How Games Teach Civic Engagement

Churches that work hard to feed the hungry and clothe the naked may not feel they have time for games. Anyway, what good would it do? After all, poverty and inequality are not a matter to be treated lightly. Despite such stern attitudes, community engagement does not have to involve drudgery.

What good do games do? First of all, they can make civic engagement fun. Unfortunately, many people have come to expect civic involvement to be unsatisfying, and often with good reason. Josh Lerner, in Making Democracy Fun, believes most citizens see involvement in local government forums (such as public hearings) as comparable to eating spinach, which everyone claims is good for you but nobody actually wants to eat. “For most people, democratic participation is relatively unappealing. It is boring, painful, and pointless.” The opposite of this would be an engagement process that is fun.[1]

It’s time for games to be taken seriously as a tool for community engagement. Games offer churches (as well as local government, schools and non-profit organizations) an enjoyable, satisfying way to deepen understanding of public issues. Serious games offer three benefits: 1) They can educate citizens about important community issues, 2) They can strengthen relationships between neighbors, and 3) They can help people work together to develop new solutions to longstanding problems. Serious games can be informative and fun at the same time. [1]

First, games can strengthen relationships between neighbors. The Brady Faith Center in Syracuse, New York provides an example of building relationships with low-income neighbors. The Brady Center offers a bicycle program for homeless persons. Residents of the city’s shelters have the opportunity to explore the city on bike, often riding alongside middle managers working in the city’s corporate towers. Andrew Lunetta, employed by a local shelter, started the program after he noticed that residents had to leave the shelter at seven each morning, and often had no place to go. He asked the Brady Center for space to gather them for coffee and board games. When spring arrived, it seemed better to go outside. For that reason, Lunetta, a bike enthusiast, started leading bike rides, which now happen three times a week. After ten rides a person is allowed to keep the bike, helmet and lock. Kevin Frank, Executive Director, said, “When we’re on a bike together, we’re all neighbors on the bike. We’re all equal. We’re all just friends. It’s a chance to live community together.”

While fun, the Brady Center’s bike rides would probably not qualify as a game. Games typically are more structured than play. Game designers create a system that allows to engage in “artificial conflict” (separate from real life). Second, designers create rules that everyone must follow. Finally, the game will produce a measurable outcome such as a score or reward. Play, such as bike riding, shooting hoops at a basketball court, or skateboarding in a public place, tends to be looser and more free form.[2] Both can be immensely satisfying.

Second, games can educate citizens about important community issues. Poverty simulations get closer to the classic definition of a game. Increasingly popular with churches concerned about economic inequality, The Community Action Poverty Simulation was developed by the Missouri Community Action Network as a way to raise awareness about the struggles poor people face and inspire solutions. This game seeks help persons understand what it would be like to live in poverty for a month.

At the start, players select an identity. The poverty simulation kit includes twenty-six family profiles of families experiencing poverty. For example, you might be asked to play a nineteen year old mother, a high school dropout and unemployed, who would like to go back to school and graduate, but she must care for a one year old son, the child of her former boyfriend. She rents a mobile home along with a boyfriend who contributes half toward costs, and receives public assistance, including food stamps but gets no support from the child’s father. While your boyfriend owns a car, you do not own a phone.[3]

After selecting a role, the clock begins. The poverty simulation takes place over four weeks, each fifteen minutes long, in a room arranged to simulate a city or town complete with banks, stores, child care providers, payday lenders, and local government agencies. Using props such as money, food stamps and transportation cards, players must navigate their lives with limited resources, severe time constraints, and inadequate transportation. When time’s up, a facilitator leads a discussion about the experience. I once participated in the simulation in a church fellowship hall with about forty others. We agreed that the game was brief yet stressful, evoking surprisingly intense emotions—anger, frustration, panic, and even sadness.

Third, games can help people work together to develop new solutions to longstanding problems. Participatory budgeting offers a new method to get people involved in solving problems. It began in Porto Alegro, Brazil in 1990 when the city invited communities to have a say in how community dollars would be spent. The model has been used by 1,500 cities around the world, as well as schools, universities, housing authorities, businesses, and nonprofit organizations.[4] Budgeting can be a challenging process. Often experts or those who hold the purse strings control the process. In participatory budgeting, ordinary people get a say in the decision making as they deliberate about how to allocate funds.

Though methods vary widely, every participatory budgeting process shares these features: 1) A focus on a geographically defined area such as a neighborhood or district, 2) Regularly scheduled meetings in each area to deliberate and make decisions, 3) Activities scheduled to follow the budget cycle, and 4) A network of organizations or individuals who educate and mobilize others to take part.[5]

Really, the process should be fun, and participants may be encouraged to get creative. In 2008, the Toronto Community Housing hosted “1.8 Day” to decide how to spend $1.8 million to upgrade its buildings and grounds. That Saturday the agency asked residents to create displays promoting their idea for projects using the housing authority’s funding. One proposal for a handicapped accessible playground, called “Let All Children Play,” used photos of children playing, text boxes to explain the project, and a three-dimensional playground model made of children’s toys. Later that morning tenants were given five minutes to present on behalf of their project, with a gong to signal when time was up just for fun. At lunch everyone discussed the merits of the projects, and after lunch voting began via computer in a private room. Each delegate was allowed to cast ten votes, though they were not allowed to vote for their own project. “Most people left 1.8 Day smiling, whether or not their project won.”[6]

How is participatory budgeting like a game? Recall the three elements of a game: conflict, rules, and measurable outcomes. In Toronto, a set of rules structured how issues were to be presented (using displays or verbal presentations) and how decisions were to be made (by talking together over lunch). Conflict occurred as players competed to design the most convincing display or presentation. Voting in the afternoon produced measurable outcomes as “winners” saw their favorite projects voted upon and either funded or not. Finally, like many games, the process left people smiling.

Participatory budgeting could be used internally by churches wanting to open up the budget process to a broader group of members. Moving beyond the church walls, the process could be used as a tool for community engagement. Imagine what would happen if, rather than offering donations (food, clothing, or cash), the church allocated an amount of money for the community, then invited residents into a process to determine how to spend it? That’s participatory budgeting in a nutshell.

[1] Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger, Public Participation For 21st Century Democracy (Hoboken, NJ: Jossey Bass, 2015), 271.

[2]Josh Lerner, Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 13-15.

[3]Steve Inskeep, “A City Steps Up: Savannah Confronts Poverty,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, March 20, 2006. Accessed at

[4]Nabatchi, Public Participation, 275.

[5]Trevor Boutall, “Participatory Budgeting,” Participedia. Accessed at

[6]Josh Lerner, Making Democracy Fun, 155-161.

Photo: Mike Fleming, 1.4.2009. Flickr Creative Commons.

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