I’ve long been interested in the benefits of playing games.
Initially I was interested in the impact tabletop games can have on educational outcomes. I’ve written about that in my article: Why board games are educational. I’ve also focused on the benefits of playing board games as a family, in brief in this article and in detail in my book, The Board Game Family.
More recently, I’ve become curious about the wider impact of gaming (including video games) and how games can affect our identity and our social experience.
In her book How games move us, Catherine Isbister focuses on how games can trigger emotion in players. She talks about the power that movement games have in creating connections and sparking contagious emotions between players. She talks about games that shock and provoke complicity, like Brenda Braithwaite Romero’s Train. And here, she talks about the intimacy of a mother receiving in-game gifts from her daughter when playing World of Warcraft together.
“None of these gifts were remarkable in and of themselves, but they were all so full of her joy of discovery and anticipation of sharing that nothing else I’ve ever been given can ever match them.”
Later in the book Isbister discusses a game called There.com, which creates an experience similar to that of being on a summer camp.
“The camp experience works because the setting and the activities that campers engage in together, which form a context for learning about oneself and bonding with others… The camp experience intentionally pushes campers out of their comfort zone, to engage them in mastery of new physical skills in the company of others, towards lifelong benefits.”
She goes on to say, “Game designers create a summer camp-like feeling for players through a combination of carefully wrought virtual worlds, game actions, and well-crafted avatars…This experience does the same kind of work as summer camp, encouraging personal growth in players and deepening their connections to one another. Game designers don’t get enough credit for their skill in designing supportive environments for emotional and social growth.”
Of course, this can be just as true of tabletop games as video games. When designing games, it’s crucial to ask yourself what type of experience you want players to have when playing your game. In fact, it’s often a really good starting point for a new game design. What is your intention with this game? What feelings do you want it to evoke? What do you want players to learn about themselves and others? What sort of interactions do you want players to have with each other? In fact, often it’s the experience that a game creates that makes it truly special.
Think back on your own best game-playing experiences and try to analyse what made them stand out. Which games have created the most exciting shared experiences for you? Which games have taught you something about yourself? Which games brought you closer to another person?
In Steve Levitt’s podcast, People I (Mostly) Admire, he talks to Jane McGonigal, a game designer and author. McGonigal says,
“When we play games of all kinds, we have an opportunity to tap into a very powerful mindset where we feel that we can learn new skills, experiment with strategies, take on the ridiculous goals, and allow ourselves to put our time and energy and attention toward doing something that is – by design – challenging, frustrating, and yet instils a sense of hope in us and curiosity about how we might achieve the goal… [Games] may not be the solution to everything bad in the world, but they are a solution to finding solutions. That when we play games, we can explore possibilities that we can then apply to our everyday lives.”
I have frequently designed games with learning objectives very firmly in mind, particularly games which have been created for clients with specific requirements. But I don’t usually consider the potential impact playing my game will have on personal growth and identity.
McGonigal has coined a term called ‘gameful’. She describes it thus:
“Gameful is a state of mind or a way of reacting to obstacles or challenges that we encounter – could be in a game, could be in our everyday lives – and bringing a certain willingness to play and an acceptance that we might fail and need to try again. And not to feel stuck in one way of doing things. I mean, all the attitudes that we bring to a video game the first time we pick it up and we’ve no idea what we’re doing. We try different things, we ask others for help, we look for clues, we kind of investigate what’s possible. We have this openness to the experience — trying to bring all of those ways of thinking and feeling to maybe a wider range of experiences than just a video game.”
It strikes me that not all games are equal here. Not all games are as likely to foster ‘gamefulness’ as others. So as designers, we have a great power and also, perhaps, a great responsibility. If games can change the way people think about themselves and the way they interact with others, we should create games that allow this to happen.
In discussions with board game publishers, I always try to get as many details about what sorts of games they’re looking for as possible. You learn a certain amount by looking at the games they’ve already published, but this doesn’t explain why they chose those games and it doesn’t tell you what they are looking for right now. Answers are often along the lines of, “I’ll know it when I see it”, “We want something different, something innovative” or “It’s got to WOW us”. While it’s not easy to hear this, I understand that it’s hard for publishers to define something they’ve not seen yet. Dig a little deeper and the undefinable is usually to do with player experience: Games that create connection, games that challenge, games in which we encounter new things… these are games that stick with us. Games that we want to revisit. Games that we want to talk about.