Why we play games

27 March 2018

When designing engagement, we often turn to gamification. We asked people to build their own city as part of on food security for the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and to make finance decisions to ensure their water supply to support Bristol Water in their business planning process. We use arts and crafts, children’s wooden blocks, voting keypads, and other game tools in our workshops.


1) It’s fun. When we are asking people to engage with topics that are dry, inaccessible, or difficult to understand, we ask ourselves – ‘how do we make this fun? How do we make this something people will want to spend 2 hours talking about? And when they leave will want to go home and tell their friends and family about?’ To answer those questions, we usually use ourselves as guinea pigs and figure out how we would find it fun, and then go test that on others.

2) A game is a story you get to participate in. Using story is a time-honoured engagement technique. It creates empathy, drives imagination and creativity, and makes seemingly abstract topics relatable. A game is a story you get to play a part in – which not only gives all those things I just mentioned extra oomph, but also can generate ongoing participation in the issue beyond the event, as it really builds in-depth understanding.

3) A game articulates trade-offs. Most of the topics we work on are the type of intractable problem where there isn’t just one ‘right’ answer. To be honest, if there was you probably wouldn’t need engagement. Games allow you to play out scenarios, to model consequences and to make choices in ways that are more tangible than just a discussion. After all, isn’t an environmental impact assessment really just a game of Top Trumps?

4) A game can be played more than once. When we design engagement tools for our clients, we like to do so in a way that enables them to be able to use the tools themselves – without a need for external support. A game doesn’t need to rely on professional facilitation and transcription of outcomes. It can be designed in a way where people’s choices and reactions are captured throughout the game and collated as data, and where gameplay discussions are easy to record and learn from.

If you’re interested in how gamification might work for your current research or engagement challenges, drop me a line at anna@dialoguebydesign.co.uk. You might also like to check out some of the studies by the Gamification Research Network and articles such as Why do we play games?