Digital Games as Roadmaps to Meaningful and Powerful Change

Pencil drawing with globe

“The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.” – Half-Life 2

Change through worlds

Ever had one of those teachers that just loved to assign essays? I had one of those during 5th grade. She would hand out assignments to simply write. Constantly. No themes, structure, word limit, nada. You had no idea which were the criteria for scoring. What was she looking for?

So, after many previous essays that drained me of any creativity, I had one more to do by the end of the year, and with all the wisdom my eleven years of age would allow me, I decided to write about Mali. I went to the library, looked up Mali on a map, and searched for it in geography and history books. Even after all the research, I knew little about the country. Google wasn’t even born yet, so I just knew that there was this Mali Empire hundreds of years ago, with the capital in Timbuktu which was a major city and trade centre. Everything else; the culture, geography, language, customs, traditions, etc., I had only a small grasp of. So, as any kid would, I made  everything else up.

This is not one of those stories in which I got an excellent grade by being creative and resourceful. I probably got an average score. But it was, for all purposes, my first world.

From there, I was hooked. I started imagining entire civilizations, countries, cities, a multitude of scenarios and people, all different, all busy in their day-to-days, with different professions and ambitions and perspectives. I imagined festivals in a riverside village where people would all dress in green and white and would pave the floor with flowers and colourful fabrics. Strange visitors would come and present their strange products or display their art.

I could not draw, so instead, I would gather as much stuff as I could, including those tiny houses and objects people sometimes build from wood, clay, and other materials, and I would use those to build my cities. You are probably thinking that it was a bit of a weird hobby, but it was very important back then. First, it was something I could control, in a period when I could not control all the bad things happening with and around me. At the same time, I could imagine freely and role-play situations that would happen, work out solutions and find different perspectives.

What I was doing back then is now what is considered an important tool for creative writers [i], and arguably, one that can help support change in ourselves.

Change through roleplaying

“What is better – to be born good, or to overcome your evil nature through great effort?” – Paarthurnax in The Elder Scrolls V:Skyrim

Illustration of fantasy setting

Going back to the Mali example, although a rudimentary sketch of a world, it can be perceived as a base for scenarios and role-playing. In this Empire, there are borders, therefore, there are friends and enemies, diplomacy, trade and war. Inside it, government, central and local, generals and elders, farmers, and craftsmen, buildings, roads, fields, mountains, deserts, rivers, and creatures.

All of these, by themselves, are pretty much useless. Imagining them can be interesting and can be used to expand our own created mental limitations, forcing us to create something we have not thought about yet. But it does not spark change.

But it does allow for the construction of dynamic scenarios, where characters can interact. If you create backstories, then you can create conflicts. If there are conflicts, there are resolutions. You can create problems and then imagine how those would be resolved. That is why roleplay is considered a very important tool to improve communication, creativity, social awareness, independent thinking, verbalization of opinions and development of values[ii].

Still, there are some limitations in this exercise. All the hypotheses you can create exist inside your mind. There are no outside influences and eventually you run out of ideas and scenarios. It is much more fun to roleplay with more people, as you can mix, incorporate, exchange ideas, and even work as a team to make it more complex.

These dynamics are extremely valuable, in particular, for children. It does not just change skills. Their existence gives them different perspectives, to reflect on ambiguities of arguments, to consider distinct approaches and solutions and be critical. For all purposes, it changes their view of the world.

Small note: It is curious that, while some critics have pointed to Dungeons & Dragons as a roleplaying game that creates stereotypes and promotes racism, one could as easily argue that, since the game is set in a fantasy world where multiple races co-exist and have to work together to fight (sometimes ambiguous) evil, forcing users to roleplay with multiple races and utilize their strengths, it does just as much to break barriers and create racial awareness.

Change through storytelling

Ben Okri once wrote

We live by stories, we also live in them. (…) If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives”.

Adult telling story to children by a fireside
(Drawing by April Brady)

We live in stories. Our lives are, first and foremost, stories we tell ourselves and others. When we change, we can do it by changing our narrative, the way we want to do things or why we do them, we can do it by changing our actions, changing the ending the story is heading towards.

It is through stories that we learn about others, other places, customs, opinions, solutions. When we read or hear about it, part of us changes, even if we do not want it. A thief that hears about the story of the little girl that he just robbed of her stuffed rabbit, given to her by her deceased mother will change the thief, no matter the outcome. A little girl, dismayed for losing her stuffed rabbit, hears about the story of a former thief that has decided to dedicate his life to recovering personal items with sentimental value that had been stolen, will feel just a little bit better and change her perspective about people changing their ways.

In every story there is the possibility of change. One could even argue that it changes even the storyteller. In every character, a new perspective, a new set of thoughts, ambitions, desires, flaws, habits, and with it, a new option for us to change our own.

Change though Digital Games

If our lives are already written, it would take a courageous man to change the script.” – Alan Wake

Image from digital game

Digital Games present a world of possibilities not found elsewhere because it can connect all three elements mentioned earlier: worldbuilding, roleplaying and storytelling, and present it all in ways that enable either change or promote behaviours that can lead to change.

For instance, this is relevant, when it comes to decision-making and choices and how those impact and change the environment, the characters, the outcome of the game itself and, to some extent, the player. Although that is not true in all games, those that rely heavily in RPG mechanics and are story-focused, can create the perfect environment to provoke reflection on choice and change. Although associated with the narrative and fictional worlds of each game, it is probably the closest players can experience to a multitude of “what if” questions; essential for players to understand what can change, why and how.

When watching a movie or tv show, or reading a book, how many times does it cross our mind, that we would do things, handle something, make a decision differently? But we do not have a say on how the ending is going to be, nor do we get to see how things would turn out if the story had gone a different path. In open-ended or, even better, in open-world games, that option is present.

Take any Sim game, such as Sim City or The Sims. Players enact change through almost every action they take. When presented with the possibility of change in real-life, players have already witnessed the different scenarios and consequences of it in-game, as the environment simulates the impact of that change, small or big, good or bad (fig. a).

landscape from digital game
a – In Cities: Skylines players understand, just as well as any urban planner, the consequences of negative changes in cities by not dealing with crime, low education or pollution.

From another perspective, Dragon-Age is famous for decisions branching towards entire sequels, forcing players to think and rethink how they are going continue with the story, including some really hard life or death decisions and replaying to experience different paths. One particular game, Life is Strange, takes these mechanisms to another level, allowing the player to not only experience hard decision making but also multiple “what if” scenarios. Other titles such as Frostpunk and This War of Mine present the player with a fresh perspective, albeit gruesome, about the impossible decisions during a world-changing winter in the first case (fig b), and the impact of war on civilians (fig. c).

Screenshot from Frostpunk
b – In Frostpunk players are constantly required to make choices that change the outcome and happiness of the people they are responsible for.
Screenshot from This War of Mine
c – In This War of Mine, players can experience hard decision making in war riddle scenarios while playing as a civilian.

Even better, we get to make these decisions as a character. This is extremely important as it enables meaningful change within us. We might be going through similar decisions in our lives, or we could be presented with those options in the future. Or we could make connections between the difficulty and ambiguity of a potential choice presented in the game with one we are struggling with in real life. In fact, there are already studies showing that playing through a character (i.e. Roleplaying) inside a narrative (i.e. storytelling) improves intrinsic motivation in players[iii], a key element for people to make impactful and difficult decisions and choices[iv]. It comes as no surprise that a study has found that players of MMORPG tend to choose characters based on desired physical and mental abilities and that then influences the desire of the player to “better” themselves[v].

Even NPCs can have an impact. It has been hypothesised that characters, with whom the player can empathize, could provide positive influence in how children perceive certain struggles, motivations and behave by mimicking or taking advice through dialogue, which means that by placing specific NPCs inside a game, we can influence the choices a player makes in real life in the future and enact real change[vi].

A note about small stakes

“small stakes ensure you the minimum blues (…), small stakes tell you there’s nothing you can do, can’t think big, can’t think past one or two.” – Small Stakes, by Spoon

There might be just two types of change. Small, tiny changes, and large changes. Usually, the first ones are easy, and the second ones are difficult. Small and easy usually points to meaningless change, while large and difficult tends to be meaningful changes.

Society will have you believe that you should change. At any point, either you need it or not. But nothing fancy, just small and easy, such as buying something, going somewhere, doing anything, distracting yourself, as long as it doesn’t cause that much of a hassle.

But these small changes tend to make us numb. It is all about the instant gratification of changing very little with limited negative consequences.

But real, meaningful change is worth it. In the wise words of Dr. Kelso, “Nothing in this world that’s worth having comes easy”. That includes change.

References and further reading

[i] Scott, Jeremy (2016) Worlds from Words: Theories of World-building as Creative Writing Toolbox. In: Gavins, Joanna and Lahey, Ernestine, eds. World Building: Discourse in the Mind. Advances in Stylistics . Bloomsbury, London. ISBN 978-1-4725-8655-1.

[ii] Furness, P. (1976). Role-play in the Elementary School: A Handbook for Teachers. New York: Hart Publishing Company, Inc.

[iii] Dickey, M.D. Game design and learning: a conjectural analysis of how massively multiple online role-playing games (MMORPGs) foster intrinsic motivation. Education Tech Research Dev 55, 253–273 (2007).

[iv] Iyengar, Sheena S.; Lepper, Mark R. Rethinking the value of choice: A cultural perspective on intrisic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76(3), 349-366 (1999).

[v] Baylor, A.L. The design of motivational agents and avatars. Education Tech Research Dev 59, 291–300 (2011).

[vi] Lu, A. S., Baranowski, T., Thompson, D., & Buday, R. (2012). Story Immersion of Videogames for Youth Health Promotion: A Review of Literature. Games for health journal, 1(3), 199–204.

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Educational Games Designer at Polytechnic Institute of Porto
Eduardo Nunes is an educational games designer and game-based learning researcher with the Polytechnic Institute of Porto. He focuses on developing complex game systems through worldbuilding and other RPG elements. He also leads a research project to bring the first C-MORG to the classroom and the autonomous learning experience for K12 students and developing a game studio alongside teachers and developers.
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