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Gamify Poverty

We can work to treat social problems more effectively by creating games that are designed to drive patients toward the goals.

How it would work isn’t clear, but it’s an intriguing idea: handle complex social problems by turning them into games, with the stakeholders as players and the remote goals left alone in favor of incremental achievement. It could work for many different social and political problems, but today I will focus on poverty as an example.

When someone is impoverished, they might sign up for foodstamps and other forms of welfare like Medicaid and housing assistance. The Republicans want to add more and more work requirements, strings attached to try to help them escape poverty in order to receive assistance. As though the problem of poverty is as simple as “get a job.” And then, of course, you have to balance assistance against wages earned to try to keep people from being better off staying poor than working a dead-end job, and it’s quite a messy problem.

One of the key features of gamifying is to offer both group achievement opportunities and individual achievement opportunities. Some respond better to one than the other, so having both is important. Thus, a person in need of assistance would either be assigned or would choose and join a group of others (likely at a mixture of stages along the route away from poverty) and would work with them on certain tasks.

They would also have individual tasks, with the possibility of individual achievement (and thus reinforcement). Because part of the problem with the current model of poverty-assistance is the fact that people can do the right thing and go wholly unrewarded, heightening the chance they will fail (i.e., an unreinforced positive behavior tends to be extinguished).

Bootstrapping the current welfare model, for instance, a person receiving $1 of assistance by default should receive $1.10 if they look for job opportunities, $1.20 if they research particular opportunities, $1.30 if they fill out an application, $1.40 if they go to an interview, etc. Instead of work-fare, it should be game-fare.

Similarly, for public housing, there should be some amount of discretionary spending allocated, which residents can use in their group (either a floor or a building or whatever pod-size makes sense) for improvements. The data from these events can be used to evaluate the sorts of improvements that will benefit other public housing areas, as well as provide the residents with experience in making improvements for when they have their own homes.

All of this can go atop some sort of score-keeping system, so that the assisted can track their progress, finding ways to improve their scores that also help them escape poverty. By formalizing it into a game, you get a ton of data that can further improve the game and you get a plethora of reinforcement opportunities where the assisted can see their actions resulting in some tangible gain, even if only in game points.

This same model could be used in many other areas, such as Veteran reintegration, prison reform, helping people with medical problems (“the diabetes control game”), and so on.

The biggest obstacles to this sort of reform are probably:

  1. Calling something a game may be misperceived to be making light of a serious situation.
  2. Politicians are preternaturally opposed to good ideas.

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