By Neil Merrett
In the parallel world of videogames, the power to control the destinies of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people at the touch of button is a fairly standard trope.
Take the more civic minded management games such as Sim City, where your biggest challenges are often ensuring affordable power and cutting traffic gridlock, or the satirical edge of a title like Tropico, which allows you to test your skills as a comedic, if brutal island dictator.
Virtual governance may be nothing new for gamers, but for real-world voters, it is something else entirely. That could be about to change.
Management simulations are a staple of gaming’s ability to build parallel worlds and situations with regard to coping with our more everyday problems, either as a god or a Mayoral Super Mario.
Yet after decades of attempts to try and recreate the rigours and day-to-day mundanities of the world around us, whether in the form of a struggling municipality or a theme park, the public sector – albeit in isolated cases- is now trying to borrow elements from games with regard to policy setting.
Newcastle Upon Tyne in Northern England is one local authority that has this month has effectively launched a real life Sim City-like app that asks citizens how they would look to deal with the £30m budget shortfall it has to try and plug within the next five months.
Would you curb current outgoing on waste management, or social care functions like children’s homes, surely cultural programmes and libraries are an easy target?
Society minded gamers are not set to replace elected councilors just yet, although Newcastle City Council has said its new Let’s Talk Newcastle site will allow users to send their own suggestions for dealing with the financial pressures it faces.
According to Government Computing, in a report by errrr… me, the decision to try and emulate management games as a means to engage the public on their own public sector priorities for the real world could be the first in a growing number of interactive consultations used by authorities.
“We wanted people to understand the scale of the challenges facing the council, the difficult decisions councillours need to make when trying to find savings that will result in cuts to services, and genuinely listen to what our residents are saying to help inform our decision making,” said a spokesperson for the authority. “We hope this can be the blueprint for how we consult with our residents and businesses in future.
Costing a reported £5,000 to get up and running as part of an external development process, the site will be an interesting trial about how the growing societal familiarity with the conventions of games may impact real life decision making going forward.
While a unique attempt to expand traditional public engagement channels, especially at a time when young people are seeking less conventional characters and approaches to traditional political thinking, not everyone is likely to have the access or inclination to involve themselves with the site.
Yet as a generation reared on Mario and Theme Park simulators, might we expect to see much more experimentation with gaming techniques in political decision making, and perhaps even health, as some have speculated?
As Government Computing attests, recent conference events made up of techies and digital experts working in and around government have questioned what actual value there are in creating real-world games to interact with the public.
They may be fun, but is the effort better spent on trying to address real challenges in building workable and ethically sound online services that can provide a more effective, cost-friendly form of governance for UK voters?
Perhaps like the most highly regarded videogames, Newcastle’s Let’s Talk initiative should be viewed as an attempt to draw attention to real political and economical challenges we will face looking after ourselves in the next few years. If allowing individuals to simulate their own mistakes or successes in setting local policy can change views or thinking on the public sector, it may be five grand well spent.