Introducing "Activism 2.0": When Movements Become World-Changing Multiplayer Games
What wildly popular collaborative games like World of Warcraft teach us about how to change the real world
Before we talk about how Activism 2.0 is going to change everything, let's talk about Activism 1.0.
Understanding Activism 1.0
Anyone who has participated in a popular Activism 1.0 movement like BLM or Occupy knows that it's often a terrible experience.
First, the common thread among participants in these movements is often little more than outrage at the status quo.
Shared outrage can generate tons of short-term media coverage and picture-perfect protest photos, but in the absence of a clear vision for a better future, the only reliable outcome is outrage and division. And outrage will always lead to burnout.
Second, these movements tend to lack common sources of truth on basic questions such as
How do we decide who is authorized to speak on behalf of the movement?
Who is the villain (real or abstract) we're trying to defeat?
What kind of "heroes" are needed to defeat the villain?
How will these heroes help defeat the villain?
What actions violate the code of the movement?
How will we know if we're succeeding?
Unfortunately, Activism 1.0 movements take on a life of their own before basic questions like these are answered, which severely hampers the ability of movement members to coordinate with each other.
Third, there is rarely reliable tracking of people's contributions.
What happens then?
Participants default to metrics such as social media follower counts and content engagement metrics.
What are the consequences?
We see it today. So-called activists intentionally posting outrageous content that generates tons of engagement and boosts their follower counts, and picturesque organizing street marches that do little more than generate social media buzz.
The bottom line? Measure what you want to incentivize. If movement builders don't capture meaningful non-financial contributions, a movement will default to a dynamic that always ends in a death spiral.
Fourth, these movements are often centralized in the worst possible way, even if they are alarmingly disorganized.
Activism 1.0 movements can be particularly vulnerable to co-optation, since it is only necessary to buy off the movement's leaders. This can lead to a dilution of the movement's original goals and demands, or even a complete abandonment of the movement's ideals in exchange for personal gain.
There's more to say about why Activism 1.0 movements fall short, but the point is this: activists can do better.
Let me explain how.
Introducing “Activism 2.0”: Massively Multiplayer Movement Building Games (MMMBGs)
What does a better activism look like?
Activism 2.0 is all about stealing best practices from the wildly successful gaming industry—namely creators of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), who have figured out the secrets of engaging millions of players in pursuit of common goals.
World of Warcraft (WoW) is one of the most successful MMORPGs in history, with more than 100 million player accounts created since its launch in 2004. The game is set in the fantasy world of Azeroth, where players can choose from a variety of races and classes and engage in quests, PvE combat, and PvP battles.
In Activism 2.0, movements are structured like, and even explicitly referred to as, games.
Let's walk through some design principles of Activism 2.0 movements, also known as Massively Multiplayer Movement Building Games (MMMBGs or Movement Games).
For each principle, we'll talk about how 1) World of Warcraft uses that principle to keep players engaged in a virtual world, and 2) an invented Activism 2.0 movement to ban sugar subsidies nationwide, End Sugar Subsidies (ESS), can use that principle.
PRINCIPLE 1: Movement Games need devoted Game Masters (GMs)
While Activism 1.0 movements often have unreliable leaders, who are better described as self-serving spokespeople than organizers, Movement Games need dedicated Game Masters who are responsible for ensuring that players have a fun and rewarding experience.
In WoW, GMs play a critical role in creating an engaging and immersive game world that captures the imagination of players and keeps them engaged. One of the ways in which WoW GMs excel is by creating a well-designed game world and story that is interesting and engaging for players. They create compelling NPCs, design interesting locations and events, and develop a rich and compelling storyline that captures the imagination of the players. Game Masters are also responsible for ensuring that the game mechanics are balanced and fair, and that the rules are clear and easy to understand. They help resolve disputes or issues that arise during gameplay, and provide guidance and feedback to players as they navigate the game world. In addition, WoW Game Masters play a critical role in fostering a positive and inclusive game environment. They ensure that all players feel comfortable and welcome, and that everyone has the opportunity to participate and contribute to the game. They help manage the pace and tone of the game, and ensure that everyone is having fun and enjoying themselves.
An Activism 2.0 movement also needs Game Masters who are passionate about their work and who can play the critical role of ensuring that players have a fun and rewarding experience. Their guidance, support, and expertise help make the game a truly enjoyable and memorable experience for everyone involved. For example, ESS has two full-time GMs: one who focuses on player relations and communications, and one who focuses on game mechanics and development.
PRINCIPLE 2: Players need clear guidance on how to act and why
WoW makes it clear to each player that the point of the game is for the player to level up their character by earning experience points, which can be earned by completing quests, defeating enemies, and exploring the game world. As players level up, they gain access to new skills and equipment that allow them to take on more challenging enemies and complete more difficult quests. Players are also encouraged to participate in group-based activities such as raids and dungeons, which require a coordinated effort to complete.
An Activism 2.0 movement makes clear why the movement needs to exist and what individual "players" should do to build their "character" and advance the movement. It also defines clear endpoints to the "game"—or at least endpoints to a current chapter of the game. For example, ESS sets as a collective goal for the movement the elimination of sugar subsidies, and individuals are instructed to support the movement by educating themselves, spreading awareness, contacting elected officials, supporting organizations, and making dietary changes. The idea is that by taking these actions, individuals can help create a healthier and more sustainable food system.
PRINCIPLE 3: GMs must encourage and teach collaboration
WoW encourages collaboration among its players. The game's mechanics and features, such as quests, dungeons, guilds, the economy, and PvP, are designed to require players to work together to achieve common goals. These collaborative experiences help create a sense of community among players and foster valuable skills such as communication, coordination, and teamwork that can be applied in other aspects of their lives.
An Activism 2.0 movement gives “players” tons of opportunities to work with each other to advance the movement, and gives clear instruction on how to do this well. For example, ESS creates playbooks and gives trainings for players who want to band together to get schools and workplaces to ban added sugar from cafeteria food.
PRINCIPLE 4: GMs must create structured competition
While it must be easy for Activism 2.0 movement "players" to work together, structured competition is a powerful tool for moving a movement forward because it can generate new ideas, approaches, and strategies. It can foster a culture of innovation by creating a sense of urgency and motivation to find new solutions, and it can attract new participants to a movement.
WoW has structured competition built into the game. The game features various forms of competitive gameplay, such as player-versus-player (PvP) combat, arena battles, and leaderboards, as well as achievements, contests, and rewards for completing certain in-game challenges. These features create a sense of competition and challenge among players that can drive innovation and improvement within the game. This competition is a fun and rewarding experience for players.
An Activism 2.0 movement provides many opportunities for "players" to compete with each other in ways that are constructive to the movement. For example, ESS hosts "Meme-a-thons" where players can form teams to create the best memes to advance the movement. Winners receive merit badges and cash prizes.
PRINCIPLE 5: GMs must make players feel like the “Main Characters” (MCs)
In WoW, GMs play a key role in making players feel like they are the "Main Characters" (MCs) of the game. They do this through engaging storytelling, personalized attention, recognition for achievements, and customization options. These tactics make players feel important, valued, and invested in the game world, creating a sense of connection and loyalty to the game that can keep players engaged for longer periods of time.
An Activism 2.0 movement makes "players" feel like their contributions are superheroic through a personalized onboarding process, a clear grand narrative that explains why their role is essential to mission success, social media shout-outs, and the ability to get custom profile pictures to use on social media. For example, ESS employees onboard new players 1:1 and help them find ways to end America's sugar addiction in a way only they can. Players with money to give receive different guidance than people with time or skills to give.
PRINCIPLE 6: Movement Games need worthy villains that players aren’t even sure can be taken out
WoW creates formidable villains that players are unsure they can defeat by using design techniques such as ambiguity, power, persistence, and consequence. Examples of such villains include Arthas Menethil, Illidan Stormrage, and Deathwing. These villains are shrouded in mystery, incredibly powerful, and persist throughout the game, with their actions having real consequences in the game world. These design techniques create a sense of urgency, excitement, and purpose that compels players to defeat these worthy foes.
An Activism 2.0 movement must choose a real-world villain who is causing significant harm to humanity in one way or another, and who is such a behemoth that most people do not initially believe the villain can be defeated. This underdog dynamic is exciting and necessary for the player. For example, ESS's choice of the multi-billion dollar sugar industry and its powerful D.C. sugar lobby is a worthy villain that can motivate ambitious players to sign up.
PRINCIPLE 7: GMs hire prolific, insightful players to improve the Movement Game
WoW has hired some of its most prolific players to help shape the game. These players have demonstrated exceptional skill and knowledge of the game and have been recruited by the game's developers to help create new content and provide feedback on gameplay mechanics. For example, Jeff Kaplan, a prominent WoW player and guild leader, was hired by Blizzard Entertainment to help design the game's dungeons and raids, and later went on to lead the development of Overwatch. Similarly, Alex Afrasiabi, who was also a prominent player and guild leader, was hired to help design the game's quests and lore, and later became the game's creative director. WoW's use of game masters in the development process has helped ensure that the game is designed with the needs and interests of its players in mind.
An Activism 2.0 movement invites its most active and insightful players to join the team to improve the game experience for all players. For example, ESS engages players who consistently report problems with the game's structure and propose solutions.
PRINCIPLE 8: GMs incentivize players to recruit more players
WoW incentivizes players to recruit new players to sign up through the game's "Recruit a Friend" program. This program allows players to invite friends to try the game for free, and if the friend purchases a subscription, the referrer receives various rewards such as game time, in-game items, and other bonuses. The program is designed to encourage current players to refer new players, which can help grow the player base and foster a sense of community within the game. By incentivizing current players to bring in new recruits, WoW can grow its player base and provide a more positive overall experience for all players.
An Activism 2.0 movement similarly incentivizes existing players to recruit new players. For example, ESS gives merit badges to people who recruit new movement sponsors and invites top recruiters to join their recruiting guild.
Conclusion: The Future of Activism is World-Changing Multiplayer Games
Activism 2.0, or activism characterized by the carrying out of Massively Multiplayer Movement Building Games (or Movement Games), is a new approach to activism that takes best practices from the gaming industry to create an engaging and immersive experience for participants.
It provides clear guidance on how to act and why, encourages collaboration, creates structured competition, makes players feel like the main characters, and incentivizes recruitment of new players.
This approach to activism is designed to create a sense of community and purpose among participants, and to keep them engaged in pursuit of shared goals.
While there might not be examples of full-out Activism 2.0 movements yet, I promise they are coming. And as soon as an Movement Games successfully takes down a HUGE real-world villain, the bar will forever be raised for activists to learn Activism 2.0, or become forever irrelevant.
I will be writing a lot more about Activism 2.0 in the coming weeks and months—including about what existing movements are already implementing Activism 2.0 elements, so subscribe if this kind of content is interesting to you.