Power From the People: How Videogames Foster Participatory Democracy

Lisa Galarneau

Scholars frequently worry about the power of media to affect the docile and disenfranchised. What I will argue, however, is that recent movements in media, and particularly videogames, demonstrate a desire among people to be deeply involved, and show what can happen to people and their expectations of how their involvement might play out in worlds both virtual and physical. The United States is in the midst of primary elections for a presidential candidacy of historic proportions, and one that has been immensely impacted by new media, especially in terms of inviting the participation of younger voters. It is my contention that the burst of activity among younger voters is the result of a confluence of factors spanning transparency and participation, but all aided by the rapid rise of digital capability and culture.

The stage for civic involvement is set via participation in other, less serious activities. Each small effort to participate, when reinforced with an appropriate response, encourages the participant to engage further, and more deeply. Even something as seemingly frivolous as organizing a naked race in a virtual world can serve to impart an important visceral message that one has the power to create change, that one’s personal agency is incontrovertible. Fostering this sense of agency goes a long way towards combating the apathy that has become all too pervasive. Williams (2006) found that his participants were more likely to engage in offline civic activity after experiencing the agency of activities in virtual worlds. Beyond thinking about games for learning, I am interested in how play, game cultures, and indeed the mechanics of gaming have changed the way we approach the world. If we were to extend the culture of an average server in any popular online game to the physical world, would it represent a microcosm of larger reality, or something different entirely? Could it be considered a blueprint for a beneficial and collaborative society? Recent research into the role of play in our lives suggests that play might be less of a literal preparation for life, and more of a mechanism for the development of overall brain flexibility, as well as more holistic capabilities. A more playful society could well be the key to solving many of the world’s problems. Like Plato and Dewey, my concern with learning is that it is the way in which we evolve as individuals, and how this evolution can potentially lead to improvements in our human ecosystem. Survival in our crowded, inter-dependent world is based on our ability to adapt to our socio-cultural contexts: to collaborate, cooperate, reduce waste, find efficiency, and generally work together more effectively. As economist Edward Castronova says in the conclusion to his book, Exodus to the Virtual World, our forays into digital spaces may well represent a model for a new society based on such values. As with any good revolution, the real changes associated with play have occurred outside of the immediate contexts in which we expect them.


Williams, D. (2006). Groups and goblins: The social and civic impact an online game. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 50(4), 651–670.