Democracy Lab

Old Parliament House, Canberra

Democracy Lab was a three day workshop run by game design collective PlayReactive on behalf of the MOAD, the Museum of Australian Democracy. In attendance were a varied assortment of sixteen Game Designers, Writers and Comic Artists, Historians, Technical Wizards and Stakeholders from the museum. At stake, the small matter of Democracy. What was it? What is it? Could an interactive museum exhibit help people to engage with it?

As a politics nerd, and one with a big blank page where my knowledge of Australian democracy should be, this seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

The first part of the workshop saw wide-ranging discussion of history and concepts. Moods in the room swung between impassioned, frustrated and disengaged. Lack of representation of indigenous, non-male, young and queer people was felt across both Democracy itself, and its representation in the media and cultural institutions. Was it legitimate to even attempt to create a celebration of Democracy in a building faced by an unsanctioned embassy for those displaced by the state whose power it once hosted?

An existing, beautifully presented concept for an exhibit themed around an industrial Democracy Machine was savagely analysed within this context, with much credit expressed for those who took on these new views with open and inquisitive minds. There was real creative tension in the air for the rest of Day 2 as the group explored which ideas could, or should, survive. One change that met with universal agreement was that challenging visitors to ‘fix’ a broken Democracy Machine by restoring it to its present, real world condition would be to ignore the increasingly apparent failures of our current political systems. Alternative metaphors were proposed, centered around actions like health, maintaining and nurturing. Democracy felt better portrayed as a living, dynamic organism in need of care than a manufactured, static system with some fixed design that it was either performing to or not. The mechanical had to give way to softer visualisations such as the magical and the organic.

Gardens became popular, although not without their own design challenges. Gardens are both creative ends and the means of production of that end which made it hard to fix the players’ role in the metaphor. Were they gardeners or visitors? Did the garden represent Democracy as a system? As an ideal? As a product?

The third and final day saw the focus shift from discussing and framing the problem space to more forward looking creative solutions. Some chose to focus on ideas for the exhibit, some for the broader museum experience. For me, this was the most rewarding period of the workshop. Having been a while since I’ve was last involved in installation design it was refreshing to step out of the constraints of the screen and into the opportunities presented by physical, room-scale design and technologies.

The most developed concept I was involved in, albeit still incredibly rough, was a playable, walkthrough demo of a collaborative, never-ending game played around a river. The river, you see, while physically constructed from LED lighting strips, was a society’s democratic energy, roughly analogous to participation. Players could assign water from the river, as they saw fit, to plastic milk crates: various civil institutions and concepts such as ‘Accountable Government’, ‘Information’ and ‘Property Ownership’. The intention was to suggest both the complexity and nebulous nature of Democracy, but also its dynamism and the many and varied ways in which citizens can affect it, for better or worse.

Probably too idealistic, definitely not fully realised, but not too bad for a one hour project. For my own part I felt we owed it to the role of game designer to ignore the obvious limitations of the available time and that there should be have some kind of playable result. Thanks to those who felt similarly and were brave enough to go along with it.

Thanks also to everyone involved for being so interesting and open minded, to Play Reactive for a great facilitation job and to Democracy itself for allowing such a pluralistic, challenging and ultimately rewarding three days!