Games for Change 2012 – Notes & Musings

A few weeks ago, I attended the 9th annual Games for Change Festival.  As usual, it was a fantastic mesh of amazing speakers, thoughtful discussion, and inspiring interfaces. From my notes, I’ve pulled out items that I found particularly relevant to the types of learning activities I like to create, with additional notes and descriptions for some.

1. Focus on how the user is being transformed.

(What Games are Good At – Jesse Schell – my notes from this session)

Instead of serious games, Jesse suggested the term transformational games, so that the focus is on how the game is changing the user.  I love this and think that this same type of thinking is essential for designing useful learning activities.

2. Don’t build a game around a message or lesson. Instead, embody the message in the play.

(Game Design Workshop – Nick Fortugo)

The key to using a game for a message or lesson is to embody the message in the play.  The player has to engage with the message by making choices in the game system.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.  I especially like the idea of “secret messages” that are embedded in a more successful strategy. For example, even though it isn’t explicitly stated as a strategy, the message that I took home from the game 3rd World Farmer is that without a strong infrastructure, any success you have as an individual farmer is likely to be wiped away.

3. Your first prototype is going to suck, so build it quickly and get on with it.

(Game Design Workshop – Nick Fortugo)

4. Focus on engagement, rather than just fun.

(Psychology of Engagement: Essential Motivational Ingredients for Successful Gamification – Scott Rigby)

Just fun does’t predict whether someone is still engaged months later; the Player’s Experience of Needs Satisfaction (PENS) does. Users want opportunities for autonomy, relatedness, and growth.

5. Engagement comes from the user’s anticipation of seeing the impact of their actions.

(The Game that Changed My Life – Jane McGonigal – Video)

6. Use your mechanics and UI to give people information that allows them to grow.

(Psychology of Engagement: Essential Motivational Ingredients for Successful Gamification – Scott Rigby)

7. Combine coaching with digital activities.

(What Games are Good At – Jesse Schell – my notes from this session)

Games are great at identifying where the user is making a mistake, but a coach is generally better at determining why the user is making that particular mistake (and, presumably, at also identifying how to not make that same mistake in the future).  I think this is a great argument for combining mentoring with digital learning, especially when trying to change more complex and high-stakes behaviors.

8. Set up the user to fail initially.

(Inside the Haiti Earthquake – Michael Gibson – Video)

I loved this case study of building a game for change with message that is, on the surface at least, uninspiring. In this case, the message was that the best way that someone can help during a disaster (specifically, the Haiti earthquake) is to stay home and send money.

Stay home is not an easy premise around which to build a game.

I’d suggest watching the session for a full description of how and why they built this game, but the core gameplay was designed to challenge the user’s false assumptions by setting up opportunities for failure.

9. Let the user practice real-life skills and strategies in game.

(Plug In, Chill Out: Managing Emotions Through Games by Michelle Riconscente – Video)

This game is designed to teach urban youth healthy ways to manage fear, frustration, and sadness. Users learn real-life tools to manage their physical responses (breathing, muscle tensing and relaxing, self-talk, and visualization) and then sends them into challenges to practice using these tools.

What’s particularly nifty about this game is that it uses biofeedback to measure the user’s physical response.  If the user ISN’T controlling their responses, the challenges actually become harder to complete.  For example, the frustration challenge is a maze where you can’t hit the sides (think Operation).  If the sensors show that you are becoming more frustrated, the size of your ball in the maze increases, making it harder to avoid hitting the sides.

Other stuff to check out:

  • – Generates games based on charted relationships between items. Created as a way for users to create news games, but works for pretty much anything. Not publicly available yet, but you can sign up for the beta.
  • – Game about death for teens.  Started as a list of philosophical questions and evolved into a game.
  • – Quick, short learning games. One of Nolan Bushnell’s latest projects.