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When Designing Socially Conscious Games Is Bad...

Even the best intentioned games, if poorly designed, can be dangerous and reinforce negative behaviors. As game designers, we have an opportunity to teach people they CAN change the world, they CAN change their lives, and CAN have fun doing it.

Healthy or unhealthy?This post was inspired by Nir Eyal's recent article When Designing For Good Is Bad. Everybody knows that they should recycle, everybody knows they should eat more organic vegetables, everybody knows bad things are happening in the world and they should help. However, most often, they don't.

Who is to blame here? Undoubtedly we as consumers are in part at fault. However, maybe it's not entirely our fault that we suck so much!

Due to poor design, many of the very institutions that are trying to be a force for good end up reinforcing behaviors that are just the opposite! Most often we end up blaming ourselves "I just don't know where to start… Eating healthy seems so hard… Which of the 5 recycling bins does this go in again… I can't do enough to make a difference so why bother… etc."

Whatever the excuse, due to poor design, avoiding what we should be doing becomes a learned behavior. After all, it's just easier to avoid it than take the chance that you are doing it wrong. This leads to a pattern of apathy and ignoring the issues all together out of guilt. We've all walked past those guys who sit outside of Target asking for donations, pretending to ignore them or suddenly getting very interested in our phones.

"It's not you, it's me. I'm sorry."

We all know the saying "Designing something is easy. Designing something easy is hard." But perhaps we should also add this: "Designing something poorly is dangerous."

Games can have a powerful influence on players and their habits. We see the power social games have to create addictive behaviors, to change people's priorities, and to change how users spend their time.

More people than ever before are playing games thanks to apps, Facebook, and smart phones. What this means is that now more than ever before, as game designers, we can have a powerful effect on the world through our games!

It is possible to design games that change these learned behaviors of apathy. It is possible to design games that help people see how easy and fun it can be to improve their lives and the lives of others. However, here is an area where poor design can be dangerous...

Designing games focused on educating users about global human rights issues, teaching kids to eat their vegetables, and the importance of recycling is admirable, but it doesn't address the issue of the general 'learned apathy' of gamers. The average gamer will avoid these types of games like the plague. Give a kid the choice of a cheese burger and an apple, and every time he will pick the cheeseburger.

A gamer knows bad things are happening, wishes they could do something about it, but feels guilty because they'd rather have fun. They see a game about sweat shops, human rights issues, eating healthy and, frankly, it doesn't sound fun! So they don't play it (play is about escapism first after all). They feel guilty about it, but throwing birds at pigs is just so much more accessible. Running from angry monkeys is just so much simpler. Shooting bad guys is just so much more gratifying. This becomes a learned behavior and players can start avoiding anything with a "social good" theme completely. Not because they want to, but because it is inaccessible, less fun, and complicated.

Even the best intentioned games, if poorly designed, can be dangerous and reinforce negative behaviors.

However, good game design that incorporates socially positive elements into fun games that the average gamer already wants to play can have a powerful influence! The key, I believe, is showing immediate results for minimal efforts.

You can't design games that beat gamers over the heads with socially conscious issues and expect an overwhelmingly positive response. Remember, we are trying to deprogram learned behaviors here… to quote Yoda "You must unlearn what you have learned." Fossilized patterns of thought aren't easily broken through.

By making a game that the user already wants to play and gently, gradually, even sneakily incorporating ways they can improve their own and other's lives, this shifts their perceptions and teaches them new behaviors. It is our job to show how easy it can be, even how much fun it can be, to make a difference. If we can do this it will spur further interest in our players to seek out more ways they can help out.

Striiv is a good example of a company who is doing this. They use the addictive nature of Farmville style games to reward you for walking, and the more you walk the more virtual currency you rack up that can then be spent in the game and to donate to charities in easy to comprehend ways. Plant a tree, provide an inoculation, give a child clean water for the day. Small things that make a big difference.

There is an enormous market for this to be further explored in the mobile, social, and casual game niches. Socially conscious social game design is a virtually unexplored field. As game designers, we have an opportunity to design for good. Through good game design we can lead a whole generation to realize that they can change the world, that they can make a difference, and that it is both easy and fun to do so.

It's not going to be easy though. And poor design will only further fossilize bad perceptions and bad behaviors. Publishers are afraid of the model, it is unproven, and few have the guts to try it out. When you approach investors or publishers with this concept their first response is "I can't think of any company that has tried this and succeeded." I don't know about you, but that sounds like a challenge to me!

At Bravado Waffle Games, we're trying to raise funding to prove that this model works and is profitable. We want to provide a roadmap for other developers to follow in. We are starting a movement that will change the world.

What do you think?

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