How Singapore used zombies to teach financial management

By GovInsider

Exclusive interview with NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin.

You are fighting your way through a city teeming with the infected, and the only way to survive and make it to the safehouse is to make the right decisions about your resources - so choose wisely.

While the inevitable zombie apocalypse has not ravaged the world as we know it - not yet, anyway - teenagers do love zombie shooter games. Kuik Shiao-Yin, Nominated Member of Parliament of Singapore and Director of The Thought Collective, certainly knows this.

When Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC Private Limited wanted to teach the average 15-year-old the principles of long-term investment for the national reserves, “we explained to them, ‘Kids don’t care about everything that you just said, but they love zombies’,” Kuik says with a laugh.

Kuik was delivering a keynote speech at the Smart Learning Summit on 23 March 2017, presented by GovInsider and professional services company Cognizant.

To survive the ‘apocalypse’, be risk-aware

The Collective does social enterprise work - although it didn’t start off that way. Originally a tuition agency of sorts, it expanded to become a consultancy that helps organisations to engage the public on social issues.

The GIC wanted to impart investment principles such as: being risk-aware, not risk-averse; thinking long-term, not short term; and thinking of value, not just price - not exactly what the average teenager is concerned about.

So, Kuik’s team designed a zombie apocalypse computer game called Safehouse, and embedded all of these investment principles into the choices that players need to make to survive.

The game challenges players to make decisions - some of which involve a consideration of ethics - and make their way to a safehouse armed only with limited resources. This way, teens can understand the larger human costs that could arise in the long term from taking risks.

“There will be some situations where the kids are asked, ‘Do you want to pick up the axe or backpack?’” Their choices show whether they were being risk-aware or -averse, Kuik explains.

A real-life immersive version of the game also exists, challenging teens through task-based activities to earn resources for survival. This type of unconventional thinking clearly illuminates The Thought Collective’s DNA.

“We care about designing solutions that help any organisation - if you’re an organisation that wants to know, care and do more for your community, we are willing to help you communicate or teach that, or draw that connection for you,” says Kuik.

The emotional side of total defence

Kuik has also worked with other government organisations to design real-life experiences and games that bolster community development and public engagement.

The Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) approached the Collective to run an educational campaign that would teach the general public about the core principles of defending the nation.

As aggressors can target the social fabric of Singapore as much as its military or economy, Singapore’s Total Defence strategy focuses on the need for every citizen to play a part in defending the nation.

MINDEF wanted to see how they could emphasise on the less ‘obvious’, emotional pillars of Total Defence, according to Kuik. “You can have tanks on display, which the public gets, but social and psychological defence are a bit abstract,” she says.

The immersive experience designed by The Thought Collective presented interactive exhibits and stories of everyday Singaporeans who have played a part in Total Defence in their own way, in the hopes that the public could learn about the many different and less obvious ways that they, too, could contribute.

What was interesting, according to Kuik, was that these were Singaporean stories that were not normally told, like that of a young girl who had to choose between either pursuing a really prestigious degree or becoming a social worker.

Learning about social issues through play

Ngee Ann Polytechnic engaged The Thought Collective to design a large-scale learning experience to teach students the importance of national service, among other national issues.

Called the Game of National Defence, the mass activity divided students into either attackers or defenders. Defenders had to form circles around objects and protect them from the attackers.

“It was very deliberately designed to provoke, and bring you a space where you have to confront certain things,” Kuik says.

The game led to a very deep and meaningful conversation with the kids, who talked about their feelings of injustice toward the attackers, some of whom were breaking the rules to win.

To see this type of real change happen in their communities, Kuik encourages those in the public service to explore cross-sector collaborations and partnerships.

Innovative approaches like gamification and experiential learning could help governments to reach out to the public and discuss complex social issues in an accessible way.

Image by The Thought Collective