Shana’s Serious Games Final Reflection

I came into this class knowing that I really enjoy writing stories, and that I had become particularly fascinated by how games can model real-world systems, create emergent dynamics, and change behavior through play (from CS247G and CS247I). Unfortunately, due to some major requirements and unit restrictions, I could only take this independent study for 1-unit. : ( Nonetheless, I am grateful I could still make the most of the experience — getting to do the always amazing readings, learning from playtesting my classmates’ thought-provoking work, and feeling this curious itch to return to the “scrappy joy” of creating (usually with paper prototypes) from the infectious energy in class sessions.

The MDAO reading at the start of the quarter, along with the various in-class discussions on core loops and arcs, helped ground my understanding of fundamental game design concepts with what I view as the focus of serious games — beyond entertainment and engagement, what is the ideal outcome of your games on the player (mentally, physically, behaviorally, etc.)? Granted, I did not make any games that I would comfortably call “serious” in this class (beyond an experimental puzzle interactive fiction featuring a giant surreal sand snail), but in another course, I was doing “product discovery” (user research, prototyping, and user testing) for a corporate-funded VR game featuring World Heritage sites such as Stonehenge and Angkor Wat…. So, I had many ethical issues to investigate regarding how might I create immersive, engaging experiences that encourage retention, while respectfully showcasing these culturally diverse and significant sites, and doing the small good that I can while being mindful of my role in the well-oiled Silicon Valley machine. To no surprise, my team and I are working on a serial narrative (the creative writing energy always bursts free somehow) with a secret order of archaeologists/archivists who preserve Earth’s historical sites, where you play as a junior member who has to collect clues to unravel a conspiracy, while doing day-to-day tasks at a variety of historic sites to keep the order active and the normal humans oblivious to the potential crime scenes. (It’s a work-in-progress.) MDAO was particularly helpful when it came to designing the actual tasks for players — I decided that the most respectful and educational game mechanics were perhaps the skill-based ones that most accurately mimicked the day-to-day tasks of real-world archaeologists and archivists, albeit with a speculative fiction sprinkle of magic. Each “chapter” would feature a mission at a historic site that had both a narrative arc, and a core loop of discovering and solving puzzles to gather clues, which would help the players uncover the larger mystery.
In terms of outcomes, my team and I wanted to inspire our players’ sense of wonder at the splendor of these world heritage sites, but we also wanted to show the often hidden side, the amount of work necessary to preserve their beauty and the trove of artifacts that tell stories of people and places long gone in the sands of time. And judging from the popularity of adventure-based and career-based games, e.g. spin-offs of Indiana Jones or Diner Dash, not only did we have a market, we would more importantly have stakeholder buy-in because one of my, and my team’s, design values is increasing accuracy and accessibility of information. Discussing course material and seeing how my peers applied the concepts in their games was a truly invaluable experience, and the scrappiness of paper prototyping was very much missed because this helped open me up to the myriad possibilities of rapid iteration and changing ideas quickly on the fly, and also getting better feedback on the core architecture, instead of the high-fidelity polish.
That is to say, many of the course readings and learnings continue to bleed to the other parts of my life. I think spending time together talking about games and just playing around, in what we tested and what we made (ah, the importance of play for the human spirit!) — helped give me the mental space to reflect and make other serious decisions about my life. I spent my first few years of college (and really, a good majority of my life so far), trying to have “separate selves” with a creative writing “artist” self, and a technical “builder” self, and this coterm year has been a true blessing with how I get to CA and see students starting out this journey in intro courses like CS 147, even as I get to take more advanced courses and apply my knowledge and unlearn some perfectionistic habits (e.g. if you’re not embarrassed about the game you are sharing, then you are sharing it too late in the design process). I particularly enjoyed playtesting the tea game with how I 1) consume several cups of tea daily for taste and productivity, and I feel a personal affinity with the theming (tea-ming? theanine-ing, after the amino acid in tea that helps improve mental function and smoothen anxiety and stress?) and 2) in the second part, I could just quiet the part of me that demands that I have a full several hours to “craft the perfect sentence” and just turn on the playful part of me that can apparently improvise and argue that yes, my ginger verbena passionfruit green tea will remind you of a tropical sunrise, so come visit and lounge among my custom pillows and throws and have a travel experience in your tea cup.
Anyway, I always love and appreciate these (game) design courses, and from this one I will especially take away the wild, creative scrappy energy from paper prototyping, the respect for all my peers’ work, and the importance of focusing on lasting outcomes, the special indelible impression on my players’ hearts that I want my games to leave behind.
Thank you Christina and Maya for still making this course happen and offering so much helpful feedback — I had a blast in the classes and board game nights, and I am inspired to keep doing this labor of love of game creating!

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