A Paycheck Away, Our Learning Game For Change, Was a Game Changer

We hosted a public game play session of “A Paycheck Away” as part of the Spirit and Place Festival last Friday, November 9th. 140 people gathered together to play as a homeless character and try to get out of homelessness within three months. We’ve play tested this game several times with groups of all shapes and sizes, and the results of game play showed us just how powerful game based learning  and “games for change” can be. The game was even featured in NUVO here in Indianapolis.

A Paycheck Away - Game Based Learning

You see, a major component of the A Paycheck Away experience is discussion that happens before and after the game. We start the game by asking people to write their perceptions of homelessness on a piece of paper. We typically see things like “drug addicts, lazy, too prideful to go live with family, or mentally ill.” The picture that emerges after playing is quite different. As it turns out, so much of what life throws at us is out of our control — it’s luck. And homelessness is really a symptom of more widespread societal problems… not a cause.

And by the end of our game play session… participants were coming up with solutions. Lots of them, in fact, players left quite a pile:

Solutions from A Paycheck Away

Participants wrote down their ideas and solutions while debriefing.

That’s the power of game based learning. Sure, watching a video or presentation on the problem of homelessness might make you feel bad about the situation, but games immerse you in a scenario and allow you to feel what it’s like in an emotional level.

One challenge of holding a game based learning experience in a short window of time like we did is getting everyone up to speed on the rules quickly. Think of the time it might take you to learn the rules of a new video game or board game with family. We did not have that kind of time to devote to our event! Our goal was to have people play through three months of homelessness in one hour. We did this by creating a “Game Master” role. Game Masters were trained prior to the event and acted as Township Trustee, Employer, Banker, and Settler of Disputes. They guided people through the experience and explained the rules as they went. This approach was highly effective for us.

Robby Slaughter - A Paycheck Away Game Master

Robby Slaughter (left) leans forward to explain a rule to his table. He was a trained Game Master.

Without further ado, let’s look at some of the central issues surrounding homelessness our players identified… and potential solutions

Central Issues Surrounding Homelessness

    • Childcare costs make it hard for homeless parents to take jobs. Childcare is expensive and many low wage jobs do not equal the cost of childcare.
    • Many homeless individuals lack transportation. A shortage of bus lines mean it is impossible for them to get to potential jobs.
    • Quality early childhood education and daycare services are not available in poor communities.
    • Even though early childhood education and quality education in general are important to outcomes for children, many individuals in a community who do not have children do not want to pay taxes to support public schools. This ultimately hurts the community because it contributes to a future generation of individuals who require more public assistance.
    • Individuals with an hourly job who have a sick child may lose their job if they skip work to take care of the child.
    • Having a fixed income, or a government pension in the case of homeless veterans, helped their characters’ situations quite a bit in the game.
    • Lack of good, steady jobs is more of an issue than lack of cash.
    • Having a spouse makes homelessness much more manageable, both for emotional and financial support.
    • Homelessness is only something that happens when it is already too late to provide meaningful help.
    • When government assistance has too much red tape or too many restrictions, it can become very limiting.
    • Ultimately, it is through working that people truly become self sufficient, yet low wages of many jobs leave the homeless no better off than if they stayed on public assistance. It’s a vicious cycle.
    • Daycare is not available at night for people who work in the evenings or work a second job.
    • Being homeless actually takes alot of energy. The homeless are trying to figure out very short-term things while living day to day. They actually have to budget more carefully than those in the middle class.
    • Ultimately… luck plays a much larger role in life than most players thought. Not everyone simply made a bad choice.
    • Many of the homeless are actually employed or underemployed, but simply cannot afford housing because their wages are too low.
Suggested Solutions to Homelessness:
    • Create a program where the elderly watch young children during the day. This would reinvigorate the elderly while providing less expensive childcare.
    • Emphasize basic financial education and personal budgeting more in public schools.
    • Create more effective organizations to connect people to jobs.
    • Create a program that connects people for ride sharing and carpooling so they can get to jobs that are off a bus line.
    • Lobby for improved public transit in urban areas.
    • Create more cheap, affordable housing that is mixed in to both low and high income areas instead of creating divisions in urban communities.
    • Improve early education for 2-5 year olds and make it mandatory.
    • Help homeless and low income families create small businesses in a co-op model of exchanging basic goods and services to help them get out of survival mode.
    • Develop more “all-inclusive” village or communal groups similar to the Amish or rural towns with community transportation, child care and health care.
    • Teach farming and gardening in pockets of urban areas. This allows people to build basic skills, produce goods to sell in farmers markets, and barter for other needs. This could be similar to Heifer International, but with a local focus.
    • Create job training and support programs that many people receiving public assistance must attend as part of their assistance.
    • Make some forms of birth control available over the counter (OTC).
    • Open the lobbies of some downtown businesses at night for the homeless to sleep on a temporary basis.
    • Allow wealthy suburban areas to “adopt” a rural neighborhood through a coordinated charitable program.
    • Make substance abuse programs more available and inclusive to families. Create after-care substance abuse programs to provide an ongoing support system.
    • Give tax breaks to employers who give people a “raise” in the form of free childcare or transportation to work rather than just a salary increase.
    • Create shared homes and co-ops where the homeless can live with roommates.
    • Encourage more community-oriented, family first values in children.

Again, these are solutions A Paycheck Away players proposed to help solve homelessness after playing the game. Some of them might work, others wouldn’t. What works in one community might fail in another. The point here is to focus on the sheer volume of reactions and solutions we generated after just an hour of playing a game. It’s tough to get that type of engagement through a traditional presentation.

One of our goals for this game is to facilitate it for other groups in the future. In exchange for a donation to Dayspring Center, a temporary homeless shelter in Indianapolis, individuals or groups can purchase a game and hire a trained facilitator to come and lead the experience. Contact us to learn more. You can view a photo album from the event on our Facebook Page.


We Host Our First Game For Change This Friday… and It’s “Sold Out”

We are passionate about game based learning at BLP. We’ve read the research – and conducted some of our own – and seen both with client projects and the case studies of others that it is a powerful tool for learning. We even launched Knowledge Guru, our very own learning game engine, at DevLearn last week in Las Vegas. So yeah, games are a big deal to us… and we think they are good for so much more than just a good time.

And as we have mentioned over the past couple of months on this blog, we are also big believers in Games For Change. A movement inspired by visionary game designers like Jane McGonigal, we are finding that games are not just fun — they can make a better world.

With that issue in mind, we embarked on our first “game for change” project, a learning game about homelessness. It’s called A Paycheck Away, and it’s being played this Friday, November 9th at the Spirit and Place Festival in Indianapolis.

I had planned to post about the game this week in an effort to promote the game and raise awareness, but here’s the thing… the event is already full! 140 game players have already signed up! We would say the event is sold out… but the tickets were free.

…If you are still hoping to attend but haven’t registered, never fear. We expect some attendees to drop out this week, so there should be a few spots for walk-ups.

We see statistics all the time about homelessness. We know it’s an issue and we see signs of it almost everywhere, but how often do we really FEEL the problem? How does it become immediate and emotional for us? Most importantly, what will it take for our society to end homelessness, and is this even possible?

A Paycheck Away is a learning game with a heart…. And a purpose. We want to change the conversation surrounding homelessness from hopeless to hopeful. On November 9th at the Spirit and Place festival, that’s what we’ll do. Mindblowing. Heartbreaking. Real life. Inspiring. These are all words play testers have used to describe A Paycheck Away.

The board game that puts you in the shoes of a real homeless person or family. Players experience the difficult problems a homeless family faces and start to see homelessness as a symptom – not a cause. Do I buy new school uniforms for my kids or feed my family? Do I take a job and pay for childcare and fail to break even or stay home with my kids? The game helps you see how these situations are not black and white… and seldom the result of one bad choice.

We are starting a new conversation about homelessness – avoiding the stereotypes and “there’s nothing we can do” mindset that many of us have. Together, we’ll come up with new perspectives and solutions to address the issue and get people involved.

And for all of our friends and colleagues in the field of game based learning, we’ll be looking at this whole experience as a case study. What outcomes will we see from players? Will this game really make an impact? What kind of feedback will we receive? We can’t wait to find out… and share it all with you.

For now, we just want to share our excited for this event. After multiple play tests and iterations, we are ready to share the finished product with a room full of players. Check back soon to find out how it went.

#G4C Part 4: How to Use Play Test Results to Improve Learning Game Design

We’ve made it to Part Four of our Games for Change blog series. In Part One, we gave some back story about our game, A Paycheck Away. In Part Two, we talked about our first game design workshop. Part Three was all about our first play test…and the best ways to run them. The game will be 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. While many are excited about the power and potential of games, it seems many folks are also hazy about what’s required to actually create a game.

Last week, I shared that we were about to do an early play test a game of a learning game we’re developing. A Paycheck Away is intended to help people gain greater insight into the issue of homelessness – and begin to look at the issue in new ways. It’s a board game. Here’s the stated objective of the game:

Object of game:Use a combination of opportunity and luck to earn enough money to get yourself – and as many of your fellow players out of homelessness – in the shortest number of months possible. The game’s winner will be the team that gets the greatest number of its players out of homelessness within 4 months.  As in real life, your opportunities will be constrained by your circumstances and by luck, good and bad.

Last week, I shared a process for play testing and typical questions to ask. Well, we asked those questions and followed the process outlined in to the letter in last week’s internal playtest.

Play-testing "A Paycheck Away"

Here’s a summary of the results we got from play testing the game last week. I’m not listing everything, but enough that you can see how you might document the results of your play test.

  • Problem: Can’t get through game in the desired hour length: Solution: Eliminate 2 months of play from board so we play for 4 months instead of 6 months.
  • Problem: Temporary and permanent housing options were confusing to some players. Solution: Move housing together on the game board. Label categories as  TEMPORARY HOUSING OPTIONS and PERMANENT HOUSING OPTIONS
  • Problem: Players were unclear how they got into a shelter if they didn’t start the game in one. Solution: Add info to homeless shelter icon on game board that indicates need to roll die to see if you can remain in shelter: “After 3 months, roll die to see if you stay. Need odd number to stay in.”
  • Problem: Players were confused by difference between “transitional” and “subsidized” housing: Solution: GIven time constraints of game, simply permanent housing choices by eliminating option for transitional housing.
  • Problem: Jobs take too long to come up in the Draw pile. Solution: Change decks of cards so that we have a JOBS deck. Combine the other types of decisions and the LUCK cards into another deck labeled CHANCE & CHOICE deck. This ensures that every player draws a JOBS card on every turn.
  • Problem: Martin, the player with permanent disability, ends up with little to do in game because he can’t apply for job. Solution: See above. Combining the non-job decisions and the luck cards ensures that Martin has greater involvement on most turns.
  • Problem: Players unclear on what to do with phone cards or how to pay for phone calls or for transportation. Solution: Eliminate phone cards entirely. Eliminate bus transportation but keep car with the goal of simplifying play.Add “transportation expense” that goes for either gas or bus without distinguishing. People pay it weekly – must pay it to apply for or keep jobs.
  • Problem: One tester felt it took too long to get into game play because of game set up. Solution: Organize game play materials into packets that are pre-done so players are simply opening a player packet that contains everything they need. Trustee role no longer distributes as players arrive. Player packet contents are specified in attached design document, which I updated today.
Essentially, as you document your observations and the comments from play testers, think in terms of problems you want to document. After the test concludes, your design team can then discuss and agree on solutions to the problems identified during the test. You update your design, further evolve your prototype into a more final format, and play test again.
We’ll be doing just that this Wednesday, August 1st, from 3 to 5 p.m.  – this time with complete outsiders to the game. (Remember I said you start with friends and colleagues and then move on to strangers. Well, we’re ready to let strangers play.) I will repeat the process and the questions I listed in last week’s post again to see if we’ve worked our way closer to a final game.
While our 4 part blog series has come to an end, we will have more to share in the coming weeks. I’ll share photos and outcomes of this next play test.  I’ll also share thoughts on the importance of a game’s “balance,” which refers to whether it’s too hard, too easy, or just the right level of challenge for your target players.
In addition to a blog post, I’l tweet out some photos during the play test so you see the test as it happens. If interested, check out my @Sharon_Boller Twitter feed or our @BLPindy feed.
If you happen to be an Indy-area reader and you’d like to play test, send me a tweet or comment on this post and we’ll see what we can do. After the August 1st play test, we’ll be scheduling another one for late August!

#G4C Part 3: How to Play Test Learning Games

This marks part three of our Games for Change blog series. In Part One, we gave some back story about our game, A Paycheck Away. In Part Two, we talked about our first game design workshop. The game will be 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. While many are excited about the power and potential of games, it seems many folks are also hazy about what’s required to actually create a game.

From rough drawing to this first iteration of a game board: we're off and running on the design of A Paycheck Away

Designing  a game is different than designing an eLearning solution. There’s a totally new term that comes into the process: play testing. Play testing is NOT usability testing, focus group testing, quality assurance testing, or internal design review. Play testing is what you do to evaluate whether your game is really playable and that it  functions the way you intended for it to function. Is it fun? Is it balanced (e.g. not too hard and not too easy)? is it complete? That’s what play testing tells you. Play testing is not something you do once or twice. You will do it several times, each time further refining your game play experience. For mega-games like Halo or The Sims, designers may have done up to 3,000 hours of play testing to verify that their game worked. For a learning game you craft yourself – or with a small team – you might assume at least 30-40 hours of play testing.

So this blog – and a few more to come – are going to chronicle our experience in going from a game concept to a finished game…and the iterations of testing that get us there. Our goal is to help you see how the process works – and why it matters.  We’re going to chronicle our journey from concept to finished game – and the results of our play tests.

Here is Our Learning Game Play Test Process:

The paper prototype - it's not pretty but it gets the job done. There was lots that we liked about the game play - including all the conversation it generated. But...we have lots of things we want to change before play testing again.

1) Self-test. You and your design team play the initial prototype and evaluate it. You’re doing a lot of discussing while you’re playing – and modifying rules and ideas on the fly as you go. Our game materials and “board” were super basic for this test:


2) Play test with friends and colleagues. This round of testing is happening this week for us. Our design team sits back and observes (quietly!) while other BLPers come in and play our next iteration of the game. We will have a real game board for them to use, a written set of rules to follow, and the opportunity  to listen to their thoughts afterward. We’ll repeat this again in a week, making changes before we do.


3) Play test with (gulp) strangers. Ideally these strangers represent your target audience. We’ve tapped some university classrooms to help us – people who represent our target, but are completely unknown to us. These folks will be 100% objective, which friends and colleagues are not.


6 Tips For a Good Learning Game Play Test:

  1. Don’t share the background of the game. That’s sort of part of the play test. Can your players “get it” without you there explaining what the game is about?
  2. Do tell them what to expect: 15-20 minutes of game play followed by Q&A.
  3. Emphasize the need for play testers to “think out loud.” You want to hear their internal thoughts spoken aloud. Things such as “This is really confusing.” “I don’t understand the rules.” “I wonder what would happen if I make this choice? ” are all good things to say aloud.
  4. Keep your own mouth closed as much as you can. You can help players if they get truly stuck, but try to limit your interactions with players during the game.
  5. Stop play after 20 minutes and conclude with debrief questions. Take copious notes.
  6. Keep a play testing journal or log that documents the results of each play test you do and chronicles the decisions you make about game changes.

Post-play debrief questions:

  1. Overall – what are your thoughts and reactions?
  2. Was the game engaging to you? On a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being “extremely engaged,” how engaged were you in the game play?
  3. Were the rules clear and realistic to learn?
  4. What, in your words, was the objective of the game?
  5. If you had to describe the game to someone who hasn’t played, what would you say?
  6. What information do you wish you would have had while playing the game that you didn’t have?
  7. Was there anything you didn’t like about the game? What was it?
  8. Was there anything confusing? What was it?

We’ll let you know the results of of our own play test scheduled for this week – and we’ll keep posting photos so you can see the progression of our game from rudimentary prototype to polished game.

This is the third 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 our initial prototype, and a look at our steps ahead.

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

Learn more about the Spirit and Place Festival.

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.

Learn more about the Spirit and Place Festival.

Spirit and Place logo

Games for Change Part 1: The Power of Urgent Optimism in Learning Games

A Paycheck Away - November 9th at the Spirit and Place Festival

Games change us. They change our brains and they change how we think. They put us in the middle of situations we would have never imagined or expected and allow us to make choices and decisions we never thought possible. Games offer a safe place to feel uncomfortable, a controlled place to experience the chaos of real life. But can games lead us to meaningful SOCIAL change?

Science now gives us plenty of reasons to trust in the power of games for learning. Renowned author and game designer Jane McGonigal, creator of the “SuperBetter” app for meeting fitness, recovery, and mental health goals and many other fantastic games, recently shared her collection of research supporting the use of learning games for supporting learning and personal growth. Jane is a passionate advocate of “games for change,” and her 2010 TED Talk “Gaming Can Make a Better World” has been viewed by millions.

We feel we are as good in reality as in games. In game worlds we are the best version of ourselves possible. When we face obstacles and failure in real life, we feel overcome, overhwelmed, anxious, depressed, cynical. These emotions just do not exist in games. What about this in games makes it impossible to feel that we can’t achieve everything?

Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal is a leading adovate and researcher supporting the use of serious games to inspire social change.

According to Jane, gaming fosters a feeling of urgent optimism. Gamers desire to act immediately and tackle an obstacle with immediate hope of success. At Bottom-Line Performance, We have used learning games such as Formulation Type Matters and Knowledge Guru with some of our top clients and seen how that “urgent optimism” and the dopamine rush associated with gaming can enhance learning. Learning games have proven to be one the of most powerful solutions we can offer.

But we want to take our learning games further. We want to combine our passion for games with our passion for philanthropy. Giving back is a huge part of our company culture and philosophy. Dayspring Center, a temporary homeless shelter in Indianapolis, is our closest charitable partner. We are constantly searching for ways to support their mission and end homelessness in Indianapolis. It’s about more than just giving money: to solve the homelessness problem, we need to educate and inspire.

That’s why we are creating “A Paycheck Away,” a learning game that will show what being homeless is really like…and why it is so hard for people to get out of it. Our game was selected for the 2012 Spirit and Place Festival, a coming-together of arts, religion, and humanities in Indianapolis. Bottom-Line Performance is one of the first ever corporate entities to participate in such an event, and we are partnering with CIASTD to make it happen We are hoping to draw a whole demographic to our event, held Friday November 9th at Farm Bureau Insurance in Indianapolis. This year’s Spirit and Place theme is Play, and how play contributes to our physical, emotional, social, and community well-being.

Homelessness is surrounded by misunderstanding and misconceptions. Well meaning people, ourselves included, simply do not “get” the issues related to it because we have not felt the challenges, hardships, and situations on an emotional level. Through playing our game at Spirit and Place, we hope to do more than just generate awareness. We want to inspire a group of intelligent, capable people to find real solutions to a systemic problem that is so much more complex than one person’s bad decision. We need to generate some urgent optimism around an issue that is so often written off as hopeless. If McGonigal’s research is any indication, a well-designed game is the perfect place to start.

This is the first of four installments for our Games For Change blog series. We hope you’ll join us as we continue developing our game, sharing stories along the way. Next week, we’ll tell you all about how we ran our initial game design session for “A Paycheck Away” and how the game continues to evolve.

Follow “A Paycheck Away” on Twitter and Become a Fan on Facebook to join in the conversation about how serious games can make a difference in our world.

Learn More about Spirit and Place.

Spirit and Place logo