Designing for the Other

Serious Games, Its Challenges, & Mindful Play

What does it mean to Design for the Other?

It has been foretold that Games will define the nature of media in the 21st century[1]. As with any expanding media form, games have splintered into smaller and smaller sub-genres. Serious Games is one of these sub-genres, and my field of practice at my studio Antidote Games. The use of games to resolve topics with real world consequences is commonly referred to as Serious Games.

Usually, the conversation around games splits into the familiar AAA vs Indie divide, and there is a similar divide between games for pleasure or games for social justice. The separation into games for “fun” and games for “change” has given new life to the exploration of serious “real-world” topics in game making. While a lot of this conversation circles around unfamiliar narrative paths being explored in autobiographical games and games that contextualize unfamiliar topics for players in the west[2], my interest is in opening up a part of Serious Games that rarely get discussed, much less critiqued: games made for people in non-western countries as part of aid or educational programs.

While Serious Games are fundamentally committed towards the functional reappropriation of the technique of games to support outreach and information sharing, as a field they take from the predominant trends in casual and commercial games. Taking design risks and exploring the larger potential of games are priorities native to the core fields of games, but in Serious Games taking risks distracts from the goals of its games. While many problems within the first-world can benefit from a game-based approach, global NGO’s that have traditionally focussed on providing aid within Asia, South America, or pan-African nations are now doing so using games. My design question here is about designing for the Other[3], and as such my critique of Serious Games centers on the cultural barriers preventing Serious Games from doing more. A culture of play within a first-world context often shares very little with the culture of play in a second/third world context. As a result, games designed to aid in information sharing using first-world principles are a bad fit, and inefficient vessels for even the dissemination of information in the second/third world. As far as design strategy goes, Serious Games are missing the point.

In order to contextualize both Serious Games and the oscillation in it’s altruistic intentions, it is important to take a longer view of the topic. While considering the matter of Game Culture, we cannot ignore existing conversations around “Culture” in general. It is impossible to consider global cultural trends without considering the impact of colonialism on global non-Western culture. While empire building did not begin with the colonization of the world by European interests (mainly France and Britain) up until the Second World War, and after that by the United States, the most efficient and deeply impactful colonization was led by European entities, and retained by the alliance of America and European political/business interests[4]. The rise of modern Imperialism is closely tied to the Industrial Revolution, which allowed nations access to distant and alien lands. While Imperialism might have officially “ended” with the Second World War, empire building is an ongoing process. The building of empire has now moved beyond the acquisition of land as a metric, to the construction of engines for profit and influence. This is where my critique of games comes into play. Nations that were formerly colonizers are now loosely clubbed into the hierarchal term, “First World Nations”, but for the purposes of this article I will be calling them Western Nations. Understandably, as the global markets are led by Western Nations, so is global aid and outreach provision. Philanthropy has historically been used to balance out acts of violence perpetuated by the pursuit of capital gains, and nothing much has changed as history has become the present. While working within Serious Games, I have observed certain practices that suggest a less-than-ideal relationship between provider of aid and the recipient. My concern is that the positivist spin around “Games for Change” does not allow for critique, and fears of doubting the validity of games in new contexts is allowing for the appropriation of Serious Games in acts of cultural imperialism. But to really unpack this relationship it is important now to shift the focus of the conversation to a more personal position.

Game Designer as the Self

One of the boons of post-industrial society is finding value in the needs of the individual. The centering of discourse on the needs of the “Self”[5] allows us a laterality of thought into understanding the human condition. So on the one hand, a centered discourse allows us exciting avenues of exploration, on the other, it creates a self-centered myopia where the needs and desires of the Self subsume those of everyone else. One would think that in an age of such centered discourse the vagaries of individuals would finally have an opportunity to shine, instead, we see a trend towards homogeneity of identity. Instead of a rigid “Us” VS “Them” dichotomy, we see a global conversation that seeks to unsee its differences, focusing instead on the commonalities between people. However, one must ask, what is the identity of this global village, and who defined it? The old-world power relationships do not disappear in inclusive dialogue, they become invisible. Invisible, but acutely felt by some more than others.

The great paradox of “doing good” or “giving back” is that it often becomes more about having a big feel-good experience for the givers, than really thinking about the needs of recipients of the aid they give.[6] Moral one-upmanship is unavoidable, while obscuring the prickly questions of appropriation, agency, and consent. “Value-judgements” now become pragmatic realizations, and “talking-down” becomes a logistical necessity. When confronted with unfamiliar identities, the stratified Self attempts to find similarities between itself and the Other (used here to talk about the recipients of the Self’s discourse). When the Self is unable to place the alien personality within its familiar concepts of identity, it reduces the gradient of humanity into binary markers in relation to itself. In such cases, the lens of the Self subsumes the diversity of forms of identity of the Other. The problem here is that the Other will never be the equal of the Self; they have been objectified into a commodity to be possessed and cared for by the Self. Eventually, the Other is reduced to the passively mute and always grateful recipient of the Self’s well intentioned charity. The Other cannot give, they can only receive.

The need to give back is often grounded in guilt born of over-consumption. The first-world values of charity towards the less fortunate assumes the fortunes of the charitable while using guilt to motivate empathy. The identity of the first-world is anchored around excesses; an excess of finances, technology, culture, civilization. Even the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems is a tongue-in-cheek reference to problems born of abundance, not aspirations. The clear separation between needs and wants has defined the trajectory of the so-called first-world from that of second and third world countries.

The problem with having this sort of power relationship is that the less fortunate are never expected to contribute, even towards their own emancipation. The notion of “saving” them from themselves gives birth to the plague of saviorism, that then makes self-reflection on the part of the charitable even harder. Since those being helped supposedly share nothing with those doing the helping, the scope for any real dialogue between the two is diminished, and often destroyed. This is by no means unique to our times. Such an unfair power-dynamic gave birth to the problem  of colonialism under the guise of the “White Man’s Burden”[7], and in more recent times, the neocolonial exploitation of the non-Western world. We have now seen this spread to the field of aid-based outreach, and in some ways permanently tainting the systems of subvention and aid.

Games as Objects of Appropriation

According  to Foucault, discourses are objects of appropriation,[8] meaning that discourse makers are appropriators. There is a commonality of purpose between aid-providers and discourse makers. They are both groups that give because they have too much; be it time, money, resources, or knowledge. Like discourse makers, aid-based outreach providers use the activity that defines them as an opportunity for appropriation. In the case of field-based aid-providers, this often takes the form of discursive cultural appropriation. In this article, I have defined the Self and the Other in relation to their access to discourse-making. My reason for doing so is to illustrate the existing power dynamics in the hierarchy of knowledge-making, and the casually assumptive appropriations encountered in aid-based field work.

A lot of the ethical concerns in field-based aid work are glossed over by the utilitarian ideals of logistical reasoning. In a project-based environment, the project goals supersede the fuzzy concerns of cultural assumptions and appropriation. It can be argued that in a well planned-out project, these concerns sometimes distract from the clear goals, and reduce the efficiency of the aid provided. As this is often counterproductive to the project’s intent, it is rationalized out of the conversation around the project’s assessment. This trend can be observed very strongly in the emerging field of Serious Games, but has remained largely overlooked.

Serious doesn’t always mean Good

Although play has been a part of aid-based outreach and activism for a while now, as seen in the playful interventions of the Situationists, Fluxus, and the New Games movement amongst others, it has coagulated  into its own genre rather recently. Play in activism has historically 1) used its non-formal structure to subvert authority, or 2) been used to break the ice or engage with those that activists have no alternative vocabulary of engaging with. Both are non-pedagogical uses of games and play. The much newer field of Serious Games, specifically games used for altruistic purposes, seeks to formalize a vocabulary of games to be used in the transaction of specific knowledge.  Given the functionally pedagogical nature of this new form of play, there is a valid need to have a more concrete form of games that will map onto the act of educating the Other. Since educating the Other is by no means a new activity, games (in the role of the pedagogue) need to fit into the systems existing in, and focused on, educating and providing aid to the Other.

The advantage of critiquing games in aid-based outreach is that games are a finite activity. I use finite here to describe activities with clearly defined goals, actions, and timeframes, such as games. Although defining “Games” has been an intellectually discursive minefield within the larger field of Games, I am going to attempt to define them specifically for the field of Serious Games. Within Serious Games, the organic nature of play is subsumed to work for the specific act of information sharing, leaning more towards a formalistic understanding of games as clearly defined systems. For me, games in the line of aid-provision are finite systems that take a propagandist-esque approach to the dissemination of information. Propaganda limits an understanding of a topic outside of its intended form, thus preventing a radical or critical reading of the information for the receiver. Propaganda is specific, while knowledge sharing is lateral.  Knowledge depends on meaning-making, or cathexis, which is more difficult to control as it depends on context, which in cross-cultural situations is rarely objective.

Can Games Create Knowledge?

If we were to consider knowledge-making, not information-dissemination to be the higher goal, we are left wanting by Serious Games.  Teleologically,  there is a clear line of communication for the goals of aid-based outreach using the finite form of a game. By reducing the idea of knowledge-making into a binary give and take, better suited to information sharing, where can the act of meaning making occur in this system? Cathexis is forever denied to the Other as they are perceived as being less-able to unpack these complex ideas. The Other is usually given the easy to digest option, the pedagogically finite game-object. Clear and precise, it lacks the ambiguity needed for the Other to make meaning of it in a form that is unfamiliar to the Self, where the Self here is extended to refer to those creating discourse in the field of Serious Games. Since the majority of aid-organizations were conceived of and operate from the developed world, and the majority of recipients of aid hail from the so-called underdeveloped world, the previously established power-dynamic exists as strongly in Serious Games as they have historically existed in aid-based outreach.

The nature of the hierarchy between the countries of the western and the non-western world maps almost directly on to that of colonizer and the colonized nations. While it is unfair to claim that all aid is colonial in nature, it is hard to deny that the nature of global aid-provision has some disconcerting similarities to that of a traditional colonial relationship. Add to this the privilege of technical knowledge (such as technology or game-making) limited to the first world for the larger part of the previous century, and we can see this pattern spreading to the field of Serious Games. Since the best studied forms of game-making are Westerncentric[9] in nature, coupled with both the United States and Western Europe leading the education of game design, and aid-provision rooted there too, most Serious Games are fundamentally Westerncentric in nature. The formal creation of a field of games to aid with the sharing of information has only reinforced the existing global status quo between the first and second/third world nations.

Foucault argues that if the discourse maker is the ideologue, they then mark a fear of the proliferation of meaning making[10]. I infer from Foucault that the closed environment of discourse making is in a sense a form of gate-keeping. If this logic is re-mapped into the ecosystem of Serious Games, we can see a pattern of gate-keeping, perhaps unintentional, in keeping the Other forever dependent on the aid-provider for the act of knowledge creation. Incidentally, this is a technique Spivak discusses in the creation of an overseer class during the colonial occupation of India by the British[11]. Using a formalization of education, law, and social reform controlled rigidly by the colonizer, the British created a new class of colonial Indians who were “civilized” in the image of the British. This formalization allowed the British to create a controllable middle-class that favored their benevolence and generosity while allowing themselves to channel British ideals and intentions for colonized India. The aim of the British was not only the emancipation of these Indians, but an assurance of control over them.

Since information, not knowledge, is given to the Othered group, they must rely on the superior intellect and technical knowledge of the aid-provider for meaning-making. Independent cathexis is elusive to the Other, while incidentally, this reduced form of knowledge making is provided prepackaged and supervised by the aid-givers. Information translates to knowledge when meaning is made of it. Unique, subjective meaning, which is context dependent and culturally varied, is difficult to share, and risks allowing the dependent Other into the closed group of those providing the aid. Fears of toppling a well-established status-quo aside, different cultures make meaning in different ways, making the act of meaning-making perilously difficult to predict and control .

What we are left with today is a rigidly stratified understanding of what games can do, and more importantly, a segregation between game designers and the players who they make games for. Traditionally in Western-centric games, the game designer sets out a challenge that the players then either compete or collaborate to resolve. Although the Western world has a culture of physical sports, games, as seen through a Western-centric lens, are cerebral activities that involve a wits-over-brawn approach to problem sharing. Using a board, cards, dice, game controller, digital avatar, or similar such mix of randomizers and rigidly controlled terrain elements, Western-style games often tell a ludic-narrative that is very Western in nature too. These game-narratives usually involve forging pathways for colonizing new spaces, taming a chaotic system, or besting increasingly difficult odds in a linear fashion. In each case the game designer is an omniscient entity who controls what happens when and why, orchestrating the experience for the player to enjoy, and sometimes exploit.

Those who play this style of games are better at it than those who do not, as with any skill-based activity. This creates a meritocratic environment between game players to gauge who is the “best” fan. This is based on who has finessed the skills and exploits of the game after hours of play. Ardent fans are often obsessive to the point of myopia about their hobbies, a fact noticed only too starkly during the recent Gamer Gate controversy[12]. Since a large part of traditional game player’s lives are devoted to the honing of their hobby skills, it is not surprising to observe that ardent fans of games often become the makers of games themselves. What we are left with now is an observable pattern for a closed system between game makers and game fans in a traditionally Western-centric game ecosystem. Fans shape the games they play by having very efficient communication channels with the game makers, made easier by the Internet. Game designers often make “games they would like to play,” finessing their craft instead of taking design risks that are unfamiliar to their well-honed culture of play.

Games are the abstraction of real world processes and systems. Abstraction in this case is the removal of non-contextual noise from a system by editing and omitting parts of the system deemed irrelevant by the game designer. If the authorial voice (in this case the game designer) defines the nature of abstraction within the game, then is it worthwhile to sift through the system’s elements deemed noisy and thus omitted, while attempting to understand the rationale for such omissions. Since game designers, while designing games, seek to make games they would play and find interesting, the authorial voice only sees itself as the intended audience. If the authorial voice is the intended audience, then isn’t the individual the pivot on which the entire design process rests?

Barthes argues that writing ceaselessly posits a superficial meaning that eventually entropies the potential for meaning-making[13]. If I were to re-contextualise this argument for meaning making in the act of serious game design, then by making more and more games within an optimistic echo-chamber, are we charging relentlessly towards an entropy of thought ourselves? Serious Games use interaction to abstract the politics of the designer’s position, in the process obscuring a hegemonic design process. So when Serious Games claim to design for an “Other,” are they even capable of designing for anyone other than themselves? In true Oroborus fashion, the snake has begun to eat its own tail.

Good intentions do not always mean good consequences, and Serious Games seem to be going down a path where the feel-good conception of projects supersedes any problematic discussions around their dissemination and design. Design, when critiqued, only considers abstract elements like the construction of logic in the mechanics, and not the context of their application. Consequences are not considered while the discussion overwhelmingly focuses on the potential for intent to proliferate.

Who Really Makes Meaning?

Barthes also argued that the true locus of writing was in reading, going on to suggest that multiplicity of thought can only ever collect in the reader, never in the author[14]. Correlating this logic to the relationship between the makers and players of games in a Serious Games ecosystem, the potential for meaning-making then, lies with the Other, much like the passive reader, here the passive recipient of games. For our argument, the field of Serious Games communicates through the lens of the Self, which here is embodied by the game designer, instead of the more traditionally auteurist role of the Author.

While Barthes’s argument aimed at critiquing the self-importance of the Author in relation to the undervalued worth of the reader, our argument is more complex. Since games are a technically specific skill, both in the making and in playing, (just ask a first time player at an arcade – or a retro Indie game party), the knowledge of game making or even a familiarity of playing the same sort of games gives players a lot more access into making the most of the play experience. One can argue then, that in order for ludic emancipation to occur, the player, in this case the Other, must have some cultural context for that style of play. Since in this relationship, this context is neither introduced nor considered relevant for the purpose of the project, it is forever out-of-reach for the players. This prevents the othered group from critiquing or independently seeking cathexis from the games made for them.  Serious Games need to reconsider their strategy at such a time, or they risk becoming irrelevant when taken outside of their familiar spaces.

Mindful Play: Play as Conversation, Play as Consideration

“Mindful Play” is my alternative methodology for game design in the service of activism and outreach, developed in collaboration with Ben Norskov at Antidote Games.  The core idea of mindful play is remapping games in activism and outreach as conversations, not instructions. Conversations allow for an exchange of ideas, often requiring the facilitator to give up control of a situation in exchange for deeper moments of learning. Using the fluid lens of Play instead of Games to provide a less pedagogical and more experiential terrain for meaning-making, we are forced to trust our audience. By allowing the participants to guide their own experience instead of speaking for and anticipating their responses, facilitators can circumvent the larger pitfalls of savourism that exist in any such power-dynamic. By re-phrasing the relationship within activism from one that appropriates games as cures to using play as a diagnostic , we have an opportunity to laterally expand upon our understanding of a problem. As with any pre-determined situation, by expecting games to “fix” a situation in a certain way, an opportunity to have a broader conversation is lost. Instead of assuming that the aid-provider always knows best, games can be used to understand both the depth and the breadth of the problems, and also be used to engage with current methods of resolving these problems.

One example of this complicated relationship can be observed in the issue of water, sanitation and hygiene in the global south. Much has been written about how at-risk individuals prefer to have a cell phone instead of a toilet (or an efficient sanitation system). What is missing from this conversation are crucial points about the stigma around sanitation being within homes for certain communities, or the cultural practices of natural out-door latrines. The stigma of being caught in the act of defecation pushes people to focus more on concealing the act of defecation more than dealing with the accumulating results of open defecation. This was the point we focussed on for our game Sandwich Shop, which dealt with the issue of accelerating hygiene problems, a result of open defecation. This game was designed to re-contextualize policy level conversations between privileged Western participants on the complexity of the problem instead of the simplistic solutions such as one-toilet per family funding schemes.

I use this methodology in two formats, the first being misdirection. While designing games for activism at Antidote, we use misdirection as a strategy to disrupt the staid expectations of our players. By making the ludic goal of the game antithetical to the learning goals, players can’t perform the pre-packaged role of the gratefully saved. Instead of mimicking understanding in the face of a positivist pedagogical experience, we distract players by giving them opportunities to chase an unrelated goal, act negatively, or perform in a morally questionable way. Doing this allows both the facilitators and the players to see their true feelings towards the subject at hand within the safe space of a play-session. By not limiting or punishing any forms of play, the players can observe the impact of different strategies, and make their own minds up about the best strategy for them. This “ah ha!” moment[15] allows for a deeper understanding of both the subject matter and the solutions proposed. Forcing a realization creates desensitization towards the topic in the best case, and resentment towards it, in the worst. The form of each game is context dependent, relying on both the vagaries of the audience and the topic at hand.

The second format is that of a game design workshop to be facilitated but not micromanaged by the aid-providers and game designers. The goal of this workshop is to share the tools of our craft, game design, with the intended audience as a way of allowing for indigenous solutions to emerge. By sharing what games and play could do, I learnt a lot about what games can do in a new context. I realized that as much as we want to instrumentalize games and play, when the tools are shared they becomes means of self-expression. Over the years, Antidote and I have both hosted such workshops, each time leaving more humbled and awed by the innovations of our participants. While games and game-making can appear to be terrifying from outside the field, a simple introduction into the logic of game-making and play creation makes games accessible to anyone. Making games gives the Othered groups a chance to be an active participant in their intended emancipation, and by doing so, allows them some agency in a system that consistently ignores their inputs.

[1] Eric Zimmerman, “Manifesto for the Ludic Century”

[2] Games like Aiti and Half the Sky

[3] The “Other” in this case refers to non-traditional game audiences in non-western countries who are the recipients of the style of Serious Games discussed here.

[4] Edward Said, “Culture and Imperialism”

[5] In this case, the Self refers to the predominant identity of discourse makers.

[6] “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Teju Cole speaking about the hypocrisy of viral saviorism, as seen in KONY2015

[7] From the poem by Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden”

[8]  “First of all, discourses are objects of appropriation.” Michel Foucault, What is the Author

[9] From the political term “Eurocentric” referring to European exceptionalism coined in the 1980’s.

[10] “The Author is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes and chooses. … The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.” Michel Foucault, What is the Author

[11] Gayatri Spivak speaking about the formalization of Hindu Law and Sanskrit education under the British during the colonial occupation of India, p77-79, Can the Subaltern Speak?

[12] Sexism, harassment and misogyny in videogame culture under the guise of demanding answers for supposed ethics violations between independent game developers, socially engaged game-makers and the gaming press, began August 2014

[13] “In a multiple writing, indeed, everything is to be distinguished, but nothing deciphered; structure can be followed, ‘threaded’ (like a stocking that has run) in all its recurrences and all its stages, but there is no underlying ground; the space of the writing is to be traversed, not penetrated: writing ceaselessly posits meaning but always in order to evaporate it: it proceeds to a systematic exemption of meaning.” Roland Barthes, Death of the Author

[14] “Let us return to Balzac’s sentence: no one (that is, no “person”) utters it: its source, its voice is not to be located; and yet it is perfectly read; this is because the true locus of writing is reading.” Roland Barthes, Death of the Author

[15] Also known as the Eureka Effect, refers to the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept. Attributed to the Roman writer Vitruvius describing the myth of Archimedes’s discovery of a method to measure the volume of an irregular object using buoyancy.