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How To Design A Game With A Social Message (That’s Also Fun)

Game designer Colleen Macklin thinks socially conscious games are too heavy-handed in their delivery.

How do you design a game with social message that people actually want to play? According to Colleen Macklin, director of PETLab, a research lab for public interest game design at Parsons The New School for Design, it’s all about giving players the freedom to explore their options.

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Flickr user Joi Ito

As New York University’s Game Center at the Tisch School of the Arts gears up for Practice–its annual conference devoted entirely to game design of all kinds–Macklin chatted with Game Center MFA student Ansh Patel. Here are a few insights the Parsons associate professor, who has created games like the national debt-themed Budgetball, had about what goes into designing a great game:

On toeing the line between conveying a social message and stifling players’ creativity:

Often the designers or stakeholders in social-issue/learning games have a very specific point of view about the issues they are modeling in the game and what they want to get this across to players. This often leads to what you describe–suffocating player creativity–or as I typically put it, the tendency to reward a dominant strategy–the one that conveys the game’s “message.” For instance, if you’re making a game to encourage staying in school, you might reward the player who can successfully do that without dropping out. But it might be more interesting to let the player drop out in the game and explore different possible outcomes, deciding for themselves which kind of situation they want for their life.

On resisting the temptation to bombard players with facts:

[For Budgetball,] we spent a lot of time learning about the facts of the federal debt–which government programs were most expensive, why the debt grew, and who was responsible. But ultimately, trying to include this information would have bogged down the game in unnecessary detail and depending on that detail, connected it to a certain political stance. So instead, we modeled the simple dynamics of debt in the game…So while we didn’t get at details like how much Medicare spending relates to the debt, we did provide players with a gut feeling of how debt works and why we’re in debt in the first place. It’s an abstraction, but a faithful one.

On the inherent problem of social issue games:

To reward a dominant strategy can also fool us into thinking that there’s one optimal solution to a problem. It could create the false impression that the issue in the game and the issue in the world are both solvable in this one way. This may be true in some rare cases, but usually things are more complex than that.

As I’ve been making games for change–and struggling through these issues–I have arrived at the position that providing more transparency about how games work is key. This might mean providing players with opportunities to encounter, reflect on or modify the game’s rules or it might mean co-designing games with stakeholders, which is what I have been doing with the Red Cross recently.

Check out the rest of Macklin’s interview from NYU’s Game Center, and read more interviews on design between Game Center MFA students and Practice speakers here. Interviews will be published incrementally up until the conference begins on Friday.

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About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut

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