Playing its part – why and how video games have become a crucial communication channel for policy makers

Video games are a truly global, popular phenomenon. According to recent estimates, over 3.2bn people – roughly 40% of the world’s population –played a video game in the past year. The player base stretches across the planet, with games played extensively in every continent and increasingly in developing nations.

Playing for progress

The global reach of gaming has prompted Governments and organisations around the world to consider how games can be used to shape behaviours and achieve policy goals.

During the pandemic, the WHO backed #PlayApartTogether campaign saw video games businesses encourage millions of players worldwide to protect themselves from COVID-19 through socially distanced play.

Meanwhile, dozens of games companies from across the world have supported the UN’s Playing for the Planet to encourage their player bases to change their behaviour to help combat climate change.

And in the UK, the industry has consistently supported mental health messaging in games to encourage players to seek support when needed to help tackle loneliness as part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)’s campaign “Let’s Talk Loneliness”.

Games companies have also succeeded in raising awareness and funds for charities, with Epic and Xbox raising $144m for charities such as UNICEF providing humanitarian relief for people affected by the Ukrainian crisis.

Powering up

Yet policymakers need to work with the industry to ensure that messages land with players. That is easier said than done and there are important lessons to be learned.

First, the best campaigns understood that games are not monolithic. The industry does not operate a one size fits all model and it is not dominated by a handful of behemoths. It is instead a plurality of businesses with different ambitions, backgrounds and creative aspirations that target and serve very different audiences. In this context, campaigns which provide a strong central message but allow for developers to adapt both a message and its delivery to their audiences win out.

The UN’s Green Game Jam, which allows developers to creatively tackle a thematic problem around climate change by creating in game content, is a great example of allowing developers to deliver an important message in a way that integrates well with the gaming experience to engage their audience.

Second, the most successful information campaigns understand the need to build authentic ties with industry to establish an effective platform for spreading a message.

Whale & Dolphin Conservation’s Gamers for Orcas initiative ties the charity’s preservation mission to the industry through partnerships with developers and accessible resources for creators to help people who are interested to organically engage with the topic. It balances entertainment with information about the important work they’re doing, fostering meaningful engagement with the topic in the process.

Third, and finally, policymakers must also consider how to use gaming in new settings. For example, integrating games into the curriculum by using them, and their IP, across subjects can use the power of play to unlock the skills of the future that will allow younger players to thrive as active citizens within our global community.

The Digital Schoolhouse programme, which started in the UK and has since expanded to Nigeria, has demonstrated that bespoke games can be successfully deployed within lessons in subjects such as Computing, History and even Dance to deepen understanding of specific subjects.

The programme also demonstrated that games can be used to develop key soft skills too, with participants in its esports programme reporting that they felt more confident, better communicators and even more likely to participate in other team sports as a result of taking part.

Popular games can also be adapted to educate. Partly this can be done through the simplest of mechanics that help bring games to life, as evidenced by The National Literacy Trust’s findings in August 2020 that subtitles, in game lore and chat functions play a role in boosting literacy levels amongst boys and irregular readers specifically.

More broadly though, the evolution of game modes such as Assassin’s Creed: Discovery Tour, which turns its historic environments into explorable living museums, or the wealth of opportunities to discover new worlds or skills through Minecraft’s education edition is testament to the value of games as a way to practically communicate in a life changing fashion.

More than a game

Games are more than just a form of entertainment; they represent shared interests and, even more importantly, shared spaces within which communities form, come together and interact with one another.

Policy makers of the future can harness that power by co-operating with game developers to engage communities on the big issues of the day across the world.

CEO at Ukie | + posts

Dr Jo Twist OBE, CEO of Ukie, the trade body for UK games and interactive entertainment. She is a VP for games accessibility charity SpecialEffect, Patron of Safe in Our World mental health and games charity, trustee for Royal Historic Palaces, an Honorary Visiting Professor at Ravensbourne University and a Visiting Research Fellow for the Dept of Computing, Goldsmith’s University. In 2016 she was awarded an OBE for services to the creative industries and won MCV Women in Games award for Outstanding Contribution. She was also named as one of the Evening Standard’s Progress 1000 Most Influential People in 2019 and entered the Computer Weekly Hall of Fame in 2021.