Posted by Prairie on Feb 23, 2023

Hello everyone!
Allison here. Today I wanted to talk about what it’s like for me to be working on the kinds of projects Soft Chaos has excelled at: helping people who have no experience making games design their own games. This post will come from my perspective as a systems designer, so please keep that in mind. I’ll discuss trying to help increase literacy in the area I love the most: systems.

As we’ve continued to grow, Soft Chaos has more and more found ourselves in a niche of work that we really like: guiding the design of not-for-profits who want to use the medium of games to engage audiences in topics that are important to them. People see games and understand that they have great potential to teach, but aren’t always sure how to approach them or even exactly how to unlock the potential. We help them learn that!

What I’ve found is that many people are natural storytellers. When they come to us they know what they want to say, and they have tools they understand for presenting this information. Sometimes they come with scripts, storyboards, or sketches. They know the characters they want to see, or the lines of dialogue they want the player to hear.  What folks don’t often come to us with is an idea of the systems they want put in place to make it all happen. This is one of the things that I find really exciting about our projects: introducing new people to systems and procedural literacy.

When I teach game design, I always start with a simple activity: modding a game of war. We look at the game itself and ask some mechanical questions: 

  • What are the feedback loops in play? 
  • What are the win conditions? 
  • What are the design problems

But we also look at the game and ask what the system says as a metaphor. Because the game is called “War”, that informs what the metaphor is. So we ask questions like: 

  • What does it mean that a game called War could go on forever? 
  • What does it mean that the King almost always wins?
  • What does it say when the King loses?
  • What are the systems saying about war overall? 
  • How could we change the rules to make it say something different?
  • How could we keep the same rules, but change the language around these rules to make it say something different?

Our work with clients is very similar to this exercise. We ask a lot of the same questions, be it about information poverty or vaccine hesitancy:
1) What are you trying to say?
2) How are you saying it?
3) How can we uniquely leverage the unique affordance of games to make that happen?
With these questions always in mind, we bring the groups we work with tools to tell the stories they want with game systems uniquely suited to those stories.

And this is what Soft Chaos continues to pride itself on: instead of fitting messages into games, we build games to carry messages. It is really gratifying to be able to help people better communicate their ideas in a meaningful way in a medium that we love.

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