Games for Democracy: 5 Takeaways From Playing @Stake at the Frontiers of Democracy Conference

What innovations are pushing the boundaries of the civic field? How is growing inequality undermining efforts for government reform? These are some of the questions that over 140 scholars, practitioners, and activists from around the world wrestled with during the Frontiers of Democracy Conference hosted by the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. The conference focused on assessing the state of the civic field and expanding opportunities for civic engagement. Sessions featured a wide array of topics such as today’s relevance of Freedom summer, practical debates about the role of scholarly journals, skill building opportunities with facilitation, and reflections on gentrification. Though civic field stakeholders share many principles and practices, the Engagement Lab facilitated a game of @Stake to simulate a deeper understanding of “overlapping civic coalitions.”

@Stake is a game designed for deliberation and decision making that can be adopted for many different organizations. Players take turns in the “decider” role while the rest deliver timed pitches, with opportunities to buy more time by risking resources. Players are rewarded for pitching the winning proposal and for each agenda item featured on their role cards that are incorporated in the winning proposal. This @Stake game included roles such as Civil Rights Activist, Recent Immigrant, Young Professional, Parent, and Mayor. For each round, players deliberated the following questions:

1. How do you effectively grow capacity to use technology in the organization? 2. How do you engage the public in a way that satisfies federal requirements for inclusiveness while still taking advantage of the affordances of new tech? 3. How do you empower people internally to be part of organization decision-making?

We were struck by how valuable the participants at the conference found @Stake. During our debrief, immediately following the game, players shared their takeaways, strategies, and constructive ideas for using the game in other contexts. We identified the following five themes/benefits as the most important that emerged from that conversation:

1) Empathy Building: Players were required to think about what mattered to other stakeholders, not just themselves, as they proposed civic engagement solutions. Empathy was built as players assumed roles and agendas that would typically be outside of their direct experience, such as a high school student and elected official.

2) Collaboration: Through the agenda point system, players were encouraged to amend one another’s proposals (as well as their own) and build toward a synthesized proposal. The winner from the 12 teams that played, described his strategy of offering proposals that were broad enough to encompass the agenda points of other players, accepting suggestions and adapting where necessary. One player shared that being responsive to others’ interests coincided with serving their personal interests.

3) Creativity: Players adapted to constantly changing prompts and tight time limits, which encouraged out-of-the box thinking. Some players stretched their comfort zone by acting as a decider or a contributor.

4) Enthusiasm: Players were excited and eager to bring the tool back into their communities as a way to build interest and engagement. For example, one player discussed an idea of increased place-making in order to address the needs of families. Playing a parent role during @Stake, they hypothesized increased civic engagement by schools offering laundry machines so that busy parents can still attend meetings while taking care of family needs. Another player felt inspired by an idea to interview elders for ensuring their community input.

5) Skill Building: The actions of the game build the skills necessary to facilitate real life civic processes. Players shared reflections on the relationship between money and democracy and the balance between asserting their ideas while integrating their community’s perspectives.

@Stake Game Supplies

This iteration of @Stake revealed how a great deal of ideation and analysis of civic engagement topics can be produced in a short interval of time. Players toyed with novel perspectives, contributed agenda items as different stakeholders, and offered suggestions for improving the game. Most importantly, players were given a chance to work through objectives, assumptions, and differences to improve civic life. The Engagement Game Lab is looking forward to reporting back on more rounds of @Stake in the coming weeks. If you are interested in using @Stake or learning more about the game, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. A free print-and-play version of the game should be released soon.

Originally published at on July 28, 2014.