21st-Century Journalism | Design Thinking

Gaming the System

Many of the systems which define our world today – including government systems of laws and regulations – are dysfunctional, or even broken. What would it mean to look at these systems through the lens of game design? Can we apply game design thinking to a practice like redistricting, made famously broken by the widespread practice of gerrymandering?

In fact, it’s not such a stretch. Plenty of people are already “gaming” redistricting. Politicians exploit loopholes, bend the rules, and otherwise behave like expert game players to manipulate the ins-and-outs of the system in order to win.

A ludic century

Gaming the System grows out of a set of ideas I have been developing with J+D Director Heather Chaplin over the last several years. The world in which we live today is very much defined by networks of information. The ways that we learn and research, communicate and work, socialize and romance, conduct our finances and connect with our government, are all increasingly mediated by digital networks.

This reality has given rise to a new relationship to media and culture. We live in a ludic — or playful — century: an age in which we expect our media to be interactive, systemic, and social. We don’t look up facts in encyclopedias printed by experts; we use the communally-authored Wikipedia, or social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, as primary sources of knowledge.

The ludic century implies new forms of literacy – new ways of creating and understanding meaning. What happens when we create and share knowledge through complex digital systems? There are some benefits, like the complex systems thinking that our media engenders. We need this kind of thinking to solve complex problems like wealth inequality and environmental collapse. On the other hand, there are drawbacks, such as the ways that these complex systems are gamed and exploited.

Strange Bedfellows

The idea of Gaming the System is to create a series of public service playthings — games or interactive toys of some kind — designed around a series of topics, like gerrymandering. Each individual plaything would demonstrate how a particular government system works, how its design is broken, and how it is currently being exploited.

To figure out what these “playthings” would look like, the J+D program assembled a diverse group of designers and journalists who spent two days brainstorming ideas around gerrymandering. Over the course of this design charrette, we talked about games and play; journalism and reporting; government and policy. We played some games ourselves. And we drank a lot of coffee.

The final result was a cornucopia of playful concepts for visualizing, playing with, and even transforming gerrymandering. They ranged from Pokémon Go-inspired real-world/digital hybrid games to a humorous pitch for an online series where kids fix adult problems.

These ideas are the foundation for a series of games or game-like experiences that explore not just gerrymandering, but a host of other worthy topics.

It’s early days yet. And like many difficult design problems, we honestly don’t know what the end solution will look like. But that just means we’ll wind up somewhere we didn’t expect.

Eric Zimmerman is a game designer who invents new forms of play on and off the computer. He is an Arts Professor at the NYU Game Center, Tisch School of the Arts.

Special thanks to the staff at Journalism+Design, including Heather Chaplin, Kayla Christopherson, and Irwin Chen, as well as the incredible Sisi Wei from ProPublica.

Also thanks to the spirited participants in our design charrette: Naomi Clark (NYU), Alexander King (NYU), Jessia Ma (NY Times), Olga Pierce (ProPublica), Nathalie Pozzi (Nakworks), Beena Raghavendran (ProPublica), Karen Sideman (Digital Pulp), and Derek Willis (ProPublica).