Policy by gaming: EVOKE and other stories

A few weeks ago I joined a semisecret organization that will save the world in 2020. We’re going through drills for now, but we already know that in ten years our boss, the mysterious Alchemy, will summon us into action. Thanks to our training, we will not be caught unprepared.

I’m playing EVOKE. It’s an alternate reality game (ARG) launched by the World Bank to educate the young, especially in Africa, to social innovation and development, using the game as a learning environment (here is the launch post on the World Bank’s blog).

ARGs are very promising learning environments. When well designed, they turn out to be way more engaging than, say, classrooms. They have two advantages. One is game dynamics: you are assigned missions, and once you report carrying them out (in EVOKE you’d do that by writing blog posts) the game interface immediately rewards you with points, achievement runes, awards etc. There is a fundamental pleasure in seeing your dashboard light up with missions accomplished. The other one is narratives: stories access something deeply hardwired in our cortex, so that “hey, go read about water scarcity – it’s good to spread knowledge” does definitely not feel the same as “Agent Alberto, Alchemy needs you to save the world from the threat of water scarcity! Do some research on innovative ways to address the problem, and spread it across our secret network with a blog post” – though of course it is. Despite some remaining design problems (like orienteering yourself to the best missions to get a feel for the game as a newbie, or the quests, that apparently don’t do anything ingame), EVOKE exploits those advantages reasonably well. As I played on, completing missions and receiving power points from fellow Evoke Agents, I could feel the almost physical pull gamers are so familiar with.

Apparently I’m not the only one. EVOKE has attracted over 15,000 players over the first month. As always, most people do little or nothing, but there is a very active minority which comes up with incredible ideas, and often go out and simply deploy them. EVOKE superstars have created stuff like SEED (improving quality of life and opportunity through a customized curriculum in Sierra Leone), Gratitude Gardens (“combination social enterprise incubators, living seed banks, and community gathering spaces”), and an effort to arrange a global collection network for the American charity Hopephones. Some agents are busy creating a platform that will stay on when EVOKE ends in May, EVOKE4EVER.

There also seems to be a dark side to EVOKE. Some players are complaining that their comments, when they are critical of the game, have been getting erased from the recent activity feed to prevent their going viral; some of the highest profile agents have even disappeared from the network. An ugly word, “censorship”, is being uttered. While these are unconfirmed (and could be even part of the ARG’s plot!) I know personally some very bright social innovators that, in the wake of the controversy, grew disillusioned with EVOKE and focused their commitment elsewhere. And this is pretty bad news, because reaching out to these people is the reason EVOKE even exists. The lesson to be learned is the usual one of web 2.0: networks of smart agents (like people, as opposed to dumb agents like neurons) can be grown, influenced and destroyed, but NEVER controlled. If you are not ready to accept that they might do stuff which you did not desing for, don’t even bother starting one (elsewhere Tito Bianchi and I make this point in more detail). I wrote to the World Bank asking for comments, but no reply yet.

But this is true of much government 2.0. The fact of the matter is, games are a very promising policy tool, as they hold a lot of potential to channel collective efforts thanks to game dynamics and narratives. The World Bank is not alone in its pioneering efforts: it is actually following in the footsteps of the International Olympic Committee (The Lost Ring, 2008), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (Flashback, 2008), the Institute for the Future (Superstruct, 2008). All these games save Flashback, but including EVOKE, have been designed at some level by pervasive game guru Jane McGonigal. Her vision is simple: put to an useful purpose the billions of hours a week and relentless enthusiasm put into playing online games (see her TED presentation, inspiring though it does not take into account that kids were playing with the same enthusiasm well before online games).

For once, Italy is not hopelessly lagging behind. This is mainly thanks to CriticalCity, a young Milan-based startup who launched their own pervasive game in 2008; created an exciting ARG in 2009 in the UNESCO heritage city of Matera (video); and are now seeking to upgrade to a large-scale ARG (“a game as big as life itself”, as they like put it) codenamed CriticalCity Upload. I have the honor of serving in their advisory board, and I intend to keep my eyes wide open for opportunities to learn about how you can do policy by gaming. How many power points do I get for that?

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