Power to the People

Let my people make games!

In game development, and tech at large, there can be a strong top-down, knowledge-hoarding, “meritocracy"-worshipping culture. “Only those who really know what they’re doing are allowed to make things,” the logic goes.

Of course, this is racist, sexist, bigoted baloney that leads to racist, sexist, and bigoted games. And who wants to play more of those??

Luckily, as a nonprofit professional working for peace and freedom, you have the power to reverse this dynamic! You can return the means of production to the masses.

You don’t need a fancy degree or title to make a game.

You don’t need me to tell you how to make a game.

For starters, it’s no longer necessary to know how to code to make a video game. Thanks to modern technology, you can make a game (or a bunch of games!) for free, with just a laptop and the volunteers and staff you have, in just a few days. Heck, with some paper, markers, and scissors, you could make some awesome tabletop games today!

So if you’re feeling discouraged that a videogame is out of reach for your organization, buck up!

You can do it, and tomorrow we’ll start talking about how. Until then though, get excited about taking back the power of play into your own hands.

-Sam

p.s. Great further reading: Rise of the Videogame Zinesters by Anna Anthropy

Who gives a shit?

Why should anyone give a shit about your game?

In other words, what purpose does it serve in your players' lives? Why do they care?

If your answer is, "Because this is an important issue!" or "Because it's GOOD for you to play this game!" then I'd urge you to dig deeper.

Our country is currently putting kids in cages and millions of people skip their daily meds on the regular. Just because people SHOULD care or take action does not mean they will.

So take a minute and try and answer: what's the hook that will draw an onlooker from NOT playing your game to taking the action to play it?

If a game falls in the forest, and no one's there to play it, it doesn't make a sound.

Positive Tennis

Happy Friday :-) Here’s a joyful 2-player meditation you can practice this weekend. It’s good to have some play even in your mindfulness, IMO. I learned it last weekend from Jill Shepherd, and it was a highlight of the retreat.

Positive Tennis

With a partner, stand side-by-side. You are going to go for a walk together.

Start walking slowly, paying attention to what you see, what you hear, and what you’re thinking.

The person with shorter will go first. When it’s your turn, as you notice a sensation or thought that feels positive to you, stop walking and name the positive sensation simply. When your partner stops walking, stop with them and listen.

When you note your positive sensation to your partner, try and use the form, “Seeing a beetle in the grass - it feels positive.” Or “I’m remembering playing catch as a kid - that’s positive.” “The breeze on my left arm - positive.” “Hearing a child laughing - feels positive.”

After the first player notices and names, it’s the second player’s turn to repeat the process.

There’s no need to actively seek out new sights or sounds or sensations. Just when you notice one, and it’s your turn, stop walking and name it simply.

If nothing feels positive, that’s ok. Keep walking.

Walk slowly.

Play for 10 minutes, and see how far you get from your starting point. Play it with a bunch of pairs in a big group. Play it in a park or play it in a bedroom by yourself.

Enjoy.

-Sam

Rough Days

Ooph. Super short email today because I have had a super rough day!

I want to play Zelda, and I want to sleep.

But I’m also thinking: What kinds of rough days to the folks in and around your organization have? Is it volunteers working at a crisis call center? Or maybe it’s the community you serve putting up with unfair landlords?

How do they cope?

What do you do to help them?

Could you give them something besides Zelda and sleep? I’m guessing you know them better than Nintendo does. And maybe that knowledge can help you create a very specific support. Possibly one that goes beyond “zone out.” Possibly one that leads to real transformation.

What would that look like?

What’s stopping you?

With love,

Sam

The Price is Right Pt. 2

So why is the Price is Right so damn good?

Really, how do they take something as boring as the price of foot powder and create a verified national institution from it? Why was it appointment television for me every time I stayed home sick from school growing up?

Well, winning prizes is fun.

And gambling is fun.

Because not knowing but thinking you know is fun. On Price is Right, (unless you’re this guy) you’re basically always making educated guesses. “I think I know the price of that shampoo… but do I?”

That sense of uncertainty is really rewarding and tense. If it were just totally random guesses, it’d be less fun than testing something you think you should know. Deal or No Deal was essentially one hour-long random guess, and that’s a really thin premise for a game. They were literally betting on getting a random number right.

Likewise, if you’re betting on things your audience has no realistic shot at knowing, it’s not very fun. It’s just guessing. I could gamble on shampoo prices (which are familiar to me), but not on let’s say… early Ghanian history (or really any history, for me personally).

If I’ve got no shot beyond dumb luck of getting it right, then the game feels out of my control as a player. And we want to give players control.

So playing on the edge of your audience’s knowledge can be a really interesting space. Whether that’s team members with internal knowledge, or an outside audience with assumptions they may have about the world.

Getting people excited to show off what they know, turning their assumed knowledge upside down, and getting them to stretch their knowledge are all good ways to use trivia & facts to get your audience excited about your work.

But is “getting excited” the same as “teaching”?

Tune in tomorrow - same time, same channel, and we’ll talk about testing vs teaching.

Till then,

Sam

The Price is Right

This email comes to you live from Walgreens where I just bought some Tums! Very exciting stuff.

Anyways, I was checking out, and the cashier was looking up the coupon in her book for said Tums. “Page 66,” she said to herself.

I asked her “Oh, you've got it all memorized?”

“Ha. No, there's an index.”

But then her friend at the next register joined in: “Yeah but candy's always on pages 1 and 2.”

“Oh! And eye drops are in the forties.”

They were into it, and sort of quizzing each other. I suggested they need a Walgreens Olympics for all the staff. Show their knowledge!

They laughed. I laughed. I went to wait for my prescription.

But… I realized I was basically describing The Price is Right. Which is actually amazing!

And the question is- what sorts of things do your staff and volunteers know and do that they take for granted? That they view as dull or inane?

Is it page numbers of sale items in a booklet?

The Price is Right took household goods pricing knowledge- something that in a non-game context is a complete snoozefest, then added a whole bunch of playfulness to it and got a hit TV show that's been around for decades.

So what boring or forgotten parts of your organization need cerebrating? Can you imagine your team jumping up and down in their seats and yelling encouragement about these parts?

If so, heed Bob Barker: make it a game.

And help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed or neutered.

-Sam

Who's your game for?

That’s the first question I ask folks who are just starting out making a brand new educational game.

“Who’s going to play this game?”

If you’re an organization, the answer is usually obvious: our existing donors, people who are coming to our next event, kids at our after-school workshops, etc. Your audience is specific and real, and that’s great!

Having a specific audience in mind for your game is incredibly helpful.

It’s also so easy to overlook when you’re just getting started and dreaming big. But once you’ve got your big, blockbuster, “this is going to help every single child, parent, and dog” dreams articulated somehow, it’s helpful to focus.

Because those dreams are wonderful thing and helpful to keep as a vision, but they’re also full of assumptions.

Designing for and showing your ideas to real people helps disprove your assumptions. So ask yourself, “Who is this game for?”

What specific person do you envision hearing your game idea and saying, “Yes! I need that in my life right now! TAKE MY MONEY!”

If your answer is “Everyone!” try to think of the first person you’d imagine buying your game.

Or failing that, try and round up 10 people for a super-early focus group. You don’t need a game to do this. You’re just going to pitch some ideas around and see what they think.

Where would you go to round up these 10 people?

That’s who your game is for. It’s not for everyone. It’s for these 10 people.

For now, at least.

So lemme know in reply to this email, who’s your game for?

-Sam

What's the value add?

What’s the value add of LOOOOOVE?

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There’s something ineffable about making a game and giving your audience something to play with. Sometimes it’s hard to measure in dollars or eyeballs or signups. And that makes it hard to imagine.

But when you make something that people truly enjoy, they freaking love you. And it’s hard to measure that in hard numbers, but you can feel it.

You can read people tweeting about you. You can see people smile when they leave your booth. You can hear people laughing while they learn about your message. So sometimes there are heard numbers, but almost always you get the feeling that you’ve done something real.

You’ve put something positive into the world.

How to borrow an arcade

Every month in Austin, the local indie game game community puts on an arcade party at a bar downtown. It’s dark, and fun, and very very nerdy, and tonight, in honor of pride month, the arcade is full of games made by LGBTQ+ creators.

I’m willing to bet that whatever issue your organization is working on, you can put on an arcade full of fun, independently made, original games that tie back to said issue.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel or produce a ton of original content at all! Just borrow an arcade’s worth of games that have already been created for you!

Here’s how:

  1. Find a space to throw your event. You’re probably a pro at this, but make sure there’s enough outlets! (And it could be fun to have your mini, themed arcade inside of a “full-blown” arcade if your town’s lucky enough to have one).

  2. Round up some laptops from volunteers! You’re gonna use these to run your games. Custom cabinets and joysticks are nice, but you don’t totally need ‘em.

  3. Cocktail tables! To set the laptops lovingly upon.

  4. Find some games!

    1. Start a spreadsheet with your findings. Make columns for Game Title, Creator Names, Platforms (Windows, PC, etc.), Special Controllers Needed, Good Fit?

    2. Go to www.itch.io - the premier site for small and independent game artists to post their work!

    3. Search for anything related to your org’s mission! Use related terms

    4. Download whatever looks interesting :-)

    5. Play your new games! Note on your spreadsheet which ones you want to use for your event.

    6. If you need more games, check these other sources:

      1. Google :-)

      2. Find your local indie game makers and ask them! Search for “[My city] indie game devs”

      3. Your local board game shop! Call and see if they have some tabletop games that would be on-theme for you.

  5. After deciding which games you want, set up your laptops so each laptop has a different game. You may have to re-download some of the games.

  6. Market your event as you do your other events (be sure to hit local game-adjacent communities) and finally…

  7. Enjoy!

If you’re having trouble finding games related to your particular organization, please let me know! I’m happy to help unearth some gems (or recommend some folks who would know where they’re buried).

Monetize it

Play is a great way to invite someone in to your cause. It’s an offering and a gift.

And for some organizations and programs, that’s enough. People are in the door and in conversation - mission accomplished! But maybe you’re looking for something else - raising funds, collecting signatures, sharing a tweet, etc.

How do you get people to do that?

So here are a few ideas on how to align your players’ desires to win with your organizational goals:

  • Charge for extra attempts to win (think of raffle tickets or carnival game attempts)

  • Charge to remove an obstacle (like a fun bribe!)

  • Charge for access a power up (can be a hint or a physical power-up)

  • Have players bet on the outcome! Either against each other or against the game. And uhh… make sure to check your local laws and regulations first :-)

  • Just ask for a donation. You’d be surprised at the improvement in giving from not asking to “just asking.”

So then when they’re helping your organization (by donating, or signing up), you’re helping them win the game. And if your game’s well-designed, winning the game is part of the same story of your organization winning in the world. As in, in the game, you win by “saving the whales” if that’s what your org does :-)

Everybody wins. What’s not to like?

Till tomorrow,

Sam

Free Play

I got an interesting letter from my alma mater on Saturday. I mean, it was actually a super straight-forward donation request, but the envelope was interesting, at least!

It had a cute little drawing of a bear (our mascot), and the bear was saying, “Find the typo inside!” Minus five points if you didn’t read that in your head with a cute bear-y voice.

So apparently, this donation request wanted me to play a game! I was intrigued! I didn’t actually give, but I delayed a lot longer than usual before taking that piece of mail to the shredder. Imagine if I was actually inclined to possibly give to my school…

And the really interesting thing is, this didn’t cost the school anything. I guess a little bit of extra ink to print the cartoon bear. But they didn’t have to buy any plastic pieces, or re-design a pamphlet, or think of an entirely new product sell.

They just took what they had (a letter with a typo in it), and then added a thin layer of play on top of it! For free! That’s what’s incredible about game design, to me. You can make play out of almost anything. You don’t need new things to make a game.

When I was a kid, we played with grass, dirt, hands, string, sticks, and words. Sometimes expensive videogames, but also not. Car-trip word games, Rock Paper Scissors, and paper football are all played with whatever’s on-hand. You just add some intangible rules (“Find a typo, win a prize!”) to what’s in front of you.

So if you’re thinking that to add game design or play to your organization’s activities but scared it’ll be a major investment, I encourage you to think again. Look at what you already have.

Can you play with it?

"Impeach the President!"

That's a response I got to yesterday's email on stories. And yes, that's a pretty strong call to action! "Defend the castle! Solve the mystery! Impeach the president!"

It's much stronger than "Take our quiz!" (snooze) or "Read our pamphlet!" (double snooze).

And then the fun thing with games is that you can actually let your players do the thing you asked them to do! They can actually, digitally, fulfill the action in the story. They can play as some spunky fun character and defend the castle or uncover the spy. And that's pretty dang satisfying.

So the work doesn't end there. Completing a game isn't the same as actually starting impeachment hearings. And we shouldn't make the mistake of substituting it for tangible outcomes.

But it's a great tool for letting every individual member of your audience envision and experience what success looks and feels like... and that can be the doorway to even more meaningful engagement.

Make 'em Cry, Damnit

I mean care. Make 'em care. And cry, sure. And laugh and gasp and furrow and have all sorts of other emotional responses.

That's really the whole deal. If nobody cares why they're using your app, or visiting your event booth, or coming to your event well then, they're just not gonna do it.

And how do you do that? Stories!

Sometimes play is enough to draw people in, but people have all sorts of rationalizations why they're too busy, too old, too set in their ways to avoid playing. Somewhere along the way we all forget how to do it.

So some motivation is needed. You kind of need to convince people to have fun, oddly enough. At least to get the ball rolling.

And that's where stories are super useful; they elicit emotional responses. They give motivation. "Save the castle! Topple the evil empire! Find the secret agent! Smuggle the refugee to safety!"

Framed right, these calls to action are invitations for people to get involved with your organization. Your org is already doing things worth telling stories about! Thinking of a game to play doesn't have to be totally disconnected from your actual work or history. Let people in to the truth of what you're doing.

When you have a story that places your audience right in the heart of your org's mission, it's hard to resist.

-Sam

Give, not Get

How do you make something playful?

A good place to start is by letting go of trying to accomplish anything with your game.

Starting from a gamification lens is thinking about what your players can give back to you. How many minutes of their eyeballs can they give you? How many clicks? How many dollars?

Sure, your organization wants to draw in more people and raise money. Of course! But step 1 is to let go of that pressure in order to really let play happen.

You gotta think give. The point of playing is to play, and when you're making a game, you're offering that opportunity to your players. You're giving them the gift of play.

Here's Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh on meditating: "Every in-breath can bring joy; every out-breath can bring calm and relaxation. This is a good enough reason to sit. We don’t need to sit with an intention like getting smarter or becoming enlightened. We can sit just to enjoy sitting and breathing."

We play because enjoy playing.

Can you give that to your players? Can you let them play without them feeling like they need to get smarter, become enlightened, or get to the next level?

Can you create an experience for your audience without holding the fantasy of the brilliant press that follows it?

It can be counter-intuitive, and sometimes a significant mindset shift. It's about thinking how to give to players, rather than what their playing will give back to you.

Just ask: How can you make their experience joyful and liberating and fulfilling as possible?

What else could anyone want? 🙂

-Sam