Making Democracy Fun
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Anyone who has ever been to a public hearing or community meeting would agree that participatory democracy can be boring. Hours of repetitive presentations, alternatingly alarmist or complacent, for or against, often with no clear outcome or decision. Is this the best democracy can offer? In Making Democracy Fun, Josh Lerner offers a novel solution for the sad state of our deliberative democracy: the power of good game design. What if public meetings featured competition and collaboration (such as team challenges), clear rules (presented and modeled in multiple ways), measurable progress (such as scores and levels), and engaging sounds and visuals? These game mechanics would make meetings more effective and more enjoyable—even fun.
Lerner reports that institutions as diverse as the United Nations, the U.S. Army, and grassroots community groups are already using games and game-like processes to encourage participation. Drawing on more than a decade of practical experience and extensive research, he explains how games have been integrated into a variety of public programs in North and South America. He offers rich stories of game techniques in action, in children’s councils, social service programs, and participatory budgeting and planning. With these real-world examples in mind, Lerner describes five kinds of games and twenty-six game mechanics that are especially relevant for democracy. He finds that when governments and organizations use games and design their programs to be more like games, public participation becomes more attractive, effective, and transparent. Game design can make democracy fun—and make it work.
About the Author
Josh Lerner is Executive Director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, a non-profit organization that empowers people across North America to decide together how to spend public money. Josh completed a PhD in Politics at the New School for Social Research and a Masters in Planning from the University of Toronto. Since 2003, he has developed, researched, and worked with dozens of participatory programs in North America, Latin America, and Europe. He is the author of the book Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics (MIT Press), and his articles have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The National Civic Review, YES! Magazine, Shelterforce, and the Journal of Public Deliberation.
“Fun is not a frill, but an essential ingredient for strong democracy. That’s the convincingly argued premise of Josh Lerner’s powerful new book, which uses a huge variety of cases and a compulsively readable style to show how public participation can be made gratifying, interesting, and enjoyable. Lerner shows how smart organizers and leaders are figuring out how we can move beyond dry, boring, unproductive public processes.”
—Matt Leighninger, Executive Director, The Deliberative Democracy Consortium, and author of The Next Form of Democracy
“Oscar Wilde reportedly once said ‘the problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.’ Josh Lerner’s wonderful book takes seriously this quip and proposes solutions. The central argument is provocative and strikingly original: popular engagement in democracy can be increased and deepened by making the process of democracy fun. The book is filled with fascinating empirical discussions of the innovative use of games in grassroots democratic activity as well as insightful theoretical treatments of the dilemmas of democratic participation. It should be read by both activists and scholars interested in reinvigorating democratic life.”
—Erik Olin Wright, Past President, American Sociological Association, and Vilas Distinguished Professor of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
“Far from frivolous, Making Democracy Fun is an absolute must-have book for democracy advocates and public engagement practitioners. Josh Lerner, a pioneer in participatory budgeting in the United States, walks us through how to design participation like a game—so that it’s not only more enjoyable and engaging but also far more effective, transparent, outcome-oriented, and addicting than typical public meetings.”
—Sandy Heierbacher, Director, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation