What is a Civic Game?

This past weekend, I joined my civic collaborators Joshua Miller and Daniel Levine in launching the first (hopefully annual) Civic Games Contest. This is something we have been talking about for a long time – trying to tap into the inherently civic nature of games to reach something beyond a mere ‘gamification’ of civics.

Promoting the contest has proven to be an interesting challenge, though, because in my head gaming and civics are so indelibly interrelated that a ‘civics games contest’ seems obvious – indeed, it’s almost surprising there hasn’t been one already. Yet, I struggle to articulate this connection to others.

In our call for submissions we call out three specific ways in which a game’s themes might be civic:

  • Personal: having moral integrity, taking responsibility for one’s actions, reflecting on one’s personal morality
  • Communal: openness to dialogue, communal service (e.g., charitable work, helping neighbors), involvement in community organizations (e.g., religious institutions, social clubs)
  • Political: engagement with or challenge to formal political structures (e.g., advocacy, protest, running for office, voting, revolution)

While all three of those are certainly civic themes, the connection between gaming and civics goes deeper than these examples. In his own blog post, Miller writes, “civics is fundamentally about finding ways for people [to take] an ownership-stake in their shared world.”

I am inclined to agree with that framing. Dewey writes that democracy is a way of living; a way of engaging deeply in the shared endeavor of living together. That is what civics is all about.

In theory, the task of designing effective, positive institutions could be left to experts. There are good reasons for such an approach: experts certainly have, well, expertise, and – as Walter Lippmann strongly points out – people only have so much bandwidth and interest. We can’t all be an expert in everything.

But to turn everything over to mere experts, divorced from the knowledge and experience of the people, invites catastrophic failure. James C. Scott has some of the strongest arguments against the dangers of a totalitarian state fixated on regulating everything and unrelentingly shutting out the public voice – but perhaps that framing is enough to give you an idea of the risks.

Our society is fundamentally just that – our society. It is our role and our duty as citizens to continually co-create it; together. It will not always be easy; in fact it will always be hard. But that’s what it means to live democratically.

You may ask, however, what does this all have to do with games?

Everything.

While any type of game could be civic, the connection is perhaps most clearly seen with roleplaying games (RPGs and LARPs). These games are fundamentally about co-creating a shared world. Whether characters are cooperative or antagonistic, players work together to tell and discover the story. The experience is emergent – something is created which didn’t exist before; the unique product of a shared endeavor.

These games remind us of our collective power and our individual agency. They teach us how to be citizens.

Of, course, for the contest, we’re looking for something more than a game which is civic in the way that all games are civic – but rather, a game which is self-conscious in it’s civic-ness. A game that not only builds the capacity of players to fulfill their role of citizen, but one which overtly brings this preparation to the surface.

Too often, we neglect our agency in the realm of civic engagement. We genuinely prefer to put our power into the hands of experts because we doubt our ability to see, understand, or solve our collective challenges.

A civic game, then, is one which actively seeks to support citizen players with relevant facts, values, or strategies – helping them to see or experience an injustice they hadn’t fully recognized before or empowering them as citizens: actors fully capable of having a collective impact on the world around them.

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