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I recently returned from Cairo, where I led a workshop on Games for Development in cooperation with UNDP Egypt and UNDP Innovation Fund. This was the second time Engagement Lab has visited Egypt, but my first trip there. I did not know what to expect, but what I found in Cairo was a group of about 50 highly motivated, highly engaged people who care deeply about civic engagement and entrepreneurship in Egypt and the region.
Each was strongly committed to creating positive change, and most had no experience designing games. But there was an almost electric buzz around the topic and an intense interest in learning to use games as a development tool. More than 600 applicants vied for spots in the workshop, and of the 50 that were selected to attend, all had viable game designs by the end of the three-day process.
The workshop consisted of lectures, guided exercises, and plenty of time to let teams explore their topics of interest, design, and iterate on their game prototypes. I think what was most impressive, and most gratifying as an instructor, was seeing novice designers make the cognitive leaps necessary to think like game design experts and embrace the aspects of play that make it such a powerful tool for engagement.
When people think about the genre of games commonly called “serious games,” they tend to make some counterproductive assumptions. This is natural, and one of the tasks that evangelists like us need to fulfill is dispelling misconceptions. It’s the first step down the road to good game design. The first of these is misidentifying the “why” of games. Why use them? What are they actually good at doing?
One common attitude is that games should be used to stealthily teach content to kids, tricking them into learning information that we want them to know, but is “boring.” Many believe that just sugar-coating normal educational content through play will make it more palatable to children. This is sometimes referred to as “chocolate-covered broccoli.” There is some evidence that supports the notion that kids learn better when they are allowed to play, but it’s less clear that the reason is motivation to learn. Framing traditional learning content with badly designed games “for the sake of fun” is one of the tactics that give educational games the slightly cynical tinge that can surround it. Unfortunately, this design philosophy is still a common one, and completely misses the true power of play to engage.
In order to reframe the way we think about games and correctly identify how and when to use them as a tool, a number of cognitive leaps are needed. Here are some of the most important ones that I saw being made at the workshop.
This might seem obvious, but a lot of novice designers (especially when they design for social impact) can take fun for granted. Fun is something that happens when you play games, right? So why worry about that? Just make sure your learning objectives are covered, and let the players do the rest. This is a toxic attitude, and one I was happy to see disappear the more the designers at the workshop learned and playtested.
If a game is not fun in its own right, why would anyone engage with it? They could go through the motions, sure. But they’ll be thinking about other things, and may even resent the process instead of enjoying it. Just as important is whether the game will ever be played again after the onboarding process ends. Many games for social impact are optimistically designed to go “viral.” This is an admirable goal, but one that is exceedingly rare in “serious” games, and impossible for a game that is not exceptionally fun.
This goes back to the question of why to use games in the first place. A lecture or non-game exercise teaches in a much more straightforward way. Other forms of art such as video or comic strips can pack a lot more information into a much shorter time. Games are by their nature inefficient. Play gets in the way, after all. So why use them? The answer is that games, more than any other expression of thought, are good at demonstrating how a system works, because a game is a system of rules, obstacles, and actions.
I had the designers at the workshop attack their games from this angle, and even had them explicitly define the systems they were modeling. Even then I saw many games that simply framed trivia-like content in a playful way. However, once the mental leap was made and the workshoppers began to think about their social issue as a playable problem, the quality of their games improved drastically. They became both more fun and more effective tools at once.
This is a little trickier, and making sure your game has the right level of challenge is one of the most difficult tasks game designers face. Make your game too easy and it won’t present a challenge. People will get bored, and not engage with it. Make it too difficult or too complex, and you scare away your audience (who will often be lacking game literacy skills, since this work is being done in the development context).
Novice designers often include “challenges” in their games that are “for fun.” For instance, when you draw a red card, everyone has to run to the other side of the room. Running, jumping, or acting might be fun, but these challenges are irrelevant to the larger context, don’t support the central mechanic of the game, and often don’t even carry a risk of failure. Without a risk for failure, or at least consequences, a game action is meaningless.
In one instance, the early iteration of a cooperative game had no risk of failure whatsoever. The mechanics were fun, but there was no sense of urgency in any of the game’s actions, so it failed to engage. The next iteration added a two-strike mechanism where if you ever failed twice, the game ended in a loss for everybody. This made the game incredibly tense, and much more fun. It also put a greater strain on the table’s ability to work as a team and manage resources.
Games are a perfect way to let players experiment and fail safely, so do not be afraid to let them fail. The more the designers at the workshop put challenging mechanisms in their games and attached meaningful consequences to them, the better their games became.
All games tell stories, though some are more abstract than others. The best designed games have their mechanics fully integrated into the game’s narrative. This means that the rules system feels natural in the context of the real-life system it’s modeling. When players execute an action in the game, they feel like they are executing its real-life counterpart. When the mechanics are completely integrated into the narrative, the story actually helps you remember the rules. They match up and reinforce one another.
When working in the development context or designing a game for social change, the interplay between mechanics and narrative are even more important. The last thing you want is to put a perverse incentive into your game (rewarding players for taking actions that would be destructive in the real-world context), or to encode misinformation about the real world into your game system.
When form does not match function, there are two ways to approach the problem. The first is to chop away actions that don’t seem to support the narrative. Removing or altering mechanics that are counter-intuitive seems obvious, but it is not a natural instinct. It must be learned. The second approach is to alter the story, or create in-world reasonings that explain quirks of the game system. Typically, a combination of these two tactics are needed to make a game and its narrative feel integrated. Not all the games that came out of the workshop had a strong narrative component, but the more the designers considered the alignment of story and mechanics, the better their games became.
Another outcome of the workshop was building confidence. Before the workshop, almost every attendee said they knew very little about games, and even less about designing them. They were interested in the power of games to achieve real-world goals, but were not confident in their own skills to make it happen. By the end of the workshop, they reported gaining skills and knowledge. A vast majority of attendees said they were now confident that they could design and implement a game, and that their game could have real world impact.
What explains this huge boost in confidence? I believe it’s because of the insistence of the workshop itself that every member not just experiment with game design, but actually create a playable game. Although the stakes of the workshop were low, the tone and pace of the workshop put tremendous pressure on the groups to achieve something playable for the showcase at the end of Day 3. Different groups handled this pressure in different ways, but all achieved a playable game prototype. More than that, they were all good, and the level of polish and completeness that the best games showed surprised even me.
So what does the future hold for these groups and their creations? UNDP Egypt has agreed to support all of the designers as they work toward iterating upon and polishing their prototypes. I’m confident that many of them will make the leap from concept to implementation.
Even more exciting is the Training of the Trainers (TOT) program that took place on the workshop’s fourth day. A group of select participants, all exhausted from three days of intensive design work, gathered at the UNDP office in Cairo for one more day of work. This time, instead of designing games, they were designing their own workshops that build on the ideas they learned over the past week.
The hope is that these TOT participants will make the workshop their own and spread its ideas throughout the region — not just to people who are in or able to travel to Cairo. Participants from other parts of Egypt as well as Yemen, Sudan, Morocco, and Iraq attended the TOT session and expressed an interest in continuing these efforts back home.
I am hopeful that this will happen and that there is a promising future ahead for Games for Development. It was a great pleasure and honor to work with everyone who attended, especially the representatives from UNDP, who performed tremendous feats to make sure the workshop went off without a hitch. As the process becomes finalized in the coming months, expect to see more updates on this initiative.
Sam Liberty is Senior Game Designer at the Engagement Lab.