Proposal 12 for ICANN: Enhance Learning by Encouraging Games

This is the twelfth of a series of 16 draft proposals developed by the ICANN Strategy Panel on Multistakeholder Innovation in conjunction with the Governance Lab @ NYU  for how to design an effective, legitimate and evolving 21st century Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN). 

Please share your comments/reactions/questions on this proposal in the comments section of this post or via the line-by-line annotation plug-in.

From Principle to Practice

Despite ICANN’s narrow remit, its decisions have incredible impacts on people everywhere as well as the social, economic and political systems in which those people live. As a result, ICANN must take seriously its commitment to engage its global stakeholder base in decision-making, especially those who are ultimately impacted by those decisions. However, this does not mean that the practices by which ICANN governs must be humorless.

Rather, ICANN could make the complexities of Internet governance and ICANN’s work more open, accessible and interesting to people with games and activities aimed at the next generation. To help deepen that understanding and create resources and processes for capacity building, ICANN could run contests, e.g., to design short videos, graphics and other strategies to engage a more diverse audience to the end of making ICANN’s work more accessible to everyone – from newcomers to active technologists. The use of game mechanics in decision-making contexts can bolster ease and equitability of participation (enhancing legitimacy); produce incentive structures to target expertise (enhancing efficiency); and mitigate complexity through simple rules (enhancing adaptability and the ability to evolve). To embrace and make use of the dynamism and expertise of its globally distributed stakeholder base, ICANN should leverage prizes, games and challenges to solve problems.

What Does it Mean to Encourage Games?

Games are a universal part of human experience and are present in all cultures.[1] There are many different kinds of games and different definitions of games (e.g., puzzles, toys, competition vs collaboration vs conflict; strategic, skilled, luck-based; single vs multiplayer; etc.). In general, games involve goals, rules, challenges, and interaction.[2] According to Bernard Suits: “To play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity.”[3]

Gamification refers to the application of “game design thinking to non-game applications”[4] to engage users in solving problems. There are three central pillars of gamification which can be variably configured in their application to problem-solving scenarios, depending on what goals and objectives are being pursued (that is, what is meant to be accomplished by playing the game):


  • Incentives motivate people to perform actions. Different kinds of incentives may motivate people to collaborate or compete, depending on how incentives are aligned with outcomes (for example, zero-sum games encourage competition while positive-sum games encourage collaboration).
  • Incentives may be monetary, e.g. a prize-purse. Incentives may also be non-monetary, for example reputation-based or skills-based badges (for example, leaderboards on online forums), or job-opportunities, credentials, or “glory” (e.g., “for the love of the activity”). Incentives can generally be construed as either extrinsic or intrinsic.


  • Rules define games. Rules are useful for determining the rights and responsibilities of participants and for creating predictability in otherwise asynchronous interactions between players. Rules also help define the goals of the game.
  • Some games allow for variations and changes in the rules as the game progresses. This has been described as “layering governance onto collaboration” – e.g., participants decide what outcomes are desired and how they are best reached as the game occurs. However, even in such games, there will tend to be immutable “meta-rules,” for example the use of shared definitions and understandings of terms.


  • Incentives should align with goals. Goals can be conceived as open-ended or closed, e.g., whether participants in a game are trying to reach a common outcome or whether there are a variety of possible outcomes. Similarly, goals can be divided by whether there is a “correct outcome” (e.g., a correct answer) or a “best outcome” or outcomes (e.g., there is no objective measure of correctness).
  • If the goal is for participants to produce multiple potential outcomes (e.g., if gamification is applied to some form of ideation), then it makes sense for benefits to accrue to individuals and not groups. If the goal is for the participants to produce a common outcome (e.g. DNS stability), then it makes sense for benefits to accrue to a group working collaboratively.

Incentives motivate people to participate. Participation may be collaborative or competitive. Competition and collaboration lead to outcomes, whose possible “solution-spaces” may be open or closed in nature. These outcomes may be leveraged in peer-production, data-collection and aggregation, product-development (also written products), expertise-targeting, and engaging participants.

Why Does This Proposal Make Sense at ICANN?

Games should be utilized in problems where relevant knowledge is likely to be dispersed and particularly distant from the innovating organization.[5] In gamified contexts, ICANN has two important affordances: an ability to constitute new forms of organization in short amounts of time, and an ability to situate these organizations in an experimental context.[6]

In general, there may be a tradeoff between expert and non-expert contributors, as the former are likely to generate more feasible, but the latter more creative solutions[7].

Specifically, there are three main approaches to using game mechanics in problem solving that could be meaningful for ICANN. They are the competitive approach (e.g., “prize-induced contests” or “selective crowdsourcing”), the collaborative approach (e.g., “grand challenges” or “integrative crowdsourcing”), and the mixed-strategy approach in which competitive and collaborative “phases” are sequenced and/or combined.

The competitive approach

  • Most effective when the problem is complex, novel, or has no established best-practices, especially if an institution is not sure what a good solution will look like in advance.[8] The competitive approach makes sense when experimentation across different technical approaches and stakeholder groups is important to the innovation problem.[9] For example, uncertainty about the problem or the knowledge base required to solve it suggests an open approach with a large number of participants to mitigate the effects of uncertainty.
  • Useful where problems are characterized by multiple potential outcomes, multiple potential solution paths and the presence of uncertainty.[10] Contests maximize diverse experiments and help discover “blind spots” in available knowledge.
  • If a project objective is to gather deep insights about existing products or services or attitudes toward a concept or a new “product,” online panels, focus groups and other insight-gathering techniques may deliver better results than individuals who find the project via a contest.

The collaborative approach

  • Useful for problems that involve cumulative knowledge, e.g. problems whose solutions build from past initiatives and advances, where creativity and uniqueness have the highest priority, where the problem is ongoing and therefore unsuited to a one-off challenge.
  • The main goal of collaborative co-creation is not to have a problem solved but rather to benefit from the creative power of the interdisciplinary crowd.[11]
  • Useful where the problem involves interdependent expertise and knowledge that has to be combined and aggregated to create value.[12]
  • Appropriate if innovation is to be built on top of existing products, technologies, or, especially in ICANN’s case, policies. This “complementary” approach to innovation works best with many different problems rather than just one single problem.
  • Collaborative communities should not work within a high-control platform where power is concentrated. They are more appropriate for contexts involving self-organization, informal relationships, and transactions based on reciprocity and fairness. Therefore, the collaborative approach should be governed by “soft” rules and social norms, for example agreement on a technology paradigm and technical jargon.[13] Access to information should be encouraged; transparency and sharing should be emphasized.[14] Collaborative approaches must establish norms of sharing and learning, a sense of affiliation (identity and status), and norms of reciprocity.[15]

The competitive-collaborative approach

  • The approaches discussed above – competitive and collaborative – can be combined in sequence. This is useful when a community-based problem needs definition, and then needs a solution.
  • Mitigates the difference between proprietary knowledge retention (in competitive formats) on the one hand, and openness, reciprocity, and sharing of knowledge (in collaborative formats) on the other.
  • Competition is the first stage in the ideation process, similar to a brainstorm where participants first throw in their own ideas.
  • The second stage is to select and consolidate the best ideas to make them even better. This is where a collaboration model works best; when participants are invited to view concepts, rate them and comment on them. Here, the natural tendency from participants will likely be a normalization of opinions to reach a consensus.

Ultimately, the application of game mechanics to problem solving at ICANN is intended to lead to:

  • More participation – e.g., in ideation, issue-framing, working groups, and general stakeholder engagement.
  • Better outcomes – through a diversity of inputs, or through the targeting of expertise through well-aligned incentives.
  • Greater capacity-building – through creating a cycle of engagement structurally supported by rules and goals, and sustained through incentives.

Implementation Within ICANN

Noveck, Beth. “Solving Public Problems with Crowdsourcing”.

Piloting games/competitions and/or challenges within ICANN will involved a phased approach:

  • Define ICANN’s role and the role of ICANN’s internal staff.
  • Use the staff to define objectives and to help frame issues and questions, define objectives, and identify the types of desired outcomes. The way problems are conceived has a tremendous impact on the legal and policy solutions used to solve them. As the philosopher John Dewey observed: “A problem well put is half-solved.”
  • Identify users and stakeholders to engage. People who are affected or interested in general will have different innovation ideas than specialists in research and development labs.[16]
    • Identify community leaders as well. Since leaders are at the leading edge of the industry with respect to ICANN’s work, one can guess that many of the novel ideas and products they develop for their own use will appeal to other users too and so might provide the basis for products and services ICANN would want to leverage.
  • Design the potential gamified activity with a view to the rest of the problem-solution and decision-making process. Individuals can fulfill different roles in ideation (e.g., developers vs. end-users), and they can be utilized in different ways depending on the goal of the ideation process.
  • Chunk the work. The expert cannot be asked to solve a problem like “ensure the stability of the DNS.” Instead, the expert should be able to do discreet work. That work should be reassembled into a solution.
  • Use prizes, but not just prizes. There should be recognition; reward; and a way to convert that work into more stable opportunities. But this has to be tied to evidence, not to expectations, i.e. reward for performance. This means that the best approach for ICANN may be that after a winning-solution is accepted by ICANN/the ICANN community, the person who submitted it is identified.
  • Incentives must align different values of the contributors and should be community-based.
    • People are often willing to work for free. Intrinsic motivators – e.g., acquisition of new skills through participation, altruism, wishing to see an innovation through because one desires to use it themselves.[17] – may be best in certain situations, where as extrinsic motivators may work well in others. Motivation for collaborative participants has often been termed as “glory,” for example, which relates to recognition by peers in a community.[18] In this case:
      • Reputation matters.
      • Feeling like part of a community matters.
      • Being intellectually challenged matters.
      • Engaging people’s creativity matters – the more creative people feel in projects, the more likely they will spend time participating.
  • Let “problem-solvers”/experts self-select. Different experts will have different reasons for wanting to tackle a problem. ICANN has to be able to incentivize across different lines of interest.
  • Systematically broadcast the problem to various fields. A problem that resides in one domain of expertise may find its solution in another.
  • Harness the size of the participant-pool, to the end of finding “averages” which balance solution “poles.”
  • Harness the diversity of the participants. Engage people’s differences in perspective. For example, with neuroscience, the brain can be seen as a biological entity, as a biochemical entity, or as an electrical circuit. You can engage biologists, chemists, and physicists. Relevant experts in ICANN can be similarly diversely configured.
  • Allow for review and comment and feedback. Platforms might offer a “first pass” service in which a set of trusted individuals (known to ICANN) test out the task and report any issues encountered.

There are pathways for improvement that ICANN might not anticipate the community could point out. The more ICANN has ways to evaluate the work of others in an “objective” fashion, the more likely distributed innovation systems will work.[19] These principles can be applied to different parts of ICANN’s work in ways that improve the efficiency, legitimacy, and adaptability of ICANN’s working processes. For example, in:

Collaborative drafting (e.g., writing Issue Reports, recommendations, public comments)

  • Initiative: Establish a “Best Collaborator Award”; Reward drafting-moderator positions
  • Incentive: Being awarded for the strength and quality of a person’s contributions.
  • Effect: People are more willing to participate and submit their ideas because there are systems in place to recognize their efforts and to connect them to other people (i.e. people gain respect in a community)

 Online education (e.g. through

  • Initiative: Institute “badges” to certify online learning
  • Incentive: Badges are awarded for completing modules, lessons, or courses.
  • Effect: People may be self-motivated or motivated based on comparative levels within a community to attain knowledge and skills in order to become more effective participants at ICANN.

Research and Engagement

  • Initiative: Leverage open contests to design short videos and graphics to raise awareness about ICANN and its work.
  • Incentive: Recognition via features on, or prize money.
  • Effect: Creation of diverse and engaging public materials that show what ICANN does and how, and which raise stakeholder awareness and general awareness around digital citizenship and the Internet governance ecosystem.

Global Stakeholder Engagement

  • Initiative: Set up local “ICANN engagement chapters”; send ICANN staff or community-voted individual as a “guest speaker” to these chapters/centers on periodic basis.
  • Incentive: Recognition of participation and involvement at local levels. Funds or other resources may be provided by ICANN to facilitate local chapter activities.
  • Effect: Greater awareness around the world about what ICANN does and how it does these things. ICANN also further develops a global network through which it can engage with local conditions, interests, challenges, etc.

Working Groups (e.g. policy development)

  • Initiative: Create participatory “ladders” that reflect various levels of expertise (displayed publicly through, for example, leaderboards) and entrust people with varying degrees of responsibility.
  • Incentive: Someone who participates very effectively in a drafting team might be provided with other opportunities to do similar work or to collaborate in informal task-forces. Or, for example, somebody who participates effectively in many working groups might be invited to moderate or chair other discussions.
  • Effect: The people who are most enthusiastic and dedicated to contributing their expertise and knowledge to problem-solving processes at ICANN get progressively more responsibility in a way that is recognized by others, and this encourages leadership and ownership.
  • Initiative: Encourage multiple, cross-community, inter-disciplinary teams (or working groups) to compete for winning “policy recommendation frameworks,” to be voted on by various ICANN structures.
  • Incentive: Winning team gets to move forward with framework for crafting policy recommendations and possible recognition at ICANN meetings. Other teams get to join winning team in traditional working group setting to flesh out recommendations consistent with winning framework.
  • Effect: Combines competitive and collaborative approaches and encourages cross-community collaboration and capacity-building. Opens up the value-proposition aspect of the policy-development process to the entire community. Offers potential to mitigate potential for slow-moving working groups.

Expert Networks

  • Initiative: Use prize-based contests to crowdsource solutions to specific and technical problems.
  • Incentive: Monetary incentives may be appropriate in situations that call for unspecified solutions to specified problems. Non-monetary incentives are also feasible, where experts may be able to use the evidence of their participation to build a “portfolio” or contribute to their “resume,” and these help the person find more professional opportunities.
  • Effect: People with specific expertise are motivated to contribute their skills and knowledge to ICANN’s problem-solving processes, leading to better outcomes, as diverse opinions are brought to bear on specific issues and in some cases solutions may be proposed by people who otherwise are extremely “peripheral” to ICANN.

Funds and budget

  • Initiative: Institute participatory budgeting
  • Incentive: People can submit project ideas for how a certain portion of ICANN’s funds should be used. People can vote on those ideas and the most popular ones move forward. The incentive is for people to see their ideas debated and materialized.
  • Effect: The projects that people are most enthusiastic about, or that people think are most important, get implemented. Because participation is easy, ICANN might get a relatively large participant pool.

Technical development

  • Initiative: Use prize-purses to crowdsource technical solutions.
  • Incentive: Incentives in technical development are likely to be monetary, although intrinsic motivators and other options like career opportunities are also appropriate.
  • Effect: People are motivated to come up with solutions on their own (if the prize is monetary and accrues to one individual). This has the effect of sourcing talent widely and encourages people normally outside of the “solution-space” to give their input, which may well be the best solution to the problem.

Examples & Case Studies – What’s Worked in Practice?


  • Name Collisions – Notably, Verisign has already spearheaded a competitive approach to tackling some tough technical problems in relation to ICANN’s work. In fact, during a workshop in March, an expert panel will select from among papers presented on the topic of domain name collisions, and award a $50,000 prize to the “most valuable research contribution” – the “one that most advances the state of knowledge and/or most deeply analyzes and mitigates risk.”
  • InnoCentive – An online open innovation and crowdsourcing platform that is used by “seekers” to source solutions from “solvers.” Challenges tend to be for well-defined, one-off problems, and winners tend to be individuals. Hence, InnoCentive hosts many examples of prize-based contests that are competitive in nature. InnoCentive has highlighted, in particular, that crowdsourcing may allow organizations to find solutions from outside of the pool of “usual suspects.”[20] Example successful InnoCentive challenges include separating oil from water in cleaning oil spills, and the Air Force Research Lab’s “vehicle stopper,” designed to create a means to stop a vehicle fleeing from a checkpoint.


  • Wikipedia
    • Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia in many languages whose articles are contributed by volunteer contributors from all over the world. It is a prime example of non-competitive collaboration toward common, agreed-upon ends. In particular, Wikipedia uses an in-community awards system (Wikipedia “barnstars”) to reward Wikipedia contributors for “their hard work and due diligence.”[21]


  • – An online challenge platform administered by the U.S. Federal Government, which enables the government to collaborate with citizens by posting specific challenges on the site, to which the public can post solution submissions, with winning selections typically receiving a prize.[22] hosts many different kinds of prize-based contests, some of which are more obviously competitive and have smaller prize purses (e.g., an Environmental Protection Agency’s contest to produce an original video about climate change), and some of which may require more collaboration and offer larger sums of money for winners (e.g., the Department of Energy’s challenge to use a DOE API in solving an energy-related issue).
  • Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge – Bloomberg’s “Mayors Challenge” invites U.S. cities of 30,000+ residents to “submit ideas that solve a serious social or economic challenge, improve the customer service experience for businesses or citizens, increase government efficiency, and/or make government more accountable.”[23] After submitting ideas, teams from 20 finalist cities where invited to participate in an “Ideas Camp” to share skills and strengthen each other’s ideas. Providence won $5 million for “Providence Talks,” an early-education initiative. In particular, the Mayor’s Challenge chooses winners whose innovations can be “shared and replicated by cities worldwide.”
  • – A software development innovation community accessed through an online platform. Its community breaks projects down into atomized pieces of work that comprise the entire build. By launching a series of competitions that make up the whole project, hyper-specialists from within different expert-communities register, compete, and submit solutions for each piece. TopCoder is noteworthy for instituting “Copilots” to help manage the TopCoder platform. Copilots form a pool of TopCoder community members who have intimate understanding of the TopCoder process and best practices for innovation contests. They manage the technical aspects of crafting, launching, and managing competitions all the way through successful delivery.

Open Questions – Help Bring This Proposal Closer to Implementation?

  • Do new or overlapping prizes dilute the effectiveness of others?
  • Contests often provide large-scale goals, but often lack more gradual milestones. Could they be more effective if they gave participants more guidance on how to progress through the contest?
  • Many prize-induced contests feature both public and private sponsors. How do different types of sponsorship affect results and engagement? Do contests sponsored by both the public and private sector address broader issues like the multi-stakeholder grand challenges?
  • The stereotypical public participant in prize-induced contests is the retired or under-employed person working in a garage. What is actually the case? How involved are start-ups and established businesses in contests? Are universities seeking to increase student and faculty engagement in the programs?
  • While prize-induced projects have clear ties to other forms of crowdsourcing, is there a place for crowdfunding in these projects – both in terms of supplying the prize money and stimulating private engagement on expensive projects?
  • How can ICANN best determine metrics for judging submissions, e.g. through what processes, structures, and people?


1. “History of Games Timeline.” Historic Games.
2. “Game.”
3. Suits, Bernard. “What is a Game?” University of Chicago Press. Philosophy of Science. Vol. 34, No. 2 (June 1967) at 148.
4. “Gamification.” The GovLab Open Governance Knowledge Base.
5. Afuah, A., & Tucci, C. L. “Crowdsourcing as a solution for distant search.” Academy of Management Review. (July, 2012). 37(3) at 355-375.
6. Kittur, Aniket, et al. “The Future of Crowd Work.” 16th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW 2013).
7. T. Aitamuro, A. Leiponen, R. Tee. “The Promise of Idea Crowdsourcing –Benefits, Contexts, Limitations.” Nokia Ideas Project White Paper. (June 2011) at 25.
8. Boudreau, Kevin J., and Karim R. Lakhani. “Using the Crowd as an Innovation Partner.” Harvard Business Review. Vol. 91, No. 4. (April 2013) at 61–69.
9. Boudreau, Kevin J., Nicola Lacetera, and Karim R. Lakhani. “Parallel Search, Incentives and Problem Type: Revisiting the Competition and Innovation Link.” Harvard Business School Working Paper. No. 09-041. (September 2008).
10. Campbell, David J. “Task Complexity: A Review and Analysis.” The Academy of Management Review. Vol. 13. No. 1 (January 1988) at 40-52.
11. Stanoevska-Slabeva, K. “Enabled Innovation: Instruments and Methods of Internet-based Collaborative Innovation.” Conference Draft for the 1st Berlin Symposium on Internet and Society. Oct 25 – 27, 2011.
12. Pisano, G.P. and R. Verganti. “Which kind of collaboration is right for you?” Harvard Business Review. (December 2008).
13. S. O’Mahony and F. Ferraro. “The Emergence of Governance in an Open Source Community.” Academy of Management Journal. Vol. 50, No. 5, (October 2007) at 1079-1106.
14. C.Y. Baldwin and K.B. Clark. “The Architecture of Participation: Does Code Architecture Mitigate Free Riding in the Open Source Development Model?” Management Science. Vol. 52, No. 7. (July 2006) at 1116-1127.
15 K.R. Lakhani and E. von Hippel. “How Open Source Software Works: ‘Free’ User-to-User Assistance.” Research Policy. Vol. 32, No. 6. (June 2003) at 923-943.
16. Von Hippel, Eric A. “Democratizing Innovation.” Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (April 2005).
17. Von Hippel, Eric A. “Sources of Innovation.” New York: Oxford University Press. (1988).
18. Malone, T.W., R. Laubacher, and C. Dellarocas. “Harnessing Crowds: Mapping the Genome of Collective Intelligence.” MIT Sloan School Working Paper (February 2009) at 4732-09.
19. Unrau, Jack J. “The Experts at the Periphery.” Wired Magazine. July 10, 2007.
20. Walker, Richard W. “What 205 Prize Challenges Have Taught Government Agencies.” September 10, 2012.
21. “Wikipedia:Awards.”
22. “” The GovLab Open Governance Knowledge Base.
23. “Government Innovation: ‘Mayors Challenge’.” Bloomberg Philanthropies.

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One Response to “Proposal 12 for ICANN: Enhance Learning by Encouraging Games”

  1. Chuck Gomes March 14, 2014 at 12:23 am #

    It would be helpful to develop a plan to introduce gamification principles gradually over time test some of them in existing processes.

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