How is it to design games? Giulia gives us some insights from her recent experiences…
Have you ever tried gardening?
Maybe you once endeavoured to grow tomatoes and strawberries in your backyard, or you keep aromatics in a pot on the windowsill because you enjoy cooking with fresh herbs - parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, as the song goes. You might live on a big farm where you tend your 10 acres of land on a daily basis, for all I know, or be a hardcore fan of bonsai and own a miniature forest of perfectly-shaped Japanese pine trees.
You will at least have a houseplant, (probably!).
Thing is, I’ve been thinking and thinking about how to put this story into words, and I noticed that thoughts of trees and gardens kept popping up in my mind quite often during this process.
Which is all kinds of weird, since this story doesn’t involve any of that. You’re about to read my two cents on educational board games and what I learned about designing one. No greenery involved, I assure you.
But then I realised what my brain was trying to tell me, which is that stories – like plants – are keen to overgrow and get unruly if left untended for too long and I, being very bad at gardening, was letting this one do just that.
I’m trying my best to tame it, now, so bear with me.
At the very end of 2016 I had just finished one year of volunteering that had completely changed my life; I was trying to find my place in the world and I applied for EVS. My application arrived late and I was not accepted, but the phone call I got from my sending organisation – the one I happen to work for now – turned my life upside down all over again. “We’re sorry about your EVS application not going through,” I was told, “but there’s another project, a long-term training course about board games, that we think would be perfect for you. Would you like to go as one of our participants?”
I didn’t need to be told twice. I packed my bags, renewed my passport and off to Serbia I went.
The project was called EduGaming and it was in its second edition. With two training courses and a lot of practice, it aimed at making game designers out of youth workers and at supporting them in the creation of several educational board games, seen as a potentially very powerful tool to foster change among young people.
One year later and I’m working in the field of youth work (and loving it). I’ve co-designed a game that ended up in two Toolfairs and I’ve met many of what are now my dearest friends, so I can safely say that board games did change my life.
But can they change other people’s lives too? I was an easy target, but what about young people who are not so passionate about being active members of their community?
Can games change mindsets? Can a game aid us in shaping society?
It might be so – I believe in games, or I wouldn’t be here – but then it only figures that society also needs people who have both the ideas on how to change it and the skill to create the games to do so.
Youth workers are good at innovative ideas, and many of them are game lovers too, but can they become game designers? Given some training and tools, can anyone create an educational game, and potentially one that works?
These are some of the questions we tried to answer with EduGaming. And oh, did we try!
As always in matters such as this, there are lots of question marks, while answers are not as easy to come by. In fact, I won’t claim I have any good ones to share myself, I’m still pondering and experimenting, but in the meantime here’s a thing or two I learned along the way that might help you figure out some answers of your own.
Motivation burns out quickly and is hard to manufacture…
…so don’t waste it. Neither yours nor anybody else’s.
We started out as 29 very engaged young people in Serbia, on the first training, and already in those ten days some of us lost a fair bit of their initial excitement and motivation. We were split into international small teams to work on our own game concepts and in mine we were four to begin with, but by the end of the week we’d already gone down to three and in the long busy months of development and testing that followed, leading up to the second training course, we ended up being a duo.
Far be it from me to resent those who simply lost interest and decided to move on, I’m good friends with many of them still, and sometimes life just happens and there’s nothing to be done about it.
What I’m saying is that while a high shared level of motivation will create a virtuous cycle and keep reinforcing itself in a group, the loss of it and the lack of commitment might eventually affect and drag the whole team down.
If you are motivated, keep that motivation alive and nothing will be impossible to achieve, but if you’re not, and you’re working with other people, be ready to take a step back and respect their hard work.
Find someone who’s good at unlocking your creativity – and stick to them like glue!
I was lucky to meet many people who are very good at making my creativity flow, and I find that when I have to create something, especially games, I keep turning to them for advice or help. Having someone to mirror your ideas can be very helpful to identify their strong and weak points.
The first and most successful game that I helped create during EduGaming is called Arthiefact and revolves around art, something I never thought I’d end up working on when I first signed up for the training. I was convinced I would tackle some great topic like gender equality or racism. But I was so fascinated by the concept that I picked art instead, and because I had the great luck of clicking almost immediately with my team members, the ideas flowed almost effortlessly and the game came together pretty quickly.
I can never be that productive when I work alone, I find, and that is especially true for games. Nothing’s better than having more points of view at work on the same idea.
Trust your gut feeling, but always accept constructive criticism.
When designing a game, the process will go somewhat like this: you have an idea, you develop it, you put it on paper to create a first prototype, you get the prototype to function and then you test it; you’ll then collect feedback on which you’ll build to go back to the idea, change it, fix it, get the prototype ready and test it again. And so it goes, in loops.
The more loops you complete, the better the end result – no exceptions. So it only figures that “playtesting” and prototyping are maybe the most important things you could be doing when developing a new game. Playtesting, by the way, is the very fancy term we game designers use to describe the somewhat painful act of letting other people play your games to check if they work or not.
The EduGaming team asked us to playtest our first games with at least fifty people each, and some managed to reach even higher numbers. There can never be too much playtesting going on.
Playtests will provide you with a lot of data: not only will people give you direct feedback, but by observing them during the game you can notice quite a lot of useful things as well. You might realise that the rulebook is missing a very crucial piece of information that you were taking for granted, for instance, or that the narrative of the game drives the players towards a more cooperative behaviour than you were striving for, or even that left-handed players have a hard time fanning the cards in their hand and keeping track of what’s written in them because you’ve designed the game from a right-handed point of view – true story!
Never go without testing, and never underestimate a critique you receive. Prepare to receive a lot, actually, but as well as you should trust your own ideas to be good ones, also accept with an open mind and a humble heart whatever comment the players might make and really take your time to consider each and every one of them.
Your gut feeling might still end up being right, but you won’t know until you’ve tested out all the other possibilities too.
Believe in yourself and in your ideas, but don’t get too attached: learn to let go.
Following directly from the previous point, you should believe that your game rocks, that it’s the best there is and that it will only keep getting better and better if you work on it… but at the same time you should be ready to ditch it and start anew at any moment, if needed. Even after months of playtesting and countless hours of work. If you ever were to realise that whatever issue you were trying to solve lay at the very core of your creation, for example, you should have the courage to wipe the slate clean and go back from the beginning. Learning to let go is something we’ve been told on many occasions during the second training course, in Romania, and we even had some “letting go ceremonies”, so to speak, to help easing the process. It’s no easy feat, this one.
The point is that you should believe in your ideas, trust them to generate something great and not give up on them until you’ve had a good go at them, but you should not get attached to them so much that you’re not able to change bits and pieces or even turn them completely on their heads to make them work. And if they still don’t work, you should be able to just put them in the bin, go back and start with some fresh ones.
It is possibly the hardest thing to do, and I do still catch myself growing too attached to some concept, from time to time, but if you master this skill you’re well set to become a great game designer.
If you show how passionate you are about something, people will be drawn to it.
This is one of the best things I’ve learned.
It is always true, I believe, that passion is contagious and has a fascinating quality to it. We are naturally drawn to good storytellers, actors, public speakers or even teachers who have the ability to imbue their every word with passion, because whenever you’re really passionate about something, you will want your audience to start sharing your passion too, to some extent, and you’ll try your best to tell them that what you do is so wonderful, and why don’t they try as well?
It might sound silly, or somehow aggressive, but it does work.
When presenting Arthiefact to playtesters, I noticed I always got the highest level of engagement whenever I showed them how excited I was about it. It happened a couple of times that I was feeling down and didn’t really put much effort into spinning the tale for them, and that affected their interest in it quite a lot and it was later reflected in their feedback.
When I got to present the game first at the Italian Toolfair, and then at the International one in Varna, both times I tried my best to engage my audience by also telling them why I was so happy and excited to be sharing with them my game. I got many requests for a copy of the game, I know of some people that actually printed it and use it in their work, around Europe. I met some people who’d never before thought of using games as educational tools and are now so interested in the concept that they’ve asked me to lend them a hand in developing their own games.
To me, that’s proof enough that games do indeed have a lot of potential for reaching out to people, and it’s only up to us to learn how to direct and enhance that potential.
…never kill off your ideas for fear they’re too crazy or too ambitious to be realised.
Chances are you’re wrong and your ideas are actually very good, but even if they’re not, they’ll still bring you one step further in your learning process. Game designing is very much a hit and miss art, if you want to sail on that ship you have to be prepared for a lot of disappointments and thrown out prototypes, but the best games can come out of the simplest, silliest looking idea, and you’ll never know until you actually try. So do try. And then come find me: I’ll be happy to be among your very first playtesters.