Surviving Independence

Surviving Independence is a grant-funded prosocial video game for foster teen life skills


Josh explains the design challenge of this project

client: Northwest Media Inc.  (e-learning)

size: 3 staff, 24 month, approx $1m budget

role: Product Manager / co-PI (lead designer, project manager, researcher)


  • Completed marketable product to satisfaction of client
  • Engagement was exceptional for a learning game
  • Research study fulfilled grant requirements


Josh reflects on what went well, and what didn’t.
  • What went well
    • a simple lean / agile production process
    • persuaded stakeholders to reduce vision scope into a buildable design
    • prevented “feature creep” while championing doable good ideas
    • recruited competent development team
    • preserved healthy team culture under production pressure
    • co-designed and conducted final research study (RCT, n=80)
    • Delivered final product on time and budget
  • Areas of Improvement
    • Research Participants Mismatch
    • Not enough user testing during production
    • Insufficient time for polish and refinement

 Design Wins

Engaging: Unlike most learning games, players reported this experience was as compelling and engaging as commercial video games.

Fit For Purpose: Player activity (Sims “virtual dollhouse”) is aligned to learning goal (want to learn independent living skills)

Non-Didactic: There is not a single, prevailing winning strategy: sometimes tolerance is best, other times teens must confront problems to solve them.  There are many combinations of choices that can lead to success.  Once the player convinces a reliable peer to be their roommate, the game is won.


The game makes teens in foster care want to develop independent living skills

After playing, teens ask more questions like these:

  • Will I have time to hang out with my friends, when I’m on my own?
  • Can I earn enough to survive?
  • Is it my problem if someone gets drunk in my apartment?

Play Experience Description

Players progress through three stages: beginning, middle, and final challenge.

The game begins with a familiar and satisfying play experience. Players apply their existing knowledge (one must get a job, spend wisely, and avoid obvious trouble to survive), and most teens find it easy to succeed. Players have a temporary subsidized apartment and a job at the end of this stage.

At mid-game, social skills become critical: players must make friends to convince a suitable peer to be their roommate.  The game is more complex and challenging due to advanced NPC behaviors.  Players must practice being assertive, state their own needs, and take action against “friends”. Beyond tactics, players learn to be strategic in choosing friends: the reliability of their peers is key to their survival.

If the player survives long enough to save money, the game increases the challenge by turning on additional features.  Unlike the early game, these new features do not have predetermined “correct” choices.    For example, bosses start having bad days, expecting unrealistically high performance and assigning extra shifts against player wishes. Player must decide to either quit and seek another job, or comply.