A Realistic Vision For Citizen Engagement Through Games

In this third of three posts on the San Jose City Budget Games, I’ll present a vision of how serious games like Innovation Games® can motivate a new kind of civic engagement that has the potential to radically improve the quality of our governments and our lives. More importantly, instead of presenting some pie-in-the-sky vision that would cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to create and require a highly unlikely set of behavioral changes, I will present a series of pragmatic, cost-effective and engaging solutions to common problems facing civic leaders. Along the way, I’ll make what might turn out to be obvious comparisons to the problems facing most companies. My hope is that you’ll find a scenario that matches a problem you’re facing and that you’ll be inspired to try solving it through a collaborative game.

The first post in this series is here. The second post is here.

Civic Engagement Is The Goal

Simplifying a lot of history, let’s consider the structure of a representational democracy. Wikipedia tells us that a “Representative democracy is a form of government founded on the principle of elected individuals representing the people, as opposed to autocracy and direct democracy.” I quite happily live in a representative democracy. And while no governmental structure is perfect, I’m convinced that representative democracies are an effective form of government.

One area of representational democracy that has me concerned, however, is the degree of participation of the citizens within their governments. Participation in government is declining, and that’s not good:

  • Citizens can’t elect the best representatives when they’re not engaged in understanding the issues and the actions that potential representatives intend to take if elected.
  • Elected officials can’t make the best choices unless they have some way of understanding the preferences of their citizens.
  • It is very hard to find innovative solutions to the hard problems that we’re facing when we’re not engaging in dialog and debate about both the problems and the solutions.

Ultimately, a lack of broad participation means that we simply won’t realize the benefits of a representational democracy: Too small of a set of citizens will wield a disproportionate influence over the political process.

We believe that Innovation Games and other serious games can help solve the problem of citizen engagement. Our experiences in the San Jose, CA, City Budget Games confirms this idea. Let’s explore a few examples to see how games can improve engagement, provide elected officials with better data for decision-making and drive innovative solutions to tough problems. My focus will be on genuinely realistic ways that we can improve engagement. I will cover:

  • Budget Priorities
  • Relationships Between Programs and Services
  • Identifying Ways To Grow Cities
  • Understanding What Needs To Improve
  • Creating and Implementing Compelling Visions of the Future.


Budget Priorities

This is an easy one. Just read through my first and second posts on the San Jose Budget Games. They provide a realistic, practical and actionable approach to establishing budget priorities using a tailored version of Buy a Feature, a game that uses a virtual marketplace of ideas to determine priorities. And while the San Jose Budget Games were played in-person, our online version of Buy a Feature can be used to engage large numbers of citizens. The relationship to the kinds of problems that companies face in establishing budget priorities is quite obvious, considering that Buy a Feature was originally created to help companies prioritize product requirements with customers. Facebook marketing guru Paul Dunay blogs about Buy a Feature here.

Bang For the Buck As a conscientious blogger writing a three-part series, I don’t to merely repeat the previous posts. Instead, I want to offer other ways collaborative games can solve problems, including prioritization problems. One game that I think could work for governments who might like to try to improve their internal prioritization efforts is known as “Bang for the Buck.” See Scott Selhort’s post on this topic here.

The goal of this game is to collaboratively rank a project backlog based on estimated value and estimated cost. The y-axis is the value of an epic or story and the x-axis is the cost. Each axis is organized as a Fibonacci number. We use Fibonacci numbers to help with the “relative value” and “relative cost.” We don’t use actual costs estimates because these will change rapidly throughout the game.

Clicking on the image to the left will start an “instant play” game on our serious games platform. You’ll see this image as the “game board” and an icon of a light bulb in the top left corner of this window. The light bulb represents the projects you want to prioritize. To add a project to the game board, simply drag it from the top left and describe it.

Now the fun begins! While any player can move a light bulb at any time, the game works best when the person or persons who are responsible for assessing the value provided by a project focuses on getting the light bulbs in the right place vertically, while the person or persons responsible for understanding the costs puts each project in the right place horizontally.

Our gaming platform includes an integrated chat facility so that players can negotiate about the items. And any player can edit the items to keep track of the agreements of the team. This means that items will move around during the game as the value of an item increases or decreases or the costs change as the team considers various ways of implementing an item.

To get the final results of the game, simply download the Excel spreadsheet from our platform. All of the items and their Fibonacci values will be available to you for post-processing, including all of the chats. You can then convert these items into actual costs.

We’ve seen our corporate customers gain value in prioritizing projects using this grid. We believe city managers and their workforce would gain similar benefits.

Relationships Between Programs / Services

One of the concerns that citizens raise about government is the potential for waste when city agencies perform dual or overlapping functions or when citizens don’t understand the relationships between various programs and services that may be offered by different departments. Another kind of relationship that is often misunderstood is the relationships that exist between businesses, community agencies, and nonprofits. In many cases, these organizations would happily work together more effectively — if they could only identify these relationships.

Businesses face nearly identical problems. Customers often don’t understand the complex set of relationships that exist between products and services. More importantly, businesses seeking new revenue opportunities or cost-savings can realize them through a better understanding of product and service relationships.

We have a game for this, Spider Web, in which the players collaborate to create the web of relationships that exist, or might/could/should exist between products and services. By collaboratively exploring these relationships from multiple perspectives, participants generate amazing clarity. Spider Web is a very low-tech game. We typically play this game with whiteboards and marker pens, or on big rolls of paper with Sharpies®.

If cities assembled citizens, businesses, and nonprofits and asked them to play Spider Web to identify ways in which the natural relationships that exist between these organizations could be leveraged to solve complex problems, the potential benefit would be enormous. Shawn Crowley and Carl Erickson of Atomic Object discuss how Spider Web helps their clients generate new ideas for products and services here.

Identifying Ways to Grow Cities

Complex products and services aren’t static. They evolve over time as technology improves, tastes change, old requirements find themselves obsolete, and new requirements emerge. To help companies better understand and manage the growth of their products and services, we’ve invented the game Prune the Product Tree. In this game, which can be played in-person or online, we typically use images of trees to represent the growth of a technology product or service, and apples or leaves to represent new features. By moving items around, players can shape the growth of the tree to best meet their needs. In the process, companies gain tremendous insight into product roadmaps. Josh Lannin, Senior Director of Product Manager at Oracle, describes how Prune the Product Tree helped engage his user community and set the direction of his product and service.

It is, of course, trivial to say that cities are constantly changing. Sometimes cities are growing. At other times, they are decaying or dying. And based on our experience in the corporate world, perhaps a better way to engage citizens in shaping the desired growth of their cities would be our game Prune the Product Tree. One reason is that choice of metaphor is quite intentional: A fruit tree does not bear the best fruit if it is not periodically pruned. I’m confident that citizens if given the chance, would relish the opportunity to share their perspectives on growth with civic leaders. I’m equally confident that the rich metaphors would also help participants discuss challenging topics in a more open, honest, and forthright manner than traditional means of debate.


The rich metaphors of a tree can be extended in any number of ways. For example, consider the idea of assessing the kinds of benefits attendees of a conference or meeting received during and after the event. You can play an online version Prune the Product Tree that does this. Clicking on a tree at the right will open an online version of our game. You can drag the following items onto this tree:

  • Red Apples are benefits you expected — and got!
  • Rotten Apples are benefits that you expected — but didn’t get.
  • Presents are unexpected benefits that made the conference great.

Keep in mind that that this is a collaborative game. This means that you can invite other players to play. And when they drag something around — you’ll see it in real time!

Understanding What Needs To Improve

Businesses have learned that if you ask someone to give feedback on a product or service … they will. And while it can be challenging to listen to negative feedback, it is often the complaints of customers that create the greatest opportunities. We use the game Speed Boat to help our corporate clients capture this kind of feedback. In this game, a product or service is represented by a boat. Everyone wants the boat to go fast. Unfortunately, there are some anchors that are holding the boat back. By asking your customers to write down these anchors and reviewing them as a team, you can better understand how to improve your product or service. The celebrated user interface expert Richard Anderson discusses how he used Speed Boat to understand what is preventing or promoting User Experience at work in this post.

Given the amount of energy that citizens expend complaining about their government, the applicability of this game is pretty obvious. But should governmental officials play it? I ask this because as I wrote this post, I found myself empathizing with government officials: If I were a government official, I’m not so sure that I’d want to ask citizens for their anchors. But, you know what? Business leaders face the same emotions as government officials. They can be just as nervous asking for negative feedback from customers.

The answer, of course, is yes. Simply stated, no matter who you are, asking for criticism is not easy. And yet, we need to do it.

Fortunately, Speed Boat is carefully designed to obtain critical feedback in a way that keeps everyone focused on the issues without losing control of the process. And because Speed Boat can be played both in-person and online, every organization can leverage our game. In this post, I’ve provided a link to an online version of this game. Clicking on this image will open an “instant play” version of Speed Boat, with 25 anchors that can be shared among the players. And playing this game online will enable government leaders to play LOTS of games, efficiently gathering critically needed input. And this input — once shaped — can be fed into our prioritization games for program implementation.

Creating and Implementing Compelling Visions of the Future

Leaders of all sorts find it easy to set grand visions of the future. Devising plans to realize these visions is a bit harder. As you can guess by reading this far, we have a game that can help business leaders, elected officials and other leaders both create and realize compelling visions of the future. This game is Remember the Future. As explained in this video by trained facilitator Lowell Lindstrom, who used this game to help the Scrum Alliance, Remember the Future engages players to create and define how they will realize compelling visions of the future.

I’d be thrilled to see government officials invite community leaders to play this game on how their cities could collaboratively work together to realize key goals. For example, suppose one of the shared goals is a reduction in crime. Remember the Future is the perfect game to identify how this goal — and many others — could be realized.

Playing Games For Engagement

Whether you’re a concerned citizen, a community leader, the head of your PTA or the General Manager of a $220 million dollar product line, I hope that this post has given you some concrete examples of a realistic vision of Citizen and Customer Engagement through games. I look forward to playing with you!


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