Flexible Times

need Flexible Game Design

Ben Norskov and Mohini Dutta are the co-founders of Antidote Games. We started Antidote to make games that would help us understand real-life systems around us. We are passionate about finding playful ways to make sense of complex topics and discovering all that games have to offer.

Mindful Play as an alternative game design methodology for making inclusive game experiences

Games are abstractions and reflections of cultural systems. As game designers we make social terrariums: microcosms that represent aspects of the larger systems we exist within. Fundamental to making games is our understanding of society, culture, and identity, because they all form a part of the process of game making. Who we are bleeds into what we create.

Since games emerge from and reflect upon culture, it is becoming more and more important to find ways to accommodate the various cultural relationships to games and play that already exist globally. As the barriers to technology drop, accessibility to the tools of games are increasing, but the syntax of game making remains largely unexamined from the context of multi-cultural languages of games and play. Game development is a small world and has not demonstrated a willingness to deal with the cultures of play around the world that are now being reached with new global audiences. Mindful Play is our attempt to investigate the ways in which games are made and find ways to adapt existing game design methodologies to accommodate these emerging forms of play.

Play gives us the tools to explore and learn about life. Johan Huizinga starts his book Homo Ludens about the nature of human beings and play stating that we, like all animals, play. Since we learn about life through play, it is reasonable to say that our play, and by relation, our games, are metaphors of our lives. Our identities are the products of our culture and society, which are all subjective to the environmental factors of our lived experiences. We often find it hard to identify with distant family, let alone a foreigner, since our different life experiences change how we contextualize our tastes and values. While games have similar structural elements at a macro level––with competition, chance, and role play often being utilized to create new and varied experiences to communicate ideas in playful ways––the language of these experiences on a micro level are incredibly varied. Let us consider gambling as a form of play. Going to the casino to roll dice or play slots is considered to be a lot of fun in countries like the US, where a weekend in Vegas is is synonymous with a good time. At the same time, gambling is considered to be a sin in Islam and has negative implications in predominantly muslim countries like Indonesia. As comparative forms of play co-exist with wildly different social values placed upon them, it seems reasonable to suggest that our play culture is as varied and as diverse as culture itself.

Games are a universal experience, and one that nearly everyone shares. We would be hard-pressed to find a culture in history where evidence of games do not exist. Video-games and the appropriation of the term “game” as a western media form are a recent phenomenon, and are the result of advances in technology and access to it. Before this, games belonged to everyone. Humans haven’t ever found a thing they don’t want to play with. Because the west had more computers first, we started making video games first. Any other culture who later had access to computers has made computer games. The process of making games, much like mass media in general, was a western monopoly until very recently because of access to and politics surrounding technology. Even cultures with access to technology have been largely overshadowed by the western output in mass media, and games are no different. Iconic cinema for example, is largely American or Eurocentric, although nations like India have been creating cinema since 1913. What this implies is that the creation of media doesn’t immediately imply recognizability of that media globally in a landscape largely governed by western media monopolies.

But how have we made games? Game design methodologies are largely western-centric, and because the industrialized world has been making digital games longer, they’ve also dictated the methodologies for making digital games.

A pervasive methodology is the Mechanics Dynamics Aesthetics model first described formally in a paper by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek in 2004. Mechanics are actions one takes in a game, Dynamics are the effects of those actions, and Aesthetics are the skin of the game. While players appreciate a game’s form first, also known as the Aesthetics; designers start at the Mechanics end of the spectrum. MDA works well because so far the audience and the designers come from the same cultural pool. Within reason, one can argue that game designers have traditionally been gamers, i.e. emerging from the core cultural pool that both feeds and creates the final product: the games.

There are other game design methodologies as well. Jesse Schell has an extensive model he outlines in his book The Art of Game Design , and one of our favorites is Dan Cook’s Skill Atoms, Loops, and Arcs. These techniques differ, but priorities don’t, as they focus on the mechanics of the game in question. Mechanics are a limited set of systems available to us after decades of use, play, and testing. Game mechanics are not a bad lens to use in game design; as a matter of fact, a majority of contemporary games have developed out of MDA-esque systems, and are incredibly fun and engaging and “work,” so to speak.

The common theme in these existing design guidelines is that we always focus on the Mechanic and the feedback from that mechanic. Even in all these beautiful systems for breaking down and analyzing games by fantastic game designers, they almost always forget something: cultural context. The culture of the player is usually entirely assumed or overlooked. Most design methodologies account for system, interaction, narrative, & aesthetic, but neglect play culture and player culture. Game designers often design without context.

Games are intertwined with the culture around them. Even though games are fictional and abstract systems, they are only a potential system until the player activates it through play. The game idea with its pristine logic and squishy narrative is fictional; the game object, on the other hand, only comes into existence when it is played. A potential space becomes actualized into a tangible reality. The player is always grounded in the real world, and as a result, is inexorably connected to their culture.

But why do we need other game design methodologies? Our game design is working, right?

Every culture has their own food, art, communication methods, and social norms. It also follows that each culture also has their own patterns of play and games, even if they are a minority voice and they have never been heard before. In addition, each culture should and will have its own methodologies for making games. Ignoring culture and assuming the manner in which your culture plays games is the only “correct” way to play games makes them a hostile and unwelcome space for new players and creators.

Believing that all  people should play games the way you play games is a form of cultural imperialism. Imposing your game making process in place of other’s process  is both patronizing and oppressive. There is a lot that can be learned from how games have been made, but there is very little reason to assume that that is the only way to ever make them.

At Antidote, the bulk of our work is making games for cultural contexts that we can’t fully understand. So, can we ever make a game for someone from a different culture?

The short answer is yes, maybe. Designing for “another” has been an ethical problem we have been dealing with right from the beginning of our studio and over time, coming up with a set of best practices to adapt to each new situation. The hardest challenge is to distance ourselves from the hubris of maker culture, where the act of making is more important than making stuff with cultural critique or context, an aspect of this can be seen in tech’s disruption culture. Over time, we have been moving towards accepting a more collaborative or facilitative role in the design process, and shifting our process to consider design as a conversation, instead of a sermon.

Craft and content are two symbiotic parts of game design. While expertise in craft is important, and necessary, content or aesthetic is equally important for the player as it allows them to engage with the system in an intuitive manner. It stands to reason that cultural intuition is learned through engaging with that culture. So aside from relocating to the area and immersing ourselves in that culture, the obvious solution seems to be working with individuals from the area, preferably a cross section representative of the diversity within that space.

When designing for a new market or culture, preventing our players from contributing to the creation of the game allows us to create a convenient hierarchy within the craft, backed up by a homogeneity of aesthetic culture.

The most popular games are made in the industrialized world and often aimed at western audiences. They take advantage of interaction, technological, and social languages that we, as consumers of primarily western media, don’t realize. We call this “Usability Entitlement.” By designing games in ways familiar to us, we sometimes inadvertently create games that distance players from the experience. If we were to diagram this, we would put a lens of culture between the player and their experience of playing a game. Game designers lack the training required to work through our internalized cultural biases that would allow us to use our game education and training while also maintaining an adaptable design methodology.

Can games be designed without specific training and craft?

The answer to this is contextual as well; it really depends on what sort of game, and to what end. With the demystification of the tools and techniques of game design, the world has started to reclaim video-games, and by relation games in general. Another aspect of the expansion of games as a medium is the appropriation of games by groups who haven’t traditionally created games. Games for someone different and also games by someone different. While we won’t get the same games we are used to making and seeing, we can potentially experience something new that speaks to these new game designers’ lives that were not represented before. Some of these games might not be enjoyable, or might not even be very “good”, but in true game design fashion, this is an iteration of the medium at the junction of culture and technique.

The great caterwauling of the “Are Games Art” debate did seal the fate of games in a sense. If games are art, then games can mean and be multiple things. A mass medium, so to speak. If we place games in the context of the larger world of media and art, then it seems inevitable for the survival of the medium for it to adapt, change, and schism. The disruption of the familiar and safe systems of design is both unavoidable and necessary for the survival and evolution of the medium. Not doing so would pigeonhole games into a tiny box hidden under an ocean of insignificance.

At Antidote, our work primarily deals with designing for new and unfamiliar players and cultures, often to explain really unfamiliar topics to them. This is an ethically challenging space to inhabit. Over the years, we have developed a flexible framework called Mindful Play for dealing with our own cultural biases in game design and familiar methodologies, so as to make more effective and fun games. This framework attempts to be mindful because the best we can do is try and be respectful of our players and make space for the context in which they exist. We’re emphasizing play because what’s the point of games if you can’t play? For us, Play is the ultimate goal, not anything else.

We aren’t attempting to replace other game methodologies, but to enhance any game design methodology. We have learned a lot while using this methodology to design games for field use in non-western contexts in our own work, and had far too much fun doing it. We hope this helps other designers in their own design adventures.

The Four Guidelines to Mindful Play

The first step in Mindful Play is to forget your play culture. Teaching play to people is both a colossal waste of time and will dilute the core experience of the game. The purpose of many of our games projects is to create awareness and/or empathy in the target audience about a specific issue, not introduce western play culture to them. Your style of play and design is influenced if not defined by your culture, but if you take your play culture into other cultures, you are going to create barriers between your players and your game. The language of play is so subjective and personal that changing this language without reason can subvert the context of a project. If the goal of a game using dice is to explain the science of climate change to a group of players who have never played with dice before, then a large part of the session will be spent in contextualizing dice as a play object. Unless the goal is to introduce new forms of play to another culture, then approaching playing and making games for a new culture where the games being introduced use an unfamiliar play language, we run the risk of our play culture overpowering that of our audience. As an example, what would the average American do with a rugby or cricket set? They’d play American football or baseball, disregarding years of tradition and play style in the intended sport and supplanting it with their own. This isn’t meant to be a condemnation, but players will use the play culture they come to the game with even if your game doesn’t support it.

One solution is to learn to adapt your games, and create systems that are designed to be adapted. Mohini facilitated a co-design workshop in the Philippines where we co-designed games with the local staff from the Philippines Red Cross. The workshops were split into 3 sections: Basics of Game Design, Game Making, Game Testing & Iteration and finally a Playthrough. The topics were climate related, so the participants adapted local games to express the topic, had players break their games, and eventually tried to experiment with original game ideas. It was an incredible experience and very rewarding to even observe what comes out of sharing our tools of game design.

The next step in Mindful Play is use local or familiar game assets. We assume the game objects that are familiar to us in our games are known to the rest of the world with a similar cultural lens. Objects like dice are not familiar to a lot of people outside the western world such as tribal or indigenous people who do not have access to them. In addition, while some game objects like dice might be familiar, they might be disreputable for their association with gambling or fortune telling. Dice, as fun as they are, are not an ideal or universal game object. The objects of play are mutable. We can create randomness through a multitude of other methods. It is is essential to adapt the aesthetics of the message to the local play culture.

The best way to do this is learn to improvise. Our game Humans Vs. Mosquitoes was played and adapted for the Malaria epidemic in Kenya in 2012. Since we could not play the game with the designed set of cards, dice, and sports paraphernalia, we had to adapt it on the fly, working with locally available pieces like rocks, papers, cans and using the various locations we were playing in to connect the message to the players.

The third guideline, and probably more important for serious games, is to design for the conversation. The goal of many of our games is to create a meaningful dialogue.

Players in your game will probably talk about the game. People outside of the game will be watching. We believe you should design your game for the conversations the game will germinate for both players and observers. In LARPs this is called “Froth:” it’s not the stew, it’s what bubbles up while it’s cooking. Designing games specifically for the “froth” creates moments outside of play that are fully cultural moments, and aren’t mediated by your own design decisions. This is where the game you’ve created stops being part of your culture and starts shifting ownership to the players. Designing for conversations allows players to make the game their own, and make space for them to bring it into their culture.

We’ve used this technique in our game “Driving Force!”. We designed this game to address transportation safety within NGO’s. Often NGO’s will prioritize their missions to the point of ignoring the upkeep of their fleet of vehicles. The nature of the work creates communication breaks between drivers and managers, leading to high losses in both trained personnel and resources to the NGO. This is a tricky situation as both parties can be defensive about their roles. So we designed a game where two simultaneous games took place, the outcome of one affecting the results of the other play-by-play, and players were made to communicate the outcome of one game to other players. The emergent  situation mirrored the environment at organizations that puts them at risk of automobile accidents. This allowed us to avoid patronizing the players with a morality game, instead allowing them to see the effects of their actions over a period of time and give them a solution: talk more about driving safety.

The final step is to avoid really literal design. Serious games have a bad reputation for being about what they are about. An example would be a game about recycling that awards the player points for recycling. We call this “On the Nose” design. This is a term borrowed from film, and (in film) is avoided because it disrespects the actor’s ability to interpret the character themselves therefore disregarding their skill as an actor. Similarly, when making on the nose designs, you aren’t trusting your players to make inferences on their own. It’s a condescending design method and very boring, as the obvious is rarely engaging. Your players will know, and they won’t like you.

To take this idea a further, we always attempt to put misdirection into our game designs. When players come expecting to play a certain type of game, subverting their expectations is a really great way to get them to pay attention. In our game Broken Cities, we wanted to get climate scientists to think about climate strategy that was pragmatic enough for actual adoption. To do this, we made them role-play as land barons developing a new city. Their actions had climate consequences in the form of emissions, which they had to keep below a certain national median. The “goal” of the game was to be the richest builder in the city. The fastest way to achieve this goal was to participate in activities they abhor as climate scientists: polluting the environment. The game’s system was setup in a way to reward pollution with capital, similar to the manner in which capitalism can also reward a greedy land baron.

Design More, Design Better

The democratization of a medium always brings with it an unseemly amount of fuss. There is a lot of concern about the dilution of quality in an ocean of quantity, and possibly more so with the advent of the digital medium. A lot has been said about the death of “true” photography in the age of phonography, and about the death of cinema with the proliferation of digital video cameras. Both photography and cinema has persevered, and are thriving in the digital age. Just like in photography and film, new technology has led to the creation of games that would never have been possible logistically a few decades ago and new people are joining the conversation. The tools to create games are more accessible, as are the games themselves, leading to broader experiments within the medium impossible before. Cinema and photography developed niches for the new creators, and so will games.

Current game design methodologies are limited in their application because they unconsciously engage with the culture around them, and so may not adequately serve new game creators. It is important to study the tools of game design from the subjective perspectives of their design scenarios, but like any methodology certain ideas take precedence and become canonical in the larger narrative of that medium. Mindful Play is additional tool useful when attempting to design for play cultures other than your own and question canonical ideas in design. There is not one “right” way of designing a game. Games are subjective to theme, genre, setting, and goals, and game design methodologies must be flexible enough to absorb new ideas instead of uncomfortably shoving new ideas into preexisting structures.

The world is changing around us; it is natural that the old hierarchies and exclusive privileges are weakening with it. Games are changing, and gamers are changing. The question that remains now is, can we change with them? We hope that using frameworks like Mindful Play, we can create games that better represent the people the game is made for, and allow for skillful game designers to do what they do best: design great games.