Diversity and Democracy

Game Theory and Reality TV: Pathways to Democratic Thinking

The hallmark of a democracy is the engagement and participation of its members. The hallmark of democratic thinking is the intellectual process through which that engagement and participation unfolds. In practicing democratic thinking, students must learn to contribute to democratic processes, have a stake in their outcomes, and use critical thinking to reach consensus about final outputs. This can be pretty heady stuff for a generation of students who may have spent much of their lives in isolated environments where their primary participation was governed by a mobile device or game controller.

My goal as an educator is to make democratic thinking fun for students by reaching them where they are. Because many students love games and media, I designed a teaching methodology that combines these elements in a living laboratory where students can learn in an effortless way. Using this methodology—which I call ¡MPACT-ED! for Impactful, Measureable, Personal, and Collaborative Teaching for Engaging Education—I apply game theory to an educational environment through projects inspired by reality television.

The Role of Game Theory

Game theory suggests ways of getting students engaged in subjects that they might otherwise shy away from. Today’s learners may have limited time and attention, and teaching professionals must find new ways of engaging these learners (Kapp 2012, 22). As one such approach, “gamification”—game theory application—provides the “stickiness” needed to engage students in pedagogy. Three key elements tend to keep players coming back to games: meaning, mastery, and autonomy (Deterding 2011). If a game or project has meaning to students, they are motivated to work on it. In the process of doing so, they master certain skill sets; mastery—“the experience of being competent, of achieving something”—“is at the core of what makes any good game fun and engaging” (Deterding 2011). Finally, autonomy is important to students because it gives them a sense of control. They are free to come into the project and determine how they participate.

These three elements are not only at the center of gamification; they are also at the core of a well-functioning democratic society. Thus these elements suggest new ways to motivate a generation of students and engage them in democratic thinking, and they form the basis of several educational projects I have organized based on reality television. Reality television is an apt focus for these projects because students enjoy peeking into the lives of others and appreciate the game-like elements, such as episodic challenges and high-stakes elimination, that are at the heart of many reality television shows.

These projects have meaning for students who love reality television. They give students a chance to master production skills and to help each other improve those skills as they use critical thinking and teamwork to reach consensus and achieve the best final output, be it an episode of the show or an iteration of a consumer product. Finally, in allowing students to choose their roles in the production process and the corresponding skills they want to practice, these projects give students autonomy. The result is a form of participatory learning and teaching that prepares students for democratic engagement.

The American Dream at High Point University

At High Point University, my colleagues and I applied the principles of game theory through the American Dream Project, a two-year (2011–13) multidisciplinary effort through which students studied journalism, video production, editing, public relations, event management, music, political science, history, art, design, government, and religion. In preparation for the 2012 presidential election and the United States Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act, High Point University students filmed a reality show focused on topics like government entitlements, religion, unemployment, homelessness, and healthcare accessibility. Part of High Point University’s Democracy USA Project, through which students learned about government and the importance of understanding and participating in the democratic process, the American Dream Project provided students with hands-on experience related to their personal and professional interests.

The American Dream project involved about one hundred students and twenty faculty members. Students participated on a voluntary basis using skill sets they learned in various classes, including video production, news writing, and editing. Students built a social media presence on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to connect themselves to other like-minded students as they sharpened a wide variety of skill sets and competencies. Instructors acted as guides and facilitators, answering questions while students developed a theoretical understanding of the material and practiced applying it in a content production laboratory on campus.

The process of filming each episode offered opportunities for students not only to develop their skills, but also to examine the perspectives of others and their own positions on various policy matters. For example, during a unit on health care, instructors interviewed students about whether the United States should offer health care to everyone. Immediately after taping students’ answers, we visited the local free health clinic, where students spoke with doctors, administrators, and patients. Following those discussions, we asked students to reflect again on the interview questions from the morning. Students created an episode of a reality television show using these clips (available at http://vimeo.com/59434031). In addition to these activities, students held seminars with local and state politicians, lobbyists, and activists.

In 2012, students traveled to both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, where they attended multiple forums including “Conversations with the Next Generation” featuring Chelsea Clinton and George P. Bush. At the conventions, students visited the nonpartisan National Democratic Institute and hosted their own panel on religion in politics featuring local politicians and religious leaders from across the political spectrum. As a means of beginning conversation with high-level politicos, students also gathered the signatures of dignitaries for a souvenir book and autograph-laden upholstered chair created by the School of Design. During the conventions, some students also worked with the local Fox news affiliate. Through these opportunities, students gained real-world understanding of their disciplines and insight into the political process, the economy, and what it means to be a citizen in a democracy.

STEM at Hampton University

At Hampton University, my colleagues and I are now applying the rules of game theory to engage students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Based at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications, the project is designed to demystify STEM for students and the general public using communication tools: television, news, graphic content, social media, events, photography, and video. This time, we are creating a reality television show based around a high-stakes contest. Through a series of challenges, students will create, brand, package, and market a line of health and beauty consumer products.

In addition to faculty and students from the school of journalism and communications, this multidisciplinary project involves participants from the schools of education, science, and business as well as the departments of computer science, chemistry, biology, history, music, art, and behavioral research. Hampton University’s Skin of Color Research Institute is assisting students as they create consumer health and beauty products.


Through communications projects based in game theory, students become engaged in the process of learning, participate in both their educations and their community, and learn to work together in the service of shared goals. By applying their learning in a real-world environment, students gain experience that is relevant to their careers and to their democratic participation, while faculty find an exciting new way to teach their disciplines’ subject matter.

To learn more about the American Dream Project at High Point University, visit http://myamericandream.us/. To learn more about the STEM project at Hampton University, contact Carol A. Davis at carol.davis@hamptonu.edu


Deterding, Sebastian. 2011. “Meaningful Play: Getting Gamification Right.” Google Tech Talk, January 24. http://www.slideshare.net/dings/meaningful-play-getting-gamification-right.

Kapp, Karl M. 2012. The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons / Pfeiffer.

Carol A. Davis is Scripps Howard Endowed Professor at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications, Hampton University.

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