BLOG: Serious games for serious issues – using participatory methods to explore home improvement across the life course
Published: 5 Dec, 2023

The latest blog in our Housing and Home Improvement series focuses on our use of an innovative method – a form of ‘serious game’ – developed at the University of Stirling. In conversation with Dr Vikki McCall, we explore how this approach to data gathering can be an important methodological tool to understand real-world decision-making and prioritisation.

What is a ‘serious game’?

Serious games encourage the exploration of a serious topic whilst also having fun by engaging in interactive ‘game play’ with others. They are often used as a tool to help generate specific types of discussions between groups of participants. The game we are using in the national evaluation of home improvement services in England particularly seeks to capture the roles different people play in making decisions around adaptations alongside physical and cognitive accessibility of home spaces as we grow older; the consequences of these decisions at various points in the life course; and processes of prioritisation.

How was the game developed?

We are using a game called ‘Our House’, but the story started with the development of ‘Hopetown’ in 2018 (you can see a video of a playtest of Hopetown here). My wider research around housing and ageing has shown that at different levels – from service provision to individual experiences – there can be a tendency to deny the ageing process. This can then result in an inability to recognise the challenges that lay ahead (both societally and individually) and to plan for these. Serious games are a method to engage people in active decision-making and strategic planning – together with Alasdair Rutherford at the University of Stirling, I decided to apply the method to the issue of housing and ageing.

The aim was to create a context in which people could play into the future, to be faced with the consequences of decisions taken (or not taken), and how these become relevant at different points as time passes and circumstances change. Professional game developers were brought in to help the team create the mechanisms through which the game progresses.

Hoptown was played with different policymakers, practitioners, and individuals at a town level, and, more recently, at a district level in a project with SCIE, Socialudo, United St Savours and Dunhill Medical Trust. Our House –a new game developed as part of the DesHCA Project is now being applied to help service users think through home improvements via an evaluation with the Centre for Ageing Better. Our House– brings discussions to the level of the home, personalising the ageing process so that professionals are encouraged to think through the changes that need to be made to homes and how this relates to the personal lived experience.

How are we using it in this project?

Our House will be used in different ways to help feed into the evaluation project. Adapted versions will be used with a range of groups, from national-level stakeholders to individuals with experience of using home improvement services and the practitioners delivering services at a community level. The game helps people to visualise and personalise ageing, and to place the role of housing at the centre of this in supporting the ageing process.

The game can be broadly thought of as a co-production tool, because it helps bring a range of perspectives into our work to understand home improvement. The game will be used to understand lived experiences of home improvement, to unpick the different mechanisms involved in stakeholder decision-making, prioritisation, and the barriers to home improvement delivery, and as a form of data collection to feed this into the national evaluation. As well as this data and insight, playing the game is also about fostering relationships and helping individuals forge and develop peer support networks as they engage with the method.

What data does it generate?

The games result in a large volume of data, which can generate insight into how people view ageing, how services are prioritised, or what a good design for supporting people through ageing might be. The evaluation model brings together small-group discussions, with note-takers capturing decision-making processes. Sessions also include a facilitated focus group at the end, helping to track the insight that participants have gained into the issues under discussion. Participants also fill in feedback forms that can be analysed, with further conversations, to understand what changed due to their engagement and what changes may have been implemented in their area of service.

As well as this data, however, the gameplay method facilitates knowledge exchange between different participants to help create a dialogue between services that do not always talk to each other despite all playing a role in housing and health. In planning the games, the focus is often on targeting individuals from different sectors, bringing people together, such as health, housing, and social care. This can create links between people who are interested in ageing but don’t necessarily have day-to-day conversations and therefore lack the links that can generate collaborative solutions. Sometimes, during the game, it can be observed that participants are making plans to work together on challenges ‘in real life’ after the game, and this is one of the ultimate ‘wins’ that can be delivered through the use of the method.

What are the advantages?

My research draws on a range of methods, with focus groups offering the most comparable ‘traditional’ research method to game play. This is because there are multiple participants, and the interplay between them can be very important (as well as requiring skilled facilitation). However, serious games help people to shift perspectives. During the game, participants are asked to operate within particular boundaries, travelling through points of trade-offs and requiring those playing the game to negotiate this with others and engage in discussions that illuminate their thinking and process of prioritisation.

As a research tool, it can get underneath what people are thinking and spark creative responses whilst reflecting real-world issues such as budget cuts, area-based challenges, and wealth inequalities. It can create a safe space to take a step back and think about a problem differently, which can then help generate creative solutions.

My work through the Designing Homes for Healthy Cognitive Ageing (DesHCA) project has shown that there is a tendency for people to ‘other’ ageing – i.e. it is often talked about as something that happens to other people. We don’t necessarily recognise its relevance in our own lives. This plays into how we plan – or fail to plan – for this ageing in terms of developing appropriate services and how we prepare for our ageing. When people are made – through the game – to see the challenge from different points of view or perspectives, this can result in very different actions being proposed.

Are there particular challenges when using the serious game approach?

A lot of preparatory work goes into setting up the games. Because there are often – by design – many individuals with different perspectives or positions in the room, the facilitation of sessions requires careful consideration.

The game forces people to make trade-offs and confront challenging situations, so it can generate tensions – especially where people embody the role they have been given. However, this isn’t a negative – it can be useful for the game play. Disruption happens in real-world scenarios: budgets shrink, or monies intended for one thing may be used on other priorities – this means that these real frustrations are mirrored in the game. Discussion with participants can help to unpack what this means.

Finally, whilst people bring their professional understandings to the game, they also bring personal experiences. As ageing is something that touches so many people’s lives, this means that sometimes the stories used in the game can hit home. Scenarios are very much drawn from qualitative evidence, and so it might be that playing the game is emotionally challenging for some, at some points. However, that ability to connect with the stories and different experiences can lead to the best learning.

What is the ultimate aim?

The game we use in this evaluation is a prototype, but the finalised game will be ready in Spring 2024. The ultimate aim – through the social enterprise ‘socialudo’ – is to see these games having a transformative impact by being used within and across a whole range of organisations to help facilitate decision-making.

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