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,
Managing Partner, Games for Democracy