Games and engagement with underrepresented audiences

“Some groups in society have many more opportunities to participate in activities related to research and innovation than others. We are committed to closing this gap through our public engagement programmes and partnerships.”

UKRI Vision for Public Engagement, 2019

With a commitment to supporting equality, diversity, and inclusion, UKRI seeks to work with organisations to improve how they engage with communities currently underrepresented in their existing activities. This includes considering the reach and inclusivity of activities across ethnicity, socio-economic background, disability, sex and age.

With that in mind there is an interest to understand what games could uniquely offer to support engagement with traditionally underrepresented communities.

Existing player data provides some (albeit limited) insights into current videogame audiences, particularly around age and gender. For example, in 2021 Ofcom reported similar levels of game playing in men and women at 61% and 63% respectively[2]. However while they were equally likely to play games they did so in different ways, with men more likely to use consoles and women smartphones. In short, game genre and platform influence player demongraphics.

Within the games industry, many are working to improve the diversity of representation within games – and within the games workforce[3] [4]. And audiences are building around games, characters and stories more reflective of and relevant to their particular communities and interests[5].

This suggests the potential is certainly there for games to engage a diverse range of communities, including those traditionally underrepresented in existing engagement work. However, as with all engagement activities, to stand the greatest chance of success those experiences should be designed with the specific audience in mind from the start and an understanding of the community embedded in the creative team and process.

This applies also to mitigating the impacts of digital exclusion on participation in engagement initiatives.

Games can of course now be played on a wide variety of devices. The widespread ownership of smartphones in the UK means they can enable inclusion of communities who might not have access to PC or console experiences[6].

However, there is still a significant proportion of the population who risk being excluded, even with smartphone-based activities. There may be many reasons for this including access to equipment, skill or limited interest[7]. Ensuring non-digital alternatives are not just available but core to engagement initiatives around games (rather than a peripheral add-on) is crucial to avoid exacerbating the impacts of such digital exclusion.

The potential of games in public engagement

With this background of collaboration between videogames and climate science, we spoke to over thirty different organisations from across the videogame sector, social media, museums, festivals, research and local charities.

These ranged from local community bodies to national and international organisations. Familiarity with games varied considerably, as did experience collaborating with organisations in different industries on initiatives.

We explored the interest, opportunities and the practicalities of a public engagement gaming initiative focused on climate change.

All the respondents expressed interest in and saw much potential in the use of videogames and videogame culture. Common threads of interest and opportunity emerged. A range of practical needs and barriers to organisations being able to harness these and collaborate on games initiatives were also highlighted.

These opportunities and needs are summarised below.

The Opportunities

From the above research and consultation, seven strategic opportunities for public engagement with climate science through videogames were identified:


Embracing the Breadth of Videogame Culture

“Working with the breadth of available videogame culture is definitely smarter than trying to make a single, successful game.”

Dan Pinchbeck, CEO, The Chinese Room

Understandably most engagement approaches through videogames have historically focused on the creation or playing of a game. However, as highlighted, with so many new games released each year there is intense competition for players’ attention.

Modern video game culture though provides opportunity for a wider range of access points, including streaming, music, fan-fiction, fan-art[8], cosplay, modding. This culture is a rich and collaborative space which thrives in both digital and non-digital spaces, reaching diverse audiences and enabling engagement professionals to work with their existing interests rather than competing with them. Working with a wider variety of entertainment platforms, it can reach beyond those who self-identify as gamers.


Harnessing Interest in Videogames to Inspire Engagement with STEAM Skills and Careers

“Videogames are a fantastic gateway for STEAM engagement, inspiring interest in how they are made and reaching an ever growing, diverse audience. They inspire young people to discover new potential in themselves.”

Rick Gibson, CEO, The BGI

The creation of videogames involves a wide range of skills and disciplines. For those already excited by videogames, this provides a pathway to inspire engagement with STEAM subjects.

Many organisations already embrace this, often with a focus on teaching coding and animation skills.  However, the multidisciplinary nature of game development provides a way into a greater diversity of subjects beyond those traditionally associated with games, including music, science, engineering and architecture.

In the development of such skills-development programmes, opportunity exists to expand understanding of the transferable nature of these skills, their wider applications and the career opportunities they afford. This includes understanding their existing uses as well as inspiring future innovation around climate change.


Utilising No-Code Game Design Tools to Open Up Participation and Creative Expression

“Using low-code tools like Twine are great ways to introduce people to the systems and concepts behind videogames, giving them a fast-track to being able to express themselves through game design.”

Tara Mustapha, Founder, Code Coven

Coding know-how or interest need not be a barrier to engagement through videogames. The existence of creative tools that do not require technical skills presents an opportunity to widen accessibility and enable a more diverse range of communities and heritage organisations such as museums and galleries to creatively explore opportunities for climate action.


Prioritising Local and Hyper-Local Engagement

“Meaningful local engagement is critical. It’s always interesting to connect the local to national activities… to see the passions that emerge when things connect nationally. It creates a different kind of relevance to the local experience.”

Syima Aslam, Bradford Literature Festival

With many climate action campaigns focusing on conceptually distant and seemingly insurmountable global challenges, the potential of a local and hyper-local focus is an appealing distinction.

It presents an opportunity to focus on social and environmental concerns of more direct relevance and interest to specific communities, especially those who may be traditionally marginalised and underrepresented in public engagement work.

A local focus also enables attention to be drawn to specific research and innovation work being funded and undertaken in different regions of the UK.


Incorporating Digital and Non-Digital Access Points

“Videogames are just a part of a whole ecosystem of play which is growing increasingly connected. Using analogue games, table-top, cards and even playground games is a huge help to access.”

Strategic Director, major AAA games studio

Access to digital technology can be a barrier to participation in or delivery of videogame initiatives. However, contemporary videogames exist in close cultural proximity to analogue games such as board games and card games.

Embracing them broadens accessibility for participants and engagement professionals, whilst enabling many similar opportunities for skills development, creative expression and engagement with social, health and scientific issues.   


Deploying Site and Time-Specific Games

“Using videogames as site-specific elements of programming is a really interesting approach to public engagement.”

Sam Hunt, Festival UK

Site and Time-Specific games offer the potential for unique experiences that are tailored for specific communities and interests.

They can bring in new audiences as well as providing incentive for repeated engagement.

This can be seen with the growth of seasonal and cultural events within videogames such as Fortnite and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

In the physical world, they can encourage people to interact with their local area in new and exciting ways. Hyper-local projects can be created that are uniquely relevant to communities who may be traditionally marginalised and around particular calendar events: in essence supporting engagement with specific rather than mass audiences.


Improving Understanding of the Potential of Videogame Culture to Engage Underrepresented Audiences

Videogame culture already has enormous reach. Through the diversity of content and platforms available, games can engage a wide array of audiences with differing interests, abilities and access. With that in mind, for those trying to reach communities traditionally underrepresented in their public engagement activities, games culture offers up an exciting opportunity.

However, the evidence base for how well videogames can achieve this and an understanding of the approaches that might work best, is limited. A national initiative presents an opportunity to gather data to expand this understanding as well as identify gaps and challenges. Such new knowledge has the potential to create a lasting impact in public engagement practice and support future innovations in the use of digital technologies and play.

Practical Considerations

Aspects for attention in the development of any initiative involving cross-sector collaboration around videogames and climate change focused around integration with existing workflows, resource support and leadership:

Integration with existing workflows

Organisations in every sector identified the need for participation in any initiative to be low-impact on their existing workflows. Many working in videogame development stressed the highly structured development pipelines that they work to and emphasised that collaboration on initiatives needed to be able to fit easily into these.

This was mirrored in the Heritage & Arts sector. Many organisations described that in an ‘ordinary year’ they would have programmes largely defined for the next 12-18 months. In a particularly unpredictable programming environment post-COVID lockdown, a flexible model of participation in initiatives was noted as being very valuable.

However, these needs aside, the value of involvement in an initiative around sustainability was underlined by many. Respondents identified the desire to give outlet to the growing engagement in the sustainability agenda amongst their own workforce.

Resource Support

For those working in research, barriers to participation in initiatives varied greatly between institutions. Those with economic constraints or less developed commitment to public engagement stressed the need for additional resource, particularly financial, to enable participation.

For heritage organisations, charities and community groups, the need for non-financial resource support was often also highlighted. Though there is great interest in involvement with videogames, a lack of practical know-how was noted as a barrier. For some, training of their existing staff was of interest. For others, especially smaller charities and community organisations, there was greater interest in others coming in to deliver activities with their communities.


Many respondents identified a vacuum in engagement leadership across the heritage and arts with respect to climate. Many were excited by the potential role of the UKRI in the development of a programme.

UKRI is uniquely placed to be able to initiate such a flagship national initiative: its networks and strength as a commercially agnostic cross-sector convener enables it to catalyse collaboration between commercial competitors and organisations from across a diversity of sectors including academia, business and local community groups.

Organisations spoken to during the scoping described not having the networks, skills, funding or capacity to lead or deliver such an initiative. However, they expressed enthusiasm in finding ways they could support and contribute to it.

A public engagement initiative anchored in gaming would multiply opportunities for learning for both UKRI and any participating organisations as well as pioneering new forms of engagement through novel industry and community partnerships.

Final Thoughts

Videogames are a global cultural force. Relentless technological and creative innovation alongside the core consideration of the player in the game design process has propelled the sector’s expansion.

No other media exhibits quite such a mutability of form and purpose. And indeed as videogames have evolved, so too has how people engage with them – not just playing videogames, but playing with them in other media and in other areas of our lives.

This is relevant not just to the importance of considering videogames as a media for public engagement but also to opportunities for innovation in the delivery of such an initiative focused on climate change.

As this report has highlighted, there are now multiple avenues for organisations to engage audiences through videogames, including through use of user-friendly digital technologies and non-digital experiences. At the very least, the approach to climate engagement through videogames should not rely on the development of a single breakthrough game.

There is undoubtedly potential for a UK-wide initiative. However, success requires coherence and leadership.

UKRI is ideally placed to spearhead this. It’s role within the research and cultural community makes it uniquely placed to convene organisations across sectors and explore the potential of these technologies to enable greater public collaboration and co-production.

In considering how public engagement should evolve to the world in which we now live, such an initiative could enable multiple opportunities for learning. It offers an approach for pioneering new forms of engagement. Importantly, and especially following recent global events, it can also help organisations create and explore new links between innovative digital projects, their local spaces and diverse audiences across the UK and beyond.

Contributors and thanks

This report was authored by Iain Dodgeon, Director of OKRE, & Iain Simons, curator at large, National Videogame Museum

Case Studies by James Newman, Professor in Media, Bath Spa University

Special thanks to Bridie Rollins, Programme and Operations Officer, OKRE

Thank you to all of the contributors to the report, for your time and expertise

Thank you to the team at UKRI








[7] ONS Report: Exploring the UK’s digital divide 

[8] Fan-fiction/art: Creative stories or art produced in an unofficial, amateur capacity based on an existing fictional world. Whilst these works are often technically copyright infringements, they are usually (but not always) accepted as a valuable part of fan culture.