Game on

Governments across the world are increasingly using online games to train staff and engage with the public.

Politics, we are often told, is a serious business – but can government be a game? ‘Yes it can’ is the conclusion officials are coming to the world over.

Public sector agencies are turning to something called “gamification” or “game science” to help them run communications campaigns, engage citizens, train officials and even change behaviour.

How does it work? Gamification creates an environment where people compete to win prizes as part of a game, and through the process learn something new or behave in a desirable manner.

Government officials can use games to raise awareness of new or undervalued initiatives. Take the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS): it wanted to make citizens more aware of the national census, and traditional communications campaigns weren’t working. 

The ABS built Run That Town, a game for smartphones where citizens pretend to be mayor of a city and make decisions using real census data – including gender, employment, education, income, age, transport and home ownership information. The game has been downloaded by tens of thousands of people, helping raise awareness of the value of the census – especially among a younger demographic.

Games can also tackle tougher challenges. How do you make often-hated speed cameras raise a smile from motorists? One campaign in Sweden had a novel approach: a speed camera lottery to reward drivers who stay within the limit. Every driver who went past received a thumbs-up on a big screen if they were below the limit and were entered into a prize draw at the end of the competition. The initial idea was that a lucky driver would win some of the money from speeding fines, but this was scaled back. Nevertheless, a mixture of fun and competition can change behaviour.

Gamification isn’t just about coming up with new ideas, however. Some agencies latch onto existing trends in the gaming community and simply adapt them. Back in 2002, the United States Army noticed the huge popularity of war games, and decided to build its own. America’s Army is now an enormously popular free online game which runs military recruitment adverts in between each level. It is regularly updated, hugely sophisticated, and an important tool in the Army’s recruitment arsenal.

Internal objectives can also be achieved through gamification. I recently caught up with Peter Ho, Singapore’s former civil service head, who is pioneering the idea of ‘policy games’ to train civil servants. 

Ho was inspired, in part, by an American psychologist’s study of how firefighters make decisions in complex and stressful situations. They do not fight fires by using the logical stages set out in their manuals; they respond by using their closest experience to the current scenario.

Policy games help officials gain new experiences that they can draw on under pressure, and Singapore runs a number of them, including Cents and Sensibilites – a procurement simulation, and a game where officials try to build a station near an expensive block of condominiums, in the process fielding citizen complaints, transport agency suggestions and newspaper enquiries.

Singapore is now investing in a new online platform that will allow it to build policy games which ordinary participants can join to make the experience richer. It will resemble those built by the US Navy to prepare for Somalian pirates, albeit on a smaller scale. Imagine how much smoother the rollout of a contentious new policy could be if all the participants had war gamed the situation in an online simulator!

Some Australian state agencies are even turning to gamification to change employee behaviour. By handing out free fitness trackers, they are hoping to generate a competition amongst employees to keep fit – and improve their workplace productivity in the process.

Undoubtedly, there are limits to gamification. I played a lot of government games last year to try to pick six good examples, but the vast majority I found weren’t particularly fun or immersive. The technique only works when a scenario is fun and builds a genuine sense of competition.

Even the bad games represent an attempt to try something new, however, which is especially important when reaching out to disaffected people and a younger demographic. Perhaps a game could be developed that sees young people help tackle the threat of ISIS in the Middle East, combating some of the online radicalisation of young people in the West? After all, Britain is home to many of the best video games companies in the world.

Gamification is already a hit in many public sector agencies across the world. But a more concerted use from the British government could see it taken to the next level.

About the author

Joshua Chambers is editor of FutureGov.Asia

Colin Marrs

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