Play, seriously! The Potential of Play and Games for Urban Participation.

Today civil society, urban planners and politics are experimenting with different tools for citizen empowerment in order to bringing people together in the heterogeneous and sometimes anonymous cities. The article is exploring the potential of games and gamification in order to support this citizens’ empowerment How might playing serious games help citizens in building connections to other citizens, to step into the public and to achieve a shared spirit of citizenry? How could under the aim of empowerment play and gamification be connected with participation?

A quality feature of European cities is their ability to give their inhabitants’ diversity of culture and interest visibility. This ability to shape a heterogeneous public space is the fundamental of local democracy and a condition for generalized social trust. In interaction between diverse citizens‘ groups with diverse perspectives and interests it becomes feasible that innovation might incubate. Successful practices prove their innovative potential by penetrating other fields, or co-shaping new discourses and spaces. City and civil society are configurations  adaptive to change, because they try not to ignore but to equilibrate all their included different logic: Conflict and consensus, Creating and conservation, vividness and relaxation, entrepreneurship and persistence.

From the individual citizen’s perspective the agglomeration of social and cultural diversity in European cities  enables them easier to find groups of like-minded. The bigger the city the more feasible that minorities will find them. However, the individualistic modern city can as well become an unfriendly and isolating space. Therefore, civil society and its institutions have an intertwined obligation:

  • Helping people to find their free not controlled private or semi-public space
  • Opening citizens opportunities to connect with others and to involve in public life.
  • Giving citizens opportunities to create (together).

Under this common mission state and civil society need to perceive themselves as partners in shaping a common public space. Beyond the fulfillment of the basic social needs and in the light of the democratic ideal, civil society and state should motivate citizens to climb the participation ladder from being a passive citizen to becoming active and involving their interests and perspectives in the public discourses. The challenge is to help people to relate to others and to encourage them to leave their private and comfortable sphere. State and citizens need tools and approaches in order to make that happen.

A common approach in urban planning are participatory planning workshops, open spaces or future workshops in order to “mobilize” or “activate” or “consult” the citizenry. However, what I feel is that empathy and curiosity for each others would be success conditions for really good qualitative outcome of such workshops. But their methodology and facilitation are not always supporting the gain of these attitudes. Yet the involved citizens, planners, politicians and community managers are working together in a shared space, they communicate, but does the joy of creation, the magic appear here? The unexpected, the disruption, the innovation, the really good question that is incubating the new solution? Therefore, we would need to integrate methodology which is triggering mindful conversation, curiosity and empathy better. At this point games could come into play:

Games might help people in…

  • Entering the public sphere,
  • Interacting with other groups and citizens and
  • Co-shaping their environment
  • Explore their inner and outer worlds with multiple senses

Making use of game and play for empowering citizens merges three well introduced approaches: play, gamification and participation.

This is not really a new invention. Everybody knows board games like Backgammon or Monopoly. Backgammon for instance is in some parts of the world a public activity often played in cafés. This implies that knowing to play it would be the first step to play a social role. The game is here a door-opener or an icebreaker. Monopoly has another function. It was once invented as a simulation in order to let youth experience the fatal results produced by deregulated property markets. Thinking further about games we would explore some more game types and social purposes.

The participatory potential of games and playing can be activated when the game setting is combined with a serious goal and a non-game context which might be an urban neighborhood. Two activists demonstrated at re:publica 2017 their idea how games might contribute “to create long-term, meaningful engagement in neighbourhoods” [BOY/DROHSEL 2017]. Or the NGO demokrative from Switzerland is “shaping experiential learning environments, where one might deal thoroughly and playfully with core elements of democracy and its underlying goal conflicts.” Art educators like Christine Frick use Actionbound with young groups and in teacher trainings. Or let’s explore the digital game sphere: At the Play Creative Gaming Festival one can become inspired how to achieve “a better world with creative gaming” or how to facilitate serious and playful at the same time (like in the workshop Let’s Play, seriously!). At the end of this article I collected some inspirational links – you will find much more other examples if you look out for them.

Play: A Natural Thing

People like to play because they are enjoying playing as a break from the everyday. Playing opens their eyes for other worlds and perspectives. Furthermore, playing is stimulating curiosity, it enforces creativity and unleashes the passions and motivations to act. Very often this happens in groups with other players.

A game enriches everyday life with something extraordinary and exciting. It triggers curiosity and strengthens our ability to perceive, perform and to relate with each other. Therefore, it promotes the formation of social groupings. [HUIZINGA 1949:13] Although the words play and game are often associated with children‘s activities, everybody experienced the seriousness behind playing, latest when one is sought into a game, a competition or a group activity.

Game versus Play?

Theorists, educators and activists considering game and play as a method for working on serious issues distinct between play and game.

First of all there is no game without rules. We know the extreme kind of play, where strict rules or output expectations limited our abilities and creativity, in example to choose with whom we’d like to play or under what kind of value preposition we want to play: If there should govern competition, cooperation, or deliberation. On the other hand we know situations where a lack of clear rules is demotivating. The rule determined arrangement is described by the term “game”.

“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”


Games include what Salen/Zimmerman call an artifical conflict. We would describe it a challenge (because often the conflict is not rooted between the players but included in the ‘hard nut to be cracked’. At the end lures an outcome in form of a result, win or high score. “Play” can be more open ended and is shaped by softer structure. “Games are a subset of play.” [SALEN/ZIMMERMAN: 2004]

This distinction between play and game is crucial for describing diverse approaches of the gamification. Basically gamification means to transfer aspects of games into other contexts, in example by adding game elements or integrating game design in usually not playful contexts.[DETERDING/KHALED/NACKE/DIXON 2011]

The game mechanics and gameplay is expressing a behavioral expectation (in example competition, consuming) or shaping incentives for players to act, in example by „nudges“, badges, scoring, bonuses, or leaderboards. Referring again to Huizinga, one could point it, that gamification seeks to utilize the human play-mood as the extraordinary emotional experience in order to enrich the user experience of a far more ordinary social contexts:

“The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxa­tion follow.”

HUIZINGA 1949: 132

Game and Play Applied to Urban Participation

Play and game need each other. The one is more addressing the attitudes of playfulness, sociability or curiosity, the other one more the structured behavior in terms of proceeding, winning, succeeding, shaping results.

Games are embedded in a longer process of playing. When we transfer game and play to urban context, we might perceive even every citizen involved in diverse games with diverse rules and game mechanics, involved with often different players.

But the driver to join the games, to become active, to enter a public space is crucial. No game without playfulness, no public engagement without the inner need for socializing or for curiosity toward other beings.

This similarity leads to an approach that focuses on connecting people by playing in order to socialize, to follow their playfulness, to overcome everyday hurdles in an exceptional playing experience and to co-define game mechanics open for social curiosity. Under this perspective, playing might be conceptualized as a collective and participatory process.

Reasons for Participation through Play and Game

The advantages of serious games for participation were described by Drohsel/Boy in their re:publica impulse.

  • Play and game give people opportunities to interact. They are door or space opener tearing down social barriers;
  • Game and play invite people to get into a playful, cooperative, or outcome-centered mood or attitude;
  • Rules of a game can stabilize the structure of a longer process;
  • Players are enabled to step out of usual social boundaries. Thanks to this they might see/think with the eyes of others, open up for exploration and inspiration, or learn to access a cognitive meta-level. All are conditions for competency development
  • Games might help to model or to understand systems and complex social topics 
  • Ongoing play and creative games allow players to develop mastery and to shift from consumers toward game authors.

Methodological Implications

For putting such joyful and rich of experience processes into practice, several aspects might to be considered when starting using games and play in serious contexts.

Extraordinary setting

A game setting is characterized by its difference from everyday or “an air of secrecy” (Huizinga) . Players share extraordinary moments. Shape opportunities that are special and allow intimate encounter.


Second, we need to give up control. The history of serious games was  strongly influenced by the idea of simulation and repetition. Modern approaches question the ideal of mainly reproducing the complex reality in a game setting (in example simulating a local council meeting). Today the directions is training personal abilities which is an individual process. A too narrow game mechanics leads to too complex rules, or limit the roles too much or results in too little own cognitive-emotional-practical experience of the players.

Rich Experience

Third, rich experience is required. Play is about emotion, passion, experimentation as well as about strategy or cognition. Design games addressing the broad thinking and expressing spectrum. Escape rooms, (low) ropes courses, performance, role play are just some examples how one could enrich the game setting.


The aims, rules, modes of transaction or the opportunities of the players are described by the gameplay. Applying games to other contexts means one needs to understand and share these underlying assumptions. Furthermore, one needs to make them compatible in particular with the ethical-normative ideas of fairness and democratic culture.

Assessment and Reflection

The more dynamic and enriched a game process was taking place the more difficult is for the participants to  reflect on it from a meta-level. Civic educators, teachers or activists should include enough space and suitable methodology in order to draw conclusions out of it.

Through role play, simulation, computer games, community games, card and board games, world games, and all kind of other ways to address  playfulness:

Through play we change the game.

Literature & Links

Are you interested in exploring the participatory potential of game and play? Would you like to broaden your approach or discuss it with game designers, urban activists or educators? Then we would be happy, if you’d share your thoughts with us.