The Power of Games to Drive Policy Outcomes

Well-designed games and simulations can broaden outreach, bridge divides, and offer engaging ways to understand and further public policy goals.

Date Posted

31 Dec 2016


Issue 16, 14 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.


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.

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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.

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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, 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).

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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.

Virtual reality

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

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.


Peter Ho is Senior Advisor to the Centre for Strategic Futures and Senior Fellow in the Civil Service College. He is an Adjunct Professor with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and a Visiting Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He retired from the Singapore Administrative Service in 2010 as Head, Civil Service, concurrent with his other appointments of Permanent Secretary (Foreign Affairs), Permanent Secretary (National Security and Intelligence Coordination), and Permanent Secretary (Special Duties) in the Prime Minister’s Office.

A version of this article was delivered as a keynote speech at the 2nd Public Sector Games Exchange on 8 September 2016 at the Civil Service College.


  1. 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.
  2. More information can be found at"
  3. More information can be found at
  4. 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

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