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Co-creative game design – An emergent and exploratory space for co-producing knowledge

Published: 03 March 2021
Portrait of a woman. Photo.

This blog post is part of a blog series on exploratory methodologies for knowledge co-production, an initiative of the Co-Creation Lab of the Mistra Environmental Communication programme.

Read more about the Co-Creation Lab on our website.

Blog post written by Thao Do. 


Games have been around for millennia. In fact, games are so inextricably intertwined with human history and cultures that it is nearly impossible to know exactly when the first games were invented and what they looked like. Current games such as Chess, Go or Backgammon date back more than a thousand years. And if you think games using dice are an invention in modern time, you’d be surprised to find that according to archeological evidence, people started rolling the dice some 3000 years ago.

So, what is a game? This concept, so close to everyone’s experience (all of us have played some kind of game at some point in our life), is proving difficult to define and reach a consensus on. In fact, there have been countless attempts to define what games are in both research and practice. Nonetheless, a general understanding of a game is that it is a somehow structured form of play, often orchestrated by a goal and a set of rules. Furthermore, the idea of games is inseparable from the notion of entertainment in which players can feel fully immersed.

From games to serious games

Given a long history of games and their intimate connection with human experiences, the idea of applying games for different purposes beyond entertainment has emerged, which in turn has given rise to a new kind of games called serious games. Earlier development of serious games can be found in military contexts, where military organisations sought to explore, test and plan their strategies and operations or train officers in a simulated and safe environment. Albeit being an emerging field, serious games have quickly gained traction in the last decade, branching out into a number of other fields such as health, education and natural resource management. In the larger domain of sustainability, serious games have been considered a creative method for teaching and training, research and data collection, stakeholder engagement and facilitation of social learning. The playful and safe game environment allows players to imagine and experiment with different choices and learn about others’ perspectives and underlying values.

However, most existing serious games tend to be prescriptive in nature, i.e. games with pre-determined and fixed rules and learning outcomes that aim to communicate or transfer scientific knowledge, which is in line with the traditional understanding and practice of environmental communication. This type of games, despite being a creative form of science-policy communication, arguably falls short in dealing with “messy” and uncertain situations; where problems cannot be defined, where multiple, and even contradictory perspectives are at play. In fact, normal scientific approaches have faltered in the face of these unprecedented challenges. Such challenges require novel methods that can embrace diverse voices, encourage dialogue, and stimulate anticipatory imagination in order to enhance our comprehension of a complex reality, facilitate action learning and enable systemic change.

From serious games to co-creative game design

The recognition of both the benefits and limitations of serious games has prompted a shift from developing prescriptive serious games to engaging in co-creative game design, an approach that puts co-design centre stage. This approach considers stakeholders as “co-designers” who contribute with their real-world knowledge, perceptions and values across the entire game design process. Co-creative game design can not only create a safe space for exploration and experimentation, but also to some degree dismantle knowledge hierarchies and foster a level playing field to embrace multiple ways of knowing. Here, every stakeholder as co-designer/player is empowered to act in an inconsequential space, where power differentials, dominating structures and norms are challenged. This opens up opportunities to “think outside the box” and co-create innovation that can potentially transcend the business-as-usual trap.

In a previous EU-funded project entitled BONUS RETURN (, we enacted co-creative game design as a method to support stakeholder dialogue in selecting and evaluating measures and actions to address nutrient enrichment in the Baltic Sea and other interlinked issues in local contexts. We found that the co-design process can enable stakeholders to pre-experience multiple futures and co-develop responses that reflected the richness of their interests and values, and the complex socio-ecological character of the contexts they were situated in. The serious game represented an emergent and continuously evolving framework through co-design that supported their discussion about how to manage their water catchments in relation to future uncertainties (e.g. flooding, drought, policy reform).

While it is not a panacea for all sustainability challenges we are facing today (neither is any participatory or deliberative method), our experiences with co-creative game design indicate that it has great potential to improve our capacity to navigate these complex and uncertain situations. This approach is an important reminder of the role of play and collective creativity as a means to break out of our deeply entrenched norms and practices. This will hopefully serve as inspiration and guidance for our work in the Mistra Environmental Communication programme where we seek to develop new ways of tackling complex sustainability issues through experimenting with innovative methods of learning and co-creating knowledge.

Two people are sitting at a table with a game board and paper in front of them. Photo.

Two people are sitting at a table with a game board and paper in front of them. Photo.Co-designing the serious game with stakeholders in BONUS RETURN (Photo credit: Brenda Ochola)