Games For Change Part 2: How We Ran Our Learning Game Design Workshop

This marks part two of our Games for Change blog series. In part one, we gave some backstory about our game, A Paycheck Away. We are designing the game and playing it as an exhibition at the 2012 Spirit and Place Festival in Indianapolis on November 9th. Our goal is to change the conversation on homelessness from hopeless to hopeful. We are armed with a growing body of research in support of games for learning.

Once we had done some initial brainstorming and clarified our mission, we were set to go for our first game design workshop. While our core BLP team is working on the game continuously, others have limited time to commit to development. Our workshop, held on June 25th, was our only chance to bring together partners from CIASTD and Dayspring Center before we dove in to the design itself. As with any design workshop, the pressure is on to come up with something good, fast!

But…that did not stop us from having a great time. Crazy ideas were had and our conversations about the game took us in 3 or 4 different directions throughout the afternoon. Our biggest challenge: We quickly realized just how little we knew about homelessness ourselves. Kristen Hewett, one of our team members, has an uncle who works in social services, but the rest of our BLP team is admittedly insulated from many of the issues.

A Paycheck Away game design session

Sharon (right) may have led our workshop, but Lori Casson (left) of Dayspring Center provided the insight and knowledge we needed.

Even when we thought we “got” the homelessness problem, we would discover how our projections were overly optimistic. Lori Casson, Executive Director at Dayspring Center, was our subject matter expert and she was quick to take us down from the mountain and let us know when a proposed solution simply does not work. “They wouldn’t have that much money. They wouldn’t have that option. That would not be a possibility.” These were phrases we heard from Lori throughout the day.

As game designers, we had to experience what some of these decisions felt like on an emotional level. It’s our job to take those emotions and put them into the game in a way that is impactful yet not overly complex. How do you communicate the realities of waiting weeks and months for available subsidized housing? What game mechanic will make you feel what its like to have your mental and physical well-being deteriorate week after week from a substance abuse problem? This is our challenge.

Game mechanics diagrammed on flipchart paper

We used flipchart paper to map out our player profiles.

We are also challenged by creating a game based on the experiences of others and not our own. We’ll need a high level of empathy and the closest thing to understanding we can get before we really hit on these issues. And we need to present them in such a way that people who have never been homeless themselves or felt what these painful decisions are like can experience the emotion.

We keep our game design workshops fully stocked with all manner of creative implements. You never know what will spark an idea.

This may be our first time designing a “game for change,” but it is by no means our first time around the block designing a learning game. Past experience designing games such as Formulation Type Matters and Knowledge Guru for our clients has given us insight into the process. In fact, BLP president Sharon Boller even has published a white paper on Learning Game Design.

Every game is different, but we find design works best if you stick to a plan…at least at first.

Here’s how we ran our learning game design workshop:

  • Broke into two groups, each with their own prototype game board and game pieces. We let the groups discuss, ideate and create for about an hour and a half.
  • We used flipchart paper around the room to create the character profiles, guided by real life information from our subject matter expert.
  • Since Sharon and Steve had worked the most on the game prior to our workshop, we split them into separate groups. They were both involved in coming up with the initial prototype ideas and provided guidance for the teams.
  • We let the conversations for each group unfold organically. Sharon’s group dove in to creating specific “choice” and “luck” cards that players would draw, while Steve’s group ended up creating branching paths for each character and what they would actually need to get out of homelessness and find housing. The answer for each was not simply to find a job. When running a workshop, let your teams follow their intuition and see where it takes them.
  • We came back together as a group at the end to discuss the different game issues that came up on our sides. We were able to refine some ideas and come up with new ones during this time thanks to the time we spent broken off.

By the end of the workshop, we had figured out our four characters, including their issues and challenges and how much money they are making to start. We also know how much money the basic items characters need to acquire will cost, and the mechanics of our game are taking shape.

Learning Game Design is a ton of work…and a ton of fun!

This is the second of four installments for our Games For Change blog series. We want to share why we are so excited by the emerging research about how games help us learn…but it’s about more than that to us. It turns out playing a game just might be the first step to true, meaningful
social change. Join us next week for a recap of the results of play testing our initial prototpye!

Follow A Paycheck Away on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook for updates.