Increasing citizen participation with serious games


Citizens are the engine of their street or neighborhood. They determine the atmosphere, activities and often also have a say in how their living environment looks. Think of an organized street cleaning exercises or a petition to the municipality for more greenery in the neighborhood. This interaction between citizens and municipalities is described as citizen participation or public participation. To increase the motivation for citizen participation, games or serious games can be used. How does it work?

Citizen participation is an interaction between citizens and municipalities. This means that citizens can propose initiatives to their municipality for, for example, a new play park in the neighborhood.  It can also be used to connect and coordinate with citizens for information or to solve (environmental) problems.

For municipalities, it is quite a challenge to involve citizens in political, social or local issues. Some participation barriers for citizens:

  • Citizens do not know that they can participate.
  • Citizens think that their voices will not be heard
  • Citizens do not know clearly how much influence they have.
  • Citizens do not know the correct channels to express their thoughts and grievances.
  • Citizens feel like the barrier to participate is too high.

With a good civic participation platform and good communication facilities, these barriers can be taken away. Serious games are also effective in drastically lowering the threshold for participation.

But, before a citizen thinks about these barriers, they will first ask themselves what added value it offers to participate in citizen participation. People simply need the motivation to do something.

For the context of this article and the effect of serious games, we explain how motivation works. To begin with, there are two types of motivation:

  • Intrinsic motivation: here the motivation comes from within yourself. You take up running because you think a healthy lifestyle is important. A sense of obligation to society can also be an intrinsic motivator, when you start separating your waste, for example. When we talk about civic participation, residents of a city can also be intrinsically motivated to think about developments and improvements in their city.
  • Extrinsic motivation: is a drive coming from external factors. Think of getting a wage from work. If a company stops paying wages, the employee will also stop working. Recognition and status can also suffice as extrinsic motivation. This motivation type is also captured in the self-determination theory (see image below).

According to ‘the self-determination theory‘ (see image above), motivation can be viewed as a straight horizontal line. To the extreme left and right, we have ‘no motivation’ and ‘intrinsically motivated’, respectively. In between the two points lies ‘extrinsic motivation’. The theory suggests that people move fluidly between these points depending on the situation or circumstance. Municipalities usually aim their communal projects to nudge the citizenry to be intrinsically motivated.  Serious gaming can help them achieve this.

Example: because Mr. De Vries from Amsterdam does not see any added value in a citizen participation project for more greenery in his neighborhood, he will not participate of his own accord. Despite the fact that Mr. De Vries considers his own garden very important, he is not motivated to think about greening his neighborhood. But what if a ‘garden make-over’ worth €10,000 was raffled off among all the participants? Mr. De Vries now suddenly has an extrinsic motivation to participate, because he might be rewarded for his participation. As Mr. De Vries participates in the project, there is a chance that he will move further to the right on the “motivation line” in the picture above. Possibly, because he now has more knowledge, he will start to see the value of a greener residential area after all. Or, if there is a similar project next time, he will participate of his own accord.

In this case, the garden makeover is a motivator to participate. It is a reward: one of the types of game elements used to extrinsically motivate people. Serious games use this same technique.

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Serious games as a motivator for citizen participation

Serious games can be used to increase the involvement of citizens. Serious games are games that are used to motivate people, change behavior or transfer knowledge. While serious games are certainly entertaining, that is not their main goal. Because serious games are designed with challenges, rewards, a compelling game story, and a feedback system, they motivate the player to play more often and longer. Users are extrinsically motivated to participate by these game principles and are also intensely immersed in the storyline and the underlying idea of the game.

For both citizens and municipalities, the use of serious games for civic participation, in addition to providing extrinsic motivation, offers several advantages:

  • It is accessible because anyone can play it from home.
  • All explanations are done through the game in an interactive way.
  • It is possible to easily and quickly share information and ideas with everyone.
  • Because the data is entered digitally, it is easier to analyze.
  • The experience is much richer because there are many possibilities in terms of visualization and simulation.

Case: increasing citizen participation with the serious game Garden Battle

Serious games are also already being used for citizen participation projects, such as the Garden Battle. In this game, residents of Zwolle (in the Netherlands) get to work with the online (re)design of their garden in a digital twin city. After claiming your own garden, the goal is to design it as climate-resistant as possible. You compete against your neighbours and also work as a team with them against other neighborhoods.

As a civic participation project, Zwolle opted for a serious game to motivate residents to work on climate resilience. Compared to gamification, where game elements are used in a non-gaming context (such as a participation platform), serious games go one step further. The Garden Battle is more playful, you get the opportunity to work on your own garden and you see the effects of all your actions and designs. This makes it more fun to work on your garden digitally.

Garden Battle burgerparticipatie

Another benefit of serious games like the Garden Battle are the visual aspects of the game. Research shows that a serious game is better at conveying factual knowledge through interactivity and visualization. In addition, attractive game design elements ensure higher engagement among users. An example where this is reflected is the simulation of weather conditions to test if your garden is climate-proof.

As earlier indicated in the example of Mr. De Vries, extrinsic motivation is already sufficient to participate in civic participation. Because a serious game like the Garden Battle is entertaining and people play it intensively, it is quite possible that by playing the game the target group will get more motivation or even intrinsic motivation to delve deeper into the underlying subject (in this case climate adaptation) of the game. That is the power of serious gaming.


Want to know more about the possibilities of serious games for citizen participation? Please contact Tim Laning for an informal discussion:

Tim Laning

Business developer

Do you want to know more about the possibilities of serious games? Let’s discuss what serious games can do for you.


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