“For an effective game, do your homework and address a big problem”

So you want to change the world? And you want to make a serious game to make that change? Well, even if luck and chance play a role in your game’s ultimate effectiveness, you can definitely take steps to put yourself in the best possible position to make a big change that can be measured. You can do this from the get-go by doing your homework.

Homework Star

One of the first things to do as part of your serious game homework is to figure out what problem or problems you want it to address. Don’t be the person who responds with a blank stare to the question, “Is this actually a problem with the target group for your serious game?” Choose a problem that is big enough for you to measure a reliable change in it when people play it.

How to find big problems to address

Let’s say that I want to change the world by making a serious game to help people live longer. Ultimately, I want to reduce premature deaths thereby improving people’s average life expectancy through my intervention. I will walk you through this example to show you how to think about big problems.

Homework assignment 1: Figure out where the problem is

The problem may be found in a certain location.  Because I’m interested in prolonging life, I read up on lots of things. I find out what causes short or long life expectancy because that gives me clues about what I need to change to increase life expectancy. I also need to find out where life expectancy is a big problem.


I read  articles that compare average life expectancy across countries. It turns out that there is a relationship between income and life expectancy.  Luckily, I find a cool site that shows these relationships nicely. You can see the relationship in the graph below. You can also go to the site for the interactive graph to get more information and details. 

Income and Life expectancy6a00d83452ba9569e200e550810db78834-800wi

The dots that represent countries are clustering around a line that positively slopes upwards. As I look more closely at the horizontal and vertical axes of the graph, it appears that countries in which people make more money on average (have a higher per capita income) live longer on average (have a higher average life expectancy).

This graph also demonstrates that average life expectancy pretty much is at its best around 85 year of age. I can go to those countries where average life expectancy is around 85 years of age to improve life expectancy because, of course, not everyone in those countries lives such a long life. But let’s face it, to have a big impact on life expectancy, I can have a much bigger impact if I go to the countries with a low per capita income where life expectancy is in the 40’s and 50’s. I have lots of room to make huge improvements there. Big problems are characterized by lots of room for improvement.

What is “room for improvement”?

Let’s take a look at the numbers of how big of an impact I can have by prolonging life in places where people have a relatively shorter life expectancy.

Think of it this way, if I have a barrel of people with high incomes whose average life expectancy is 80 years and I improve their life expectancy by 20 years, I have increased their life expectancy by 25% (26 years is 25% of 80 years). A 25% increase is not bad! But do I really have room to get people who live on average to 80 years of age to live to 100? Is that even biologically possible??? Seems like a difficult task if you ask me.

However, if I take a barrel of people with low incomes whose average life expectancy is 50 years and I similarly prolong their lives for 20 years, THEIR life expectancy has increased by 40% (20 years is 40% of 50 years). For the same increase in the average number of years lived, I have almost doubled my impact with this group.

And practically speaking, doesn’t it seem more “biologically” possible to increase the average life expectancy of a group of people from 50 to 70 years of age?. Lots of people live until they are 70 so it is a more reasonable goal than the effort it must take to get people to live until 100. More on this later.

To summarize, if I can prolong life for 20 years with my serious game intervention, I can go to a country with high per capita income and prolong their lives by 25% or I can go to a low per capita income country and prolong their lives by 40%. Obviously, I can have a bigger impact by picking the place where the problem is bigger. And I have more room to make a big improvement by going where the problem is bigger.

Bonus benefits of focusing on big problems

You will often find that there are more things you can do to make changes where the problems are bigger.

People with who live in countries with high per capita incomes already have lots of things working for them that support a long life expectancy. They have almost 100% access to excellent health care that is affordable (with one notable exception but hopefully that will change in the next few years), sanitary living conditions, and environments with low rates of violent crimes. Because conditions are so good for them, it is difficult for me to improve on an already good situation with my serious game.  I would have to search around a lot to find VERY effective ways of making their small problem even smaller.

However, if we turn to people who live in countries  with a very low per capita income and a life expectancy of 45 years, there is a lot I can do to get them to live longer. I can make a game that trains paraprofessionals to provide high quality health care.  I can make a game to train people how to improve sanitary conditions in their communities.  I can also come up with a gamified process that improves efforts to reduce violence. My options are much broader to make an impact. Thus, there is lots of room for improvement.


I used countries as the unit of analysis to in this example. I could have looked at life expectancy in urban versus suburban environments, hospices versus elementary schools, or countries with strict gun control laws versus the United States. The point is that you have to do some kind of homework on where the problem is and go there. And if you only have access to people and places where the problem is small, consider focusing on a different problem if you want to have an impact that is measurable.

By focusing on income, I was able to identify a problem that was big not only in severity, but it also more widespread. In the world and even within countries, there are relatively more people with lower incomes than higher incomes. Thus, my target audience and my eventual research sample is big. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Lots of problems are big with lots of room for improvement because they only affect a small number of people. The argument still holds that you should go for these big problems if they affect a small number if you want to have a big impact. You will need to do your homework in other ways (e.g., partnering with associations that have access to the target group, coming up with innovative and tailored solution for a problem that virtually nobody has tried to address before). I am a big fan of this approach because I am quite fond of having a big impact by boldly going where no serious game has gone before.


world in lotus

If you want to change the world, you have to go where change is needed. I hope I have inspired you to find big problems to address in your serious game that will change the world….one big problem at a time.

By pamkato

I am a Harvard- and Stanford-trained Ph.D. psychologist, social entrepreneur, and serious game visionary. I want to work with other people to change the world while having fun doing it.

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