Playing Games Can Solve Real-World Problems

As the author of this post observes, there’s an emotional component to the exchange of knowledge via games that goes beyond just having fun. Serious games may increase loyalty, engagement, and participation in tasks.—Editor

Author: Michael Pack

Playing games is one of the most popular ways that people choose to spend their time. Over five million people play games an average of 45 hours a week. As a planet, we spend three billion hours a week playing video and computer games. [1]

But games aren’t only for fun: they can also be leveraged to solve real-world problems because they are an excellent way to share knowledge and collaborate. Gamification and serious games are tools that MITRE has used to help customers perform a variety of tasks, from gaining insight into human behaviors, testing proposed policies and rules, and training users to understand complex subjects. MITRE has also researched the use of challenge-based acquisition (ChBA), an acquisition strategy based on gamification, to acquire capabilities for large software systems, as well as methods to add gamification to the interview process when seeking and evaluating prospective employees with specific technical abilities. [2][3]

Gamification is the method of taking something that currently exists, be it a system, an application, or process, and adding game elements with the goal of increasing loyalty, engagement, and participation. Though difficult to implement correctly, gamification can provide tremendous benefit. Gamification aims to encourage users to modify their behavior or take specific actions by appealing to player motivators (the characteristics that drive us to play games) such as competition, exploration, collection, and achievement. Gamification appeals to the two types of motivation that drive us to act: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation, given that it is internal, drives us to achieve a goal for personal satisfaction or accomplishment. Extrinsic motivation focuses on external reward designed into the activity: possibly a required certification or the avoidance of a negative consequence (e.g., losing a privilege).

The type of game mechanics a game designer applies to a task varies depending on what motivates the audience performing the task. For example, MITRE is working on a project to increase user engagement for required annual training. This training is often not exciting for the user population as it varies little from year to year, and often covers topics with which users already possess a high level of familiarity. MITRE analyzed the audience and determined that the users were primarily extrinsically motivated. This makes sense because most people are not motivated to take an annual training course because it is “the right thing to do.” Thus, redesigning the course as a board game that each user plays and during which the user answers questions and advances through the course may be a good gamification decision. Developing a leaderboard that recognizes the users who had the highest score in the game, as well as badges to distinguish top performers or those learners who achieved a perfect score on one or more courses leverages the extrinsic motivation of the user population and helps to get them more engaged in their learning. If the audience were more intrinsically motivated, then different game mechanics might be employed, such as goal-setting or cooperative elements to facilitate collaboration and teamwork.

MITRE has experience in developing and using serious games, which are designed like more conventional board games or video games but whose primary purpose is not entertainment. The MITRE Policy Lab designs and runs tabletop games to test proposed policies and rules, and observe changes in stakeholder behavior that come from changing incentives. Policy Lab games range from loosely structured games focusing on stakeholder roles and tactics, to highly structured games with a focus on human decision making within a given incentive structure. MITRE has developed games as training tools for agile acquisitions and shared understanding, and has even developed three-dimensional (3D) worlds that model car, ship, and air traffic to provide an integrated experimentation environment. Recently, MITRE adapted a 3D-based serious game simulating taxpayer compliance behavior to allow an organization to learn more about compliance behavior, understand reasons for non-compliance, and encourage voluntary compliance via education and outreach. [4]

Developing serious games takes serious work. Considerable effort goes into modeling the behaviors and actions of the users whose environment is to be simulated within the game. When designing a serious game, developers consider its purpose and scope, to include scenarios, actor networks, motivators, and the environment in which the game will be played. Reduction, abstraction, and symbolization inform the developer as to the best way to simplify the complex topics. The developer must select the most appropriate game mechanics to fit the goals (both narrative and mechanical) of the game. And of course, the game must be fun, or the users will not play it!

A detailed explanation of serious game development is beyond the scope of this blogpost. but here is a summary: Serious game developers first gather data via research and interviews to ensure that the developer achieves an accurate representation of the task and user, or else the results will be of limited value. Next, the developers create a narrative that places boundaries on the simulated activity, striking a balance between allowing the user to perform the task as they see fit, but without allowing the user to perform actions irrelevant to the task. Lastly, the developers identify and implement methods to track the data being generated by the serious game to enable a thorough analysis.

As technology evolves and both gamification and serious games become more prevalent, MITRE will continue to explore and leverage this technology to make a positive impact on our sponsors’ critical challenges.

Michael Pack has been playing games since he could hold the controller for the Pong console his parents purchased in the 1970s. He is a Lead Software Systems Engineer specializing in Distance Learning. By keeping up to date with the newest technologies and techniques for delivering training and education to users anytime, anywhere he provides guidance and recommendations that help enable MITRE’s sponsors to meet their goals.


[1] J. McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011,




[2] Cherinka et al., “Practical Implications of Using Challenge-Based Acquisition to Acquire Capabilities for Large Software Systems,” MITRE, Tampa, FL, 2016




[3] Cherinka et al., “A Model for Building a Cyber Security Talent Pipeline,”, MITRE, Tampa, FL, 2015




[4] T. Bergen-Hill et al., “Designing a Serious Game for Eliciting and Measuring Simulated Taxpayer Behavior,” MITRE, McLean, VA, 2013






©2017 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release; distribution unlimited



Pin It on Pinterest

Share This