When using the internet, what do you care about most? Are free, useful services such as navigation or photo sharing more important to you than your privacy? Should governments make use of the data they hold on public health, even if that requires handing it over to private firms for analysis? Can schools accept free educational technology, even if it collects vast amounts of data?
These are tough questions to answer, especially in the abstract. They are only some of the issues we have been investigating as part of EU Engineroom, the research arm of the Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative, the European Commission’s flagship programme which seeks to build a more inclusive, resilient and democratic future internet by the end of the next decade.
As part of the project we brought together experts, held public events, used data science to map trends and recently launched our interactive visions book, Finding CTRL. One very important aspect of this work was to involve the public and give a wide range of people a say on the future internet they want: a new European vision for a more human centric internet needs to reflect the values held by Europeans. However, this presented a challenge: questions about values can be abstract and difficult, as our examples above illustrate. They involve complex trade-offs, for example, stricter regulations on privacy might be desirable, but could also limit the ability of both public and private organisations to generate value from easier access to data. Like many policy questions, it is hard to engage the public in thinking about the internet or technology in this way.
This blog describes how we developed a game called Consortium as a tool to answer this challenge. Serious games can be used to get people to discuss complicated issues in a playful yet productive way. You can find the files necessary to print and play Consortium below, and see all the tools we used to make and adapt the game to your aims or make your own game from scratch.
In Consortium you join a group of stakeholders struggling to shape the future of the internet, as a representative of one of the main stakeholders, from big tech to civil society. You get to propose interventions from privacy enhancing tech to smart CCTV to shape the internet to your goals to influence which features of the internet (for example privacy or trust) to boost. You will have your own objectives, such as raising your influence over the internet or bringing its benefits to as many people as possible. This will require you to work with the other players – but beware, they also have their objectives which will only overlap with yours so far. At the end of the game, the player with most objectives completed wins and you all get a chance to reflect on what kind of internet you created together.
Games are immersive spaces with set rules and defined objectives. Players assume roles or personas, for example becoming property developers in Monopoly, or generals in Risk. They adopt the goals and incentives of these personas, as well as certain constraints (in Monopoly, you can only take actions you can pay for and loose if you go bankrupt).
Serious games help people to think about abstract matters more concretely and have proven a powerful tool to engage the public in education, team building, research or policy making.
This dive into the world of the game is put to practical use with serious games like Consortium: In our game, players represent stakeholders making decisions about the future of the internet. This allows them to think about the incentives and trade-offs real actors face, see the value of cooperation or understand the dynamics around scarce resources better.
We designed Consortium to engage people in the future of the internet and learn where their priorities lie, by stepping into the shoes of stakeholders shaping the future internet and from that position make value judgements about its future. Like in the real world, decisions have complicated effects on different elements of the internet, which makes them more or less attractive. For example, enforcing higher standards for data processing and safety might not only improve privacy but also give an advantage to large companies, which are best placed to comply with them and can thus increase their market power. Players decide which policies to put forward and then find partners who will support those measures. This shows that there is a potential for cooperation between actors with seemingly different objectives to make progress together: increasing privacy might seem mainly attractive for citizens, but firms can also profit if they make it part of their business model.
How players actually act in the game matters because it will determine whether the game is challenging enough to be interesting and what kind of choices players get to make in the game. In terms of the key mechanic, we focused on:
At its core, a serious game should be simple to make it easy for players to pick up and start playing. Our game only has two essential decisions: playing cards and voting on available options.
Consortium is based on numerical values printed onto the cards. The numbers reflect how decisions impact values like trust or privacy and show that on a scale running around the board, representing the changes in the importance of these values. We also decided that players should compete with each other to complete their individual objectives, but also have reasons to cooperate to achieve joint goals. In deciding how to make the cards work and balance competition with cooperation, we looked to existing games for inspiration. For example, the mechanism of proposing different cards (distantly) derives from Cards Against Humanity, the value scale recording the results is loosely inspired by victory points collected in games like Carcassonne and the decision cards with their different effects evolved from the building cards in 7 Wonders.
One big strength of the serious game method is immersion in the scenario, making players engage with the topics more directly by reducing barriers and apprehension about tackling big questions. The game enables players to chart a course with their decisions but it is the narrative which makes them feel involved and provides them with reasons to care about the outcomes of the game.
An engaging game needs a good narrative around the mechanics, which draws players into engaging and caring about the decisions the game offers.
While Consortium itself is quite simple, the names and descriptions on the cards provide context and colour to the game. In our workshops players also got some backstory to their role and got very involved, connecting the brief descriptions on the cards into longer stories. They brought in their own knowledge and even making up characters for themselves (for example, the civil society player assuming the persona of a mother, worried about confusing new technology and the influence on her kids.)
As explained at the start of this blog, we wanted players of Consortium to think about the kind of internet they want, but also to learn about and record how they think conflicts between different values and benefits should be resolved. The game and its narrative motivate players to connect issues around the future of the web with their experience, as well as to share them with each other and the facilitators. We captured these reflections during the game, invited players to record them on post-its and finished the session with a debrief, in which players discussed the final state of the game:
In the pictured example, the level of trust was very high, followed by government intervention, closely ahead of privacy and equality of benefits for all but very low market concentration. We asked our participants to describe this world in more detail: their response can be summarised as high trust backed by government regulation, which allows a decent level of privacy and most to share in the benefits of the internet. But it sidelined large companies in favour of smaller ones. We then prompted them to consider whether this is a realistic or desirable future and what might be done today to bring this or better alternatives about. In the discussion during and after the game, we learnt a lot about our players views on topics such as addressing the harms created by online platforms and the need for collective action to respond. Our players suggested for example that civil society groups should harness collective anger about the attacks on democracy carried out using the big tech platforms - both in the game and in reality.
A serious game allows you to learn from the people playing it: We captured reflections from Consortium in different ways, during the game and after.
Developing Consortium involved a lot of internal testing, to make sure the game works, is fun and fulfils its purpose. We first played Consortium internally at Nesta and ironed out problems like an imbalance between the decision cards (too many of them had focused on solutions to improve privacy for example). We also ran different versions of the game at events, for example a stripped down version which gave workshop participants six longer scenarios and asked them to decide them in groups, which was much simpler, but already showed that the basic mechanism of designing choices worked.
After a series of tests Consortium is now fully playable. You can find the files to print all the components on Github, where we have also uploaded instructions on how to change all the materials or to use the software we employed to make completely different games from scratch. Apart from standard office software, we used the open source HCCD to design the cards and got a lot of fantastic icons for the game from the Noun Project, a repository of free icons. Whether you play it or not, we would be interested in your feedback, so please get in touch.
To see some of the other work on serious games from Nesta, see the collection of examples of games developed for public engagement made by Florence Engasser, who has also developed her own board game about innovation policy together with Digital Liberties, a co-operative specialising in participation and simulation methods.