Saturday, December 12, 2009

Open call for help

Dear All,

Wednesday i got a call to action to put together a fundraising letter for our non-profit. Then, today my partner asked me about Google Wave. i thought our dialogue about how that offering related to our effort, Games for Democracy, might be a way to frame the letter. Honestly, i'm curious, too. i think that Google really understands how important it is for computing to support whatever it is we -- as human beings -- do. i think they understand how important it is for us to use the computing infrastructure to get a more global view of the trends that are happening even as i write this. i also think that Google totally understands that the best technology holds up under "Gibson's law": the street finds its own uses for things. Even with all that, i think that what Google Wave -- like many of their other outstanding offerings -- is is another piece of technological infrastructure. It's a technological tool and as such is in a radically neutral position relative to our aims: helping the public sector develop and engaged and engaging approach to consensus and collaborative decision making. One way to see this is to observe that seed, ox and plow are only related to agriculture when they are yoked to the farmer's intent to grow food. Likewise, our various "social media" are only related to purposeful participation when they are yoked to a society's purpose and intent.

We've got a lot of technology. We've got the physical infrastructure to span the planet and beyond with multiple kinds of data signals. We've got the computational infrastructure to merge and mesh and mashup those signals into powerful applications. What is missing from the current picture is the set of cultural tools that allow us to bring this to bear on the creation of public discourse that is inclusive, empowering and effective. Moreover, there is a widespread recognition that what we do have in the way of cultural technology has yet to really catch up to the potential of what we have created. This, as much as anything, is the implicit message of developments like Government 2.0. Likewise, no one who is paying attention can fail to miss the implications of Facebook-based surveys and quizzes that gather much much more than which rockstar are you most like. Yet, even these applications miss the real attraction of "social media": engagement! People want to connect. They have been starved for real, genuine connection -- a meeting of minds.

Part of the truth and power in that phrase, as it relates to what my partner and i were discussing, is that the wisdom of the crowd is a real thing. The collective can develop it's own coherent intelligence that is quite distinct from the intelligence of its members. This is -- in fact -- what representative democracy recognizes at its core: that over time the collective exhibits a wisdom that needs listening to and reckoning with the wisdom of each individual. Recognizing the deep truth in that position, can we imagine updating our cultural and conceptual tools for getting a picture of the collective and brokering a dialogue between the collective and its individuals? Can we imagine updating the interface between the collective and it's people? That's what Games for Democracy aims to do.

How? By playing! Another recent crucial development is emergence of serious play as an approach to collaborative decision making. Very much like science and mathematics, games have a long history of being unreasonably effective. The movement from war to sport is not to be overstated. Even in mathematics itself the notion of game has three distinct branches (von Neumann, Conway and Hyland-Abramsky-Ong games) each of which has been genuinely unreasonably effective in their respective domains of application. More recently there has been a significant uptick in research on the application of play to planning, decision-making and consensus management. This comes under the rubric of 'Serious Play'. Companies ranging from LEGO to Microsoft are exploring the advantages of accessing different cognitive modalities -- different minds, if you will -- available when we play. Googling for the term 'Serious Play' yields a number of interesting hits related to recent conferences. The LEGO Serious Play Wikipedia page has an impressive list of links to research papers. Of all the work being done on Serious Play we see that Innovation Games stands out as some of the most mature and well-developed work in the field. Games like Buy-a-Feature sit at the intersection of things we know about the efficacy of markets to give us insight into the collective wisdom and things we are beginning to understand about play that gives us another way to access that same wisdom. Further, Innovation Games' efforts to put their offerings online take us several steps closer to bringing into our online technological machinery a cultural practice that will help us make effective use of these tools.

More generally, there are three important aspects of play as a form of engagement:
  • collective, directed participation raises the quality of attention of the participants
  • playing creates a new relationship to risk
  • invites the possibility to see things through the eyes of another
Put simply, we believe that games offer a way to refine the interface between the group and the individual.

Even the skeptic in us all has to acknowledge that now is the time to try something new. Staring at us from every which way we might turn we see the evidence that our current situation is about so much more than that our telecommunications and computational technology has outstripped our cultural technology. It's the fact that the problems we face require so much more engagement. Whether we are talking about the development of consensus for a viable national health care system, or revising a failed global financial system, or approaching climatic change these problems really need a global perspective, They really need the wisdom of the crowd.

That's why my partners and i are excited about technologies like Google Wave, but also committed to yoking them to a different kind of technology we believe will help bring about purposeful participation. That's why we are reaching out to you. This can be done, and we can do it if we work together. How can you help?

  • You can donate.
  • You can join the board of directors.
  • You can facilitate games.
  • You can define games.
  • You can broker connections to other organizations doing similar work.
  • You can broker connections to other organizations doing complementary work.
  • You can broker connections to doners.
  • You can broker connections to pivotal players.

With best wishes,


L.G. Meredith
Managing Partner, Games for Democracy

Friday, November 20, 2009

What problems are we solving?

Recently my partner in this venture asked me to provide a section for our website that could go with the title: what problems are we solving? So, i've worked with this question for several days. One of the ways i worked with the question was to listen carefully, actively and receptively as i talked to two different health care providers: Amy, an administrator of a large clinical services and outreach program for the disenfranchised in the Boulder area; and Jia, a physician who has been thinking about and working on the integration of western and alternative approaches to health and healing for the last 30 years. This is what i heard in those dialogues.

Play offers a very distinctive opportunity to raise the quality of our attention. When we play together something happens. Here are a couple of specific ways that this comes about. When i described the game Buy-a-Feature (BaF) -- an Innovation Game, designed by Luke Hohmann -- to Amy she asked: "How would my CEO use this? What would it give him that he doesn't already have? Why would he want to play this?" All great questions that should call forth great answers. In BaF the players are essentially engaged in a kind of market. They are horse-trading to reach a picture of the consensus of the organizations they represent. Now, a CEO of clinical outreach program, one that has tens of thousands of participants, is used to horse-trading, is used to the kind of political this-for-that that goes on at the regional, state and federal level. What would a CEO benefit from more horse-trading?

To my way of thinking a person of action, a person whose job is execution, like our CEO, can benefit from the spaciousness afforded by play. While play can lead to action, it doesn't have to. Play offers this space where we are invited to engage -- and perform -- without the taking on the outcome as decisive or burdensome. For a person whose daily life is about action and consequence this is a step back, allowing space for observation of self and others. Further, there is a flip side to this.

The kind of give-and-take that goes on in the crafting of public policy is also conducted by a self-selected population. It rarely includes as members people who don't have a feel for or choose not to participate so directly in shaping public policy that has broad or long term consequences, let alone the politically, socially or economically disenfranchised. This is not to say that our CEO is not actively engaged in soliciting feedback from people in every sector and walk of life. Rather, that the CEO does not engage these people directly in the process of horse-trading and deal making -- which happens, in part, because the weight of the consequences of these deals has created these separate roles as separate. In play, however, we experience a kind of freedom. We can choose how the outcome of our game is related to our decisions and actions. This allows more people to try out different roles. Our CEO can engaging in horse-trading and deal making with a poor stupid mathematician, like myself, or a mother of 3, like my partner, who has devoted some of her best years to ensuring the well-being of her children. i can tell you from experience, this kind of of play can be a step up in engagement. It can be energizing and empowering to play with people who have the opportunity to influence policy.

In short, while play gives our CEO a chance to step back to make space for something new, it gives other players a chance to step up, to reengage in processes from which they felt disconnected on uninvolved. This is part of what i mean by play raises our quality of attention, part of what i mean when i say, when we play together something happens.

There's another part that's equally as critical. It's so powerful that it spoke up several times in the course of my working with this question. First, it spoke through the Boulder-based physician, Jia, when he expressed to me his feeling that somehow there is this fractal organization to life. In his work to help people get well and maintain well-being he saw this clear picture of the way groups of people work together in the way cells work together in the body of a single individual. i was riveted by his account because as a mathematician who has devoted his life to notions of composition and scale (how we build complex systems out of component systems) i was listening to another person's practical experience confirm what my theoretical investigations suggested. In fact, Jia seemed genuinely interested in my perspective because it provided a theoretical framework for what he saw in his practice. This mutual confirmation of one another's perspective is a picture of what i mean by an increase in the quality of attention. When we play together there is this opportunity to see through each other's eyes.

This opportunity arose again when i spoke with my partner about my work to answer her question. i described my experience and my proposals
  • when we play together we bring together an increased quality of attention
  • play allows us to adopt new relationships to risk -- providing spaciousness for those often in the line of fire and renewed engagement for those in supporting roles
  • play expands the field of participation -- allowing more of us to come together
She immediately observed that playing together also creates new relationships amongst the players. Those relationships can follow us into our more active lives. Some people call this networking. Listening to her and thinking about Jia's analogy's of course i couldn't help but think about the way increased quality of attention does indeed forge real connections in the brain of the individual as well as between the brains (and hearts and minds) of those who have payed attention. These new relationships, these new connections make something possible that might not have been possible before: the chance for us to have a more whole understanding of what we aim to do. In the case of creating a health care system, we need these new connections. We need policy-makers and pharmaceutical executives and those who wait in line at the free clinic to feel included and give voice to their experience and concerns.