12 Sep

Does play placate?

When people are asked to play a game to address a civic or social problem, are they purposely being distanced from the problem? Games, when they work, put players into a space of play, a space that is outside of everyday life, often independent of the barriers and consequences that comprise the everyday. So, when people play a game to open dialogue about corruption in Moldova, or play a game to facilitate cooperation on peace building efforts in Cyprus, the question is not simply “what is the experience of playing,” but also “what are the reasons for making or deploying the game and creating the social position of ‘player'”?

Students at the Salzburg Academy for Media and Global Change design and playtest a game about corruption in Moldova.

Over the last several years, I have been involved in many game efforts with development and humanitarian organizations, working to develop games for collaboration, understanding, and dialogue all over the world. At the end of the month, I will be leading game design workshops in Egypt and in the Kingdom of Bhutan, each in partnership with the UNDP and local youth leaders to help them conceive of and deploy game-based approaches in their local context. As a game designer and researcher, I am interested in the connection between the game (as intervention) and the stated social problem. But what has been capturing my interest lately is  the political and social context in which a game gets conceived, designed and deployed. This last piece is an under recognized part of any game design process, especially when it’s in partnership with a political or development organization.

What does it mean for a government to make a player? Can players transcend the systems of play in which they operate to exercise real power? Does play placate? Or can the state of play mobilize and empower players to act? I’m going to attempt to answer these questions by looking at the context of game design within organizations. When and why do organizations decide to make games? What are their expectations of a game process? And what are the political or social gains for the game designer (or the organization initiating the design)?

I have interviewed over fifty organizations and game designers to try understand the meta-game design process that informs when, why and how games get designed and played. These questions will be the foundation for the next couple of blog posts, and I’m eager to hear thoughts and opinions on the topic.