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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

How to use games to involve the public in decisions about research and innovation policy

Imagine a local council consultation exercise - what comes to mind? For us, it’s a stall in a local library, or a meeting with local political activists in their fifties and sixties. Now imagine a room full of young people who voluntarily come to tell the council their ideas. How would you do that?

In Cambridge, they managed it by using Minecraft and virtual reality. Participants were able to walk around a virtual model of a planned neighbourhood regeneration project, then roll up their sleeves and build their own ideas. The workshop generated ‘a hugely diverse and creative range of proposals’ said James Delaney, from the University of Cambridge.

Games are wonderful tools to start conversations. They are great at illustrating the trade-offs associated with making certain choices, they encourage players to really develop an understanding of the perspectives of their team members or opponents, and they are able to present data, ideas and trends in new and intuitive ways. As such, games present a real opportunity to be used for serious purposes, like the planning example above.

When it comes to research and innovation, games are largely used for two reasons: to improve public understanding and for citizen science.

Public understanding

Games are a great tool for improving public understanding of science, research and innovation because they can reach audiences who don’t engage with these subjects in other ways. For example, lots of games are aimed at helping children understand science, from Public Health England’s Stop the Spread game about how colds spread, to Aardman’s Hungry City game, which was designed to educate children and families about the future of food, health and the environment. Other examples of public understanding games include Nesta’s Superbugs game, which is about raising awareness of antimicrobial resistance.

Games can also help adults learn more about science and innovation too. For example, the surreal and fascinating PlayStation game Everything, supported by the Wellcome Trust, which ultimately brings home the message to players that in the universe, everything is connected. Another example is the Developing Beyond programme, which has funded a number of science games, from Terramars, a game about terraforming of Mars, to Seed, a virtual reality game which teaches players about engineering plant life.

Another example is The Uber Game. Developed as a digital tool by the Financial Times, it's an interactive game propelling the players into the role of a full-time Uber driver. The game is based on interviews with and research on Uber drivers in the San Francisco area. It forces the public to better understand what it might mean to be part of the ‘gig economy’ and what working conditions might look like for the more than 2 million Uber drivers worldwide.

Citizen science

Games are also regularly used for citizen science. If you like puzzle games, you can have a go at Phylo and contribute to DNA research. Or if you are interested in simulation games, you can have a go at Cancer Crusader, where players help to design new clinical pathways for cancer patients. One final example is Zooniverse, from the Citizen Science Alliance, which is a science games portal with dozens of games, from nature to climate change, humanities to art.

How do citizen science games work? The focus of the best games is getting players to complete a task by either giving them rewards or making the game play itself addictive.

Towards games for informed and inclusive policymaking

Beyond public understanding and citizen science, we think games have a lot of potential to enable informed and inclusive conversations about research and innovation policy, whether that’s about the regulation of emerging technologies or priorities for research and innovation funding. At present however, games are used much less for these purposes. One analysis of 87 life science games found no games that were about these ‘upstream’ issues, such as the planning and design of research or research programmes.

We think there are two avenues which could be explored: one is taking games which are made for policymakers and using them for public engagement and the other is exploring gamification techniques in traditional public engagement work.

The European Commission’s Scenario Exploration System is a board game that is designed to engage players in future-thinking and scenario building, through impersonating different types of stakeholders with different long-term objectives, and within different time horizons (5, 10 and 20 years). Because it creates a coherent and realistic path to the future, the game acts as a safe space in which players can dabble with various responses or interventions, seeing how that affects the interests of other players.

Another example of games being used by policymakers is an innovation policy themed board game developed by Nesta and Digital Liberties. Players take on the role of innovation policymakers attempting to put together a package of policies to address large social issues, like air pollution or data protection for example. Players must then use a range of tools to uncover evidence and policy ideas from five different stakeholder groups. The game also includes a fixed budget and event cards that are meant to disrupt the game and force players to adapt their strategy.

When it comes to gamification, we have seen several examples where game-like elements are being introduced into public engagement exercises. For example, many councils have used budget simulators to engage the public in thinking about how they fund their services. Another example is Nesta's recent public dialogue on the social and ethical challenges of using AI in healthcare, where we asked participants to work together to build paper algorithms. These examples are perhaps stretching the meaning of gamification from being about gaining points, competing and winning, to simply making an experience engaging and entertaining. However, we think these are early signs of an interest and willingness to use methods from the world of games to engage the public in discussions about research and innovation policy.

What we’re doing at Nesta

We now think there is an opportunity to bring together these different elements - the creativity of games designed to inform the public or involve them in citizens science and games designed to engage policymakers in thinking about policy issues in creative ways - and test them as a method of public engagement: how can games enable inclusive and conversations around research and innovation policy?

As a first step, we would like to bring together the best examples of games being used in this way. What examples have we missed? We aim to publish a report on creative approaches to public engagement later this year. Following this we are planning to hold a workshop on games and public engagement. Check the Everyone Makes Innovation Policy page for updates or follow @FEngasser or @tom_saunders.

This blog is part of Nesta’s Everyone Makes Innovation Policy grant programme. As part of this we are running a short blog series on creative approaches to public engagement. Next in the series we have a blog on the use of storytelling in science and innovation policymaking.


Florence Engasser

Florence Engasser

Florence Engasser

Senior Foresight Analyst

Florence was a senior foresight analyst within Nesta’s Discovery Hub, which aims to create a link between Nesta’s current portfolio and our pipeline of future work.

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Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Principal Researcher

Tom was a Principal Researcher in the inclusive innovation team.

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