How do you make a game out of a topic as serious as designing a policy mix for international development? That is exactly what playability and gamification are all about, and that is the challenge undertaken by UK-based games studio Free Ice Cream. Its purpose is to make complex subjects playable, and in 2017 it designed and released 2030 Hive Mind, a multiplayer, multichannel policy simulation.

Simulated environment and real world interactions

Free Ice Cream was commissioned by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the UNDP to create a game exploring the challenges faced by policymakers and practitioners working towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Free Ice Cream’s take on that challenge was to design a game actively reflecting the difficulties and opportunities linked to policy prioritisation, resource-budgeting and lobbying.

2030 Hive Mind is a social gaming experience, and was unveiled at the Global Festival of Ideas for Sustainable Development. More than 450 participants played the role of government ministers in fictional low-income countries over the course of three days. Each player was given an allocated portfolio of policies and yearly budget via a dedicated app on their phones, along with a clear objective: achieving their department’s SDG by 2030. Participants were also encouraged to use touchscreen tables, where they could share their individual strategies by playing with interactive and real-time data visualisations. Finally, players could track their progress and the impact of their decisions on the ‘real world’ through regular newsflashes.

Understanding complexity and interdependencies

Beyond fun, playing 2030 Hive Mind enabled participants to experience first hand some of the most complex challenges of policymaking, to witness in real time the interdependencies between policy fields.

The regular introductions of shocks and crises disturbing the status quo remind players that they cannot plan for everything

Some policies compete, while some others turn out to be complementary. To do well in the game, players needed to find ways to collaborate and coordinate in spite of the variety of actors and ambitions. Players learned that even with appropriate budget and resources, their ambitions would not come to fruition if they worked in isolation. Furthermore, the regular introductions of shocks and crises disturbing the status quo remind players that they cannot plan for everything.

Games like 2030 Hive Mind contribute to making policy design and implementation more dynamic and more adaptive. This is why Free Ice Cream, drawing on the game’s success at the Festival of Ideas, hopes to release the game software as open-source, to enable other groups to adapt and play it.

Thanks to Simon Johnson and Sam Howey Nunn from Free Ice Cream for taking the time to speak with us.

Photo: Playing with the 2030 Hive Mind Policy Deck. Global Festival of Action for Sustainable Development photo collection via Flickr.