Game Designers in Detail: Colleen Macklin

Game Designers In Detail is a three-question interview series between a current NYU Game Center MFA student and a PRACTICE speaker.

In this interview, MFA Ansh Patel and speaker Colleen Macklin discuss the structural affordances of game types as related to designing games for activism, the tension between conveying a message through a game and enabling player expressivity, and the pleasures and problems inherent in collaboratively designing games with players.

Ansh Patel: Is teaching through an activist stance as in Re:Activism possible largely due to its physical, performative nature? How do you think it would change if Re:Activism was a purely digital game?

Colleen Macklin: I think that both digital and non-digital games can facilitate learning, activism, and awareness. But there are some big structural differences that provide divergent opportunities for players. Non-digital games rely on us, the players, or another human (like a referee) to maintain the rules. I think this leads to a special kind of reflection for players. They have to agree to be loyal to the rules – or not. They also demand that we use our bodies and physical presence to play. This is key in a game like Re:Activism (http://www.colleenmacklin.com/projects/reactivism/), that takes place on city streets and is about re-enacting historic moments of protest that rely on bodies doing things in public.

Re:Activism also takes place in and around cities. There is a layered connection between the rules of the game and the rules we follow moving and acting within a city. Because the game involves re-enacting historic moments of protest that are often very performative and distinctive from how we usually conduct ourselves in public – it provides a kind of productive dissonance for players. For some players, it provides a a fun, somewhat subversive opportunity to act differently than they normally do in their city. For others, it’s a real challenge to overcome inhibitions and perform the challenges. This is one reason the game is designed for teams – everyone can play different roles, ones they are comfortable with.

In Re:Activism, there are many moments when the team is traveling from one location to another and there’s plenty of time to talk between moments of playing. This often leads to conversations about the histories the game portrays, but also about the game, how it is structured and how to push the boundaries of these structures. I’m often surprised at how teams come up with new strategies on the fly as they are playing and this is an essential skill in activist practices too. I think  that much of the learning in social issue games happens when players have time to reflect on what the game is about and how it’s structured.

If Re:Activism were digital, would it allow for this kind of productive dissonance and reflection? I’m not convinced it would. Re:Activism is all about putting your body in the places and positions of activists in the past. I think it has to be embodied and located in physical places to do this.

AP: For many students interested in making games on social issues, the major dilemma comes on where to draw the line between conveying your message and being overbearing on the player, suffocating their creativity. How do you generally balance this line when you are designing a game for such a participatory medium?

CM: This is a really challenging thing to do. I often think about two problems many serious game/games for change designers face. The first is that there’s a tendency to want to convey factual information – the who, what, where, and when of a topic. But games are not very good at conveying facts. They’re about HOW – how things happen – the verbs and mechanics of a situation. We’re taught to think in facts, to learn things through the stuff rather than the dynamics of the stuff. Of course there’s “stuff” in games, but it needs to be connected to the actions players are taking too.

An example of this is a game I worked on with Frank Lantz and the fine folks at Area/Code a few years back, Budgetball (http://www.colleenmacklin.com/projects/budgetball/). It’s an intramural sport about the federal debt played between college students and members of the White House and Congress. We spent a lot of time learning about the facts of the federal debt – which government programs were most expensive, why the debt grew, and who was responsible. But ultimately, trying to include this information would have bogged down the game in unnecessary detail and depending on that detail, connected it to a certain political stance. So instead, we modeled the simple dynamics of debt in the game: going into debt lets you do more and feels great! But getting out of debt is constraining and involves making sacrifices. So the game lets you go into debt to get power-ups for your team, like an additional defensive player. But by the end of the game you need to pay the debt back, which could involve sacrificing a player on your team or wearing oven mitts to constrain your play. So while we didn’t get at details like how much Medicare spending relates to the debt, we did provide players with a gut feeling of how debt works and why we’re in debt in the first place. It’s an abstraction, but a faithful one. John Sharp and I call this approach to designing games about real-world issues “faithful abstraction”.

This relates to the second problem designers face: creating meaningful and interesting possibility spaces for players, while staying faithful to the issue the game is modeling. Often the designers or stakeholders in social-issue/learning games have a very specific point of view about the issues they are modeling in the game and what they want to get this across to players. This often leads to what you describe – suffocating player creativity – or as I typically put it, the tendency to reward a dominant strategy – the one that conveys the game’s “message”. For instance, if you’re making a game to encourage staying in school, you might reward the player who can successfully do that without dropping out. But it might be more interesting to let the player drop out in the game and explore different possible outcomes, deciding for themselves which kind of situation they want for their life. Or, ultimately, a better game to actually keep kids in school might be chess or football!

This tendency to limit choice and lead players to the “right” outcome is not unlike other games – in particular AAA games heavy on story that provide an experience on rails to generate certain dramatic and emotional peaks and valleys in the gameplay. This is one strategy for game design, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad strategy, but it does constrain player creativity. At the same time, do we always want to be creative? Maybe sometimes we just want to interact with an interesting story. But here’s the problem I have when it comes to social issue games: to reward a dominant strategy can also fool us into thinking that there’s one optimal solution to a problem. It could create the false impression that the issue in the game and the issue in the world are both solvable in this one way. This may be true in some rare cases, but usually things are more complex than that. This is potentially pretty misleading and is at its most potent, propaganda. I love what Paolo Pedercini had to say about this in his talk at Games for Change 2014, “Making Games in a Fucked Up World” (http://www.molleindustria.org/blog/making-games-in-a-fucked-up-world-games-for-change-2014/).

As I’ve been making games for change – and struggling through these issues – I have arrived at the position that providing more transparency about how games work is key. This might mean providing players with opportunities to encounter, reflect on or modify the game’s rules or it might mean co-designing games with stakeholders, which is what I have been doing with the Red Cross recently. Ultimately, I want to demystify games, how they interact with us, and how we interact with them.

AP: Earlier this year in your MIT Media Lab talk, you mentioned how varying gaming literacy across different communities resulted in a problematic dissonance particularly in the use of dice and you mentioned collaborative design as a potential solution. In what ways do you find the process of designing with your players to be significantly different and challenging?

CM: Well, in short, game design is a practice (hence the Practice conference!). It’s something that most people dabble in as kids, in the playground, field or street but there’s also a fine art to it. So while it’s pretty easy to introduce people to the game design process (it’s really a re-introduction) it’s also a deep practice that takes time to learn. So sometimes participants in a co-design workshop run up against design problems that have known solutions, but they struggle until you jump in and help out. Other times, participants stumble upon really challenging problems that confound many game designers. So it’s unpredictable, but really helps me become a better designer in the process.

PETLab has developed a co-design process with the Red Cross that involves designing with members of the community the game will ultimately be used in. Most of the games are a participatory and fun way to introduce a serious issue the community faces, like flooding or fires. The community understands the nuances of their situation far better than we do, or even the local red cross field office might. Part of the process is also learning and playing local games and using their mechanics to build on. This is key: we make way too many assumptions about the universality of game types. We also found out pretty early on that this also serves as a way for the community to teach us and helps create an atmosphere of equality and camaraderie.

PETLab will be publishing some of this work in the future, so keep an eye on http://petlab.parsons.edu!