Skip to content

We decided to develop a board game for one simple reason: policymaking, and innovation policymaking in particular, is hard.

This stems from two main issues.

  • Innovation policymakers are increasingly tasked with solving ever greater, more complex challenges, like climate change or the future of jobs. They involve many different stakeholders and have the potential to directly impact future generations.
  • Simultaneously, it is difficult for policymakers to adjust to unpredictable events with their current instruments. Examples include the election of Donald Trump in the US, the Brexit referendum in the UK or the fall of the traditional leftist party after the French presidential elections. And while it has never been possible to accurately predict the future, new socio-economic and political movements bring even more questions and doubt into the process.

The value of simulation

For the purpose of our research and this report, we have roughly defined simulation as ‘the imitation of a real world process, system or actor’. In the way we are describing them here, then, games are a form of simulation. We are using the game primarily to experiment with raising awareness of the main issues and trade-offs policymakers have to deal with when facing complex choices in increasingly unpredictable environments.

Games are experiential by nature and include rules that simulate facets of a complex world we are trying to explore. By designing a game, with its interactive and experiential elements, we are moving beyond merely telling people that innovation policy trade-offs are hard, allowing them to experience aspects of those challenges directly. The player can look at a subject from many different angles and learn something new about the complex whole each time. It is important to stress that we are not simulating ‘the world’, but representing an experience within it – that of innovation policymaking.

Below are some key benefits that we believe games are bringing to policy training and practice tools, illustrated with examples gathered from the world of policymaking.

Illustrate trade-offs

Games can illustrate trade-offs that are inherent to any decision-making process and they can elicit choices from players, helping them to understand the consequences of those choices.

A great example of this is the Uber Game, developed in 2017 by the Financial Times, which is based on interviews with, and research on, Uber drivers in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is an online, multiple-choice game that positions the player as an Uber driver, with the goal of earning enough money in seven days to be able to make payments on a typical $1,000-a-month mortgage. The player navigates the game by making choices, such as working late or coming home early to help a child with homework. These choices are aggregated and impact the outcome of the game, forcing the player to reflect on trade-offs around aspects such as income, work hours, incentives and location, and what may have been different if they had made other choices. The game also helps to bring data to life and started a conversation that could lead to real changes in practice.

Enable better visualisation

A benefit of using games to illustrate policymaking processes is that they can present data, ideas, concepts or trends in new and interesting ways, which might be more intuitive than traditional methods or mediums like reports, policy papers or legislation. They adopt a certain level of simplification, which helps to make them fun and engaging. Consequently, they are a powerful medium to carry a set of lessons or a message.

Datopolis, a serious game about data policy, was developed by the Open Data Institute between 2015 and 2016. The game aims to change the way the public thinks about open data and data-related issues. With well-thought-out game mechanics (the basic rules of the game being individual mission cards; trading and tile placement in this case) and a healthy dose of competition, the game helps players to develop a better understanding of the complexity of data policy. Players learn about the dangers of working in silos and the value of sharing information effectively among other things.

Understand different perspectives

Games are also good at helping players develop an understanding of, and empathy with, different perspectives because they can integrate elements of role playing, or can require players to guess or analyse the strategy of their opponents or team members.

The European Commission’s Scenario Exploration System, developed in collaboration with the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, is a board game that aims to engage players in building scenario and exploring future-thinking concepts. Each player takes on the role of a stakeholder (entrepreneur, academic, citizen, for example) with a specific long-term objective. The player has to build scenarios at various times in the future (five, ten or even twenty years from now), from the perspective of that stakeholder. By trying to achieve objectives from a position that is different from their own, players can gain insight into the motivations, incentives and perspectives of others.

Highlight the power of collaboration

Games are a powerful way to showcase opportunities for collaboration and how that might be achieved. This is central to many games as alliances can make resources and strategies more efficient.

Games studio Free Ice Cream, specialising in real-world games, developed the multi-platform experience 2030 Hive Mind for a UN conference in early 2017. More than 450 conference participants played the role of government ministers in fictional low-income countries, with an allocated portfolio of policies, a fixed budget and the objective to achieve a specific sustainable development goal.

Participants initially started playing the game ‘online’, through the dedicated application. But as they realised other players had similar goals and resources that could be combined to improve efficiency, they quickly started to collaborate ‘offline’, in the physical realm of the conference.

Provide a space for experimentation

Because games often simulate a real world system or process, they naturally provide a form of distance from reality. That distance allows players to experiment with different strategies, in real time, at a relatively low cost of failure compared to real-world trials or experiments.

The Indian not-for-profit organisation Fields of View are experts in developing policy simulations. They developed the board game ₹ubbish, to try and solve the waste management crisis affecting the city of Bangalore. Through collaboration with MediaLAB Amsterdam, the team realised the game would be an appropriate tool to get policymakers, citizens and waste collection managers together to discuss what was not working with the city’s waste management policy and in the system more generally. The game allowed these conversations to happen by giving stakeholders distance from reality and their day jobs, and a safe space to discuss potential solutions.

Games are a form of simulation, often imitating a real-world process, system or actor within a scenario. As with any model of a process or situation, users of that model need to be aware of the assumptions built into it, because they are subjective and can be biased. Games also run the risk of oversimplifying, or failing to simplify enough, the systems they represent. This could mean they are less effective in achieving their objectives.

The key to maximising the value of games lies in the clarity of their goals and the honesty and transparency around what they can or cannot achieve. See our Five rules for designing a policymaking game for more advice in this area.

Authors

Florence Engasser

Florence Engasser

Florence Engasser

Senior Researcher, International Innovation

Florence is a senior researcher within Nesta’s International Innovation team, which examines global trends and practices in innovation, with an emphasis on emerging economies.

View profile

Rosa Carbo-Mascarell

Game designer, business developer and producer at Digital Liberties, a cooperative of game makers, designers and policy analysts.