Serious Games

Use tabletop exercises or simulations to test ideas and practice skills
Sarah Fraser

Serious games, which include case competitions, simulations, board games like Policy Horizon’s game “Impact” and many other examples, are a great way to get people to learn and collaborate. The ‘serious’ in the title signals that these games aren’t just for fun, but provide users and organizations with a chance to practice skills and build relationships.


  • Serious games have been used for a long time in the aviation and defence industries (flight simulators and war games), the medical sector (patient simulators), and emergency management organizations (tabletop exercises). In these cases, games are used to build skills needed for rare and potentially life-threatening situations in novel environments.
  • Serious games have also been used for a long time in business schools (case competitions). Case competitions give students a chance to role play and work with team-mates while applying core concepts to a real or imagined scenario. You could argue that prize challenges are the ultimate serious game: you can win big dollars for solving big problems.


  • Serious games are primarily tools for learning and have not generally been applied to policy development.
  • Serious games are still games, and bosses don’t take them very seriously.
  • Serious games need to be carefully designed to ensure that the game will generate useable output.
  • The facilitator and any coaches used in the game must be experts in the game set-up and in communicating results to groups.

Policy Opportunity

Despite the limitations, using a serious games approach in policy development is a great way to ‘get the system in the room’ in the early stages, and to prototype and test ideas in later stages.


If you’re thinking about using serious games for policy development, you’ll need:

  • A clear definition of your client and the end goal of the process;
  • A small dedicated team to design and run the game;
  • A test of the game itself - this can lead to real improvements;
  • Experts and friends to bring their knowledge and energy to the project;
  • Enough players, and the right players, to get the result you want;
  • To debrief with your players, coaches and facilitators; and
  • To share your results with your client, your collaborators and players, in order to get their commitment to next steps.

Government of Canada

  • NRCan has used case competitions, not for policy development but to give players a chance to learn how to do science policy development and to prototype ideas about science outreach (contact Sarah Fraser or Janice Cudlip for more information).
  • Public Safety Canada provides oversight and guidance in the setting of exercise priorities and co-sponsors key activities with lead departments as per the National Exercise Program.

Best in Class

  • Tech firms are making and sharing serious games to train their staff and those of client firms.
  • Capsim
  • SuperBetter


IBM Innov8 and CityOne Serious Games Overview Video