In January of 2018, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative (SGI) Dr. Elizabeth Newbury will join the Director of the China Environmental Forum Dr. Jennifer Turner in Kunming and Beijing as part of the Storytelling Initiative. Dr. Newbury will be talking to environmental advocates and policy makers in the country about how they can incorporate serious games into their outreach work. As such, Dr. Newbury and the SGI concluded that the best was to teach is by example, and crafted a short role-playing game (RPG) to show the potential of games in this space. This post is to help understand the development process SGI went through in order to make the RPG.
风雨同舟, or “Together We Weather the Storm” (hereafter called Together) is divided into 4 rounds. Each round is composed of four stages. Above, there is a suggestion for how long each stage should last, but it is ultimately up to the City’s Party Secretary to guide the stages along. Each round consists of:
- Action: Use your skill (if available).
- Policy: The City’s Party Secretary draws two policies each round. These policies are then presented to the players. The players must pick policies based on their role. To pick a policy, players will discuss their choices (both within their own team and across teams), including making edits to the policy if special skills permit. Teams are encouraged to work together — both internally and with other teams — to pick policies.
- Talk to The City Party Secretary’s Office: Send any policy to The Party for approval
- Certain actions require a set amount of Influence Points to enact.
- If your team does not have more than 3 Influence Points when policies are being approved, you will automatically be rejected by the party.
- Event (e.g. a random event)
- Some events will either increase or decrease a team’s Influence Points. Events are the only way to change a group’s Influence Points.
The game ends after four rounds. The team with the most passed policies wins. If there is a tie, the tie is broken by whichever team has the most Influence Points at the end of the game.
Setting the Foundation
Before we began development for Together, the designers at SGI did a deep dive for research. For this, we focused on the message and our audience.
Creating serious games means that there is a key takeaway you want at the center of your game. For Together, we had a few objectives in mind:
- Allowing perspective taking (e.g. embodying a key role in Chinese water policy and learning their values.
- Encouraging collaboration to create policy.
- Walking through policy (in broad strokes).
But there is a secondary purpose to this game in the context of this workshop, and that is to demonstrate how to make a game for policy education. Those objectives are:
- How to make and run a game.
- How to translate policy into a game.
- Basic concepts of game play.
To do that, we needed to look at who we would have playing this game. For the policy training aspect of Together, we knew that our initial demos of the game would be for members of NGOs and advocacy groups that dealt in the environment and community. With that in mind, we knew that we would center the main objective of the game around the specific policies that would help NGOs in China frame their goals in a gaming context. It also helped us bring scale to the world of the game itself; a coastal city near a body of water that would have rural lands on its outskirts.
After conducting surveys and research about the groups coming to the workshop, we found that they wanted to use games to educate primary school audiences. So we dug deeper into what type of games those at the middle, secondary, and tertiary education level are playing. In general, most people who play games in China play on their phones with 49.5% of the population choosing mobile games over console and PC play.
In looking at what games were popular on mobile platforms, we found that many of the most popular games (Clash of Kings, Onmyoji, Clash of Clans) had players competing against each other. Many of the games were also based heavily in Chinese culture with many referencing The Romance of the Three Kingdoms by taking characters and settings and making them more high fantasy. Unfortunately for us, time and money constraints made it so we couldn’t make a mobile game and subject matter made it difficult to incorporate major themes from Chinese games. However, we were able to take some concepts away that we thought would engage the youth: the competitive aspect and giving the game roots in Chinese culture.
This is how we decided to make a Live-Action Role Playing Game (LARP)
Finding the Fun
Now that we knew what kind of game we were making we got to the hard part: Making it fun. To do this we looked to games that already explored environmental education for inspiration. The first game we looked at was a Wilson Center creation called Cards Against Calamity, which has players take on the roles of different stakeholders in a coastal community that must adapt to events that begin to unfold. The other game that gave us inspiration was The Polar Hub’s SMARTIC (Strategic Management of Resources in Times of Change). This game also has player in the role of stakeholders who are vying for resources and space in the arctic. From both of these games we took the elements of teams playing real world special interest groups trying to thrive within the spaces given, Together just sees more competition than collaboration when trying to pass laws.
We also drew heavily from Model United Nations (MUN). This is a middle/high school activity done internationally that has students simulate the sessions of the United Nations General Assembly and other multilateral bodies. MUN has an emphasis on roleplaying as your ambassador, and a person or persons that moderate discussion and action for the players. In our game, the later manifests as whomever is playing the role of The Party as they decide what policies pass and give players events that they must confront.
The last major inspiration we took were events and policies that took place in China. Part of making this an educational game is making sure that the concepts don’t go over the players’ heads. We felt the best way to prevent that is to make sure that our game was rooted somewhat in reality so that the groups using it can point to real world examples.
Though the above were the major inspirations for the game, there were many games that our developers hold in their personal zeitgeists that inspire their design. Dungeons and Dragons, Monopoly, Eco Chains, and Icelandic LARPs were just a few of the games discussed to develop Together. While the correlation may not be obvious, they helped push along the development process.
Some Coding Required
To make this game as accessible as possible, we chose to use PowerPoint to administer policy and events. While the PowerPoint isn’t the main feature of the game it’s a powerful supplement that allows play to run smoothly for those administering it. However, to make it a more interactive experience, we chose tweak the slides so that we could incorporate randomness and chance. We were able to use macros, or bits of code, using Microsoft’s programming language Visual Basic 6 (VB6) to allow the presentation to go to a random slide when a button is clicked.
Seen above is the code that allows the random slide presentation to occur. We made sure that the button only used a specific set of slides when making this code so that the game only went to the events when a specific button was clicked. From there, we also made some buttons (found at the bottom of the list for shapes) that would make navigating between policies and the “home” slide easier. There are several ways a group can use VB6 to enhance a presentation and turn it into a game (giving points, using timers etc.) but we felt that this was the best use of the macros for our particular game. Here is the main code snippet that can be used in any presentation:
Dim FirstSlide As Integer
Dim LastSlide As Integer
FirstSlide = 11
LastSlide = 21
ActivePresentation.SlideShowWindow.View.GotoSlide Int((LastSlide – FirstSlide + 1) * Rnd + FirstSlide)
Play on a Budget
Making video games can be expensive. For a medium sized gaming studio, the budget should allot 10,000 USD per person with a company spending anywhere between 900 thousand to 144 million on producing a game. If a non-gaming company were to decide to make a game in-house, even if that would reduce the monetary cost of the game, it would still cost time to make an idea into a playable product.
The most challenging part of making Together was that we didn’t have the money to make the game and we had approximately 2 months to get the game ready to go to Kunming. A 2 month turn around isn’t enough time to make a good digital game, which meant that we couldn’t use the mobile game market to our advantage. Making a quick game to play on the web would also be difficult due to the uncertainty that the game would comply with the laws in China.
Our next action, then, was to look at analog games and see which one people would find engaging. It would also have to be able to handle the message and play that we were trying to promote to our audience. With the research and games that we talked about above, we came to the conclusion that having players act out the policy making process in an RPG would be an ideal example and tool to give the storytellers.
Together ended up being revised and edited up until the day of the workshop due to trying to get the roles and policies as accurate as possible. This meant that while some play tests had happen during our 2 month development, we didn’t test or balance it as much as we wanted to. We decided that our best bet was to use the time at the workshop to test the game and see how our audience reacted to it. The first thing we noticed was that as a western audience bringing a game about China to a Chinese audience, a lot of our cultural bias peeked through. Players became confused with the Party Secretary being an observing party, and moved on to talking to the people in the mayoral role for guidance and leadership. The role of the farmers was too weak and players in that rule became frustrated when they couldn’t do anything. Players also wanted more visual elements to the game, and the possible use of WeChat in order to send emergency alerts and information about the game. All in all, however, everyone enjoyed the game and wished to continue playing.
If SGI continues to develop this game, we would like to see the LARP get a digital upgrade. By inviting people into a WeChat space or Discord server, We can implement bots and channels to give out information and distribute events. Another suggestion we received from the workshop is to have a way of monitoring the city and it’s health as rounds continue. Overall, the workshop members enjoyed and many have approached SGI to talk more about using games for their advocacy.
It was an absolute pleasure and a fun challenge to work on the LARP for SGI. To think that a game I helped design would be used to help NGOs in another country is both exciting and strange, I have yet to wrap my head around it completely. It’s a bragging right I’m still not sure how to brag about.
Photos taken at the workshop were shot by Kendall Bitonte of GEI