Deeping democracy through play: Larping, online and collaborative games for democracy.

In the two previous blogs in this series we looked at theatre, or rather legislative theatre, as a playful way to explore issues of power and to overcome policy blocks. And before that, creative facilitation, which uses model making or non-verbal communication to explore issues in surprising ways.

In this final blog on the series, we look at live-action role play (aka Larping), as well as online and collaborative games that can build new communities and allow learning to happen naturally. Before we do we’ll jump off into a slightly different zone… that of visioning, or futuring.

In our citizen’s juries we often ask people to imagine they are citizens of the future. Or we may have a representation of a future citizen sitting in our deliberation. The idea is that when people distance themselves from the day-to-day pressures and think big, or think far into the future, they can unlock ideas that are fresh and surprising. We first came across this idea many years ago, through a blog by The Alternative website about Time Rebels.

In Japan, some experimenters in deliberative democracy are manifesting future generations. They ask members of a deliberative project, like a citizens jury, to don special robes and act as a future citizen to come up with urban designs, climate change solutions or how to recover from the Covid19 pandemic.

“No matter how it [democracy] is organised – with different electoral systems or varying power splits between the executive, legislature and judiciary – it suffers from a fundamental temporal design flaw: the interests of future generations are typically ignored. The citizens of tomorrow are granted no rights or representation. There are rarely any public institutions explicitly designed to protect and promote their interests.”

Future Design in action in Yahaba, Japan. Photo Credit:  Masaaki Takahashi and Ritsuji Yoshioka

This is where the Larping comes in!

What people think about Larping varies. At one end of the spectrum, it’s people dressing up as civil war soldiers or Romans and re-enacting battles of the past. Fun, outdoor games that appeal to grown-up kids. But any scenario, where people adopt a persona that is not necessarily their own and then negotiate a challenge in a team with others is a live-action role-play. Live-action role-play can happen online, or around a board game like Dungeon and dragons. It may involve dressing up, and it may not.

The key is in the collaboration and finding a solution to a set of challenges; Whether that’s beating the evil Orcs or making it to paradise. And just like ‘real’ life, the role-play will involve some rules and limits, although the players can make up their own additional rules in real-time too. They negotiate together on how they should explore the strange, new environment in which they find themselves. It can be a lot of fun. This is probably why online games, many of them character-based scenario games, now make more money than Hollywood blockbusters.

But Larping has a more serious side. Some Larpers use the experience to explore some pretty big themes. Like democracy, gender roles or climate change. There are a lot of discussions and mutual learning going on in this area.

Participatory Budgeting voting at NowPlayThis

We came upon this world of collaborative gamers at the 2022 NowPlayThis Festival of experimental game design at Somerset House. What a great wild, imaginative bunch they were. Jez Hall, one of our directors was asked to deliver a workshop session on Participatory Budgeting as part of the week-long pre-festival game design Bootcamp. This involved a scenario of a city, where the participants played at being ‘archetypal’ citizens in small groups, who then came up with projects to improve their neighbourhood.

Our PB game consisted of some basic rules, some character cards and an imaginary community called Westall… in which we described a place that any of us might live. People jumped right in and came up with some great proposals on how to spend £120,000. The citizen’s game players then voted on their projects.  They could vote down, as well as up, the ideas made by others.

The power of collaborative games

NowPlayThis just blew our minds. It was seriously fun and explored topics we wrestle with day to day in our projects and our democracy like:

“Who makes the rules, who sets the challenge, what should we do together, and who participates?”

Watch the NowPlayThis festival video for a flavour of what else went on that week:

The great thing about games, especially with the internet is that they can be global. People can join from anywhere as long as they have a web connection. And games are universal… every culture on earth has them. Games don’t even require a common language if well designed, so they’re a brilliant inclusive tool too.  

Most importantly, in the field of play, everyone gets the chance to start afresh, and in theory, can become anyone.

While of course, things can go wrong as they do in the ‘real’ world- people can be mean and selfish. However, collaboration usually wins overall. Together, people can come up with truly innovative things, such as wikipedia. and much more besides.

One of the people we hooked up with was Matteo, a game designer who is creating a collaborative board game to explore climate change.The game was still in development when we met Matteo, but it’s due to launch very soon. Called daybreak game, it’s deeply rooted in the science of climate change. It challenges people to cooperate to keep down global temperatures. If as a collective you go to 2Oc above the starting point, you’ve all lost.

Quite a bit like real life!

City Atlas: Rebuild New York City created a board game called Energetic

There is another brilliant example of a board game from climate charity City Atlas in New York. They created a four-player cooperative board game, aptly named Energetic, where players get to build the future NYC. Players aim to decarbonize NYC by either 2035 or 2050, depending on the types of materials and natural resources selected. The game was first played in 2018 by a researcher at Harvard who tweeted about it. Four years later and there have been over 200 copies of the physical game sold to academic and educational institutions across the world, including the World Bank and the British Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Jez Hall – one of our Directors plays a trust game with some of the participants at NowPlayThis

If we’re going to tackle complex, wicked, scary problems – like climate change, we need to engage people and give them a sense of control over their personal lives and what might happen in the future. Ideally, games and techniques like Larping can help citizens absorb information, that they wouldn’t have discovered through books or journals.

So how do we build more games into our deliberative processes?

Well, we don’t think we quite have the answer yet. But as this series of blogs has (we hope) begun to open up… if we don’t keep it fun, and present rewards and incentives to participate, those who are busy, nervous, scared or sick of being lectured – will just walk away.

If you feel like games and creativity could add value to your community engagement, or if you know a great game that explores democracy, … please get in touch

Read the first blog in this series on Southwark’s Climate Jury

Read the second blog on Legislative Theatre