New Job Title: Researcher/Designer, Northwest Media

I’m happy to report that I’m at Northwest Media designing interventions for social good based on learning games, We’ve got a number of projects on the go:

  • VSG, a Sims-RPG hybrid game designed to help at-risk kids, especially foster teens, realize the need to develop life skills before jumping into the real world.  It’s a NIH-funded SBIR Phase II, and we’ve got most of a year left to finish.
  • InTouch, a serious game that aims to help foster and birth parents develop a form of mentalization called “Parental Reflective Functioning”.

It’s exciting stuff that combines innovation, simple execution of what is known, and all for social good.  Nice!


paper+sound prototyping

The next time I have a ‘from-scratch’ game project, maybe I’ll try paper prototyping with sound effects to indicate emotionally meaningful gameplay events (inspired by Schell’s ‘ding’ effect during his Gamepocolypse talk).  I picture doing it live, in person: talking through a gameplay session by flipping and pointing at mockup sketches on paper and touching a soundboard on an iPad.

my favorite code advice

Is it gauche to repost my comment on my own blog?

I wrote this on this blog (which I enjoy), then decided it’s good enough to post here.

My favorite code advice is “if you need something >3 times, make it a function/object. Otherwise, re-code it inline.” Without this rule, I 1) underestimate the cost of developing reliable objects; 2) overestimate the effort required to code the same thing a second time; and 3) overestimate the likelihood that I’ll need to that function again (in that language/context) in the future.

What’s yours?



The Unit Guide Tutorial Game

The Unit Guide Tutorial Game

This learning game is a fun way to avoid the dull Week 1 lecture, where deadlines and criteria for a new university class (or “unit” in OZ/NZ university parlance) are given.  This game has three advantages:

1. instead of being talked at, students tell each other the most important parts of a new unit.

2. It is a great way for students to meet each other in tutorial, and get some idea of each others’ personalities (in preparation for group work later)

3. It generates a ‘crowdsourced’ list of what students regard as most important elements of the unit guide.

The rules:

The tutor points to the nearest student and announces “Player 1”.  Then the tutor points to the student’s neighbor and announces “Judge.” Next student is announced “Player 2”.  The next is “Player 1” again.  The tutor continues around the room in this manner.  Students are told to group themselves, and arrange their groups around the room.    (Player 1 –  Judge –  Player 2)    — (Player 1 – Judge – Player 2)  — (Player 1 – Judge – Player2).

Tutor tasks are: call out start and stop times, update the list of “Most Important” topics (on a whiteboard, so all can see), and final arbitrar, if needed.

When Tutor says “go”, each player has 30 seconds to picks the most important thing in the unit guide.  After the first round, players cannot choose anything already chosen from the “most important” list.

  • When Tutor says “stop”, the players are given 10 seconds each to explain their finding to their judge. This is usually noisy.
  • Tutor then obtains silence, and asks each judge in turn to report.
    • Judge announces what each player found, and picks the more important one.
    • The winning player gets a point.  These are recorded on a bit of paper they keep with them.
    • Tutor writes down the winning answers as the judge reads them off. Players cannot use these again.
      • Players can reuse their answers if they were not chosen.
      • The players then each award the Judge 1 or 0 points, using any criteria they like (typically awarded for fairness of decision).   Judge writes tallies their score on a scrap of paper.
      • Then, the groups are mixed:

      * player 2 moves one group to the right

    * judge moves one to the left

The new players and judge get settled, share their scores and otherwise introduce themselves, until the Tutor announces that new round begins. 

Once all judges have travelled full circle, points are tallied and two winners (one player, one judge) are declared. Celebrations ensue.

The game takes about 45 minutes for a 14-person tutorial.

Credits: Murdoch Games Design Workshop students and tutor, 2012.  Creative Commons licensed.


Sustainability + Zombies = Learning Game?


If you were asked to design a game about sustainability, that featured zombies, what would you create?  That challenge emerged from our pilot project. The project is best understood through the eyes of its stakeholders:

  • The nonprofit entity, whose goal is to engage their kids around their mission or topic.   In our case, the teacher was quite satisfied with the project because she saw how it motivated at-risk kids she couldn’t reach with normal methods.  She was delighted to see them attending school, participating in discussions, and writing their game design ideas.  At researchers’ request, she role-played a ‘customer’ with a more specific mission: promote sustainability with a video game.
  • The kids, who passionately embrace the opportunity to be co-creators, and are proud that their video game literacy can open doors to adult worlds. They enjoy playing the games, but they are more motivated by the presence of professional game developers in the classroom. They role-play, learn tools, demonstrate mechanics, consider balancing questions, as well as tease, praise, and generally seek a personal bond with the professional game developers.
  • The developers. Their goal is to understand the kids as end users deeply yet time-effectively, and discover innovative learning game designs that emerge from collaboration. They know that the best games are design for designers, and seek experimental alternatives to typical user/designer barriers in standard playtesting methods.
  • The researchers, whose goal is to discover and document innovative ways to increase well-being and resilience among the kids, through this engagement.

The project is in progress now.  As a byproduct, we have developed an exciting concept for a game: “Zombie Pollution.”   Here’s the concept:

Zombie Pollution is a 2D casual shooter/platformer that seeks to persuade “the 99%” to begin to think sustainably.  It puts the player on a tiny, dirty planet, inhabited by careless zombies who are trashing the place as they live their humdrum lives.   The player jumps over buildings on the slowly rotating world, shooting zombies, collecting coins and ‘cleaning powerups’,  which instantly clean the onscreen bit of the planet (this mechanic is the ‘initial hook’, engaging players in the first minute of play).

Money: The coins first fund player’s progression, then buy important gameplay powerups: The player starts with an old house that sucks money from the player’s moneypile.  As they gather coins, they buy a lovely ec0-mansion, which uses LESS money than the old house.  Their polluting, costly rusty car becomes a Tesla-style electric sportscar, nearly free to drive).  As their lifestyle costs less, and as they get better at collecting coins, their cash stacks up.

Persuasion: However, as play continues and the player circles around the planet, they find their clean areas are dirty again. The player eventually realizes that the zombies are dirtying the planet faster than they can clean it. They need to convert the zombies to ‘good zombies’ to win.   To convert, they must first shoot the zombies, then persuade them to become ‘good’. The shot zombies arise again, but with they’re aware that something’s wrong: with an icon above their head, they continue to pollute, but if the player buys community centers (which are expensive), the zombies will go in, learn how to become sustainable, and emerge ‘good’: they help the player by cleaning the planet offscreen. When enough ‘good zombies’ are present, the level becomes winnable, and harder levels are unlocked.

The game is a learning game.  The learning goal for Zombie Pollution is broad.

This game seeks to persuade low-income, blue collar people (the “99%”) to begin to think sustainably, taking the first step towards including sustainability in their life’s priorities.

Unlike a “skill and drill” learning game, This game has a persuasive goal. If successful, the game will change attitudes, not knowledge or behaviours, of players.   There are many elements of the game that address various aspects of the “sustainability” learning goal.  The top three are shown here.

MESSAGE 1: Being sustainable fits you.

  • Sustainable is common sense. Earn money, eat well, don’t be wasteful, don’t trash your home, and convince other people to do the same.
  • Normal people live sustainably.  Players are rewarded for making in-game choices that both fit sustainability goals, and don’t conflict with players’ existing worldviews.
  • Sustainable lifestyle ideals are cool.  Westerners’ materialistic lifestyle (with a ‘rock star’ ideal) is well established among kids, and usually features unsustainable objects such as gasoline-consuming sports cars, and wasteful McMansions.  This game gives an updated vision of success and wealth:   cool, fast electric cars;  stunning modern mansions with a clever design that uses less resources than normal suburban houses; healthy sustainable food in upscale fancy restaurants (e.g. Chez Panisse).

MESSAGE 2:  It’s up to us.

Unlike many sustainability stories which pit a few brave souls against giant, faceless corporations, this game encourages small, grass roots thinking about both its problems and solutions.

  • Normal people are the problem…and the solution.
  • One heroic person is a catalyst, not the solution.
  • To really solve the problem, lots of people must change their behavior.

MESSAGE 3: We can save the planet.

  • By making the game winnable, players get an optimistic message about the problem of sustainability. Optimistic attitudes are known to boost self-efficacy and increases motivation to engage with a topic.

Sustainability is  broad movement, with various goals, not always aligned.  For example, promoting an eco-mansion, and other fancy material lifestyles conflicts with ‘consume less’ and land use values, and clashes with the typical “hippie” radical lifestyle ideals of the old-school sustainability movement.  We chose it because it serves as a cultural scaffold: To persuade low-income, blue collar people to choose sustainability as a world view, the ‘rock star lifestyle’ message is too well established to attack directly. This game scopes its persuasive mission to redefine ‘rock star lifestyle’ to reflect sustainability ideals. The ‘consume less’ message is left for future work.

Zombie Pollution is exciting concept because it may be a game that many people enjoy playing, Building it is beyond the scope of this pilot project.  I look forward to future projects where we can let kids experience the real payoff in video game design: The shock, pride and connectedness when thousands of people around the world enjoy a video game they co-designed.    I believe that experience could change their lives.

title screen for Zombie Pollution concept



Food Fight – prototype phase finished!

We’ve done prototye playtesting for the key features of Food Fight, a 3D multiplayer shooter that lets you make your friends fat. We dare to aim for “feature complete” in a month or so…at which point polish commences!  It’s going to be fairly different than I initially imagined, but I’m still happy with it, and looking forward to seeing real people play it.