The field of serious games has a short history but involves an active and vocal community of game developers, educators, and artists all over the world. There are a number of terms that refer to subtly different branches of the general philosophy and I won’t be getting into the nuances of each, but the overarching goal of these games is the same - to make a difference to the world through the medium of games. Examples of this include games like PeaceMaker, a realistic simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, DEEP, a meditative VR game centered around breathing, or active games like Pokemon Go which encourage players to live active lifestyles. They all tackle some kind of change utilizing the power of games as a vector to deliver a meaningful emotional experience for players in the hope that this change extends beyond the Magic Circle. In this blog post I want to specifically refer to video games trying to make an impact beyond (but perhaps including) knowledge of a topic (educational games), and use my own experiences developing a 1 hour live game experience augmented by iPads for 100 people at the Games For Change Festival in New York City. This journey from idea conception to production was a long and arduous one, meandering in a place somewhere between debating the meaning of art to the value of interactions in provoking emotion. However, on the other side of the nebula, I’ve learned a lot of valuable things about the power of games in changing its players, and how I’d do it again if I had the chance.
Art is a wildly ambiguous and broad term, and even trying to define it could take up a series of blog posts so I won’t even begin to try. My own experiences in design, animation, music, dance and games have no doubt shaped my philosophy on how to create meaningful change in someone, and I believe that a pivotal moment was in my music education growing up. As a young child in an Asian household, my parents put me through formal piano training in the classical realm and honestly, I hated it. The only joy I remember was when I was able to compose my own pieces or learn pieces that I found enjoyable and interesting (I was too young to appreciate classical music at the time). It wasn’t until later when I took up drums that my new teacher showed me a glimpse of what I had been craving - passion for fun. He learned my taste in music and also evolved my taste my exposing me to so many genres I had never listened to before, and from that foundation I branched out further into understanding my own taste through music library digging to production. I became obsessed with playing/listening to music and the process of learning more about it was fun for me. While I moved away and stopped playing drums as often, this simple teaching philosophy fundamentally changed my life for the better as I continued on in university and grad school incorporating music into my career.
One thing about the passion for fun is that it is undeniably one of the best motivators out there. The social psychological concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are something every game designer has to contend with, and the fact that games have such a widespread base of intrinsically passionate gamers and developers speak to the inherent potential that games have for social change. Every human in the world enjoys play, and tapping into the mental space for what is considered within the boundaries of ‘play’ is an under-appreciated power that game designers have in their arsenal. When players play a game, they enter a mental headspace of pretend and make-belief, immersing themselves in their role in the story. This moment of ‘entering’ into a game provides a safe space for trying out identities and actions, testing actions and consequences, and becoming vulnerable to the game’s emotional arc via empathy. This vulnerability allows game designers to subvert players’ expectations as a way to make them question their understanding of the medium and question their beliefs and perspectives.
For my current project for Games For Change, we started out the semester trying to make a game about arts and civic engagement that was fun and had interesting interactions but we quickly realized the shallowness of a fun game that did not have a clear higher purpose. Given the broad topic, we began our journey of research in search of a clear message we wanted to deliver that might inspire or challenge players, and realized the answer to this question laid within ourselves. Our team went on a path to unravel our team philosophies and beliefs, and looked internally at what stories we had that related to this topic space. In order to communicate a higher purpose, we realized that narrative contained a lot of possibilities for empathy and connection, but upon further iteration, we also realized that narratives that appeal emotionally to players constituted an incredibly hard task. An RPG game felt out of scope with our team’s time and skill set constraints, as well as with our team’s passions, and we began to question our confidence in the process and in our capabilities - a classic arc in game development. A further iteration was realized through hyperfocusing on our target audience to gather commonalities in topic amongst them, making our game even more ‘real’ and connected to their everyday lives beyond our 1 hour session. I ultimately learned that if I can create a game that I personally find fun, the avenues for change open up drastically as does the game’s potential for impact.
In my search for games that allowed players to question themselves and question their surroundings, I’ve categorized some techniques that awesome games use to create meaningful and thought-provoking enjoyment. All things relate to the broader umbrella of subversion as a method. The first, most direct type, is that of choice and consequence like PeaceMaker which put players directly into the decision-making shoes of a politician negotiating peace in the Middle East. These let players test consequence and action and empathize with the complexity of the situation, using factual information on the conflict to inform player decisions. A classic example of this is Undertale, an indie classic that tests player morality and subverts what you think you know about the RPG genre (tropes) to deliver a meaningful message about the consequences of your actions. It utilizes a concept borrowed from legacy board games, meaning that actions you perform in one playthrough result in permanent changes even if you exit the game and try again. This allows the Magic Circle to be broken while the player is still immersed, essentially extending the game’s influence outside of the platform and technology and into the player’s daily life. The second technique involves using the mechanics of the game itself as a way to subvert expectations of social connection - notably Ingress and Journey. The former uses the GPS map mechanics to create a real-life connection, and encourages users to become more active in their quest for (actual and digital) territory. This subverts the understanding that people The latter utilizes the lack of communication to purify and distill what it means to be socially connected, allowing limited communication with musical notes and coloring of game elements and cooperative play. As you play this simple platformer, other players join you and help on your quest towards the mountain, and only at the end do you find out their names. This lends itself to introspection on what it takes to feel connected to another and raises important questions about the lens of games and technology as an isolating force.
In all, I’ve learned so many things about how I’d like to personally continue making work in this space. As a socially conscious individual with a strong desire to better the world around me, I think one thing I’ve realized is that games that start first as awesome games and engage the players a real way, not as a pretension for some higher cause, truly utilize the power of games both its form and its everyday context to allow players to reflect upon themselves in relation to the external world. Self-reflection is one of the first steps to be able to challenge players’ beliefs and perspectives, which can be done by subverting game tropes popular in conventional genres (like RPGs, dating sims, and platformers). Getting people to questioning their surroundings involves challenging player’s initial perspectives going into your game, which itself requires a deeper understanding of the target audience. Once within the magic circle of the game, you can subvert expectations to realize your message and take your game beyond the confines of the code and computer - which is the goal of all serious games. We need real change, not just a celebration of how great our games are, and real-life is the place to do it.