If Voting is a Social Game, Will It Make Democracy Better?

Updated: Can social games, such as those built around location-based services like Foursquare or Facebook’s Places, help encourage people to get out and vote during elections, and also improve the way democracy functions? At least one congressional candidate is hoping that they can: Clayton Trotter, who is running for Congress in Texas, has used the recently launched Facebook Places feature to create a “social election game” in which citizens get points and badges for checking in at various locations — such as the polling booth or voter registration — and also for tagging their friends at those locations, or convincing them to check in.

The game was actually created by Fred Trotter, a programmer who’s the son of the congressional candidate. In a blog post at his personal website, the younger Trotter says the game was the result of him “frantically coding for the last few weeks,” and that it differs from some other attempts at applying gaming principles to elections because it isn’t aimed at getting users to check-in at rallies or other events, but is targeted specifically at getting them to vote. Players get a badge for checking in at the polling station (although Trotter notes that you don’t need to be of voting age or even registered in order to play) and can also get credits for volunteering, and of course, players can post to their Facebook wall to show they’ve voted.

Fred Trotter says he doesn’t just see the game as a fun way of trying to convince voters to choose his father for Congress; he believes that such social games are “the future of politics.” The game developer says U.S. politics has become polarized as a result of big-spending interest groups and “fanatical single-issue voters” (interestingly enough, Trotter’s father is a hyper-conservative Tea Party candidate). The younger Trotter says he sees Facebook and the kind of engagement it allows between potential voters as an antidote to some of that polarization:

In this hopeful/hypothetical world, real-world trust relationships, enabled by virtual social networks, will become the new political currency. I want people like my father and his opponent to care much more about someone who has 1000 followers on [F]acebook or [T]witter, and has shown that 730 of those followers take their endorsement seriously, than the person who can pay for a political ad for them for $100k.

Update: In an email, Fred Trotter said that his father initially asked him for his help in running his campaign website, but “what I do is code for social change (which I define as Hacktivism) and I realized that by writing him an application I could engage him with voters that he would never have been able to engage with before. That counts as social change in my book.” Trotter said that “the whole point is to change to a political engagement system that does not center on money or fanaticism, but rather relationships and trust,” and that he is hoping to open-source the code behind his election game so that others can make use of it as well.

There are those who dislike the whole trend of what some are calling “gamification,” which has seen game mechanics like points, badges and “levelling up” applied to all kinds of non-game situations. The Trotter campaign’s use of game rewards as motivation seems like a natural extension of the kinds of social-networking methods that were used so effectively during the Obama campaign, both to get voters interested in the candidate, to help them connect with other like-minded voters, and to motivate them to actually get out and vote. Whether or not it helps Mr. Trotter get elected or not — and whether social games can reduce the polarization of the U.S. political scene, as his son hopes — it’s certainly an interesting experiment.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Dunechaser