There’s a great article by Monroe Anderson at The Root titled ‘Obamacare,’ the Video Game?. Anderson recalls asking Obama strategist David Axelrod “why so many voters were so clueless as to how President Obama had spent the first two years of his first term.” Axelrod’s response: “information gridlock.” Essentially, the White House hadn’t been able to communicate effectively with the public about its accomplishments. They have been enduring a failure to communicate.

Anderson siphons this state of affairs through the lens of games, having recently attended a “Gamification of News” (yeah, I know) panel at the National Association of Black Journalists. He asked two of the panelists how games might be used to communicate “Obamacare” more effectively. The two responses are pretty good game designs:

“Have people walk through the process of being a different person with a different illness—[the] Sim [City] approach,” said [Manuel] Saint-Victor, who is a former psychiatry resident physician at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital and a founder of Marveloper Media. “Let them walk through and let them see it with the Obamacare version and without the Obamacare version, not telling them which is and which isn’t.”

Scott Anderson, who is my firstborn as well as the co-founder and lead programmer at Enemy Airship and one of Game Developer Magazine’s top 50 game developers for 2009, had a similar idea. He thinks the game should be “how to survive without health insurance.” In his version of Obamacare the Game, “You have all these setbacks, and you have all these crazy things people will have to do to survive,” Scott said. “It might not be fun, but it’ll be effective. People will say, ‘Oh, wow’; if these things happened to me, I’d be screwed.”

A note on using the term “gamification” in this context. I understand why conferences use the word, which is convenient, even if it is dangerous. In this case, the solutions Manuel Saint-Victor and Scott Anderson proposed outside the context of the panel are not gamification at all, but just games. Games about Obamacare.

And thank goodness. They’re just the sort of designs I love and have been advocating for in my research (especially Persuasive Games and Newsgames and in my game development.

The problem is this: neither the Obama White House nor the Obama campaign will make such a game. That’s not because the designs are bad; ironically, it’s because they are good. As I’ve argued before, the representation of policy choices and their outcomes is anathema to politics, because the latter is concerned more with politicking than with policy, with campaigning over legislating. This is a different sort of failure to communicate, one rooted in the widespread misconception of politics as a matter of professionals getting, keeping, or losing their jobs, rather than citizens living in (hopefully) better and better communities.

That said, perhaps Axelrod’s lesson could signal a change in the winds among games for policy and communication. Organizations tend to fear games because they seem expensive and uncontrollable. But what’s worse, a somewhat risky and unfamiliar message, or no message at all?

published June 30, 2012


  1. Ernest W. Adams

    If politicians would remember one little fact about games, they would embrace them whole-heartedly: Games can be rigged in the house’s favor.

  2. Mani Saint-Victor

    Thanks for taking the time to digest, process and provide another perspective on the use of games to communicate. I’m not a big fan of gamification and badgification. I’m more for using immersive 3D narratives to bend brains into identifying with the situation and making decisions from within the context of the system. I find that it’s hard to communicate the difference. That being said- Thanks for nailing it.