How do you build buy in and adoption of a mathematical model with a non-technical audience?
We recently worked with a client to tackle this challenge with some good old-fashioned play. We helped build understanding and trust among members of a broad team, helping them understand the need for, and power of a mathematical solution by transforming the model into a physical, table-top game.
Our game captures the essence of the customer’s problem in a deceptively straightforward way – the game’s rules are simple. On playing it, you discover the emergent complexity arising from the uncertainty in the modelled situation. Having such a game allows stakeholders to immerse themselves in the mathematical model, experimenting with it and experiencing the effects of their choices in an uncertain world, as well as encouraging them to consider the problem from a fresh perspective that can yield new insight.
Why create a game?
Games provide a communication and learning tool in many contexts, including in areas where there is a great deal of complexity and uncertainty, such as climate change. The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre  has, for example, produced games that aim to help “tackle the complexities, volatilities and uncertainties that could be hallmarks of the ‘new normal’ for the global climate”. They give five reasons to use games:
- Games encourage active learning and engagement in dialogue.
- Through games, you can simplify complex systems.
- Games involve taking decisions and then getting feedback on the result of your decisions.
- You can reflect, discover, explore, and face challenges through playing games.
- Games are fun. This isn’t simply an added extra on top of the learning: emotions matter in learning too.
Benefits of the game
The problem-specific, custom game that we designed gave our customer a safe space to explore the effects of different courses of action in an experiential way. This complemented other aspects of our technical approach, where we made use of mathematical models and simulation to explore things like average behaviour over hundreds of games.
The game made our mathematical model accessible to staff with a wide range of backgrounds and skills. While the problems we work on are complex, and we bring advanced modelling to bear on them, the language used to communicate those models needn’t be complex. Also, a game – as with any mathematical model – is never a complete, true representation of the underlying situation, and instead involves abstraction. The abstraction involved in this game allowed our customer to see the applicability of our work on one problem to other problems that they face, breaking down potentially siloed mentalities.
Should you create a game?
I believe that, with some creativity, all sorts of different problems and mathematical approaches can translate into games. The question then becomes not “can my situation be translated into a game?” but instead “what value might I get from translating my situation into a game?”. The purpose for creating a game is key. Use of games as representations of mathematical models needn’t simply be for novelty value.
Games can bring the most value where building stakeholder intuition – particularly of delicate concepts like uncertainty and probability – are important. This could be simply to communicate your model, so that stakeholders are kept informed, or could go further: encouraging feedback and guidance from people for whom a mathematical description could be a barrier, providing a way to get fresh perspective and new insights that can refine and improve your model.
How to get started
If you’ve got a clear purpose in mind, and can see the value that translating your situation into a game would bring, where do you start when designing a game? When creating our game, I found the following 6 steps, taken from , a good starting point:
- Define the communication challenge.
- Define key elements that will be used to construct the rules, process and emotional triggers of the game. What needs to be represented in the game?
- Define the emotional triggers of the game narrative. What feelings should the game process elicit: anxiety, tension, triumph?
- Refine the game’s dynamics; strip out superfluous parts.
- Develop rules.
When playing the game, try it out with different groups of people – diversity of thought and experience brings different insights, which can help refine the game so that it achieves its purpose well. And remember to have fun!
We can help you to communicate the power and potential of mathematical modelling, with or without dice. If you’d like to learn more, get in touch here.
 Can games help people manage the risk they face? Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Centre working paper