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How can we create games that are as intellectually and emotionally challenging as they are entertaining? I interviewed Jamin Warren, Katherine Isbister, and John Krajewski to get their thoughts.

Jen Helms, Blogger

September 7, 2016

8 Min Read

How can we create games that are as intellectually and emotionally challenging as they are entertaining? How can we make games for learning and social impact that don’t “feel” like learning games but instead are just really great games? These are a couple of the central questions being asked at a new San Francisco Bay Area event, the Intentional Play Summit. In advance of the summit, I reached out to three of our speakers to get some of their initial thoughts. The event will be held October 7th.

Jamin Warren, Founder, Kill Screen (bio)Jamin Warren

You talk about the importance of systems based games in learning during your PBS episode The Oregon Trail Lied to You saying …”when games allow us to explore the system underneath then we are really learning something”.

What are some of the lessons games for learning and social impact should take from entertainment games?

Warren: The biggest thing is that "learning" and "social impact" have to stem naturally from the work itself. Oregon Trail works became the game is ultimately very funny and that ladders up to the broader educational goal that it tries to make. If the process of making social impact games is different from the way games are actually made commercially, I believe problems will ensue and ultimately players will notice. In the same way Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was a work of fiction that drove major changes in food processing at the turn of the century, some of the games that have done the most for social impact have been ones that have not sought to do it explicitly like Papers, Please and This War of Mine.

How do you think the concept of what a mainstream game is, may be changing?

Warren: Totally! The most significant being -- there is no mainstream! The difference between Pokemon Go, Clash of Clans, League of Legends, and Minecraft is so so wide and yet they're all huge properties that are 100% "mainstream." So in other mediums, I think mainstream implies a certain type of experience. In film, right now it's superhero movies and before that disaster films. In music, it was rock and then hip-hop and now electronic. But I'd argue that gulf between mainstream games is wider now than ever before and is comparatively wider on a property to property basis than what qualifies as mainstream in other mediums.

Katherine Isbister, Professor, UC Santa Cruz Department of Computational Media (bio)Katherine Isbister

Your work focuses on how games have an emotional impact on us. What are some of your favorite examples of designers doing that well? How does doing this well allow players to have a deeper experience and for the game to have more meaningful impact?

Isbister: One well-regarded example is the team who built the game Journey. Jenova Chen, Kellee Santiago, Robin Hunicke and company had a very strong aesthetic vision for how the game should impact players emotionally--creating a sense of awe and smallness for the player in the game's landscape, and forging a powerful sense of collaboration and connection with the other player(s) encountered during the game. They were able to succeed in these aims, resulting in many positive player accounts, and a lot of awards. In particular, creating feelings of mutual dependence and connection between strangers playing together was a tremendous accomplishment, helping to expand the possibility space of networked gameplay.

The designers of That Dragon Cancer (the Green family and their development team) did a tremendous job of conveying the feelings of caring for and letting go of a young child with cancer. This autobiographical game has provoked very powerful player responses, and demonstrates the potential of such games to convey powerful emotional lived experience.

Are there strategies you can share about how we can design more emotion into our games?

Isbister: There are several design tactics that I go into in detail in my book--How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design. One example is thoughtfully crafting both avatars and non-player characters to heighten social emotions for players. It helps to have emotion goals in mind from the beginning, that shape the design choices you make. I find the MDA (mechanics, dynamics, aesthetics) framework a useful tool for helping game designers hold in mind the end emotional tone and experience of the overall gameplay as they work. It's easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees when you are busy tuning and testing a game!

Why does designing emotional impact into games matter? When does emotion get in the way of our ability to understand something new and when do you think it promotes that ability?

Isbister: I would argue that all games have emotional impact. We now know that emotion is integral to decision making, to thinking itself. So a designer ignores emotion at their peril--the player will feel something. You want to shape what they feel and when, artfully, to give them a great and well-crafted experience.

It's certainly true that we can get overwhelmed by feelings--just as games scaffold players into mastering mechanics, great games also modulate emotional experience during play. You can flood a player with frustration or fear, and shut down their ability to enjoy what's going on. Or, you can create moments of exhilaration, moments of deep empathy with a difficult life situation, moments of effortless, cosy connection with other players thousands of miles away...  I believe we've only begun to explore the emotional palette of games. These are exciting times for that reason!

John Krajewski, Founder and CEO, Strange Loop Games (bio)

You often talk about breaking down the wall between educational games and entertainment games. Can you explain what you mean by that? Why and how do you even think that is possible?

Krajewski: There are a number of aspects of education that games have shown to be very good at, above traditional education: systems-based learning, collaboration, engagement, connections across subjects.  The fact that games are something done voluntarily vs education which is typically compelled upon students is another important aspect.  If we can bring the self-driven nature of games to education, we can offer something incredibly important in education that is too often overlooked, a context and 'reason to care' about what you're learning.

A great example of this problem in education is the way math is taught, where students memorize equations without ever understanding its significance or beauty, simply following a set of rules to acquire the answer. As a result, they develop a deep dislike of the subject and often abandon it entirely or decide they're not good at it; games can offer another approach, putting the need first and then making the learning the 'sword' they need to achieve their goal. The thing they need to learn about then has context and meaning, and the learning happens at their own desire, for goals they care about.  

This makes a world of difference, and is in my opinion the best option available for transforming the structure of school from an industrial-revolution era system designed to create workers who follow rules into one that builds curious and conscientious creators of our future world.

We know this is possible because we see thousands of games that have the effect, and there's no reason the subject matter for education can't be fit into the same mold.  It requires a different approach and respect for both the subject matter and the learner, affording them enough agency and trust for them to guide their own learning.

In Eco, the gameplay goes beyond an exploration of global ecology and puts players into the position of grappling with the social aspects of governance. Why was this an important design decision for you?

Krajewski: Because the ecological problems that face our world won't be solved by understanding the science alone.  The solutions to the threats our world face are largely social problems, and framing the understanding of ecosystems in a social/civic context, where players are faced with a variety of individual incentives and viewpoints that must be sorted through and decided upon as a group gets to the heart of the matter; that it's not enough to simply 'know' the right answer, you must also find a way to implement it in a world of your peers.  By giving players that struggle inside a game, where the virtual world can be destroyed, we gift them the ability to see what's at stake and let them begin to grasp the scope of the problem and how it could be solved in the real world.

If we all agreed on the severity of climate change and what course of action to take we could begin reversing it today, but in reality the social issues are the primary challenge.  Making that challenge the center of the experience is something games can do incredibly well, and one of the things I love about the potential of games in education.

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