Monday, June 1, 2015

Getting the Public into the Policy Act

The other morning I met a disgruntled woman at my bus stop. She had been waiting more than 20 minutes for a bus to come along, after which three buses showed up in rapid succession. While we stood on the curb, she fumed: Rather than getting three buses at 30-minute intervals, couldn’t the transit agency send one bus every 10 minutes?

It turns out, though, that there are reasons for “bus bunching,” and one of the best ways to learn about the problem – and identify possible solutions – is to play a simple game created by engineering student Lewis Lehe and designer Dennys Hess (h/t CityLab). Through the game interface, you can try out your ideas for how to reduce or prevent bus bunching, with system responses that match the academic literature on the subject.

Game interfaces have the potential to be great tools for democratic engagement in policy making. They make complicated concepts understandable to a wide range of people, and enable ordinary citizens (and policy-makers) to test out potential scenarios for improvements.

I first did this in SimCity, the brilliant Maxis game series I played during middle and high school on my dad’s PC. I could create a city with no roads and only rail, or just subways. I could eliminate bus service and watch how my city thrived or collapsed into ruin. SimCity addressed many policy areas beyond transportation, including taxes, pollution from electricity generation, mixed-use land planning, police and fire coverage, and educational access.

SimCity and its ilk have allowed me and countless others to engage with these issues and experiment with solutions. Games don’t have to be complicated to be effective communicators. Among the many options are these simpler highlights that still give enough nuance to be fascinating:
Information doesn’t even have to be playable: Just looking like a game can make it more accessible, as in this video about subway delays from the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The wider the range of options – as SimCity had, and Cities: Skylines, a just-out game that’s touted as its intellectual heir – the greater the potential for mass public involvement, and creative solution experimentation.

This can create a more informed public, which is essential to good government – if the rules of the game accurately represent reality. If games have the power to educate and engage, they also have the power to mislead.

But gamification of public policy choices and dilemmas isn’t just for recreation. Getting large numbers of people to play such games can enable us to crowd-source solutions to real-world problems, educate the public about critical policy choices and dilemmas, gain critical information about public concerns and preferences, and support richer, more informed, and more diverse participation in public policy debates.