It’s not what you play, it’s the way that you play it

Have you seen The Hunger Games yet? If not, don’t bother. I know it puts me in a minority of something approaching one in the world, but seriously: it’s rubbish.

For those who have avoided the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s hugely popular book, the plot revolves around an authoritarian future in which a continental government keeps the otherwise restless masses entertained and distracted with an annual fight-to-the-death tournament between 24 teenage “tributes”. Sort of like X-Factor. But with bows and arrows.

(If you want visions of the future how they should be realised, just download Bladerunner, Twelve Monkeys and The Fifth Element; if you want half-decent portrayals of bloodthirsty voyeurism in the mix, add Battle Royale, Rollerball, Running Man and The Truman Show).

Anyway, its one saving grace for me is that it at least combines my two main professional interests: creating policy and creating games. A little more fascistic and lethal than I would normally advocate but thankfully a democratic and constructive approach to the potential of games in policy-making was recently at hand, too. On 3 April, Jude Ower of PlayMob led the latest (and sadly last for a while) of Political Innovation’s Translation Layer Events.

Jude discussed her (and others’) creative and game-based approaches to promoting ideas and causes. With the exponential growth in mobile technology and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, games are becoming more popular, more social and more significant. In an accompanying essay, and in her presentation, Jude highlighted examples such as Fate Of The World (which models the impact of different policy choices on climate change) and MP For A Week (which guides players through the trials and tribulations of the backbenches). There are dozens, if not hundreds, of games like these, adaptable to a number of scenarios. The PlayMob Founder and CEO recommended that, as a starting point, policy-makers could create scenarios in existing games to discover possible outcomes of new policies, and gather feedback and opinions.

In the discussion which ensued, at least three possible thematic uses of games by policy-makers were identified.

First, simulation: giving policy-makers and their constituencies the chance to test reactions to proposals, discover possible results and gather data.

Second, gamification: motivating people by applying game mechanics to non-game situations (this could be relevant to the work of the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insight Unit, the so-called “nudgers”).

Third, as a cultural and communication tool. A popular book amongst policy-makers recently has been Neil Gabler’s Life: The Movie which argues that the entertainment industry has become so dominant that its products, especially film and TV narratives, are the prism through which we analyse and plan our real lives, expecting story arcs and characterisations to play out as “normal”. Many of us have a similar relationship to games of all types, with the choices we make and the people with which we interact, as we go about our business, being similar to “turns” and “players”. Policy games can tap into this popularity and mindset. Especially amongst young people, where Marshall McLuhan’s assertion (I would say, prophecy) that the medium is the message holds nowhere more true than for the mobile screen in their pocket. The opportunities for communicating in the form of games could be very significant.

With 7 billion hours per week spent playing games, the potential for linking all this playing to policy-making certainly cannot be ignored. Games are moving from the entertainment to the experimental sphere.

The barriers are those familiar to anyone looking to reform bureaucracies: cost-effectiveness, political courage, and top-down control. No one wants to (or even can these days) end up spending more than at present to achieve marginal improvements; and no one wants to be coerced.

It is perhaps the last of these that is most significant. If games are to be used in education policy, for example, it is only educators that can ultimately make it work for learners. In health, only the healers can really decide if it will be effective for those seeking treatment. In transport, only the carriers can really implement it for those being carried.

The introduction of a more widespread use of games in policy-making, then, needs to focus on the end-users of services and their immediate suppliers. Facilitated by decision-makers and supported by those who make, promote and play games, it could certainly change how some public services are designed and delivered. As the boys and girls didn’t quite once sing, it ain’t what you play, it’s the way that you play it (and that’s what gets results).

About Dan Fox

Dan Fox is an entrepreneur, campaigner and writer. He is an Honorary Research Associate at UCL, supporting innovation in the field of resilience, and Co-Founder of The Game Trainers, a consultancy promoting games and game mechanics for business, professional and personal development. He tweets as @campaigner and blogs about politics as Loose Red.
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