Gameful design of e-democracy initiatives

A literature review and research agenda on the application of principles from gamification to digital social innovations.

Coursework for Research Challenge: Crowdsourcing the grand challenges at TU Delft.


Success of e-democracy initiatives is dependent on participation of citizens. Limited knowledge exists however about motivational factors of participation and how to design these in the context of e-democracy. This literature review proposes a framework for understanding the relationship between the social needs being addressed by e-democracy initiatives and challenging goals required for gameful design. Based on this framework a research agenda is formulated that will contribute to a scientific gameful design practice of e-democracy initiatives.


Information technology has the opportunity to augment the relationship between citizen and government. When digital technologies support participation in the political process this is referred to as e-democracy (Bozdag & van den Hoven, 2015), a type of e-government systems that are concerned with supporting participation in public tasks in general (Toni G.L.A. van der Meer, 2014). E-democracy may be recognized as a type of digital social innovation as it supports meeting social needs[1] and simultaneously creates new relationships or collaborations (Caulier-grice, Mulgan, & Murray, 2010). The field of social innovation is wider however, distinguishing itself as a quasi-concept mostly in practice according to the researchers of the TEPSIE project (2014) by e.g. and open process or a focus on improving welfare in a community.

A challenge for the emerging field of e-democracy is sustained participation of citizens, which is an essential factor for success in any type of democracy (Rothschild, 2016). Design of e-democracy initiatives may therefore be aided by knowledge from the field of gameful design, or how to afford the motivating, enjoyable experiences characteristic for gameplay in nongaming contexts by introducing game design elements_(S. Deterding, Khaled, Nacke, & Dixon, 2011; Sebastian Deterding, 2015)_ .

The paper aims to answer the research question:

What are the most urgent questions to be addressed in order to improve participation in e-democracy initiatives with knowledge from gameful design?


After a description of the approach and research boundaries, the paper identifies concepts from literature on e-democracy and gameful design that provide understanding of the relationship between the two fields.

These concepts are synthesized in framework, which provides a starting point for a research agenda with questions to be addressed by future work. A discussion of the agenda examines how they build on current knowledge, and looks ahead to opportunities arising from them.


This literature review gives an overview of knowledge from the fields of e-democracy and gameful design. A framework is developed by associating core concepts from the two fields and identifying knowledge gaps. Based on this, future research questions are prioritized.

The rationale for this approach is that both fields are practice-driven and therefore the understanding even of core definitions between authors varies a great deal. Therefore a listing of understanding of the various authors would not be very useful.

Currently very limited research exists on the intersection of the two fields. Future research on gameful design of e-democracy initiatives will benefit most from an increased understanding of the relationships between concepts in the two fields.

Literature review guidelines as proposed by Webster & Watson (2002) have been taken as a starting point for structure for the outline of this paper.

Boundaries of the research

Normative concepts surround the idea of e-democracy. An implicit bias towards the liberal perspective on democracy (Bozdag & van den Hoven, 2015) is expected in the examined largely English-language literature.

Source material exploration

Scopus and Google Scholar were used to identify initial literature with the following terms: TEPSIE, CAPSSI, e-democracy, democracy Hoven, collective awareness, gameful design.

Additionally, relevant literature on motivational design was shared amongst fellow students in the TU Delft research challenge student group. By examining citations in backward fashion further source material was identified.(Bertot, Jaeger, & Grimes, 2010)


In this section concepts from the fields of e-democracy and gameful design will be identified. They are synthesized in a framework that provides a starting point for future research. Questions to be addressed with this research are then prioritized.


E-democracy initiatives are related in their overarching goals to collective awareness platforms (CAPS), which aim to create awareness of problems and possible solutions requesting collective efforts in order to enable new forms of social innovation (Arniani et al., 2014).

However, where CAPS use network effects for new non-public organizational forms, e-democracy aims to restructure existing interactions between citizen and government in order to create awareness and generate solutions for social needs.

E-democracy is conceptualized by most authors as enabling a combination of transparency and participation. The combination of these aims may be seen as the final stage in e-government (Toni G.L.A. van der Meer, 2014). The two aims will be discussed using examples from practice, so that in the next section they may be developed into a framework for gameful design of e-democracy initiatives.

A) Enabling transparency and openness

By providing information on the political process to citizens, e-democracy initiatives contribute to governmental transparency, thus improving legitimacy and trust amongst citizens (Bozdag & van den Hoven, 2015).

Transparency may be seen as a condition for political accountability (Bertot et al., 2010). Open data platforms are an example of e-government initiatives furthering this aim[2] with the open-ended provision of information.

Related but somewhat different is the concept of openness. This concerns the willingness of government to deliver information or action at request of citizens, and the immediacy with which this information is provided (Toni G.L.A. van der Meer, 2014). Examples of such willingness are accepting Freedom of Information Act requests[3] online or allowing citizens to directly request public services[4].

B) Enabling participation

Participation of the citizen in the political process or engagement in the e-democracy initiative is critical for the success of the democratic process (Rothschild, 2016). Participation is linked to transparency through the public value of political accountability, where openness and transparency of government create opportunities and drivers for participation.

The opportunity of high engagement in large-scale non-hierarchical projects or cultures of participation are described by Fischer (2011) as democratizing design and innovation by shifting power and control towards users, thus supporting them to act as both designers and consumers. Although Fischer was describing collaborative online systems such as Wikipedia rather than the political problems, we can see how e-democracy could support a political culture of participation.

In this way, e-democracy initiatives with wide participation could help support solving problems (a) of a magnitude that individuals and even large teams cannot solve, or (b) of a systemic nature requiring the collaboration of many different minds from a variety of backgrounds (ibid.), thus addressing social needs.

Examples of e-democracy initiatives enabling participation are online policy consultations[5] and issue-centered tools by civic society that help citizens reach out to their representatives[6].

Gameful design

Where playful experiences are free-formed and exploratory, gameful experiences are concerned with taking on challenging goals (Mathias Fuchs, Fizek, Ruffino, & Schrape, 2016). Due to e-democracy's intrinsic relationship to political challenges and social needs, we focus on the latter in this paper.

Gameful or eudaimonic systems afford motivation and enjoyment to their users, besides supporting user activity so that they are easy to use (Sebastian Deterding, 2014, 2015). The practice of affording gameful qualities is referred to as gameful design. A means to this end is gamification, or the use of game design elements in non-game contexts such as in e-democracy initiatives (Sebastian Deterding, 2011). This is the subject of the framework for combining

In the context of e-democracy it is critical to distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Design for the latter is less suitable for achieving sustained engagement as this is dependent on external stimuli (Kazhamiakin, Marconi, Martinelli, Pistore, & Valetto, 2016) and therefore lead to desirable results for e-democracy initiatives.

According to the Player Experience of Need Satisfaction (PENS) model, intrinsic motivation for games should be understood from the psychological perspective of self-determination theory (SDT). This model may be used to understand the relationship between motivational processes, enjoyment, and game features and has been empirically supported in various contexts (Przybylski, A. K., Rigby, C. S., & Ryan, R. M. (2010), as cited Deterding, 2015). It is therefore suitable for our purposes.

In self-determination theory on which PENS is based, the three psychological needs that together form the elements of intrinsic motivation are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. These have been identified by Ryan & Deci (2000), who understand these mental states to elicit and sustain intrinsic motivation. Note that they do not identify a causal relationship, but rather see intrinsic motivation as existing in human nature due to evolution.

Autonomy, competence, and relatedness are therefore the basis for enjoying a gameful experience. As part of the gameful experience, Deterding additionally considers also the needs for curiosity, arousal, and attentive focus which design should enable. On top of this, Hassan (2017) identifies suspense and mastery as conductive to gameful experience. The PENS model is satisfactory for our purposes, therefore the core needs of Ryan & Deci will now be discussed in relation to the aims of e-democracy.

A) Autonomy

Choice, acknowledgement of feelings, and opportunities for self-direction are the drivers for intrinsic motivation according to SDT-authors Ryan & Deci (2000). This is in contrast to external stimuli such as rewards or threats, which may influence behavior but only diminishes intrinsic motivation.

Deterding (2015) defines autonomy more broadly as the experience of acting with volition and willingness, in congruence with one's own goals, needs, values, and identity.

For e-democracy initiatives the concept of autonomy as an element of intrinsic motivation entails an urgent need to maintain also the possibility for citizens to be able to decide not to play.

B) Competence

Ryan and Deci (2000) consider humans to be at their best when mastering new skills. They understand taking actions towards a goal as intrinsically motivating, at least given the autonomous choice to do so.

Also in the definition of Deterding (2015) the learning aspect of competence takes a central role: the experience of one's (growing) ability to achieve desired change in the world.

As competence is concerned with taking autonomous action towards some goal, the concept of challenging goals is closely related to these elements of intrinsic motivation. It will be used as a linking concept in the framework to be developed in the next section.

C) Relatedness

The playing of a game is framed by Juul (2008) as a magic circle: a social context in which special rules apply, both towards objects in the game and the other players.

The security that this phenomenon offers is not essential for the existence of intrinsic motivation according to Ryan & Deci (2000) but rather for its expression. If a sense of security and relatedness exists, the individual will be more likely to express their motivation to others.

This expression may foster what Deterding (2015) considers relatedness, namely a sense of intimate connection with others, and overcoming challenges collaboratively satisfies relatedness needs.

Framework for gameful e-democracy experiences

A relationship may be recognized between gameful experience that works towards taking collaborative action on a goal and the social needs that are supported by e-democracy initiatives (and CAPS in general).

We propose that e-democracy initiatives may be understood from the perspective of gameful design by using the concepts of social needs and challenging goals. Their possible associations are displayed in figure 1.


Figure 1: Framework for gameful e-democracy experiences

This framework may be used to guide future research.

Recognizing social needs as challenging goals

Central to the gameful experience is how a challenging goal connects the elements of intrinsic motivation (Deterding 2015):

(A) Deliberately choosing goals to work towards and which actions to take, facilitates the sensation of autonomy. (B) Collaboratively achieving challenging goals or achieving them in service of others facilitates the sensation of relatedness. (C) Overcoming challenging goals facilitates the sensation of competence.

These gameful structures together form the elements of intrinsic motivation. A suitable challenge for an e-democracy initiative follows the structure that affords the elements of gameful experience.

At the same time a suitable challenge must address a social need, as this is the aim of e-democracy initiatives (and CAPS in general). The public value which the e-democracy initiative should support (i.e. political accountability or civil participation) will help identify a suitable goal.

Finally, contextual and temporal considerations are of importance in the synthesis of challenging goals and social needs.

Temporal considerations

When understanding the properties of challenging goals for e-democracy initiatives, it is critical to understand the impact of an interaction initiative in order to prevent faltering participation in the long term (Kazhamiakin et al., 2016). A challenging goal that addresses a social need should engage in the short- and long term.

Contextual considerations

Suitability of a challenging goal is dependent on social and cultural factors, such as public awareness of the social need being addressed. It is essential to understand diverging values in order to synthesize a challenging goal, such as those in the various conceptions of democratic systems (Bozdag & van den Hoven, 2015).

A research agenda for gameful e-democracy design

Using the developed framework, we formulate research questions to be addressed by future research on gameful design and e-democracy.

The questions have been prioritized by urgency and funding opportunities. As e-democracy may be classified as a subtype of CAPS, funding opportunities for both topics are ostensibly plentiful[7]. Empirical research and synthesis of the fields may prove especially opportune research directions for available funding.

Research questions to be addressed

Future work should start by establishing empirically if there exists a relationship between the social need which an e-democracy initiative addresses and the challenging goal gameful design requires.

(1) Can the relationships of the framework between elements of gameful experience and aims of e-democracy initiatives be empirically established?

An approach could be to study the elements of the framework for a variety of e-democracy initiatives in practice, along with temporal and contextual factors in order to gain a more thorough understanding.

With this empirical base, the core synthesis of our proposed framework may be addressed. A theory should be developed about how the social need which an e-democracy initiative addressed relates to the challenging goal of gameful design.

(2) Which mechanisms are suitable to develop a challenging goal to address a social need for an e-democracy initiative, while designing a motivating enjoyable experience?

This may be approached from a diverse amount of perspectives. We suggest framing the e-democracy initiative in its wider context as a socio-technical system (Trist, 1978) and to consider various of these perspectives.

With a deepened understanding of the relationship between social needs and challenging goals, a model may be developed to predict which goals are suitable for use for which aims and in what contexts.

(3) What factors for successful design of gameful experience can be extrapolated from empirical research into existing e-democracy initiatives, and how do they relate to elements of gameful experience and aims of e-democracy initiatives?

The approach could would be to test the developed theory of research question (2) for a variety of e-democracy initiatives, with some measure of engagement in the initiative as dependent variable.

Designers will benefit from the model developed for question (3) as it allows them to gain insight in how theory about gameful design of e-democracy initiatives relates to practice. Ideally the cases of e-democracy initiatives studied would be a representative selection of the various social needs being addressed in the field. Designers would further benefit from a refining of the theory and the model for individual groups of users.

(4) What types of players may be distinguished in the e-democracy context? What types of motivational factors lead to which experience for these types of users?

An approach would be to test the developed model of the theory of question (3) for users of different social groups, and study how this affects their engagement with the e-democracy initiative. This may be used to specify contextual and temporal factors as indicated in the framework.

Towards a gameful design practice for e-democracy

The research agenda establishes the basis of a scientific design practice. Future practice of gameful design of e-democracy initiatives would be further aided by research from many different fields, such as political science and design science.

Although this falls outside of the scope of the research agenda, some possible questions for relevant fields are listed.

Design science: Are existing (iterative) methodologies for gameful design suitable for the public sphere?

Political science: How are public values perceived differently when augmenting the socio-technological e-democracy system using gameful design elements? Does augmentation support new interactions or relationships?

Institutional economics: Should e-democracy initiatives be governed by rules in the formal sense (i.e. laws and regulations) or the informal sense (i.e. rules of the political arena)?


The paper aimed to answer the research question: What are the most urgent questions to be addressed in order to improve participation in e-democracy initiatives with knowledge from gameful design?

The paper provided an overview of concepts in the fields of e-democracy and gameful design. These elements were synthesized in a framework on the relationship between social needs of e-democracy initiatives and the challenging goals of gameful design.

A research agenda was formulated based on this framework with four research questions.

(1) Can the relationships of the framework between elements of gameful experience and aims of e-democracy initiatives be empirically established?

(2) Which mechanisms are suitable to develop a challenging goal to address a social need for an e-democracy initiative, while designing a motivating enjoyable experience?

(3) What factors for successful design of gameful experience can be extrapolated from empirical research into existing e-democracy initiatives, and how do they relate to elements of gameful experience and aims of e-democracy initiatives?

(4) What types of players may be distinguished in the e-democracy context? What types of motivational factors lead to which experience for these types of users?


This paper builds on limited existing research into the gameful design of e-democracy and CAPS in general. Based on concepts from the two fields, a framework is provided that may guide future research.

It is important to note limitations of the approach used. This literature review paper did not focus on applying existing gameful design mechanics. Additionally, the concepts used for the framework from the two fields may themselves be based on assumptions, such as the elements of intrinsic motivation as determined by self-determination theory.

As proposed in the research agenda, relationships, successful game mechanisms, and user types should be empirically established in future research.


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1. The United Nations has formulated 17 sustainable development goals for 2030, and the European Commission has prioritized 7 grand challenges for research funding. These social needs may benefit from e-democracy, e.g. with generated policy alternatives to meet challenges or with a process to come to agreement on how to best approach problems.
2. Also fulfilling the e-democracy criterion if supplying data on the democratic process, such as the platform.
3. In the Netherlands the Wet openbaarheid bestuur does not distinguish between source of the requests made, for example.
4. An example is the BuitenBeter platform, on which citizens may notify local government services of dirt of damage in their neighborhood.
5. Such as public consultations for citizens, businesses, and civil society as conducted by the European Commission.
6. Take the example the Save the Meme campaign on European copyright legislation. With this initiative, advocacy group Bits of Freedom provides their supporters with information and a direct way to reach out to Members of European Parliament.
7. The European Commission's Horizon 2020 program for research and innovation highlights research into CAPS and gamification research.