Thoughts on Designing for Change

From an economic perspective, fictional digital games have successfully outperformed their linear counterparts in film (Combs 2011) but still, in the public eye, games are only half-way through the process of becoming a legitimate and socially acceptable medium. At the same time (or maybe for exactly this reason), today´s gaming industry is on the verge of an indispensable aesthetic evolutionary step.

This post contains excerpts from my conference paper « Making It Personal – Towards A Customized Experience For Impact Games » which was published in « Spielwelt – Weltspiel. Narration, Interaktion und Kooperation im Computerspiel: Clash of Realities 2014 » by kopaed Verlag.


With the release of her critically acclaimed game “Darfur is Dying“ in April 2006, game designer Suzanna Ruiz, at the time a graduate student at the University of Southern California‘s Interactive Media Division, delivered the proof of concept that digital games have the potential to communicate real-world is-sues to the player. Within six months after its launch more than 800,000 people had played “Darfur is Dying“. Ever since, the game “has been the focus of debate on its nature and impact“ (Wikipedia 2013). Looking at these numbers, “Darfur is Dying“ certainly raised awareness for the Darfur-crisis amongst players, but was there any active short term or long term impact for the citizens of Darfur who were featured through the game?

In her 2010 TED Talk, Games Evangelist Jane McGonigal envisions a future in which the mindset when being in a state of play can actually be used to change reality for the better:

When we‘re in game worlds I believe that many of us become the best version of ourselves, the most likely to help at a moment‘s notice, the most likely to stick with a problem as long at it takes, to get up after failure and try again. […] What about games makes it impossible to feel that we can‘t achieve everything? (McGonigal 2010, min. 3:46)

Both Mc Gonigal´s TED talk and her popular book Reality is Broken (McGonigal 2011) contributed to a shift in the public discussion about play as a means of engagement instead of escapism. Following her argument, gamers (and hence, games) could become the driving force of social change in the near future by overcoming the gap between virtual and physical reality through playing games that address real-world issues. Moreover I hypothisize that the major opportunity for games to truly become the leading medium of our time, lies in the unexplored potential to express meaningful messages from the real-world and communicate them through their unique mix of story and gameplay.

The main quality of well designed digital games is their ability to engage and immerse the player by making him/her the driving force of an experience that cannot unfold and therefore does not exist without them. “To activate the game-narrative, players have to fulfill their duty to interact – without interaction the game stops“, states Martin Ganteföhr at the 2010 Clash of Realities Computer Game Conference (cf. Tillmanns 2010). According to Ganteföhr, film-audiences could easily switch between identification and dissociation (…) without jumping off. In games, dissociation would lead to the denouncement of the interaction-contract. For so-called serious games, i.e. games that are beyond entertainment, this “interaction contract“ is the major challenge and innate breaking point.

The popular term “serious games“ illustrates in itself, that the failure of this game genre is inevitable. While it is the nature of games to be “a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude“(Schell 2008, 37), the serious topic and theme of the game-story combined with the way it is presented though gameplay often dramatically interferes with the inherent need of a game to be captivating and fun. A standardized point-and-click adventure framework that confronts players with an overwhelming amount of text info and poorly animated characters is therefore of no help when aiming to trigger emotions and communicate a meaningful and lasting message through digital games. Since the majority of serious games rely on extrinsic rewarding systems, the player´s motivation to play is mainly addressed by the run for achievements, ranking and badges.

To my mind designing for social and cultural impact, empowerment and inclusion eventually requires an immersive and intrinsically rewarding gaming experience that on the one hand creates an emotional bond between the player, the game world and the in-game characters and on the other hand transforms this bond into an ongoing identification with the subject of the game.

From Game-Based Learning To Games For Change

While it is the primary goal of all ‘serious games’ to transfer knowledge in a mix of amusement and education, in my opinion successful ‘social impact games’ have to go beyond traditional e-learning or game-based-learning principles such as designing an array of tasks and tests to transfer and recall factual knowledge. Games that are aiming to help leverage a change in the players´ perspective and behavior in the real world have to evoke a deep and long-term understanding of a given topic, empower the player and motivate him to bridge the gap between in-game experience and real-world application.

Educators worldwide work to prepare skilled and informed students who are able to navigate the world’s social and ecological challenges. When designing learning games, game designers have the dual purpose of creating an enjoyable pastime and imparting a message or general education on a given topic. This is also true when designing games for change, however I am convinced that the game designer’s competences in neuroscience and psychology play a fundamental role in the success of fulfilling the transformative mission of the game.

Based upon the idea of early-childhood learning as defined by Jean Piaget (1991), a game-based learning experience should at best be stimulated by a “constructive approach“ (97) i.e. in a way where players are encouraged to draw their own conclusions from observation and action in the game. This constructive or feedback-based learning principle is the most important factor for the creation of what I call a ‘focused virtual life experience’ that will be the underlying design approach for my further considerations towards the development of successful social impact games.

The Emotional Bond

In their research paper “We Feel, Therefore We Learn“, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio (2007) introduce the concept of the ‘emotional thought’, which describes the role of emotional processes as a catalyst for the transfer of skills and knowledge from a learning environment to real-world application (3). This concept is picked up by Roth (2012), who emphasizes that due to the fact that the human brain processes information more efficiently when it is attached to an emotion, it should be of no surprise that we keep on forgetting the binomial formula but never forget our first kiss.

This, of course, does not mean that kissing the math teacher is the solution to successful algebra learning, but it is certain that the pedagogical qualities of good teachers must go beyond the mere introduction of students to an issue or topic. A well-balanced challenge, fair rewarding and empathy are essential factors that motivate students of any age to engage in learning and put the acquired knowledge into practice. As an inherent ability amongst humans and animals, emotional expression serves as the primary communication tool between infant and caregiver long before the acquisition of language and other cognitive structures become the dominant form of expression and interaction. Commonly defined as a spontaneous expression towards a given stimulus “involving physical arousal, expressive behaviors, and conscious experience“ (Maqbool 2008, 182) emotions can be considered a shortcut to the human mind and thus are an important paradigm when designing consumerexperiences such as digital games.

While cognitive and behavioral neuroscience mainly focuses on investigating habitual or stimulus-response learning processes such as reward prediction and other goal-directed behavior (cf. Daw and Shohamy 2008), affective neuroscience gives an insight into pre-cognitive mechanisms such as the emotional communication of learning objectives.

In their book “Marketing Metaphoria“, Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay H. Zaltman (2008) explain the complexity of the human coding process in communication with the introduction of “three levels of metaphorical thinking“ (¶182). Their studies reveal that the human ability to use and decode metaphors is based upon the distinct quality of effectively expressing basic human needs on a subconscious level (cf. (¶182 ff.). Zaltman and Zaltman conclude that the selective use of metaphors is highly effective to emotionally address and engage consumers (cf. (¶444ff.).

It is common knowledge that any kind of (entertaining) media and art is per se a representation or abstraction and therefore can be considered an emotionally charged metaphor. Translating Zaltman and Zaltman´s concept of metaphorical thinking to digital games in particular, I conclude that, when addressing the player´s emotions, the narrative and interactive paradigm as a unity can be extremely powerful and can enable the player´s identification within the game. However, the question is how to transform this experience into making a difference in the player´s real life.

The bibliography to this article can be found in the full paper, which can be downloaded here.

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