Last year Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong released the code for a sudoko solver. As a computer scientist and a puzzle fan, he had brought his passions together to create something different.

Government officials across Asia are doing the same – but it isn’t just for fun. Digital games are being built to achieve policy objectives, improve service delivery, and better understand citizens.

The process is called “gamification”, and here are four ways that governments can use this technique to improve their department’s policy and operations.

1. Changing behavior with lotteries

As early as 1951, the Taiwan government used receipts and invoice numbers in a lottery to prevent business tax evasion. This motivated consumers to demand official receipts and invoices so that merchant transactions would be kept on the books. It also gave consumers incentives to shop at stores that legally report sales taxes.

This is open to everyone – including tourists with valid visas. Six winners are announced on the 25th of every odd month, with up to a maximum cash award of NT$10 million. After a year of implementation, the Finance Ministry saw a reported increase of 75% in tax revenue, according to Yu Kai Chou, author and expert on gamification.

Stockholm used the same approach to reduce speeding. Drivers who stayed under the speed limit were entered into a lottery funded by speeding fines.

2. Training and recruitment

virtual simulation changi airport 1

Singapore’s Changi airport uses virtual reality to train its emergency officers. Staff drive a simulated fire truck and navigate through specially designed rescue scenarios to evacuate passengers.

It beefed-up its virtual simulator last month to train officers in a more realistic setting. For instance, it can emulate different weather patterns and times of day, and has incorporated the design layout of the latest airport terminal for a more realistic environment.

To promote team collaboration, officers can train in four truck driving simulators at any one time. This will sharpen command and control skills and increase training capacity of staff, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore said in a statement.

The US Navy and Marine Corps uses a wargame platform to train its officers. The game has a variety of themes “to expand engagement in military and non-military strategy development”, its game portal stated.

Known as MMOWGLI, it pools global players to tackle wicked problems, usually presented in an “incomplete narrative” to encourage players to come up with solutions together. Participants play out “complex economic, social, military and political considerations”. An example of a problem that players face could be ways to reduce the heavy reliance of the Navy and Marine Corps on finite fossil fuels.

The game allows uninhibited collaboration in highly-structured government and military environment, said Becca Law, game designer of the online platform. “The biggest impact of MMOWGLI is the way people collaborate and the way we generate new ideas or ‘knowledge accidents’”, she said, according to Digital Gov.

3. Gathering feedback

Community PlanIt Primer from Engagement Lab on Vimeo.

Salem town in Massachusetts launched a game – What’s “The Point” – to gather feedback from one of its low-income Latino neighbourhoods. The town mayor realised that gathering input from residents was a challenge because of language barrier.

“We don’t want to do this whole top-down approach to community planning,” said Kim Driscoll, Mayor of Salem, according to StateTech. “But we’re dealing with a nontraditional population, so putting out our regular community survey wasn’t going to work.”

The game lets players complete challenges and missions, and encourages them to share ideas and converse with other players.As a result, the city was able to identify investment priorities. Citizens were also encouraged to take initiative, organising trash cleanups for instance.

4. Build better e-services

Translator Gator1

Languages are difficult, especially when you factor in slang. So Jakarta built a game to understand local dialects so that digital services speak in a language that ordinary people use.

The Translator Gator game involves translating government-related phrases from English into six Indonesian languages, with mobile phone credits given as rewards.

But the game is not just for words from dictionaries. Players also have to translate “informal words” like slang, jargon and abbreviations which are frequently used online.

“On social media, such variations — including jargon — make building a list of keywords more challenging as words, context and, by extension, meaning change from region to region,” writes Pulse Lab Jakarta, the agency behind the project.

There are many more examples of successful projects across Asia, and many examples of unsuccessful games. Some processes don’t benefit from gamification – the designs can seem laboured or simply boring.

But injecting fun into a process can often make a real difference. Gaming can be more than just a hobby.

Image by Peter Mihovics, licensed under CC BY 2.0