Rethinking Elections With Gamification

US President Barack Obama arriveS on stage after winning the 2012 US presidential election November 7, 2012 in Chicago, Illin
US President Barack Obama arriveS on stage after winning the 2012 US presidential election November 7, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama swept to re-election, forging history again by defying the dragging economic recovery and high unemployment which haunted his first term to beat Republican Mitt Romney. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

In the run-up to the 2012 election, various candidates approached me and my design firm Dopamine to discuss how gamification could be used to help them get elected. Although we ultimately lacked the time to do anything tangible, this year saw a number of gamified models used to drive success at the ballot box. These included consumer mini-games and volunteer "loyalty programs," just to name a few.

Using gamification in this way -- to sway consumer and employee opinion -- is the principal discussion at events like 2013's GSummit, and a major part of what our burgeoning industry works on. One area we haven't had a chance to address yet is gamifying the electoral process itself -- particularly voter turnout.

In 2012, we had another slide in total votes cast from 2004 and 2008, with only 57.5 percent of eligible voters going to the polls. This, despite the $6 billion spent to influence the outcome, not including the lost time and productivity. And yet, our voter turnout lags those of countries like Australia (where it's compulsory), or Japan, Canada and the UK where duty binds the populace.

So how can gamification help the United States get out the vote? Here are five concepts for gamifying the process of civic participation that are non-partisan, relatively cheap, and fairly easy to implement. If they were used, elections might be cheaper, voters would be better educated, and the country's civic participation rate would likely produce a happier electorate.

Voter Progress System
A core concept in gamification is the notion of delivering a sense of progress to the user. For each election, we can break down the steps into a progressive system with clearly defined steps, for example:

  1. Register to Vote
  2. Research a primary (or participate in one)
  3. Read the party platforms
  4. Watch a debate
  5. Attend a live Town Hall or Q&A session
  6. Get and complete your absentee ballot, or
  7. Find your polling place
  8. Schedule your time off
  9. Vote
  10. Tell a friend
At each step, users would be able to "check in" to the activity and see how they're faring towards the goal, like the bar that shows your LinkedIn profile's completeness. Perhaps you'd even be able to see how you compare against others in your social graph, region and country as well. Then, your progress would be tracked from one election to the next -- giving you an effective civic participation score. High scoring participants could even help other, less knowledgeable voters learn how to use the system through mentorship.

Demonstrable Voting
In Afghanistan, the arresting pictures of women with violet paint on their fingers was a major photographic meme following the American invasion. This "election Ink" was a symbol of having voted: your fingers were dipped in it after dropping off your ballot. Newly enfranchised citizens reveled in the demonstrable proof of having exercised their rights, and it doubtlessly helped drive more voting. Similarly, participants in Catholicism's Ash Wednesday wear a grey mark on their forehead as a show of faith deliberately meant to share that act with others. Throughout the U.S., little stickers saying "I voted" are not uncommon, but used fairly rarely.

We'd propose a "red white and blue fingers" approach on social and physical media. After voting, tap your smartphone in the polling place and your Facebook profile turns a special red, white and blue theme for the rest of the day. If you vote absentee or advanced ballot, you'd receive a similar profile change that would last for a week. The style each year might change and be designed by a notable American designer. Some special design elements (a virtual item, customizable decor, etc) could be "unlocked" if you help others get to the polls, for example.

Friend Stats
I watched hundreds of my friends admonish others to vote on Facebook this year, along with their "I voted" or "The lines were freaking crazy" messages after casting their ballots. To really drive participation we need to recognize the intent to vote as well as the completion of the project. What if that intention to vote were captured through an app on Facebook (tied to the first two concepts above, perhaps), where you can see stats on your social graph's voting intention? You could even drill down and see who has committed to vote and who hasn't yet, with the ability to quickly and easily reach out to those who haven't yet made a definitive commitment. Some national or regional leaderboards could be used to compare friend group's voting intent, thereby also potentially activating the competitive spirit of voters.

Adopt a Voter/Voter Stories
One of the major global memes of the U.S. election is the "passion" and "intensity" of the democratic process in the U.S. While participation rates are low, many countries marvel at the energy invested by Americans in the process. One concept would be to pair American voters (particularly first timers) with someone in the developing world who is either similarly new to the franchise or doesn't have the ability to vote. Through an Instagram-style interface, they could share their impressions of the election, and those could be curated to a stream that would be visible for the whole world. Top images/videos could then be featured nationally -- either by the incoming president or the media -- to provide some recognition.

Voter Lottery
This concept, mooted by economists over the last few decades, is a simple and exciting idea that would be worth trying in U.S. federal elections. The basic concept is that each voter receives a special national lottery ticket when they register their vote. After results are reported for the election, a national drawing is held on television where a series of prizes are awarded randomly to ticket holders. Even a $10 million first prize -- a drop in the bucket in the cost of a U.S. federal election -- would be a significant motivator for many, and if there was a large distribution of prizes it would increase the chances of success. These could even include non-cash rewards (using gamification's SAPS reward model), such as trips to Washington for the family, lunch with the incoming president, pens from bill signings, etc. Additional chances to win could be offered to incentivize additional activities such as voting early or when whole families vote.

A lottery system works better than direct incentives because it doesn't directly offer cash for action, reduces the ability to cheat, and makes the reward relevant to everyone -- not just the poor. If the tone is set correctly, such a lottery could deliver a double-benefit: raising participation while making the process of voting seem fun in itself. And regardless of whether your candidate wins or loses, you still have a chance at success. This provides some needed emotional resolution, especially to those on the short end of the contest.

Whether you like none or all of the concepts detailed above, one thing is for sure: The U.S. spends more on its elections than any other nation, and a great deal of that expense is directed at "get out the vote" initiatives. Despite this, turnout rates remain abysmally low. Those who propose compulsory voting fail to understand the basics of the human psyche: We generally don't like being told what to do. Gamification can solve this problem by providing a less combative, cheaper and more socially conscious method of encouraging users to vote. Whether you are a Republican, Democrat or Independent, this thinking should appeal to you on some level. Let's take the momentum from this election and turn the tide of voter apathy for good...through the power of engagement science, fun and gamification.