Five rules for designing a policymaking game
These rules are not an exhaustive list of guidelines but a series of prompts, informed by Nesta and Digital Liberties’ experience developing Innovate!
Be clear on your goals
From the outset it is crucial to think about what the game will achieve. ‘Goals’, in this context, means learning objectives rather than game's objectives. (which might be to accomplish a quest for instance).
Key questions you could ask yourself at this stage could include:
- What will the game try to achieve? Will it be a training, research, or analysis tool? Will it be used to test a specific hypothesis?
- How will the game serve that purpose?
- What will the game simulate?
Creating a game for the sake of creating one will not have the same impact as one with a clear purpose and set of objectives.
Choose the right mechanics
Only once learning objectives are really clear can you start thinking about game objectives and game play, or game mechanics. A useful way to think about this is to think about the kind of mechanics that would align with and serve the learning goals. In doing so, there is no point reinventing the wheel and other games can (and should) be great sources of inspiration.
Classic game mechanics might include (but are not limited to):
- Randomised movement on a board actioned by throwing dice (eg The Game of Life)
- Resource management, where players need to increase, spend or exchange various resources (eg Monopoly)
- Role-playing, where players act out the role of a fictional or non-fictional character (eg Werewolf)
- Getting players to solve a problem to win the game (eg Cluedo)
It is worth remembering at this stage that simple game mechanics can be as effective as more elaborate ones. The mechanics should be tailored to the primary audience and how you anticipate that they will engage with them and the game.
Have a defined and consistent narrative
The narrative of a game is the story that connects actions, choices and events. A good and coherent narrative is central to its success in engaging players. It should not be tokenistic, but properly thought through and consistent. This can help players to:
- Relate to the narrative or theme, making it more likely that they will be emotionally invested in the outcome and that they return to play again.
- Understand the rules of the game (very abstract games can be harder to play).
When developing Innovate!, we had to strike the right balance between presenting an accurate reflection of how the innovation policymaking process works, without over-simplifying the process and patronising players with experience in the field, or over-complicating it for players with no knowledge of innovation policy.
Give players meaningful choices
A game that players play just once is likely to be unsuccessful, but keeping players interested so that they play it repeatedly is a real challenge. One way to achieve this is to give players plenty of meaningful choices throughout the game, so that they do not feel like they are missing out by making a particular choice. Choices affect the game by bringing new challenges that could impact the outcome.
Meaningful choices also help players to learn from their mistakes and improve their strategy. Choices are particularly powerful and pivotal in education game design.
Take your players on a journey
Finally, keep in mind that playing a game is like taking a journey. The game is not and should not need to necessarily be an end in itself. Rather, it can be the means to achieve something else, or to start a conversation, for all the reasons highlighted in Why we created it.
As a result, framing the game is very important, especially if it is designed to teach something or pass on a message. This includes making sure that you: are open about what the game can achieve and how; clearly explain the rules; and take some time after the game is over to debrief with players on the experience and what lessons they have learned.