Gamification In The Public Sector?

Over the holidays, the New York Times had a story titled “All the World’s a Game, and Business Is a Player” (

Many of us are familiar with computer games.  If not a passion of ourselves as adults, the passion for games is observable among youth.  

The article is not about shooting adventure games, but instead what are called “serious games”.  In various ways, we’ve seen the private sector use gamification.  But the question here is: do even these serious games have a role in the public sector?

The interest in games is based on the observation that people are much more engaged, more motivated and learn quicker in game situations than in more traditional bureaucratic environments.  So there have been game designers and others who have tried to apply these “game mechanics” to the public sector.

Actually, this is not new.  The Annual Games for Change conference has been around since 2004.  At the conference last June, there was even a Federal government caucus.

In 2011, Jane McGonigal, one of the leaders of this movement, wrote the successful book, “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World

But there has been increasing attention to the possibilities, even in the public sector.  The newspaper article mentions games for everything from reducing energy waste to the Israeli Defense Forces.  

In my own work, I have advised a big state government that was interested in the use of gamification to change the environment and re-motivate its work force.  

I’ve also been involved in a strategy to better engage customers of city transit services through gamification.  This provides two additional benefits: it establishes a relationship with riders who before were anonymous and motivates the more social of those riders to help build a community of riders who can help improve the overall urban experience.

There are clearly limits to the use of gamification and it is fairly easy to think of situations where even “serious” games would be considered inappropriate.  But there is much potential in these ideas that have not yet been realized.  

If these are to be used in valuable ways to achieve public goals, then public officials need to take the lead on this movement, rather than watch while this movement gets built without them.

Please pass along examples of such games you’ve observed in practice or your ideas of where games could be used in the public sector.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


This is sort of a follow up to the FixMyStreet post.

Last week, I attended the 8th Annual Games For Change conference.  One of the more interesting examples was developed by students at NYU ITP, the program that Clay Shirky is part of.  It’s initial trial was in Lower Manhattan.

Using smart phones, it makes a social game of 311 and encourage people to solve problems on their own.  It’s a real world (or perhaps blended virtual/physical world) game, rather than the many games that are exclusively virtual.  

People (individually or in teams) submit “tasks”, which could a problem or a suggestion or a question. For example: what do you give tourists at South Street Seaport (battery chargers!)?  how could you make the waterfront more fun?  

People then vote on the ideas or on problems. There is constant feedback, so you’re notified when someone votes on your idea/task  

The key lessons they learned were that people prefer guided vs. open ended interactions, simplicity is key, and people found it all more fun when they work as teams.

You “win” based on points.  So the person with the most points is Mayor of downtown Manhattan for the day.  However, to maintain a more positive, civil atmosphere, there is an emphasis on and rewards (points) for suggestions, rather than merely submitting problems.

Their next step is to work with the city government to integrate the game into the real 311 system.  

It will be interesting to see where they take this or if others pick up on the idea.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis