Design for voluntary participation
By Didi Dada /

What is voluntary participation

In her book -Reality is broken: how games make us better – McGonigal (2011) defines voluntary participation as a characteristic of games where a player participating in a game willingly and knowingly accepts the goals, the rules, and the feedback to ensure that intentionally stressful and challenging work is experienced as safe and pleasurable activity [p. 20]. On his article about freedom in schooling, Gray (2013) implies that voluntary participation is a fundamental freedom on which all other freedoms are based; ..’when we think about life’s broader goals – surviving, avoiding injury, finding happiness, … we see that the freedom to walk away from people and situations that are harmful to our well-being is essential to all of these goals’. 

Interestingly and contrary to what maybe the typical assumption, voluntary participation is not brought about by laziness or aimed at avoiding challenges. Instead, it builds upon reflection (the acknowledgement of possible activities and their consequences) to ensure that the experience of dealing with challenges is safe and pleasurable. This freedom (intrinsic motivation) to withdraw (to avoid/minimize injury (mental/physical)) or participate (experiencing challenges as safe and pleasurable) in a phenomenon defines and leads to optimal engagement – the most pleasurable, satisfying, and meaningful emotional state one can experience (McGonigal, 2011).

Design for Voluntary Participation

As can be deduced from the Engagement Cause and Effect matrix above, Optimal engagement may not be necessarily directed towards productivity but is more favorable to it than the other categories of engagement (How to measure user engagement).

Connotations of power come into mind when we think and talk about freedoms. Fundamentally, however, if none is inherently better than the other, then ‘one’s freedom in relation to others is neither the freedom to change others nor is it the possession of power over others, but the freedom to change oneself‘ (Gray, 2013; Carse, 1986). Else we find ourselves under mob rule, where the 51% 1% (if you like) determine the lives of the other 49 99. We need not delve into situations where ‘givings and takings’ of freedoms have occurred. Lets reserve another article for the ‘design for involuntary/coerced participation’ thesis). 

[For this thesis] We may then suggest that:

Voluntary participation is the freedom to seek optimally engaging experiences characterized firstly, by the withdrawal from phenomenon that may harbor harmful experiences and secondly, by the engagement in phenomenon that may result to pleasurable, satisfying and meaningful experiences. 

Withdrawal is given preference due to the default nature of being where we find ourselves taking part in a situation without there being an active & conscious decision on our part to be part of the situation. Almost surprisingly, by default, we find ourselves as part of societal institutions and laws for which we never choose to be part of.

Voluntary participation also implies a neutral state of existence to which one falls back to when they withdrawal their participation from some phenomenon and from which one makes a choice to participate in some phenomenon. Lets refer to this as a neutral state

To illustrate the neutral state, lets consider democratic/humanistic education. We see that participants in this mode of learning have a neutral state of being the curious, playful individuals who can voluntarily choose to participate in classes and be taught and can also withdrawal from classes to engage in curious/playful activities of their desire.

The cost of voluntary participation – the neutral state

Of course it may be said that voluntary participation comes at a cost. When we choose one option over another, we loose whatever we may have gained from that option. In some cases, choices are not any better in themselves, especially if we have to select between two evils. In the case of slavery, for instance, the options maybe of life (an oppressed one) and death. In such cases however, we see that the oppressed takes up their role voluntarily even though their refusal to participate would be costly in terms of bodily harm or even death (Carse, 1986).

It has been typically said that ‘Quitters never win, and winners never quit. But those who never win and never quit are idiots’. However, if a systemic/institutional design is such that its participants can neither win nor quit, then we may regard the designers of such systems/institutions as idiots.

Considering the nature of our systemic and institutional designs, we see that they do not feature a neutral state. Usually, one’s participation in them is the only option and requires no active action of selection on the self. Regrettably, the individual finds himself participating in a situation which is not optimally engaging and sadly feels powerless to withdrawal. ‘Although it may be evident enough in theory that whoever participates in a given phenomenon does so freely, it is often the case that individuals will be unaware of this absolute freedom and will come to think that whatever they do they must do, for two reasons. One, because the lack of adherence to the rules and expectation surrounding the role that the individual plays can mean that their permission to play the role can be revoked and two because life is deemed unworthy without the rewards that may be had from playing the roles’ (Carse, 1986)

..while no one is forced to remain in their role (e.g. a lawyer), each role is nonetheless surrounded both by ruled constraints and expectations on the part of others. One senses a compulsion to maintain a certain level of performance, because permission to participate in the phenomenon can be canceled. We cannot do whatever we please and remain in our roles (lawyers ..)- and yet we could not be either unless we pleased (Carse, 1986)

Perhaps the greatest neutral state is the absolute abstinence – death – because once entered, an individual withdrawals their participation from all other systems and institutions surrounding them. While this may seem extreme, it has to be recognized as a conscious and active effort to withdrawal one’s participation from an adverse phenomenon. In addition, we cannot afford to delude ourselves that the ‘problem’ is in the individual, more than it is in the phenomenon from which adverse experience is derived.

What then, is Design for Voluntary Participation?

Carse (1986) claims that nature is the genius of itself, that unlike a machine which has to be driven by energy from without, nature is driven by its own spontaneity and originality that originate from within itself – intrinsic motivation. This implies that motivation to seek challenges that may result to pleasurable, meaningful, satisfying experiences can only be found within individuals. Attempts to ‘give’ the motivation from outside mechanizes the individual (Gatto, 1992; Carse, 1986).

The function of the child is to live his own life – not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots. – A.S. Neill

The drawback in mechanizing individuals – attempting to motivate them through extrinsic motivators – is the creation of waste persons, Carse (1986) claims.  Waste persons are those whose source (intrinsic motivation) does not fit into resource that society wants (Carse, 1986). Waste persons are characterized by the effects of extrinsic motivations including poor performance, engagement in avoidance behavior, economic, social, emotional & intellectual dependency, chronic stress, and a suspension of one’s freedom, the lack of acknowledgement of one’s intrinsic motivations by oneself and others. (Vicente, 1999; Carse, 1986; Gatto, 1992; McGonigal, 2011).

Following this train of thought, we may consider..

Design for voluntary participation as a design strategy that affords individuals the freedom to seek optimally engaging experiences by featuring a neutral state to which participation can be withdrawn to or engaged from.

Characteristics of a system/institution designed for voluntary participation 

  • Features a neutral state
  • Affords the freedom to seek optimally engaging (pleasurable, satisfying and meaningful) experiences
  • Turns on the awareness that vitality (intrinsic motivation) cannot be given, only found (from within)
  • Respects patterns of (intrinsic motivation’s) spontaneity and originality
  • Minimizes if not eradicates the creation of waste persons


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Design for voluntary participation