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Direct democracy: child’s play

Published on November 26, 2020

An update from our democracy correspondents. This week: academics have tried to claim it as a science, and idealists as an art, but is politics just a game?  

The think-tank Avenir Suisse has recently taken this question literally with the release of a “virtual board game” based on the Swiss political system. “Democratia: The Isle of Five” allows up to five players to lead a Swiss “tribe” – loosely resembling a national political party – in trying to grab resources and further their agenda over the others.

There are familiar strategy challenges, like leading armies and coping with sudden existential challenges. But it’s also very Swiss, with referendums held to decide policy. And there’s a civic twist: if any one tribe loses all its resources, the whole island collapses and the game ends with no winner. “It’s designed to provoke discussion and demonstrate that this country needs cooperation as well as competition,” Avenir Suisse writes.

Fun and games

Some young politicians who were brought in to test the game told Swiss public broadcaster, SRF, that it had some “clear liberal tendencies” – reflecting the ideological stance of Avenir Suisse itself. The think-tank denied this, saying that the game, thanks to its inclusion of a wide party spectrum, was “neutral”.

But are such games ever neutral? A related debate is around the influence of gaming in the other direction: that is, the effects of “gamification”, or “strategies whereby video-game logic is applied to real-world tasks”, as a 2018 paper put it.

Gamification, used by everyone from city planners to teachers, is the kind of thing that’s everywhere once you start looking for it. Health and language apps on your phone “reward” you with points and kudos when you reach a certain level; news sites carry quizzes with titles like “how up-to-date are you with this week’s stories: test your knowledge!”; cascading likes and reviews on Facebook or LinkedIn tell us who is winning and losing in the game of life.

We haven’t (yet) reached the dystopian vision of the television series Black Mirror, which imagined everyone plugged into an app which awards or subtracts credits for positive or negative interactions. But the research paper cited above does propose the idea that gamification is never just neutral fun: it’s a product of a distinct mindset that aims to prepare people for competition in the global knowledge economy.

They who set the rules of the game are bound to profit most…

Space Invaders

Italian writer Alessandro Barrico, who was in Lausanne last month to collect the European essay award for his The Game, says the entire digital revolution started with a game: Space Invaders, which in 1978 inaugurated the paradigmatic image of a human interacting with reality on a screen through a keyboard.

He also reckons changes in how we see things now has not been based on neutral technologies, but rather on a clear ideology of tech pioneers like Steve Jobs at Apple.

“At the beginning there was a sort of mental revolution, a new way of imagining ourselves in the world. On the basis of this we began to imagine and invent the [technological] tools that were necessary to realise the vision,” Barrico told Swiss public broadcaster, RTS.

Unlike others, however, Barrico is not downbeat about all this. He reckons this “Game” was brought about to emancipate knowledge and break the barriers that led to the horrors of the 20th century, and it should be seen as positive – it’s also “the best antidote to populism”, he says.

Could it lead to an “infantilisation” of reality? He says that if this is part of the new mentality, it might not be so bad. “Children have an incredible ability to synthesise, to make things simple and naïve. These are values that we lose as we move into adulthood.”

Young and carefree

And so finally to Lausanne, where this week a Keystone-SDA report brought us a picture of three playschools, run by the Educalis group, who have embarked on another new game.

Far from Barrico’s human-keyboard-screen triumvirate, the two- and three-year-olds in these crèches are undertaking a real-world “citizenship project”: once a week they enter a shared village where they take on roles – village chief, police officer, architect – and learn to negotiate, settle differences and live together.

Votes are carried out (see above): the most recent was to decide on a village flag. The next item on the agenda will be the best way to recycle. Ultimately the goal is to “transmit good democratic habits”, said Educalis director Olivier Delamadeleine. “The children are confronted with real life. They have to deal with the world around them and manage emotions like frustration, for example when they lose a vote”.

Almost all games have losers; but can they accept it?

Other Swiss democracy news

This weekend sees the final votes of the year, with two people’s initiatives to be decided. The first, a proposal to make Swiss-based businesses responsible for human rights abuses in their global supply chains, is too close to call, according to pollsters. The other, an initiative to ban pension funds and the Swiss National Bank from investing in companies that produce war materials, looks set to be rejected. SWI swissinfo.ch will have all the results on Sunday.

At the cantonal level too, votes are taking place. In Geneva, an interesting proposal wants to extend the right to vote (and to run for office) to mentally disabled people – people who have a legal guardian. If the proposal is accepted, it would be a first for Switzerland. Who would be against such an initiative? Satirical newspaper Vigousse writes that right-wing opposition to it is based on the idea that “only fully mentally intact people should be allowed to give their say on topics they haven’t the slightest clue about”.

And with the pandemic still having an impact on the efforts of citizen campaigners, as we recently reported, many initiatives and referendums are either not being launched, or finding signature-collection difficult. The latest to fall before the final hurdle was a proposal to integrate the national acronym “CH” on all Swiss vehicle number plates. At the moment, number plates only feature cantonal markers, and citizens who travel into a surrounding EU country are obliged to slap a big CH sticker on their car. The deadline for collecting signatures for this proposal expired this week.

Story ideas, feedback or general (direct) democracy input? Send a mail to Domhnall O’Sullivan or Bruno Kaufmann