Videogames and citizen decisions: ludic governance

By Eurídice Cabañes – ArsGames

On November 3rd took place at the Espai Societat Oberta the conference Videogames and citizen decisions: ludic governance, which was the first conference of the cycle ‘Videogames, governance and citizenship‘ that also featured the exhibition ‘The city at stake’. Both the exhibition and the conference, organised by ArsGames, were intended to show the potential of video games for collective decision-making and collaborative city design.

Issues we face

When we talk about video games, although we want to place them in a social and collective context, we cannot forget that the format in which they are currently presented by large corporations entails risks and problems.

  • Data extractivism: increasingly, through our devices as well as different sensors and cameras located in public space, information is being collected from citizens that determines their possibilities of participation in space from how to transit the city[0], who to socialize[1] or flirt with[2], where and what to buy[3], what to work on[4], what movie to watch or whether or not to be in jail[5].
  • Human obsolescence: The vast amounts of data that we generate and store make up big data, which by definition are amounts of data so large that no person would be able to comprehend. By equating knowledge with big data we have been left out of any possibility of having knowledge or making decisions regarding the knowledge acquired.
  • Algorithmic governance: In our place, it is now algorithms, the only ones capable of wading through, interpreting and analyzing all those huge amounts of data, that make the decisions.
  • The death of public space: Algorithmic governance eliminates public and democratic management of cities, since, in the absence of public digital infrastructure, data and algorithms belong to large transnational private companies.
  • Biases and citizen decisions conditioned by commercial interest: protected under intellectual property laws, these algorithms prevent us from seeing why some decisions are being made and not others, they leave us blind to sexist, racist, classist biases… The very governments that hire them do not know how they work, they have ceded decision-making to a black box.
  • Dark patterns in city design: dark design patterns are ways of designing devices, spaces, mechanics and dynamics to condition our interaction by subtly manipulating them without our awareness. As opaque as the algorithms that govern us, they play with our minds, decide on our time and our way of inhabiting the city, shaping a citizenry willing to do almost anything in exchange for points, climb in rankings or get prizes and discounts.


What can we do and what alternatives are there in this scenario?

  • Human computation: some examples are the video games Eterna or Foldit, generated by universities, which teach us in a simple way how to fold proteins to generate synthetic RNA, they present us with challenges and the community of players solves them. The best solutions are tested by teams of scientists who recreate them in the laboratory, serving to advance the cure of various diseases. The Foldit community was selected by Nature magazine as the largest scientific community, promoting citizen science. In these and many other cases of human computation we can see how not only the video game allows us to understand the functioning of complex systems and generate or interact with large amounts of data, but also to contribute to the generation of collective knowledge.
  • Explorable explanations: of which we can find a large collection on the explorable explanations web page initiated by Nicky Case, which has been joined by many projects by very diverse people around the globe, show how video games can be very useful to us when dealing with complex data and systems.
  • Games of the Common: through the development of video games in citizen laboratories, several prototypes are generated that allow interacting with the datasets of the Barcelona City Council related to the price of housing and tourism, so that the data go from being incomprehensible and endless excel tables, to being playable, interactive experiences from which this information can be understood much better.
  • Games for cities, compiles different game design proposals (both analog and digital, or hybrid) for citizen decision-making on various issues such as the fight against climate change, mobility issues, circular economy, etc. that have been tested in different cities.
  • Craftea or Block by Block projects propose the use of the Minecraft video game to design proposals for intervention on public space that are consensual and designed within the game itself, which then take their place in real space, through the superimposition of images, or with the actual construction of the same on the space.

Ludic governance

We counterpose the idea of ludic governance to the idea of algorithmic governance in such a way that decisions return to the hands of citizens, employing the video game to interact with large amounts of data and complex systems, train us to make informed decisions and establish consensus practices, being able to test citizen decisions in digital space before carrying them out in real space.

For this to be possible, we need certain prerequisites to be met:

  1. Digital public infrastructure that allows for public spaces not only in physical space, but also in digital space.
  2. Auditable algorithms, so that they can be constantly reviewed for biases.
  3. Data should be for those who generate them, who have control over what happens with them and that they are always open and anonymized.
  4. Codesign of games for decision making about our cities.
  5. Let us begin to design the future of our cities, let us reclaim the right to the city, be it physical, digital, hybrid or mutant, so that the spaces we inhabit go from being governed by commercial interests to being governed by the common interest.
  • [0] Google maps, Waze, etc.
  • [1] In the algorithms of social networks.
  • [2] Dating apps like okcupid, tinder, grinder.
  • [3] Targeted ads, targeted advertising…
  • [4] The State Public Employment Service (SEPE) is applying an algorithm called Send@ to improve job seekers’ job search.
  • [5] Like the RisCanvi algorithm used in Catalonia for predictive analytics that calculates the risk of recidivism of prisoners by determining whether they get probation or not.

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