“What is hell is a ‘serious’ game?”
I’d never heard this term before coming to Stanford to start my journey in the Learning, Design & Technology education program. I distinctly remember laughing at the image that it conjured of a group of people sitting very still and somber while hunched over a tabletop board game, determining the next best move.
While I have often enjoyed playing games, most of the ones that come to mind have been video games, from Pokemon and Zelda to Portal and Borderlands. Until recently, board games were reminiscent of family game nights — as a younger child excited by Chutes & Ladders and Candyland and later, as a sullen teenager, sulking with arms crossed wondering how long a game of Cranium would last and how minimally I would be able to participate. I thought board games were nerdy but decided to embrace that in college and started occasionally playing more tabletop games (Catan, Battlestar Galactica, Codenames).
On the other hand, I thought video games were art. I still fully agree with that sentiment, but now realize much more the deep levels of nuance to this, compared my original interpretation of “art” that primarily consisted of story (read: cutscenes), and visual environment. Given that most of my experience was with story-based video games of the “string-of-pearls” variety, I did not believe I’d be able to produce a very good game, and when I realized we would mostly be working on board games, I felt even less confident in my ability, assuming I wasn’t creative enough or had enough experience.
In fact, I didn’t originally plan to take this class at all and joined a week late. I’d just pivoted my LDT master’s project a few weeks before, when an overnight flash of inspiration convinced me to try to make a digital game to teach programming and biology — despite never having created any sort of game before. My advisor recommended actually building it out into a physical board game first, to test the game mechanics, and several classmates who’d taken the course in fall also recommended it. Ultimately, I’m very glad I made the switch, as I learned an incredible amount this quarter and am using the skills and ideas gleaned from this course, not only for my master’s project but in all projects going forward.
The class itself was wonderfully designed. Interestingly, flipping back through my notes on system dynamics, so many of these principles can relate back to the class structure: each design sprint could be seen as an arc with loops of brainstorming, playtesting and iteration through each. Given a prompt and a small set of rules/guidelines, we formed groups with a dynamic range of skill sets and for each project, the class came up with a set of games that were complex, unpredictable, extremely varied, and all wonderfully creative. There was enough structure and information to guide us, yet a huge sense of possibility as we could work on any topic that interested us.
I worked on four different projects over the course of the last two months, and loved every one of them. Our first game was “Sweet Surprise” (alt name: “Oh S*gar!”), a game to teach about nutrition and highlight the unexpectedly high amount of sugar hidden in common foods and drinks. My interactive fiction, The System, explored a dystopic view of social media, the emotions around sharing personal art, and difficulties of digital human connection. We modeled a complex system game, #mood, around the theme of “mood contagion”, how positive or negative emotions can spread throughout a group. Finally, I joined another team to further refine an existing project, An Inconvenient Game, that challenged players to save the Earth from climate change while learning sustainable behaviors they can practice in their own lives outside of the game.
The best part was how fun the process was. By placing importance on being cognizant of fun in the games, somehow this spilled over into actually creating the games. I have rarely felt the level of enthusiasm and engagement that I felt in creating these games. It inspired me to take on tasks that I wouldn’t normally choose or enjoy (such as copy-writing) and put extra effort into everything I worked on. In the spirit of #mood, the energy was contagious. In all of the groups I worked in, everyone was really excited to contribute as much as possible and it was wonderful to discover how everyone’s skills complemented each other. I kept being amazed at how much we could get done in two short weeks, illustrating the benefit of having a bias to action and that constraints help creativity. I’ve never been one to make decisions quickly, but luckily there was always someone on the team that was, and that helps to move things along much faster.
The biggest takeaways for me, which I will use in designing games and learning experiences in the future:
Playtest as often as possible with different groups of people. The dynamics that emerge will always differ from your expectations; even changing one small thing such as what kind of die you use, can drastically affect game play. Testing with different groups of people also can get really different results as play also depends on personality. One of the most difficult things during playtesting was not saying anything when people played incorrectly or didn’t understand an instruction, but there is a lot of value in letting it play out. Document everything.
In a similar vein, share work often. I really enjoyed the class requirement of sketchnoting our reading assignments, even though it took much longer, I retained the information a lot better and go back to my notes more often. However, I never would have thought of sharing them. Posting on medium has been an interesting way to get feedback and was surprised that other people would find them useful.
Consider each project as a whole: always go back to the outcomes and values you want to achieve or communicate. Mapping out the progression of arcs and loops was a good way to wrap my head around the structure of each experience. Always be cognizant of what aspect of fun I can bring to a learning experience. One thing I want to improve at which was only briefly addressed in class is thinking about assessment and good practices to measure that during or before/after playing a game.