Surviving Independence

  • role: lead designer and project leader / PI
    • evolve stakeholder vision into buildable concept
    • design, build product
    • recruit, manage production team
    • design, conduct evaluation study (RCT, n=80)
  • project size: 3 staff, 2 year, $1m

 Project Description


See dedicated website here

The game aims to make teens in foster care want to develop independent living skills.  After playing, teens ask more questions like these:

  • How hard is it to earn enough to survive?
  • Will I have time to hang out with my friends?
  • Should I borrow money sometimes, or is it always bad to borrow?
  • Is it my problem if someone at my apartment gets drunk and out of control?”

This game weaves these varied topics into a single “scale model” of real life.  The project is an experimental adaptation of Prochaska’s “Stages of Change” theory. The game aims to enable teens to move themselves from Prochaska’s “Pre-Contemplation” stage (blissful ignorance) to Contemplation (“Do I need to change?”). The game does not aim to progress players to the next stage, Planning (learning the specific skills e.g. resume writing) because foster teens typically attend mandatory independent living classes focused on this stage.

Play Experience

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.

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.