Tools for activist game design
July 18, 2008
This is my final report from the Games, Learning, and Society conference. I've detoured a bit from my regular style of posting with these pieces, but I hope you've found them interesting. I'm grateful to Simon Carless for inviting me to cover the event for Gamasutra, and to the GLS folks for organizing such a wonderful gathering of people who care deeply about games.
On the final day of GLS, Dr. Mary Flanagan led a workshop entitled “Values at Play: Tools for Activist Game Design.” Flanagan directs the Tiltfactor game research lab at Hunter College and is the creator of The Adventures of Josie True, the first internet adventure game for girls. She also co-founded Rapunsel, a research project to teach girls programming.
Flanagan is devoted to developing games and software that create “rewarding, compelling, and socially-responsible interactions, with a focus on inventive game design for social change.” She believes designers must intervene in the earliest stages of game design to consider how games can embody socially responsible values. “The idea is to embed human values or human principles into design processes.”
Flanagan noted that “it's not just about narrative and representation.” She and her colleagues are trying to embed positive principles into gameplay and identify design solutions that “convey these principles, yet also satisfy competitive urges and are fun to play.” Flanagan and her team believe that every design decision “can potentially have social, moral, and political implications, and that each design feature can potentially convey social, moral, and political content.”
Can games teach equity? Can games convey values such as creative expression, negotiation, and diversity? Flanagan believes they can and should, but the traditional iterative design model may not work for this. She advocates instead a model that prioritizes values goals at the beginning of the design process and affirms the efficacy of those goals at each step along the way. “You would be amazed at how quickly these things can disappear if you don't keep a close eye on them."
Flanagan introduced workshop participants to “Grow-A-Game” cards, developed by Tiltfactor for the Values at Play project. These cards function as a game design tool intended to facilitate analysis of the values present in video games. They can also be used to brainstorm modifications to existing games or for designing entirely new games.
Participants were divided into small groups, and each received four categories of cards:
- Actions - “Game mechanics or actions that a player performs within the game. Mechanics are geared towards socially conscious actions including trading, creating, and subverting.”
- Challenges - “Social issues and conflicts. These include: sexism, pollution, and addiction.”
- Games - “From classic board games to modern first-person shooters. These cards trigger dialogue about values by inspiring players to analyze and modify popular existing games. Sample games include Scrabble, Pac-Man, and Halo."
- Goals - “Goals cards have ideals that might set the context for a more just and sustainable society. Goals include: generosity, peace, and autonomy.”
Each group drew one Goals card (e.g. justice) and one Action card (e.g. healing) and were then asked to collaboratively design a game (in this example) about justice whose primary mechanic is healing. Groups brainstormed and discussed their ideas, then presented them in a debriefing session.
In a separate exercise, they also combined a Games card with a Challenges card and reconceptualized an existing game to focus on a social issue. One group redesigned Monopoly to incorporate the goal of Empathy by having players switch places, property, and money when they roll certain die combinations, ensuring that no player take undue advantage of another. The winning condition is keeping all players in the game for as long as possible.
The workshop concluded with a demo of Hush, “a statement game built from two cards,” according to Flanagan. Through haunting sounds and images the game depicts ethnic cleansing in Rwanda as the player struggles to keep her crying baby from alerting the militia outside her door. Hush, says Flanagan, illustrates how a powerful and evocative game experience can emerge from a design focus that combines innovative gameplay with social values.