ETHOS Issue 16, Dec 2016
Power of Games to Drive Policy Outcomes from Civil Service College Singapore on Vimeo.
Play is natural. From young, people and animals naturally seek out playful experiences. Even as we mature, we continue to play: the games we play grow in complexity. But games do more than engage and entertain us. They can impart knowledge and skills, different from the explicit knowledge that is formalised, codified, and written down, for others to learn.
This is “tacit” knowledge, which is embedded in complex systems and situations that are difficult to codify. More often than not, tacit knowledge pertains to the “real world”, which is inevitably complex, and which behaves in a non-Newtonian fashion where inputs do not necessarily lead to predictable outputs. The tacit knowledge of this real world can often only be acquired through lived experience.
TACIT KNOWLEDGE AND THE CIVIL SERVANT
The lived experience of civil servants, although they would like to think otherwise, is inherently complex, if not chaotic. Although we often think that it is merely complicated, in which cause leads to predictable effect, most of the time it is not. This is why, sooner or later, most plans and policies outlive their usefulness. They become unfit for the purposes that they were designed for, as assumptions are invalidated over time and as circumstances change. This is a consequence of the complex or real world we live in.
Civil servants need to learn how to cope with this complexity. This means that it is as important for them to acquire tacit knowledge as it is to learn explicit knowledge. Besides on-the-job training, simulations, exercise and games — often referred to as “serious games” — are an important, if underutilised, means to convey tacit knowledge.
Simulations, exercises and games provide a useful shortcut in the learning process, so that when we do encounter similar situations in real-life, we would have a reasonable sense of how some of these events might play out for real, and then some instinct for how to respond to them. Studying such simulations can help public servants prepare for such eventualities before they occur in the real world.
Learning From Games
At the University of Central Florida, trainee teachers undergo a realistic and interactive simulation called TeachLIVE that exposes them to common student archetypes that they are likely to encounter in the classroom. Controlled by a human “interactor” who has improvisational skills, the virtual student characters, who are in reality actors, respond — or not — to a trainee teacher’s instructions. With five levels of obedience, trainee teachers are exposed, and have to respond immediately, to a variety of classroom scenarios — but in a safe environment. This allows the trainees and their instructor to revisit a scenario, but employ different approaches. With cohorts of trainee teachers going through this simulation, those who do become teachers after the experience have a common reference point and language to discuss their real students.
World of Warcraft
On 13 September 2005, a glitch in World of Warcraft, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), led to players contracting and spreading a disease that killed them off over time. While the disease was supposed to be confined to a particular locale in the game, the glitch enabled players to transmit the disease — as in real life — beyond the boundaries of that area. When the disease first emerged, there was a lot of confusion and uncertainty. Some players deliberately spread the disease to populated cities, leading to the death of many characters in the game, and laying waste to large swathes of populated areas. On the other hand, there were some players with in-game healing powers who cured those with the disease. Others helped by warning people to stay away from the cities. There were also some who went into the epicentre out of curiosity, despite the danger, much like journalists attracted to crises. This virtual plague, often referred to as the Corrupted Blood incident, has been studied by epidemiologists1 because it mimicked the behaviour of people in real-life pandemics, proving more realistic than mathematical models.
- One such researcher was Professor Nina H Fefferman, who argued that relevant games could be used to improve the applied simulation modelling in the research on infectious diseases. This was in part because a real world scientific experiment would be potentially unethical.
NURTURING EMPATHY AND INTERPERSONAL UNDERSTANDING
Simulations, exercises and games have benefits that extend beyond training and development. They do more than impart tacit knowledge. They are able to evoke emotions and awaken our senses. Among other things, these aid our ability to take on different perspectives, which is important when tackling wicked problems. To be able to craft citizen-centric policies that address not just the mind, but also the hearts of our residents, policymakers in Singapore must be able to walk in their shoes. Serious games are therefore a useful tool in a policymaker’s toolkit. Some government agencies are already using this methodology meaningfully.
Ministry of Manpower
Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has created games to help participants experience the tensions and challenges of working and living in three future scenarios. The joys and frustrations experienced in these games by the participants gave them much food for thought and for reflection, insights that could inform the enhancement of existing manpower policies. This method of engaging the audience, while driving home a serious message, was adapted by the Strategy Group of the Prime Minister’s Office to help public sector leaders consider the potential challenges that jobseekers will face in the future.
When the SGFuture Public Engagement sessions were introduced, MOM once again decided to use a game format to reach out to members of the public.1 Over four rounds, players either had to seek out jobs that met their expectations, or hire employees that met minimum requirements. Participants imbibed the message of investing in lifelong learning to stay relevant to the global economy. Not only was this a more engaging method of connecting with the public, the experiential activity also helped participants better understand the expected shifts in the future environment of work, which enriched the ensuing dialogue.
Empathy Through Games
That Dragon, Cancer
This interactive video “game” takes the player through the real-life journey of a family with a child stricken with terminal cancer. Players experience the small joys and painful memories narrated by the actual parents of the child. It is a different way for people to relate and connect with one another over a topic that would otherwise be difficult to talk about. It creates empathy, and allows the player to consider a different perspective.
This BBC-produced, online “choose your own adventure” narrative about Syrian refugees escaping to Europe1 was based on research done by BBC journalists and supplemented by reports and stories from actual refugees. It highlights the difficulties and experiences of Syrian refugees, helping players to enter the frame of mind of the refugees, without having to make the actual journey to Syria.
- This game can be played at www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32057601.
DRIVING (UNDERSTANDING OF) POLICY IMPLEMENTATION
Policymakers should not look at serious games as a one-way street. In addition to helping policymakers understand the ground, games are an excellent way to allow different groups of people to better understand one another, as well as the constraints faced by government in coming up with policies. With the power to reach out to the masses and bridge divides, games can also be a great platform for fostering collaboration between groups of people.
Land Transport Authority
Our local agencies are also in the game. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) recently piloted their Travel Smart Rewards,2 which encourages commuters to shift their travel times to outside of the morning peak period. In addition to gamifying the programme by awarding points, LTA also incorporated a modified Snakes and Ladders game to further engage commuters, allowing them to win up to $1,500 in cash rewards. LTA has gathered useful feedback and meta-data, which have been used to develop a second version of the programme. This time, they intend to introduce more games to appeal to different commuter segments, including one that incorporates elements of skill, rather than just pure chance.
Health Promotion Board
Through the feedback and results gathered by a few pilots and health challenges, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) designed and launched the National Steps Challenge last year to encourage Singaporeans to keep active. HPB paired a wearable steps tracker with a game-based incentive system, through the Healthy 365 mobile app. The app nudged and motivated its users to clock steps, attracting over 156,000 participants to sit less and move more. The scheme was so popular that at one point, the Health 365 mobile app was receiving around 3,000 hits a day, making it the number one trending app in the whole Singapore. Importantly, HPB was able to follow up with people who dropped out of the scheme to understand why they discontinued. From the lessons learnt, Season 2 of the challenge promises to be more engaging,3 and HPB is already sourcing for new ideas for Season 3.
Games in Support of Public Policy
Chair the Fed
In this online game created by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco,1 players act as the chair of the Federal Reserve for four years, enacting monetary policies to achieve full employment and low price inflation (known as the dual mandate). The game allows players to explore the impact of interest rate changes on unemployment, production growth, inflation and other economic indicators. This helps educate the public on the different instruments that the Federal Reserve Bank uses to do its job. Not only does it excite players enough to make them interested in finding out about the different policy tools, the “main underlying motivation for [the game] was to give some sense of what monetary policy makers face in the real world.”2 There are even resources such as lesson plans for teachers to use the game in classrooms, to reach out to younger generations of US residents.
Hack the Pentagon
Between April and May 2016, the Pentagon invited and attracted more than 1,400 programmers to hack five public Department of Defense (DoD) websites. Successful hackers would be rewarded a cash bounty if they could demonstrate and document their hacks. About US$75,000 in bounties were awarded, for 138 legitimate and unique vulnerabilities found3 — it would have cost an estimated US$1 million to hire a security firm to do the same job. Contrary to expectations, there were no negative consequences of inviting people to hack these websites. The DoD is now planning to expand the programme to other websites. Other companies like Facebook, Twitter and Uber have also used such bug bounty initiatives, leveraging crowdsourcing to resolve cyber security issues.4
Red Cross Climate Centre
The Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre, an international non-governmental organisation, has at least forty-five games to communicate to policymakers and communities alike the importance of paying attention to various humanitarian issues arising from climate change effects. These games have been played across five continents and at least forty countries,5 helping players realise the need to work together to mitigate our impact on nature, as well as to prepare for future eventualities. The utility of the games was such that Dr Pablo Suarez of the Climate Centre was able to conduct an engaging game via video conferencing during the Civil Service College’s 2nd Public Sector Games Exchange.
- This game can be played at http://sffededucation.org/chairthefed/WebGamePlay.html.
- Glenn Rudebusch, Executive Vice President at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
- More information can be found at https://hackerone.com/resources/hack-the-pentagon.
- More information can be found at https://www.wired.com/2016/03/uber-bug-bounties/
- More information can be found at www.climatecentre.org/resources-games/games
THE FUTURE OF POLICY GAMES
Of course, game development is not the core business of the Public Service. This is why we need to reach across to the non-public sector, to explore opportunities for collaboration and innovation. In particular, the non-public sector can help the government keep up-to-date with constantly changing technology, the newest products and their possibilities.
According to US firm Touchstone Research, Virtual Reality (VR) is expected to experience a staggering 200% growth over the next three years, and will spawn some 25 million users worldwide. VR technology is already used in the NUS School of Medicine for undergraduates to better understand anatomy dissection and how to deal with emergency incidents. The immersive media experience has the potential to evoke strong emotional responses, and can be a powerful tool for games, exercises and simulations.
Augmented Reality (AR) takes simulation one step further, allowing the user’s device to recognise its environments, thereby increasing the interactivity of the experience. While not necessarily a new technology, the global popularity of Pokemon Go is certain to spawn greater interest in AR.4 The public sector should consider the far-reaching potential of this technology in engaging with the public.
Cognitive computing and artificial intelligence
Cognitive Computing and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are yet another area to consider. A few government agencies have incorporated the “Ask Jamie” virtual assistant function into their websites, allowing web users to get fast and quite accurate answers to their queries. Over time, as more visitors use this feature, the system will be able to improve its accuracy to deliver better customer service. In some other systems, the programmes are even able to recognise the tone in the responses, and react in a manner appropriate to the situation. In the same way, Cognitive Computing and AI could be pulled into games-based training and policy formulation, by learning about human behaviours and replicating them in simulated exercises. Such technology is currently quite expensive, but a few years down the road, and with a few agencies coming together to explore options, there are good possibilities.
Ultimately, the Public Service will need people to work out how to use games, exercises and simulations to teach our civil servants how to operate in a complex environment. A whole ecosystem of skills will be needed, including storytellers, programmers, game designers, game developers, learning design specialists, pedagogues and even improvisational actors, and certainly psychologists. Ministries and agencies will need to think carefully about what capabilities they need to engage or invest in, in order to properly use this methodology.
- The uniqueness of this approach was covered by Olivia Ho of The Straits Times in “SGFuture dialogue: Plenty of jobs, but few takers – why?”, 6 March 2016.
- More information can be found at https://www.lta.gov.sg/content/ltagov/en/getting_around/public_transport/plan_your_journey.html#travel_smart_by_planning_your_journey"
- More information can be found at www.healthhub.sg/programmes/37/nsc
- According to a 4 August 2016 article “Imagination in the Augmented-Reality Age” in The Atlantic, the game attracted more than 21 million users since its release in July 2016. While a Bloomberg Markets article on 23 August 2016 reported that the game was already on the decline, the game is arguably just the tip of the iceberg in terms of AR adoption