The science of games and budgeting.

Author:Kavanagh, Shayne

Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics

Josh Lerner

MIT Press 2014, 288 pages, $27.95

When the goal of the budget process is to best align a government's limited resources with community goals, there will often be tough decisions about which programs and activities those resources will be allocated to. If these decisions are not deemed legitimate by all involved, some might work to delay or even prevent such a budget from ever being adopted. Even when the budget is adopted, its implementation might be impeded.

What can public budget officers do to enhance the perceived legitimacy of tough budget decisions? An answer comes from an unexpected place: games. Author Josh Lemer, a leading authority on community participation in public budgeting, argues that games can teach us a lot about politics in Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics. Given the financial incentive--the video game industry recently overtook the film industry in gross revenues--there is a rich and rapidly developing science behind what makes a game engaging.

Exhibit 1 compares features that help make a given game fun to ways a public hearing for the budget is often conducted.

Lerner, an authority on community participation in public budgeting, has identified four critical game mechanics that promote democratic decision-making: conflict and collaboration, rules, engagement, and outcomes.


Conflict (or competition) is an inherent part of budgeting. Public budgeting often seeks to minimize competition because it frequently leads to antagonistic relationships. (That's why incremental budgeting is so popular: everyone's budget remains largely the same from year to year, with incremental changes around the margins. Leaving base budgets alone minimizes conflict.) In games, however, competition can be not only be fun and inspiring--it can even encourage collaboration.

How can this dynamic be translated to public budgeting? First, prepare people to work together by helping them get to know one another. Research has shown that even the most basic physical contact raises levels of a brain chemical called oxytocin, which (among other things) reduces social fears and increases generosity. An activity as simple as participants introducing themselves to one another and shaking hands is a good start. Priming participants to work together will better equip them to come together on the...

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