the behaviour of users by activating individual motives through playful design elements.[2] The playful elements are usually linked to a central, non-playful function. Such a central function can be political participation, for example. Gamification is then intended, for example, to encourage citizens to participate in politics more frequently, more consistently or more persistently. Serious games, on the other hand, are actually games in the original sense, but they serve other, often educational purposes in addition to entertainment.

Political participation can be understood as activities by citizens that serve the purpose of influencing political decisions.[3] If this is interpreted in a narrow sense as the participation of citizens in elections and votes, the potential uses of playful incentives are very limited. However, if a broad understanding of political participation is taken as a basis, which also includes information and consultation, a very broad field of application opens up.

To date, gamification has been used most frequently in the context of political education.[4] Serious games can be used, for example, to impart civic knowledge or skills. Sometimes games are created specifically for this purpose, addressing topics such as war and poverty, flight and migration or environmental protection and sustainability. However, Blumberg and colleagues (2013) point out that conventional games, such as SimCity or World of Warcraft, which are based on virtual societies and promote cooperation between players, can also support civic learning objectives.[5] Another field of application for gamification is the areas of consultation and co-creation – for example in the context of urban planning.[6] Consultations are used here, i.e. non-binding hearings of citizens, in which they are creatively involved in the design of a public offer. Digital simulations can be a valuable tool for concretising and communicating projects, weighing up alternatives and thus promoting discourse. Participatory e-government offerings can also have elements of gamification, for example when so-called defect reporters (applications that can be used to report damage or contamination of public spaces to the municipal administration) award points to encourage active use.

Comparability with analogue phenomena

Serious games can be offered in both analogue and digital form. These are actually games, for example in the form of a card or board game – which are dedicated to the purpose of political education, for example. The situation is somewhat different with gamification, which is actually more of a digital phenomenon.

Gamification elements are not obviously recognisable as a game. They are embedded in processes that serve a non-game purpose, but create playful incentives. These elements include, for example, the visibility and comparability of contributions, the communication of common rules of the game, the receipt of material or immaterial rewards, the promotion of competition, the possibility of dialogue, exchange and evaluation. Such elements can be integrated into digital platforms that are used for political information or consultation, among other things.

Digital platforms have the particularity that their user interfaces must always be designed consciously. Providers of digital services must therefore always decide in favour of or against the integration of playful incentives. Sometimes providers may not even realise that the user guidance on their platform contains gamification elements and provides playful incentives. Some gamification elements are easier to implement digitally than analogue – such as dialogue options between users, visible user profiles, the publication of rankings, the awarding of status symbols (e.g. ranks or points) or the repetition of processes. Many such elements are perceived as completely normal when using digital platforms and can therefore have a subtle incentivising effect. In analogue applications, on the other hand, they would be more noticeable and may be perceived as disruptive or alienating.

Social relevance

Digital media open up potential for political participation, but not all citizens utilise it to the same extent. Both from a normative perspective and from a pragmatic point of view on the part of those responsible for participation processes, there is a constant challenge to encourage citizens to participate in politics, including online. Against this backdrop, gamification and serious games represent approaches to promoting and stimulating participation, particularly in the context of digital participation offerings. The main target groups include young citizens, but also those with a lower socio-economic status or people with little political interest or knowledge.

Since serious games – as described – are actually games, their application potential in the context of political participation is limited beyond the basic goal of imparting knowledge and skills. As soon as a digital application no longer primarily serves a gaming purpose, but a non-gaming purpose, it leaves the realm of serious games and moves into the broader field of gamification. Gamification, on the other hand, offers a wider range of applications – in addition to information transfer, for example, also in the area of consultation or co-creation. Particularly in the context of digital political participation, gamification elements must be taken into account when designing digital platforms – otherwise they may creep in unintentionally. Gamification requires critical reflection in the context of political participation. Its use can be perceived as manipulative if there is a lack of transparency. More participation is not always synonymous with better participation. For example, troublemakers or provocateurs can be very active online but not contribute to the success of a participation project. The social dynamics of gamification – especially in a political context – have not yet been researched much. Gamification could also contribute to intensifying debates on politically polarising issues.


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  2. Petkov, P. et al. (2011). Engaging energy saving through motivation-specific social comparison. In: Tan, D./Begole, B./Kellogg, W. (Hgg.). Proceedings and Extended Abstracts for the 29th Annual CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Vancouver, BC (Canada), 1945–1950.
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