15 September 2023

How Might We Codesign Games Contributing to Changing Behaviors and Beliefs in National Security? The State of the Art in 2023

by :

The top three insights of this blog are that transformative games in 2023:

  • Can influence change in players with strategies such as nudging and influential experiences
  • Should strive to create a sense of a “safety-net” within gameplay so that players feel safe to experiment and fail
  • Should support players to make mistakes and gradually adjust to new behaviours


AOD believes in the power of codesigning transformative strategic games to shift the mindsets of national security leaders and their team to better address complex problem sets, set conditions for evolution and seize opportunities in the 21st century. 

Following the success of Breakthrough: The Arctic Albatross with several organizations working with national security professionals such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian School of Public Service, the Canadian Forces College, the 4th division, and the Bank of Canada, AOD embarked on this transformative strategic game agenda. As the researcher representing AOD at the Games for Change (G4C) conference held in New York City in 2023, I was responsible for capturing the state of the art of game design for social impact to inform our forthcoming projects. 

The G4C conference opened up my eyes to the wide world of social impact games. The Games for Change Conference was born out of a desire to change the perception of gaming from “games are bad” to “games have the power to have a positive social message.” Social impact games—games designed with instrumentalized goals for social good—is an umbrella term that encompasses games with learning goals, or games designed for behaviour change and overlaps with serious games (serious games are a specific subset of games or gamification for more than just entertainment purposes). 

Why are games such an effective medium for impact and behaviour change?

“Everyone is a gamer” Cynthia Williams (WotC/Hasbro), G4C 2023

It is hard to think of a single person that does not play games for fun, whether that game is a sport, a board game, or a video game. In our increasingly digitized world, where so many people have access to mobile devices and computers, more and more people are playing digital versions of all kinds of games, and the leap from almost everyone plays some sort of game to “everyone is a gamer” is easy to comprehend.

The statistics back this up: gaming has been steadily increasing in number of players even before the pandemic and remains at an all time high. This accessibility of the medium of games is one of the reasons why games are an excellent way to accomplish goals beyond just entertainment. Games have the appeal of being fun, and the best impact games don’t sacrifice entertainment value to achieve their other goals. Games can also provide a safe, non-judgmental environment for players to test out new ideas, question their own assumptions, and, perhaps most importantly, fail.

Where are games having a positive impact? 

Games are being used in many different ways in various industries to accomplish instrumentalized goals.  Games and gamification are commonly used in fields such as education, healthcare, physical and mental health, corporate training, and military to name a few. Here are a few concrete examples. Games are being used in cultural heritage to preserve the knowledge of First Nations’ pronunciations of flower names. Games are being used in emergency management to model systems over time such as the flow of people in an emergency evacuation of a building. Dungeons and Dragons is being used in schools to teach children math, creativity, storytelling, and social skills.

How do games influence change in a player?

Games have many different tools, strategies and mechanics that can be applied to influence or inspire change in players. “Nudges or activations” are based on Nudge Theory to influence players’ choices. Nudge Theory, also known as choice architecture, is based upon the idea that by shaping the environment one can influence the likelihood that one option is chosen over another by individuals. Nudge Theory has applications beyond game design, such as the Piano Stairs in a subway station in Stockholm. By making the stairs musical and interactive, users are encouraged to choose the stairs over the escalator. Some more great examples of nudging can be found here.

Another way that games influence players is through inspirational experiences. For example, SimCity inspired people to become urban designers and Beyond Blue has inspired people to become real-life marine scientists. “Games inspire careers through inspiring protagonists,” said Alan Gershenfeld of E-Line Media at the conference. Narrative, storytelling, exploration, and compelling characters are powerful tools in games to evoke inspirational experiences in players. One compelling reason to promote diversity and inclusion in games is because “people are more likely to play a game they can see themselves in,” said Cynthia Williams. A relatable protagonist or a cast of characters can be a compelling reason to try a new game. 

Inspiring Talks from G4C:

Dark Futures

“Is Dystopian Media Shaping Our Future?” Talk by Alan Gershenfeld (E-Line Media)

“When did the future switch from being a promise to being a threat?” – Chuck Palahniuk

Media is filled with dystopian visions of the future: Black Mirror, The Last of Us, the Fallout game franchise, Blade Runner, the list could go on forever. It begins to seem like humans are inherently wired to envision the worst case scenario. Games in particular are well suited to the dystopian genre: games need conflict or drama, which is easy to create in a crumbling world; games need to be evocative and draw the player in (consider the ruined state of the Las Vegas strip in Fallout New Vegas in the image below for instance); and for the practical production reason that barren worlds are easier to create and model in 3D.

Some of this dystopic visioning can be helpful to solve real world problems. For example, what would happen to a city overrun with climate migrants? Games and 3D engines are sophisticated enough to model complex problems such as this. It is easy to imagine how a city builder-type game could replicate housing shortages, overcapacity transit systems, even the political unrest that may come with an influx of climate migrants. Games also provide a way to stress test a world with human stories, which is a more empathetic approach to experiencing the problem. Games often do this through narrative, character development and quest design. Imagine exploring a game world devastated by climate change, learning the story of a compelling climate migrant character, and then being asked to help that character through a challenging quest.

However, there is a risk that all these dystopian games and media could be negatively shaping and reinforcing pessimism for our future. Instead, could games be used to envision evocative, aspirational and achievable futures?

“Sci-fi inspires future technology, but what could inspire future social systems and institutions?” – Alan Gershenfeld, G4C 2023

Tackling Difficult Issues in Gaming

Three talks at G4C dealt with difficult topics and how they interface with gamers and gaming communities. The talks covered accountability for causing harm, awareness of extremism in online communities, and using games to inform people about sexual harassment.

“So You’ve Been Canceled. Now What?” Talk by Jae Lin (Games and Online Harassment Hotline)

“Mental health is not a side quest” – the slogan on Jae Lin’s shirt at G4C 2023

Playing games, especially online, can be a great way to meet new people, make new friends, and be a part of an online community, but just like the real world, the virtual world can be a place where harassment, discrimination, and harm can happen. So what happens if we cause someone else harm? Transformative justice is a more compassionate approach that allows the harasser to take accountability for their actions and learn from their mistakes, an opportunity seldom provided by punitive justice. The lesson in this is that games designed for behaviour change may seek to eradicate unwanted behaviours, but the reality is that unintended harm from unwanted behaviours can still happen. A more holistic approach for behaviour change games is to focus not only on the goals of changing behaviour but also educating players on how to navigate their mistakes and the possible consequences along the way, as behaviours and habits don’t change overnight.

“Resilience in the Face of Hate” Talk with Elizabeth Kilmer and Rachel Kowert (Take This)

“We must purposefully re-design our environment to account for human factors” – Celia Hodent (Game UX Strategist, PhD in Psychology)

Online communities, especially online gaming communities, are increasingly becoming platforms for the normalization and proliferation of extremist ideologies. Governments are becoming increasingly aware of this issue, however the gaming industry is ill-equipped to tackle the problem. This is a complex problem intertwined with many facets of political, social, and ideological contexts. As game designers, it is important to be aware of the spaces and communities related to games. Particularly in games designed for behaviour change, especially in scenarios where teams or groups of people experience the game together, it is important to be mindful of the environment created within the context of gameplay. Do players feel free from judgment so they may try out new ideas and challenge their biases and assumptions, and in doing so, do they feel safe enough to fail? This sense of a “safety-net” created within the context of gameplay is key so that the game’s intended goals of behaviour change can be maximally effective.

“Playing Support” Talk with Alyssa Marie Mercante (Moderator), Nicholas Fortugno, and Danijela Steinfeld (Way Out)

Games can also be an effective medium for informing people about difficult topics and situations, such as sexual harassment. Currently practiced methods for sexual harassment training are highly ineffective. The goal of the game Way Out in addressing sexual harassment is to unlearn unconscious biases through game elements such as narrative, an interactive non-linear path through gameplay, and evolving characters. One of the key components to promote a shift in player behaviour is to replicate real world consequences with in-game consequences. In-game conversations with characters allow you to experiment and experience consequences before the “high-stakes” conversation where players are then assessed on their critical inquiry, empathy, and compassion skills. Games like this need to be designed differently from the start, ie. behavioural scientists, psychologists, and testers need to make sure the game mechanics employed are allowing the game to achieve its goals.

Metrics for evaluating the effectiveness of the game can be done through tools like pre- and post-game surveying, but with digital games it is increasingly easy to gather the necessary data from gameplay to do just this, so long as the game has been designed to capture the relevant information.

Learning new knowledge and behaviours doesn’t have to be boring or unengaging. Games offer a promising way to create positive social impact through learning, behaviour change, and perhaps even in ways we may not yet know. With huge, disruptive changes like AI in the digital sphere, it’s hard to know what may be possible with games even 5 years from now. Like with any tool, even AI, we do have to be intentional about how they are used and how they intentionally and unintentionally impact inclusion and diversity, mental health, and community well being. 

AOD is taking these considerations seriously and looks forward to codesigning with its network by building on the insights shared in this blog. The Cultural Transformation Game Workshop for national security in Ottawa on September 21 and 22, 2023 will be a fantastic opportunity to get involved. Register here to join AOD in this journey!

You may also like

15 September 2023

Horizons: The UNcathartic Play – Rolling the Blank Face

by :
Read More
15 September 2023

Successful Playthrough of Breakthrough at Canadian Forces College

Read More
15 September 2023

Cultural Transformation Game Workshop Report

by :
Read More