It’s all about the game

How about LocalgovVille?

In this WLLG bloggers life, regular battles take place with the other half for attention. It’s not that their partner is uninterested, selfish or unwilling to spend time with them; no, the problem lies in the form of one behemoth of a time-sucking entity; FarmVille.

For the uninitiated, Zynga’s Facebook-based game involves the user building and maintaining a virtual farm with crops and livestock which they plant, tend and then harvest to earn in-game credits, which allow them to improve and expand their farm as they see fit. The difference between this and more traditional games lies in the fact that these crops grow in their own version of ‘realtime’; whether the user is logged on or not, the plants keep growing until they are ready to harvest, then die off and wasting the time and virtual money used to get them ready for harvest.

This has resulted in elements of our lives literally being booked around the harvest schedule; dinner gets done early as the corn is ready to reap, the children’s baths are delayed whilst the cows are milked and evenings out with friends are postponed as some special event or other comes up.

Were this a regular game I suspect it would soon have worn off its charm and the demands it placed on our lives would have stopped them from enjoying it as they do. However, this game has introduced the element of competition and score keeping, which drives them on. They compare their scores with friends and family, swap comments and advice with aquaintences and provide and receive gifts on a seemingly constant basis. This social aspect has thoroughly drawn them in, and contributed to the developers of FarmVille being valued recently at $7.8bn (and yes, that’s billion).

Besides the inconvenience, this has got me thinking about gamification and it’s rise in the virtual world. The advent of social networks has revolutionised the gaming world, as have the introduction of smart phones with internet and GPS access. All of a sudden the world really is our playground; perhaps our local areas and local government should sign up in some way?

Local government traditionally has may challenges to overcome when it comes to successfully engaging with the public. Usually there are a hardcore few who take part on a regular basis and would regardless of how easy or difficult it might be – roughly 5% or so is usually right. Then there are those who would never get involved, regardless of how easy or relevant it might be – a larger percentage sometimes as high as 30%.

The remaining 65% are those who would perhaps be interested in taking part in some way, depending upon their mood and upon the issue at hand. Now, I’d be willing to bet that a number of these play FarmVille, or games similar to it; are there ways of linking the two together?

Adopting a virtual piece of a virtual borough or county may seem a little strange to consider, but if you’d asked me a few years ago whether my city-dwelling-wildlife-hating-computer-game-averting partner would interupt a movie to sow rows of sunflowers and weed their tomatoes I’d have thought you just as strange. There is a significant amount of online real estate relating to local areas in place already, and much more that could be created with ease.

There are fantastic examples of entire communities coming together to create something online about their physical community, such as Monmouthpedia, which have also helped groups and individuals come together offline to share information and history with each other. The drive to create something and to share something looks to be creating a strong sense of place, and has the added bonus of building trust and a positive relationship with the local authority.

Why not go a step further, and actually look at recreating a place virtually perfectly? Many years ago a computer game was developed which prided itself on being a perfect recreation of the streets of London, complete with photographic frontages of central London buildings. To do the same for a local area may take some significant effort, but would then allow people who couldn’t actually visit an area physically to see it virtually.

In and of itself this might be interesting, but I’d be more interested in then hosting virtual walkabouts with interested experts around the country and world to look at the place in detail and communally work out solutions to problems. There’s nothing stopping these suggested solutions from being virtually modelled via open-source coding and tested out, with local authority staff being able to get involved and share their professional opinions and be part of a crowd-sourced solution to real, practical issues.

The other element of Zynga games which I think we could learn from would be the introduction of a competitive edge. As I said, without this element I’m sure the game would not have captured as much attention as it has; it seems virtual bragging rights are every bit as worth pursuing as those in the ‘real’ world.

Zynga aren’t the only people getting in on the act either; networks such as Foursquare and Chromarama have made the simple and mundane journey of traveling to or being at places into a game which you can ‘win’ at. In the latter, you contribute to the score of your virtual team (who you probably will never meet), whilst the former allows you to check-in and win yourself, by becoming the virtual mayor of a place or unlocking a badge.

This virtual achievement has actually transferred over to the real world through these achievements being rewarded by some companies offering rewards such as discounts for badge holders. Other users also offer advice and recommendations based on your real world location, which could push the user to act in a certain way or visit a certain place.

There must be ways of us getting on this bandwagon. Making a game and offering challenges or rewards for users might not be appropriate for all situations, but for many it could unlock access to a new and untapped percentage of that 65% mentioned above. When it comes to engaging with the public, perhaps offering users virtual points for visiting council run leisure centres or cultural centres might encourage them to return, especially if it then offers them a discount. Tying this to their social media accounts then lets their friends know they are going along, and subtly encourages them to join in the game.

Go further and it could become more interesting. Why not reward actual engagement activity with virtual points? Filled in a survey for us? Here’s 20 points to add to your haul. Gave us some feedback on a web page? Another 10 points are winging their way to you. Attended a council meeting? Surely that’s worth at least a hundred…

These points then get turned into things they can cash in for their area. Imagine people getting together to volunteer or take part en-masse, knowing that not only are their efforts directly making their area better but which will also open up access to even more resources to improve things further. It might not work for everyone, but is a fun way of encouraging people to take part and again to encourage their friends to take part.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping it being solely open to how we work externally. A little friendly rivalry internally goes a long way towards success, so why not add a few virtual carrots to complement the existing sticks? Succesful projects completed could earn points, positive feedback could do the same; hell, even reducing average staff absence could add points to the pot which could then be used to claim prizes. These needn’t be financially based; I for one would go the extra mile if it meant that I had the chance to claim an extra day or two’s annual leave.  For those organisations which use Yammer this could be achieved already through tracking the ‘Thanks’ function, but I’m sure other apps could be developed with this in mind.

Games are seeping into our lives; few are the tv shows without the ability to press the red button, download the interactive app or vote for the winner, you can’t even buy a bar of chocolate without being urged to send a code in to see if you’ve won something. Introducing elements of challenge and games to some of the work we undertake could open up whole vistas of opportunity hitherto unthought of, and perhaps engaging people who never would take part otherwise (and may enjoy the game so much they don’t even care that it’s the council rather than some faceless Californian company behind it).

And if nothing else, it’d make me feel like the days my other half has ‘invested’ in their online games might actually be worthwhile after all.

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3 Comments on “It’s all about the game”

  1. Seth Priebatsch (CEX Scavenger) did a great Ted Talks on this area two years ago:

    We have taken these principles are already trialling a solution on a couple of local government web sites which takes the principles of gamification and maps it across to behaviour change in the way that citizens interact with local authorities/local digital environments.

    Basically, we design a non-linear behaviour change path and then use a range of techniques to lead people ‘through’ the path.

    Early indications: this could be genuinely ground breaking but it’ll be a year before we have really solid results.

    But yes – everything you have written is pretty much on the money. This is probably the key area to watch.

  2. LGworker Says:

    A few years ago wasn’t there a Council (in the midlands?) developing and using computer games to engage with the young people in their area?

  3. Good stuff…my mother was a farmville addict bit refused to pay real money to extend the game further…

    Jane McGonigal talks about the power of gamers a lot (

    She suggests that:

    Gamers have developed “super powers” and how these super powers can help us solve the worlds problems.

    The 4 super powers that gamers have are:

    Urgent Optimism – extreme self motivation – a desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.
    Social Fabric – We like people better when we play games with people – it requires trust that people will play by the same rules, value the same goal – this enables us to create stronger social relationships as a result
    Blissful productivity – an average World of Warcraft gamer plays 22 hours a week: We are optimised as humans to work hard and if we could channel that productivity into solving real world problems what could we achieve?
    Epic meaning – attached to an awe inspiring mission.

    All this creates Super Empowered Hopeful Individuals – People who are individually capable of changing the world – but currently only online /virtual worlds

    My take on this from 2010

    World of Govcraft

    More world of govcraft

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