Why Government Gamification Still Matters

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Gamification is becoming increasingly important in civilian and defense matters.

During one of my Nextgov columns back in April, I was lamenting the fact that the government did not seem as interested in gamification as it once was. This is a little sad since the technology has so much potential, not only to teach, but also to help solve complex problems. At the time I mentioned one potential bright spot on the horizon, the Serious Play Conference. It took place over the summer and featured many government speakers, as well as a whole track devoted to government gamification.

I attended that conference, and it restored some of my faith in government gamification efforts. I talked with several of the participants, from both the government and private sector, and got a clearer picture of what is going on. While it’s true that gamification is not a noted priority of the current administration, for the most part efforts have continued, just not quite as publicly.

When looking at gamification today in government, you really need to break it down into either civilian or military programs. While military simulations are still being actively funded and developed, much of the effort on the civilian side has shifted to state and local governments, or out to the private sector, but with government participation.

Most people are familiar with the kinds of simulations and gamification type programs that the military runs. They involve everything from acclimating soldiers to patrolling in areas where they may not be familiar with local customs to more traditional things like weapons and tactics training. They also can use large-scale wargames where decision-makers must choose the best strategic options in nightmare-like scenarios.

On the civilian side, most of the programs are a little closer to home, and in a sense, to reality. These are things like combatting flu epidemics or fighting fires. Larger scale activities include planning drills to help find the best response to hurricanes or other natural disasters.

Interestingly enough, these two types of government simulations are starting to merge. This is happening because of the increased frequency of natural disasters and mass casualty events that civilian agencies, as well as state and local governments, are having to respond to these days. Put simply, the magnitude and frequency of those types of events are straining civilian resources. States have to ask for federal help, and that often means a military response. Because of this, the military is starting to add those kinds of scenarios into their gamification and simulation training programs.

Justin Legary worked as the tech coordinator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency before moving to the private sector. He explained the value of gamification to organizations like FEMA and also the military when they are called in to help.

“Simulations are good for the discovery of the previously unknown,” Legary said, “This is especially true in recent years, when, with the help of computers you can perform hundreds or even thousands of run-throughs instead of just a dozen or so. This allows you to see patterns that were not possible to see before.”   

As an example, a simulation was run to look at the effects of hurricanes hitting Florida, and the various responses. One thing that was happening in real life was that gas stations were unable to provide enough fuel for people fleeing along the highways leading north out of the state. In some cases, this was stranding motorists and making the already stressful evacuation process more grueling and chaotic. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that there simply wasn’t enough gas, but the simulations showed that most of the shortages were happening because the stations were losing power, and then unable to operate their pumps. This led to new rules requiring stations along evacuation routes to have gas generators that could power the pumps in emergencies.

Other speakers talked about the ability of gamification type programs to knock out unfeasible solutions from the list of responses, saving time and perhaps lives by not trying the same thing in real life. In that example, there was a simulation-type game where a huge flu pandemic erupted across the country. Those playing the game originally tried to treat the pandemic in traditional ways, namely providing vaccines to as many people as possible. It was quickly revealed that such a response would require millions more vaccines than would normally be available.

Instead, doctors discovered that common statin drugs used to treat people with high cholesterol could be used to alleviate many of the flu’s worst symptoms. Although it may seem counterintuitive, in the event of a pandemic, it may be better not to attempt to vaccinate everyone. Instead, target those at the most risk from the flu, including the elderly and children, as well as public health workers. For everyone else, should they catch the disease, specific drugs can alleviate their worst symptoms, helping them to feel better and successfully fight it off and survive. Without running games like that one, such an option might never have been discovered.

The military and civilian agencies are now often on the same page, but the simulations are also changing to reflect the seemingly increased harshness of the world. For example, whereas agencies might originally have played a gamified simulation where a superstorm or hurricane hit a major city, today that same scenario might involve two or three natural disasters hitting at the same time in different parts of the country, or even in the same area. Other speakers talked about having to consider truly evil actions as well, such as bioterrorism or mass casualty events perpetrated by people. That too is causing civilian and military programs to sometimes merge.

The conference left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I wish that more natural disasters and terror attacks were not happening. But I was pleased to learn that simulation and gamification programs are still alive and well in many parts of government. They are not as publicly displayed as before, but can still do a lot of good should some of the worst scenarios occur in real life. At least our government responders, civilian and military, will have some experience about what to do based on those programs, though I pray that knowledge is never needed.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys