The Lusory Attitude: Interview with Florence Engasser

This month, I spoke with Florence Engasser, senior foresight analyst at the innovation foundation Nesta. Florence works on exploring the future of innovation for social good; her interests include intelligent cities, social incubation, games and simulation.

We caught up to talk about her work using games as a tool to stimulate and develop the thinking of policymakers, including the innovation board game Innovate!, which was released in 2018.

Playing the Innovation Policy board game prototype – image courtesy of Nesta

M: You’re fond of quoting Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper: games are “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”, what he calls “the lusory attitude.” Have you always enjoyed overcoming unnecessary obstacles?

F: It’s a really cool quote, isn’t it? I’ve always been into all kinds of games; growing up with two brothers who are close in age, and parents who weren’t great fans of television or pop culture, I spent a lot of time “off screen”. As I grew older, I graduated from games like Uno to those which my parents might have labelled as “brain games” – more intense and elaborate stuff like Pandemic or Risk, where you might end up banging your head against the board!

M: Games serve so many purposes: entering an imagined world, competition, intellectual challenge, social connection — for you, was there one particular aspect which appealed above all?

F: I always liked the social element. I can be fairly competitive, and I like winning, but I also don’t mind when I lose. I’m a great person to play games with, because I’m engaged enough to want to win, but I don’t mind losing, because there’s always something you can learn even from a loss. At least, that’s something I’ve told myself over years and years of losing!

But truly, there’s always something to be learned from a game. Above all, it’s the social aspect which matters to me: games can be very revealing. You’ll get quite an insight into who people are from the way that they play; sometimes you see things you wish you hadn’t seen in people! That makes for some interesting social experiments.

M: At Hillsboro Public Library in Oregon, they make candidates for leadership roles play Pandemic with one another for precisely this reason – it reveals so much about how they relate to others. 

When did you first get involved in using board games to address policy & innovation issues?

F: At Nesta, we were working with the Global Innovation Policy Accelerator programme. We had a cohort of policymakers who work on innovation as their day jobs, and we had some freedom in designing sessions for them during a training visit to the UK. That created a window of opportunity for us to do something interesting and out of the ordinary with this sector.

At the same time, Nesta would set ten predictions for the year ahead, and I would use this exercise to investigate something that wasn’t explicitly linked to my work. In 2017, I’d offered a prediction around using Virtual Reality for creating art, and in 2018, I suggested that simulation would become a mainstream policy innovation method. How could we use games to improve the way we develop policies, by engaging people in a different way or thinking about issues in a different way? 

That idea gained quite a bit of traction and led me to explore numerous areas of simulation for that purpose, from traditional modelling and VR to games. The intersection of a group of policymakers we could do something new with, plus a growing interest in the use of games for serious policies, created the opportunity to try something new.

Nesta offered an internal initiative to help staff work on projects not directly linked to their role, and I used this to advance my idea of creating a board game to help people think about innovation policy.

M: Where did you start?

F: The first part was looking for some inspiration. If you look across games, you’ll find lots of similar rules and mechanics underlying them. Nobody is really reinventing the rules in terms of board game mechanics. So I had some thoughts around mechanics, and around finding a format that would work for policymakers: short enough to keep them engaged, yet serious enough in its presentation that it didn’t seem frivolous in a professional context.

I play a lot of games, but I’d never designed one, so we put out an invitation to tender and started looking for design agencies to help us with that aspect of the work. We wanted a board game that was suitable to be used in a workshop for policymakers – designed to help people think about the way they collaborate when devising innovation policy, about how to engage the different stakeholders and beneficiaries of their policies, and about how experimentation and risk-taking might figure into the design of innovation policy.

From the beginning, we wanted it to be a game it was easy to learn from. That meant it had to be short enough to play more than once, to iterate and create opportunities for learning.

M: And so Innovate! was born, in collaboration with the designers at Digital Liberties. What did players learn from it?

F: Our first playtest was with policymakers who all worked on innovation policy at some level, with different objectives depending on the agencies they worked for – but they had the common goal of improving how innovation was done in their countries, and improving the benefits which innovation brought to their wider communities. Showing them a game that was based not on competition, but collaboration – where your neighbour is your friend, and you are working together as efficiently as possible was the way to achieve a common goal – helpfully reframed their work. 

The whole game is centred around the idea of engaging with different networks – from the industry and technology sectors, from academia, from the entrepreneurial community and from citizens. This really helped players to take a broader view of the ecosystem which they inhabit. A lot of policymakers, especially in innovation, are spread across different ministries and institutions – education, the economy, and so on – so this helped people to get out of their silos, seeing one another not as competitors but as actors who ultimately have the same common goal.

We also included “event cards” which represented the uncertainties inherent in the innovation policy environment; you never truly know as a policymaker what’s going to happen next, so the cards depicted the ways in which directives from higher above, economic recessions or booms, affect the context in which policy is created and implemented. This aspect of the game allowed us to reflect on those occasions when we need to adapt our strategy because something which we haven’t planned for comes to pass, and we need to deal with it as efficiently as possible.

Innovate! event cards – image courtesy of Nesta

We used to play two rounds of the game within one session – especially as the first time round is really about understanding the rules and how the game works. In the second round, when people got more comfortable, they reflected on their prior performance and sought to adapt their play: “Last time, we made the mistake of only focussing on one user group or beneficiary group!” And this play, in the debrief, let them consider analogous strategies and situations in the real world. 

M: Do you think that innovation policy lends itself to this kind of playful simulation approach?

F: Innovation policy is about more than just entrepreneurship and tech, but we mustn’t forget other players such as academia, the industry or even citizens and the wider community. It’s easy to forget that there are other players in the game, and Innovate! reminds players that they inhabit a wider web of relationships. 

We focussed our game on collaboration, but of course there are competitive elements in those relationships as well. Some of our players suggested that in a future iteration, we could include a set of separate personal goals for players alongside the collaborative ones. It’s really important to know the purpose of your game when you design it. If we had unlimited time, an unlimited budget, and unlimited iterations in which to create our game, we would add many more layers of subtlety, including such elements of competition – but the limits of the format, and the need for simplicity & accessibility, helped us to focus on what we wanted to achieve. 

Policymakers trial the Innovate! prototype – image courtesy of Nesta

Bear in mind also that policymakers aren’t necessarily super well versed in boardgames, so we need to be mindful of the degree of complexity we introduce to the game, such as whether the players’ imaginary budget can be carried over from year to year, or had to be spent in a single round of play.

When we were testing the game in-house, we had so many ideas for how to make it even bigger, even more complicated — Nesta people being by and large wonderfully nerdy, and very creative — but we had to be mindful of our audience and our objective. Knowing what to leave out is as important as knowing what to include, when building a robust and accessible model that connects the game to the reality which you are simulating.

M: When we devised the “Library Island” game, we found that if the game world was too close to the situation being simulated, people actually became less adventurous – they devised and implemented policies essentially the same as those which existed in reality. A bit of fiction, a bit of abstraction and simplification, worked wonders in stimulating people’s creativity and willingness to take risks.

What was it like, finding the right level of detail for Innovate!?

F: We always knew that the game would be played by policymakers, so we needed something that was credible in its underpinnings and relevant to their work, yet simple enough that a wider audience of people interested in innovation – the type of audience that Nesta have – would be able to have a go without feeling it was hopeless.

Innovate! was focussed very much on the question of different potential beneficiaries for innovation policy, so that clarified the level of detail we needed. We also needed to ensure that no one would feel that their dignity or credibility was at stake if they did something silly or risky within the game world. 

This is one of the key benefits, I believe, of using games in these settings: they seem to call to us in a way that elicits different behaviours from people. They let us step outside of the habitual, the formal, the routine. Post-game debriefs were vital to the learning process, because it created the opportunity for people to reflect on what had been going on and what it meant to them outside the world of the game.

M: You said earlier that games reveal personality traits – sometimes undesirable ones! – so it’s interesting to reflect on the need to ensure that participants can maintain their dignity and feel safe when playing a game as part of professional development. 

Were there particular challenges to facilitating Innovate! sessions, compared to a regular workshop?

F: Especially in our first proper test with a prototype, playing with policymakers from our training programme, we had quite a range of personalities. I always remember the team of Vietnamese policymakers, who on their feedback forms split fifty-fifty along the lines of “I thought the game was great” and “I fail to see what this brought to the conversation”. 

It helped us to see that framing up-front was super important: to say that yes, this is a game, but it’s not frivolous; that the topics within the game are pertinent to the challenges faced by innovation agencies today; that the game is intended to offer a different way of interacting.

Once you get into playing the game, there’s also some challenges for facilitators, as people learn to play the game at different speeds. We would use multiple facilitators to help people understand the process, and then in the second round, things would go much smoother, as players started to grasp what was going on.

The most interesting and important part, though, was the conversation afterwards. Playing the game wasn’t the goal, the goal was to have a conversation informed by the game experience, around how to translate what you’ve learned from the game back into your day-to-day work. Helping people to make connections between the games and real life, and to identify changes they could make in their actual strategies, was key – and that came in the debrief. The beginning and the end of the session matter above all.

M: Do you think organizations are more willing to bring playful practices into the workplace now?

F: The trend of using board games in this way existed before I got involved — I just surfed this wave! — but I do see an accelerating, growing trend for this kind of learning and play. Creating Innovate! also served as a kind of beacon, attracting people who got in touch because they, too, were interested in using games in this way. People from local authorities, the NHS, all kinds of organisations got in touch. It showed us that even industries or sectors which might seem too “serious-minded” for this kind of playful approach were willing to explore avenues of engagement other than round tables and panel discussions and the usual tools for consultation or discussion. People crave a more creative way of engaging with people, and this way is really effective if you frame it properly, and the benefits are made clear, so they truly feel they can open up and use games as an exploratory learning tool.

M: What have you learned from being a game maker?

F: That, as long as it’s well framed, there’s no topic you can’t make a game out of. There are so many different types of games that you can adapt to a subject, function, or audience, that you can almost always find a tool for the job.

The iterative process of developing the game with designers was new to me, too; going from a concept to a prototype, talking with people as they refined the process. That’s something I’ve been trying to reproduce with my colleagues, drawing on the experience I had with Innovate! and serving — very modestly — in an advisory role to others who want to make their own games.

M: What is your advice for people who are starting out on this journey of making games to inform their work or strategy?

F: There’s really five things. Firstly, clarity about the goal you’re trying to achieve. You can’t think of a game at all until you know what you want it to do; that decision will determine so much about how it is structured. 

Secondly, different mechanics serve different goals, so once you have your purpose, you can then find the appropriate mechanics. 

After that, you can build a narrative around the game, which is crucial to draw people in and keep them engaged: that’s when you have to strike the balance between simplifying things to make them playable and maintaining credibility with those who really know the situation you’re trying to simulate. 

The fourth thing is to build in meaningful choices for players within the game: that’s what keeps people playing, the sense that their choices have consequences, but those choices are not so irreversible that you can’t learn from them. The reason people hate Monopoly so much is that once someone starts winning, they tend to keep on winning, while losers tend to keep on losing – essentially players are crushed beneath this big wheel of inevitability, with decreasing opportunities to change the outcome. 

The last thing is to remember the journey: the game isn’t the end in itself, it is a tool and a stepping stone to achieve some broader real-world purpose. So think about where you want players to be, and what next steps might exist, after the game finishes. And that connects really nicely back to the first principle, having clarity about the goal you’re trying to achieve.

M: What surprised you the most about being a game-maker?

F: I think the ease with which people will get enthused about a game. I’m a game enthusiast myself, but it was lovely to see the general interest from people when they heard about what we were doing. That speaks to the power of play, the power that games have, which other methods might not.

M: The notion of games serving to frame or reframe what we’re doing in the real world, and offering opportunities to reflect on future uncertainty, speaks really nicely to your new role in Nesta’s foresight team. What would you like to do next with games & gaming?

F: Our team is very new within an organization that has just undergone a big restructure, so we’re still figuring out what we’ll be doing in the months and years ahead; there’s no specific game project currently on the cards. That said, the Discovery Hub team is interested in mixed-method approaches, bringing together traditional strategic foresight with qualitative and quantitative analysis, but also more integrative methods, such as games and simulations, which offer creative and interactive opportunities to bring multiple methodologies and perspectives together. Games lend themselves well to this type of work!

M: I’ve definitely known organizations which can feel like games of Monopoly, or a collaborative game like The Grizzled where the aim is to get your team through a set of challenges intact. If Nesta was a board game, what would it be?

F: I think I’d say Pandemic. The cooperative element is really important, and collaboration is key to Nesta’s ethos. I think the bit around bringing in different skills and capabilities within a team to solve a really important challenge is also really suited to Nesta’s way of working. 

I’d also say that Nesta is trying to solve really important challenges, around health inequalities, early years education and sustainability. So while we are not teaming up to find a solution to a pandemic per se, we are still trying to solve meaningful problems. 

But of course, on some days, working at Nesta also feels a little bit Twister, having lots of conversations, with lots of different people. There’s always something going on!

Find out more about Florence and her work at the Nesta website.

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