Civic games: three perspectives

The following essay was written as motivation and inspiration for the participants of the first Civic Game Jam (http://civicgamejam.com).

How would a Civic Game look like?
Three perspectives

Sebastian Uribe

It’s hard to envision how a “Civic Game” would look like. It is especially hard to think about it during a game jam, where people need to use their valuable time to organize teams, quickly gather ideas and discuss technical details, leaving little or no space for more theoretical discussions. Here I share some thoughts on what it would mean to make a civic game, hoping that it might open minds and inspire discussions between participants.

One: games as playgrounds

One way of seeing (computer) games is as small universes, or simulations, in which players interact among themselves or with other elements. These universes have rules that command how players interact with things and what this universe in general behaves. If we try to see civic games in this light, they would then be focused on the rules and mechanisms that govern civic life.

Typical games about civic life are focused on politics and governance, putting players in the role of heads of state or politicians who must deal with ordinary or extraordinary elements of politics (population, corporations, monetary issues, foreign policy, corruption, etc.) in order to either keep themselves or their governments afloat.

But civism is not only about governance, and games that try to represent the rules of civic life should not be limited to politics. Understanding the actors of any civic activity and how they interact would be critical to simulating them, and their motivations would provide a winning objective. In which other ways do people engage in civic life? Any of them will probably provide enough rules and actors that it should be possible to implement a simulation with which players can interact.

 

Two: games as media

Games are clear carriers of content. At the most superficial level, they contain information like text, images, audio, animations and more. On a deeper level, they can tell stories, teach and explain, and allow for communication between players. Without doubt, games are media.

So from this perspective, when you make a game you are, consciously or not, saying something. It could be an elaborate idea, a story, or just a simple message. Storytelling is particularly powerful and has been used for thousands of years as a way of transmitting culture – including civic culture. If we look slightly under the surface of most (computer) games, the civic ideas that they carry are done so in a subtle, indirect way, and most of the time are just repetitions of the culture that we live in, including our power structures.

Must that always be the case? Can we tell new stories about how we interact with each other? Could we transmit concepts of how to engage in civic life as the main message of our game? Maybe in doing so, a civic game could bring this ideas to audiences that are often not receptive to more traditional media.

Three: games as a statement

What if we saw the act of making a game as a statement in itself? As with many other activities, game creation is not done by the whole population but only by some small part of it, and any alteration in that could be of interest in itself.

Imagine a politician sitting down in front of cameras and programming a game. Would the content of the game itself be the most newsworthy part of it, or would it be the act in itself? Would a game commissioned by the Pope resonate more strongly among Catholics than the exact same game made by somebody else?

The context where a game is made could also help to differentiate it. Imagine a person working alone in a game for more than 15 years: the act of working for that long is in itself extraordinary. Maybe the distinctiveness could be intentional: imagine an artist creating a game and immediately deleting it on purpose. In that case, it would not matter at all how the game looks like, only the act of barring anyone from ever playing it would be of significance.

So maybe we could ask how could we make a civic game as a statement in itself… or rather more interestingly: how can the act of making a game be a civic statement?