Public Involvement Techniques
4.A.b - Games and Contests
What are games and contests?
Games and contests are special ways to attract and engage people
who might not otherwise participate. They often vividly demonstrate
issues and the consequences of decisions. They are unusual, lively,
and more stimulating than formal meetings or reports. People play
games and enter contests for diversion or entertainment, a prize
or an objective, or for the possibility of winning.
Games entice people to think about different alternatives, alignments,
modes, densities, heights, land uses, and other transportation issues.
They engage people interactively and are more effective than a matrix
or other written description to show the consequences of actions.
They enhance participation by giving people tangible, interesting,
easy-to-relate-to activities rather than reams of reading material
or meetings to attend in the middle of winter.
Contests and games are unique methods for getting peoples
attention in subtle yet comprehensive ways that reach more people
and increase awareness, overall understanding, and sophistication
about specific issues.
Games and contests help generate publicity about planning
and project development. Publicity about a planning process is sometimes
hard to generate, but involving people in a game or contest often
results in significant coverage because people think they are fun.
The fun factor is important to acknowledge, because it breaks down
barriers between technicians and community people, generates good
will for an agency, and gives people something interesting to look
Games and contests typically include:
- Board games—for the table-top or the computer;
- Card games;
- Computer simulation games or contests;
- Crossword puzzles or other word games;
- Games of chance, such as raffles; and
- Essay, design, or poster contests.
Why are they useful?
Games alert people to a broad range of issues, give them
information, and pinpoint their transportation priorities by
asking them to make decisions and tradeoffs. Games that
involve choices—for instance, placing game pieces to indicate
acceptable development densities or spending play money for
industry or environmental protection—help clarify priorities,
identify the range of positions, and aid agency decision-making.
In a game used by Triangle Transit Authority in Raleigh-Durham,
North Carolina, participants decided on development densities
at certain growth and transportation nodes in the region. By
making choices about where to put development in relation to
transportation, participants were able to see land use/transportation
relationships, others perspectives, and the implications
of decisions. As part of long-term planning for light-rail extensions,
the San Francisco County Transit Authority developed a game
in which focus groups expressed preferences by placing colored
tape (red for surface lines and green for subway sections) on
a city map. The length of tape was determined by the amount
of money available for the projects. Given the substantial difference
in cost between subway and surface lines, participants—representing
different points of view and different areas of the city—discussed
alternatives, made tradeoffs, and finally agreed on mutually
acceptable solutions that could be accomplished within budget.
The game encouraged participants to expand their thinking from
a local to a city-wide perspective and helped them understand
the complex transportation decision-making process.
Contests encourage participants to bring in new and fresh ideas.
The Boston, Massachusetts, Visions Contest, sponsored by a partnership
of private industry, government agencies, and public utilities,
was designed as a national contest to interest people in the future
of the City. With substantial prizes to be awarded to several categories
of winners, the contest attracted many people who wanted to express
their visions of the future. The results led the Massachusetts Bay
Transportation Authority (MBTA) to investigate in depth the feasibility
of specific suggestions for its Washington Street Corridor.
Games and contests involve a broad variety of people
who might not otherwise participate in planning and project development
processes. No one is likely to be an expert at a custom-made game,
so everyone starts at an equal level of skill; people who are
neophytes in transportation planning play together with those
more knowledgeable about planning and project development. For
example, games that elicit value tradeoffs are much more effective
than the "indifference trade-off method," a complex,
abstract process involving measuring preferences, assigning weights,
and mathematically determining priorities. Few other participation
techniques match games and contests for light-heartedness, playfulness,
Games and contests are interactive, requiring
players to make conscious efforts to participate. In every game
or contest, a player or contestant must understand instructions
and then interact with other people playing the game or engaging
in the contest. This interaction is rewarding and fruitful and
makes participation a pleasure.
Playing a game or entering a contest is often educational. Participants may explore history
or transportation issues or learn about regulations, transportation
construction techniques, or geography. The MBTA used a crossword
puzzle in a newsletter to explain transit planning and the concurrent
land development process. This newsletter was sent to thousands
of transit corridor residents, most of whom were not traditional
participants in project development studies.
Games and contests generate publicity, because they grab the attention of people
in a busy world, then provide a useful way for them to focus on
an issue. They engage people quickly and involve their thoughts
during the time it takes to play. They give a sense of accomplishment,
leading beyond simple advertising. A major utility company used
contests to promote its health plan options and health club programs
by giving cash prizes to winners with the best T-shirt design.
Games are used in training agency public involvement staff to
help them better understand the issues from a lay point of view.
A number of computer games give players a chance to create new
towns, complete with transportation lines, budgets, and impending
natural and fiscal disasters. An urban planning computer game
shows the interrelationships between urban growth and city management
Do they have special uses?
Games and contests sometimes change an agencys image in
the community. Agencies that have been thought of in the past
as outsiders uninvolved in the community are seen in a different
light when they sponsor a game or contest. The MBTA sponsored a
childrens game for designs to be incorporated into the ceramic
tiles of a new transit station in their neighborhood. Displaying
community artwork permanently on the walls of the new station provided
very conspicuous evidence that the MBTA was interested in involving
the neighborhood in the transit-line extension.
Contests generate ideas for implementable projects. In St. Louis, Missouri, the Sierra Club sponsored a
contest involving high school students to develop projects for
which enhancement funds could be applied.
Games and contests are exploratory, stressing possibilities for change in the environment,
transportation, and the places we live. They get participants
to understand different perspectives and concerns by opening up
opportunities. The annual contest called "Tour de Sol"
is a showcase for improving public understanding of the design
and technology of electric vehicles. Major auto makers, colleges,
speciality manufacturers, and the U.S. Department of Energy sponsor
the rally and give prizes to entrants based on evaluations of
vehicle range and efficiency.
Games are risk-free for participants.
People are often willing to play a game in which they encounter
the potential impacts, because there are no real-life consequences.
Yet, by being involved, they see an issue from a different perspective—one
that may be completely foreign to them.
Games and contests get parents involved through their children. Many children are
interested in games and become engaged easily. Oregon Metro ran
a transportation fair that provided child care and activities
especially for children. The childrens activity room offered
a variety of toys and computer games for kids to engage in while
parents walked around the fair. Creating a family event at which
kids were welcome made it easier for parents to attend. In Boston,
the MBTA developed a picture guide book for children, Anna Discovers
the T, designed to teach children how to use the transit system—with
the hope that children would help their parents learn as well.
The MBTA also sponsored a contest for children to design a car
card for transit vehicles promoting the childrens guidebook.
The contest was publicized through elementary schools and reached
a broad audience.
Who participates? And how?
Games are played by interested community people, officials, or other stakeholders.
Games and contests are distributed as widely as necessary to engage
people who need to be aware of issues or themes and to open up
communication lines. A game of chance, such as a raffle, reaches
a large group of people and makes them aware of an issue. A group
of merchants in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reached thousands of
people during a transit construction project by giving away bicycles,
roller skates, rides on an antique fire engine, free transit passes,
a month of free parking, and a trip for two to Montreal. A suburban
transportation management organization held a raffle to publicize
ridesharing by giving away dinners for two, gift certificates,
and bicycle tune-ups. These contests help increase communication
between the agency and communities and make it easier to engage
them in the future for input and help in making decisions.
Certain games are easily played at regular community meetings.
Simple board games or charades are easy to play with any group.
Role-playing board games can provide a central focus for a special
meeting. The U.S. Department of Energy used a board game with the
neighbors of its Fernald plant in Ohio to seek help in locating
a site for atomic waste disposal. The board game was based on participants
playing roles of managers of the site. (See Role
Computer games appeal to a limited group of participants.
Computer simulation games should be geared to a wider audience than
just the computer literate. Exciting, colorful graphics, icons,
and simple instructions that walk users through the steps are key.
They should entice play by people who may be unfamiliar with computer
capabilities and are distrustful of computers. Computer games focused
on role playing are helpful for people who would particularly benefit
from seeing other perspectives. These include, for example, using
a computer to illustrate what different floor area ratios would
mean in terms of development density or to show how close various
transit alignments would come to neighborhoods. (See Computer
Presentations and Simulations.)
Contests are often designed for special audiences. Participants who have considerable
knowledge of technical issues are reached through specially designed
contests. Contests that require abilities in art or poetry attract
people with these special skills. The Neponset Greenway project
in Massachusetts sponsored a logo design contest for its signage
and maps that was judged by a professional jury.
Children enjoy tactile games and toys. To teach the various roles of people
working for the railroad, Amtrak hands out paper engineers
caps describing people who make the railroad work. Printed on
the back is a scene for children to color. Several railroad employees
are hidden among the crowd, with a challenge for children to find
all the people before the train leaves.
People participate as individuals by playing a game or figuring out a crossword puzzle.
They also design posters or submit ideas for contests.
For meetings, small group board games with visual implements foster
interaction. A board game used by the Santa Barbara, California,
Community Development Department asked players to place blocks
on development parcels following the allowable zoning. In a risk-free,
non-threatening way, players were able to state preferences for
development based on their own reasons. No judgments about positions
were allowed, but, through evaluating the game, it became relatively
easy for participants to see that the development allowed by the
existing zoning would be very dense. In Dane County, Wisconsin,
a similar game used a computer model to develop alternative comprehensive
plans. Participants paint future land uses at a meeting, and the
model estimates the future impacts. In a few seconds, numbers
are produced showing the impacts of land uses on transportation,
schools, and other infrastructure. A facilitated discussion to
explore game results is often essential to enable participants
to get the most out of a game.
Involving children requires outreach, since children do not generally attend meetings. Schools
offer one of the best ways to reach children—through classes,
extracurricular activities, or field trips. A school class won
a contest sponsored by a major supermarket chain and developed
a board game full of environmental tips. Such groups as the Boy
Scouts, Girl Scouts, or Camp Fire Girls are another good resource.
How do agencies use the output?
Agencies use games to learn people's priorities by incorporating ranking games at meetings.
Canadas Saskatchewan Power used a game to explore what people
wanted to see happen in the Saskatchewan River Delta. Participants
used play money to invest in economic development or wildlife
projects, helping the power company set priorities. Simple ranking
of priorities using adhesive dots placed next to issues of concern
is another way an agency learns about community priorities.
Agencies use games and contests to stimulate interest in planning
issues or publicize project development. Contests are effective
in reaching those not traditionally involved. As part of a school
curriculum, the Missouri Highway and Transportation Department
ran a contest that asked school children to describe verbally
or illustrate what transportation means to them. About 900 students
in 160 teams submitted contest entries. Contests help agencies
increase the visibility of a process or project. They get people
involved and interested in learning about the details of a project
incorporated into the contest.
Games facilitate effective communication between an agency and a community. The U.S. Department
of Energy uses a manual board game similar to Monopoly® at
community meetings to help people understand the Departments
fiscal constraints. For example, if a player lands on the first
available place, Congress reduces the agency budget by $11 million.
Another example is a contest with a prize or a raffle to show
an agency in a different, non-technical light.
Agencies use games for training, which helps staff understand their potential
for public involvement processes. The MBTA created a board game
called "On Track" to train its operators. Questions
tested operators customer-service skills and knowledge of
the MBTA system and its history. They ranged from how to go the
Childrens Museum to what a bus driver should do if someone
tries to board with a gorilla. Each question had three answers,
ranked (using a dollar value) by degree of "correctness."
Trainees got play money worth $10,000 if they said the gorilla
should ride in the back of the bus and be restrained by its owner;
they were docked $10,000 if they told the gorilla and its owner
to get off the bus. Similarly, Pennsylvania DOT created "Citizen
Lane," a board game used to train DOT employees on public
involvement in project development, from preliminary design through
construction. The one-hour game uses six sets of color-coded question
cards for the phase of project development. The cards cover "incidents"—for
example, what to do when 400 people show up at a room capable
of holding 50—and "issues"—questions that
challenge players to deal with potential major problems in a public
involvement process. The "issues" cards require the
six players to brainstorm together for an answer. The questions
cover material included in the DOTs handbook on public involvement.
Agency personnel have been extremely enthusiastic about participating
in workshops using "Citizen Lane." Such training efforts
help staff understand what tools are useful and how games and
contests that are engaging, fun, and easy to learn can contribute
significantly to a public involvement process.
Names of contestants and game players can form the basis of
a mailing list for agencies to contact interested parties and
supply further information. Permission should be obtained prior
to placing anyones name on a list. (See Mailing
Who leads games and contests?
Contests are designed, promoted, and led by people who have a
clear vision about the goals—whether the contest is for publicity,
education, or more specific transportation planning options. An
organizational leader is needed to support the contest through
publicity; distribution, receipt, and tabulation of forms; and
awarding of prizes.
Games require trained leaders who understand
the games goals.A leader must be enthusiastic and fully
understand the process. Either agency staff members or outside
consultants lead games. Guidance through a game may be required,
even if the game is extremely well-developed. After the game,
the leader must skillfully guide people through discussion and
Games or contests are often designed to be played
by individuals or in groups, sometimes with help or kibitzing
from a friend or relative.
What are the cost?
Significant time and skills are required in developing the concept for a board
game, creating the physical board itself, and manufacturing the
game for multiple users. Outlining a concept takes as little as
a week, but a single, hand-produced board game can take six weeks
or more from concept through final production. Outside consultants
are helpful in designing particularly complicated board games.
Creating a computer game takes even more resources. Computer models
as a basis for games tend to be very complex. Computer games often
require thousands of hours to develop and test.
Preparing simpler games takes significantly less time. Crossword puzzles,
simple word games, or word search contests do not take long to
develop. Brainstorming the approach to be taken or the questions
to be included involves several staff people for several hours
each. The MBTA prepared a crossword puzzle using clues from drawings
that appeared in previous editions of the project newsletter.
Creating a contest usually involves less staff time than conceiving
a board game. Staff develops a concept, define rules and parameters,
decide if there will be a prize, and figures out how to publicize
it. Depending on the complexity of the contest and how many entries
are desired, the time commitment for staff is probably in hours
or days, rather than weeks.
Larger-scale contests are much more structured and expensive.
For example, a six-month-long planning and design contest called
The Electric Vehicle and the American Community required
participants to have considerable research and design skills. A
consortium of private and governmental agencies challenged contestants
to envision a new infrastructure for electric and hybrid vehicles.
With over $100,000 in cash prizes as an attraction, the contest
drew hundreds of participants. Preparing entrance requirements,
books, posters, and other materials for official entrants was a
major effort. Agencies can join forces with other agencies or private-sector
firms to sponsor such a contest; in such cases, preparation and
evaluation efforts are distributed among all of the sponsors rather
than falling heavily on the shoulders of already overworked internal
How are games and contests organized?
Goals for a game or contest must be clearly established.
As each concept for a game is put forth, it should be tested to
see if it meets the games overall goals.
Board or computer games require staff or consultant time for design, illustration,
rule-making, printing, and distribution. Target audiences for
distribution should be outlined prior to design and production
of a game. Simplicity for players is key; the game should be easy
to understand and play.
Contests require staff or consultant time to prepare, implement,
and follow up the entries. Contests are introduced at any time in
a process and are successful ways to keep interest sustained over
the long haul. Follow-up is particularly important if the agency
aims to generate interest and gather names for mailing lists.
Board games involving role play are often most effective early in a process, because
they immediately allow participants to see issues from other points
of view. This helps establish an atmosphere of open-mindedness
and sets the tone for the entire process. However, games that
illustrate conflicts that arise out of budget constraints or community
development issues are often used to move away from a stalemate
in the middle or at the end of a process.
Most games do not require players to prepare before participating, but preparation
by staff and leaders is essential. Making several dry runs of
a game intended for public use helps agencies anticipate problems
and questions. For games designed to be played at community meetings,
agencies often announce the rules and send instructions to participants
How are they used with other techniques?
Games and contests are used to broaden the thinking and
understanding of people involved in the study or exploration of
an issue. Board games or computer games simulate situations and
urge people to view a transportation plan or project from many different
vantage points. In Jefferson County, Colorado, a visioning exercise
for development of the Route 285 Corridor used food and candy as
elements placed on a base map to indicate participants preferences.
Licorice sticks were used for roadways, and food not used was eaten.
The project was known as Eat Your Way to the Future.
Agencies use games and contests as ice-breakers at meetings.They
supplement other techniques and enliven staid processes that rely
on passive meetings. They are useful when people from different
walks of life are working on a common project. The Town of Orleans,
Massachusetts, used a quiz-show game format to present the results
of a town-wide survey.
Games are used in mediation. In Amherst, Massachusetts,
the National Association of Mediation in Education collects a variety
of mediation games to deal with environmental conflicts, which are
closely related to transportation situations. These games include
instructions for training, leading, and playing. (See Negotiation
Games are included in special events such as transportation
fairs. In Portland, the Oregon Metro transportation fair offered
board games and computer games for children, some in a separate
room with supervision so parents could participate in the fair and
allow the children to play and learn. (See Transportation
Contests are incorporated into newsletters, handouts, and
other written materials. (See Public
What are the drawbacks?
Poorly designed games are not likely to generate usable public input.
Some games do not appeal to the bulk of the desired audience.
Overly complicated or detailed contests draw only those already
involved or interested in the issues. If games or contests are
not linked to other involvement activities or if their goals are
not clear, participants are likely to feel let-down and frustrated.
Games are viewed as frivolous if they are not integrated well
into a total process for meaningful public involvement in planning.
If not well-designed, games fall flat. Without skillful design,
the basic point of an exercise is obscured. Leaders of game sessions
need to be prepared to mitigate the effects of boring games through
lively discussion and follow-up.
Games and contests do not interest everyone. Certain members of the community are likely
to resent their use or interpret playing games as trivializing
the issues and talking down to them. This perception is avoided
by making sure the game relates clearly to the situation at hand
and the goals of using it are explained up front.
Games and contests are expensive in terms of staff or consultant time, because
design techniques are not yet in widespread use. They take time
to develop if they are to be easily understood or to generate
widespread interest. Games are sometimes quite elaborate or expensive
and require fancy hardware, software, or other equipment not normally
available for community meetings.
Are games and contests flexible?
Games and contests are flexible in terms of type, where and when
they can be used, staff time, and cost.
Games are developed
for varying levels of sophistication.Most staff people are capable
of developing or working with simple games, but complicated computer
games or contests require specialized skills. Contests vary widely
in complexity, depending on the nature of the project or plan
and the issues to be addressed.
When are they used most effectively?
Used at the beginning of a process, games and contests attract
attention and participation. A computer simulation modeling game
was used in Hawaii to test different assumptions about energy
use, the economy, and various policy decisions. The public advisory
group gave input on the policy scenarios fed into the model. Games
and contests help enliven or sustain interest in a plan or project.
To maximize initial effort and subsequent follow-through, the
MBTA publicized its new cross-town bus service and announced a
six-month design contest for logos. Contest entries were displayed
later on car cards in buses and trains.
For further information:
of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, Honolulu,
Transportation Authority, Boston, Massachusetts
and Transportation Department, Jefferson City, Missouri
for Mediation in Education, Amherst, Massachusetts
|Oregon Metro, Portland,
|Santa Barbara Community
Development, Santa Barbara, California
|San Francisco County
Authority, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina
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