Getting on top of COVID requires top down and bottom-up engagement

Colin Weir
7 min readJan 11, 2021


Whilst health officials track, trace, lockdown and immunise, success is predicated on the population rallying around a set of behaviours and feeling good about these. People are getting worn out. We need to make this more fun. We are giving people complex math problems and they aren't mathematicians. We’re giving them complex science problems and they aren't scientists. As the NSW Minister for Service, Victor Dominello, points out we aren't making enough progress. Daily newscasts help control the narrative, but lots of people are missing the point.

There’s a massive engagement issue and opportunity. Powerful social and digital game tools are mistakenly being neglected. Such tools leverage behavioural economics and cognitive bias to deliver engagement. With low engagement across the key metrics and much ahead of us there is much more that can be done.

As with any fundamentally social issue, it is COVID is both an epidemiological problem and an epistemological one. As with any social issue, it can’t be solved by science, in this case vaccines and pharmacology, alone. As well as being a science challenge, it’s a challenge around how people think, feel and then behave. To contain the virus, and for politicians to prove they have this, everyone needs to be engaged and “on the bus”. To control the virus, 90% compliance rates for social distancing, other isolation measures and vaccinations are critical. Anything less than 80% won’t work. In fact , compliance rates of less than 80% could make things worse as we train as opposed to defeat the virus. Right now, we’re making progress on the epidemiology but poor progress on the epistemology.

After record death tolls in the UK, scientists fear that a new variant of the virus and less rigorous adherence to the rules means cases are unlikely to “peak”. Instead, they predict that cases will keep climbing throughout winter.

People are getting worn out, distrustful, feel unappreciated as their businesses collapse and are to various degrees emotionally empty; not on the bus. This appears to be the root cause of the issue in the UK and the USA. Jumping up and down pleading with people isn’t working.

On Sydney’s Northern Beaches on announcement of an outbreak mid December 2020, the community rallied around the cry to isolate and get tested. Accordingly, community transmission was tiny, the outbreak minimised and the job got done. The community is tight, enjoys a healthy outdoors lifestyle and has the fortune of a lot of natural beauty to enjoy during the lockdown. In the Northern Northern Beaches DMZ residents have a national park, a harbour and 44 separate beaches to swim in during fairly good weather , rose to the challenge, enjoyed others being locked out of their playground and the momentary shut off. There was a lot working in their favour.

Bengally Headland, Avalon Beach and Sydney’s Northern Beaches

However, few knew how many people had been tested and how the community was making progress. We were all in the dark for 3 weeks, treated like mushrooms. Lots of people didn't get tested, the testing stations were routinely very quiet.

Newport Beach Testing Station, December 23rd 6PM

More can be done to get communities rallying around each other, operating as a collective. Avalon seems more like an outlier of success compared with results across the city and the world, where conditions aren’t as favourable. The underlying story, 10 months in is of a restless community, worn down by fear, job losses, strained relationships and emotions. Whilst vaccines offer good potential to protect the vulnerable, another 6 months of uncertainty seems likely, during which time we need to lighten the load and keep engagement up.

We need people engaged and on the bus. We can’t do it with creating lockdowns and vaccines and strict policing alone. We need the people to be in. We need a set of behaviours from every man woman and child on a continual basis as we understand what the world looks like going forward, with the ability to reset what those behaviours and win states are as we level up.

This is bigger than COVID-19 or COVID-20 because the world looks like a very different place than the one we grew up in. A potential 1.7 million COVIDesque viruses are hanging around inside of wild animals ready to unleash more of the same.

We’re going to be back here, that’s for sure. When we are, we’ll have a go at vaccines and lockdowns but we’re going to need everyone in. We will need to feed them the data in a way that is consumable and leverages what we know about behavioural economics, cognitive bias, game theory and the way people work. This warfare is complex and as many armies have done before, adding game thinking to our arsenal materially helps; win states, mazes, challenges skills, cooperation and competition to name a few techniques.

At the core of the engagement issue is that most numbers completely befuddle people as they get larger. 50% of people think 1million is a half of a billion. Amazing. Yet we ask them to do this every day as we discus COVID, markets, the planet and politics. Is the 28 trillion tonnes of ice that the earth has lost over the last 3 decades a big number? Seems like it, but what’s the reference? Is 1 COVID case a day a big or small number? Is 18,000 cases a day a big or small number? 60,000? We see the Premiers of Australia having this debate very publicly. This public debate creates a perception is that they don't know the answer, leaving people struggling to know what to feel or think and the door open for the conspiracy theorists. Few people are equipped to really grasp relativity and position yet that’s how the news is reported and what we are presenting them with. We think and are able to think, as our reptilian brains take over, much less than we think we think.

Big numbers seem to make things more dramatic. That’s good news for the media agencies and politicians that want to build brands. It’s not good for politicians and health professionals that want to save lives and get economies and society back on track in a sustainable way

People deserve more. We all need the opportunity to understand. We are born to game; competing, exploring, socialising, having fun, going on epic missions. Game and social design can be leveraged to deliver digital experiences that drive engagement. This approach takes the rules of game design, such as clear goals and win states, understood rules, fun and social to create emotional connection and engage customers on activities that are otherwise boring and difficult. Much of the information and news being shared by traditional means ignore these rules. Few people understand what winning looks like and how we’re making progress in this complex world we live in. Yet games have a beautiful way of taking us on a journey to solve complex challenges, build skills and do that together. There’s a lot of science as to why games are totally addictive and get people engaged. We need to get very curious as to how to embed these game and social ideas into our engagement strategies. You look at this photo of a popular video game and you are naturally intrigued, its not a coincidence. You compare it to the news and you get the palpable difference.

Governments can and must take a much stronger, more coaching approach to leadership, engaging us all in a way that is much more aligned to who we are, with vulnerability and transparency to get us through this together, enlivened and ready for the next wave and the next wave. Yes its tough, but there is a lot we must do to change the perception and the emotions by embedding more fun and social into the engagement, so we are all in it to win it.

The Moroku GameSystem Design methodology is the process for defining the opportunity for and application of fun and social within the digital experience. The process combines strategy, game design, innovation, behavioural science and design thinking to deliver customer engagement. We would love to share it with any government who wants to do this together and treat communities with the respect they deserve and the power they have to climb out.

Climb Out



Colin Weir

Entrepreneur, Leader, Adventurer, Thinker