Chapter 8. Social Games and Spaces

Part of Quest 2 in

We use "social design" to cover an extraordinary range of things, from games played by friends over dinner, to global social networks and governance institutions. What do they have in common?

Consider voting for a new President or Prime Minister. This has aspects of a game, like points and winners. It has aspects of a ritual, with paraphernalia like voting booths, special days, ceremonial presentations, and magical pronouncements like "the people have spoken". It has aspects of a social choice mechanism, aggregating information from individuals into a collective choice with various biases and failure modes. It has aspects of an institution, with rules that make some moves legitimate, others illegitimate. It also has aspects of an organization, with roles like voter and candidate, and relationships like campaign manager and poll worker.

The board game "Monopoly" also is game, ritual, mechanism, institution, and organization. So's Facebook News Feed.

We use the terms "social game" or "social system" for these things: a formal system of interaction, with a specified vocabulary of moves, roles, and rules.

Examples are voting, chess, markets, and Tinder. When you say "let's have a vote" you're saying "let's limit our interactions about this, for a moment, to the rules of voting". When you step into to a market, you become a buyer or seller and your interactions are limited to the standard ways that buyers and sellers interact.

Hard Steps

Often a social design will seem good for a set of values, but, in practice, it won't serve those values well. We find that even very talented designers run into this, which is why one of our main goals with the program is to help people avoid this problem.

We do this, first, by helping designers identify what keeps people from living by a value in one context vs another. We call those things—what gets in the way of living by values—the "hard steps" of a value.


What's a hard step?

Hard steps are the sub-actions that are necessary to live by a value, and which (in some environments) are hard to do.

Example: Speaking honestly has, as a sub-action, reflecting on what's true for you. That makes reflecting a "hard step" of speaking honesty.

So: if you want to design for honesty, it helps to remember that reflection is necessary. Reflecting will be harder in noisy rooms, when there's little time, etc. You can ensure your designs don't have those problems. And honesty has other hard steps—for instance, there are steps to build up a relationship that's good for honesty, like seeing how someone reacts when you're honest.

We learn how to find these hard steps, and use them in our design process.

Design Imagination

Most people, even leading designers (inventors of voting systems, social networks, etc.) can only imagine changing their designs in certain ways. Other changes don't occur to them.

So, when designers at Facebook think about harassment or spam, they mostly think about inclusion and exclusion—what we cover in

. They miss other kinds of changes, because they haven't trained their design imagination. For instance

  • Relationality. Imagine a buddy system, with shared responsibility for posts.
  • Legitimation. Like peer-to-peer fact checking, staged release, or post displayed with criteria that determine their visibility, with the chance to argue about those criteria.
  • Changes in the Sharing Environment. Posters could get a clearer sense of their likely audience, and how much time that audience will spend with the post.

A similar lack of imagination afflicts designers of voting systems. Take quadratic voting. It's designers think about

, and a bit about information legitimation. What don't they consider?

  • Relationality besides voter and proposer.
  • Ritual aspects, like changes in settings & timings, which might lead to more thoughtful votes.
  • Legitimation structures to allow a proposal to find the right polity.

Structure of Quest 2

In each remaining chapter of Quest 2, we offer three kinds of design challenges, but with different foci. We try to activate your imagination in four areas and practice designing in each area separately.

  • In Situation Salvage someone tells a story where they couldn't live by an important value. The others compete to "salvage" the situation, to make it work for the value.
  • Step Sketches continue what you started with
    Write Your Hard Steps Story
    , imagining a way to support one hard step at a time.
  • In Space Jam, a group member shares a value they struggle to live by, and everyone tries to make a practice space for it.

What you'll be practicing, throughout the rest of Quest 2, is imagining many different kinds of changes that might support a value.


This helps you design better. It also makes you a better critic, because critiquing something is easier when you see how to change it. Opportunities to improve social systems will start popping up, wherever you go.

Invent It Yourself

Log the Social Games you Play

  • In a group. Have an open conversation with a group. Notice when you enter and exit different kinds of social games. How does each game help or hinder the people around you? Who decides to enter or exit? or to propose an alternate game?
  • In your life at large. Notice when you enter and exit different kinds of social games. How does each game help or hinder the people around you? Who decides to enter or exit? or to propose an alternate game?

Try capturing the formal rules of an implicit game


This exercise remains to be invented.

Develop a Training

How would you train yourself to have a wider design imagination? Or to anticipate more kinds of problems that a social design could have, before they occur?

Learn by Doing

Below are two games that test your design imagination—Situation Salvage and Space Jam. You can try playing both games today, and you will probably find you're bad at them. But they are easy and fun to play, even before you can play them well. Try them. Then ask: how you'd improve at playing them over the next weeks?

Develop a Method

Start with a simple game like "Truth or Dare" and a value to focus on, perhaps a type of vulnerability or courage.

Approach the game from different angles—as a mechanism designer, a game designer, a ritual or an organization designer, etc—and try changing different features like the incentives, the setting and timing, the kinds of relationships, how information flows, etc. Can you develop a systematic approach for thinking through how to change this game, in all of these ways, for your value? Try applying that systematic approach to changing another system: say, Facebook newsfeed.


Anatomy of a Social System
☝️ Most Formal Systems Have Unwritten Rules
☝️ A Social Environment Can Have Multiple Games Inside
Consider all aspects of a social design


How to Space Jam
Situation Salvage Duplo