A Solemn Game

By Karthik

Gaming becomes a tool to acquaint people with the nuances of political and civic decision-making based on personal values

The Indian Constitution does not stem from a singular vision; rather, it was a negotiation between multiple perspectives. In other words, it is a living document where each generation draws meaning from it and adapts it to the shifting paradigm. There is a spirit that guides what has been written in the Constitution, and to engage with the document is to grapple with that intent. We can call upon the Constitution to resolve questions about what it means to be Indian. But how often do we see the Constitution as the arbiter of such debates? While the Constitution is invoked regularly in court, why does it not figure in our day-to-day conversations and debates?

In a functioning democracy, a key component is active participation by the citizenry. But what does participation mean? There is an assumption that the citizen is knowledgeable. There is an assumption that participation is not limited to a few, there are diverse perspectives in a healthy and informed debate, and there are vibrant communities who take responsibility and hold institutions accountable. But if people are not knowledgeable, if they are not even aware of governance structures, of their role as citizens, and of the avenues available to exercise their rights as well as duties, what then? What if, instead of an informed debate that pays attention to diverse viewpoints, all we have are binaries of “this is right” and “this is wrong”?

What if you were to write the preamble to the Constitution. What would it look like? What values would you enshrine?

For 12 years, at Fields of View, we have created and facilitated “serious games”. One of our most dialogue-provoking games is Solemnly Resolve, in which participants see the Preamble to the Indian Constitution change based on the choices they make in the game. Each civic choice leads one closer or further away from values enshrined in the actual Preamble. It is a collaborative game—at the end a new preamble to the Constitution emerges, based on the choices made by each team. The game is won when, by the end of the game, the actors are able to achieve their objective. All those actors who are not able to achieve it lose.

The game provides insights for an understanding of the underlying values in the Constitution by posing situations that have occurred in the recent past. For example, do you trust conservationists to have the best interests of the biodiversity at heart, and how does that sit with your values of justice or equality? Or, would you allow for a flyover to be built that blocks access to a temple in the middle of the city and does that conflict with your values of secularity and fraternity? These are the kind of situations we ask players to grapple with, and choose from the various alternatives presented. Each choice has a positive or negative outcome on economic growth, government stability, transparency and trust in governance. The collective outcome of these choices leads to a new preamble. The post-game discussion is on how far we have really moved, based on our choices, from what we thought our values were.

A game is a perfect tool for participation. This game gets participants to step into the shoes of people they usually do not interact with, such as bureaucrats, policymakers, economists, investors, or small business owners, to view social problems from their perspective, and understand these social issues and their solutions through the eyes of the people actually facing them. The game allows various participants to debate their choices, their needs, and to try out different scenarios to view and modify the consequences of the choices in-game. The difference in what I as a citizen hold true as values, vs what I think the actor in the game is going to act in favour of, is helpful in getting participants to critically engage with decision-making in a democracy. When they see themselves decide in favour of building a flyover in front of a temple when in real life they would protest against such a move: that is an excellent way of getting people to think of the harder choices to be made. A facilitated game of this kind is also accessible to people with differing literacies. The visual space provides a powerful medium to increase accessibility. Based on the facilitators’ language skills, the game is equally powerful in multiple languages and helps people who wouldn’t otherwise be asked their stand on such issues become articulate about their choices.

In a world that requires increased active civic participation and informed decision-making for marginalised groups to have their needs and aspirations represented, traditional methods of discussion may not always efficaciously capture the complexities and dynamics of critical engagement and comprehension of complex societal issues, especially in the realms of rights, democracy, and diverse stakeholder involvement. Games can marvellously put people in the driver’s seat, and show them what it means to truly participate. In practice, there are three levels of participation, broadcast (government to citizen), consultation (citizen to government), and active dialogue. Games can foster critical thinking, consensus building, and a deep understanding of the dynamics of civic participation. A game also helps foster critical dialogue around the values in decision-making, as understood by the various actors, and as it plays out in the choices they have to make.

In Solemnly Resolve, the players are expected to wear the hats of various actors in the city, from philanthropists and small businessmen to politicians and civil servants. Each of them has a personal viewpoint, and an objective they need to achieve. The consensus building towards decision-making is a great way to get people to talk about preferences, logic and reasoning, and priorities. Players often negotiate the choices as their own notions projected through the persona they are playing, thus bringing to the discussion their notions of how a democracy should function. Since all of this happens in-game and through the veil of a persona, the weight of the choices are far lighter than if one had to do the same in the real world. Yet, the choices you make in a game are reflective of real-life choices, as you are playing with a real-world model. When groups make choices that align with one of the tenets, a trade-off with the others is fairly evident. Difficult but necessary choices mean one is trading a stable government for a more economically sound choice, or an increase in transparency and accountability could mean an unstable government in the long term.

In-game, playing the role of a nodal officer, while dealing with poor economic growth of the region, you see teams suddenly wanting to prioritise construction of an industrial complex that will provide some economic relief, instead of slum rehabilitation programmes that will take care of long-term social inequity. While on a personal level, no one will dispute that forced displacement is unfair on the residents, these decisions when made as government officers or upcoming politicians suddenly seem counter intuitive to our values. At the end of the game, the values reflected in these choices shape the preamble.

Role-playing also reinforces what has already been learned elsewhere, say, in a textbook, or on the news. Games, thus, can be used to complement traditional learning methods used in classrooms. In a game, the player’s choices chart the course of the game, which in turn lets the player invest more in the narrative built. With different players interacting with one another, the various narratives built become a site for experiential learning.

When we deal with something like the Constitution or law, there is an urge to look up an expert’s opinion. But with a game the participants tackle a number of ideas from the Constitution by working with the principles. The pressure to build consensus in limited time imposes constraints that a lot of participants have never worked with before. Each player brings to the table their own perspectives and layers in their view of this document in order to have a dialogue.

In many of our game sessions, we have seen teams and players break out into heated debate over what values the personas would hold. Would they pertain to upholding the spirit of justice or to act in favour of more immediate resolution? In some of our sessions we see the discussion go into endless loops of deciding on the less difficult choice, or the trade-offs between the three choices presented.

A game like Solemnly Resolve is a unique way of engaging with the Constitution, since it helps not only in understanding the values enshrined in the document but also makes participants examine critically their own values and beliefs and how those play out when choices have to be made.


About the author: Karthik is a trained architect and planner, and co-leads fields of View, a 12 year old non-profit that uses games and simulations as a way of increasing participation and equity in public policy conversations. 


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