Pitching serious games is serious business

Over the last six weeks my year 9 gaming students have been working hard researching, planning, designing and preparing to pitch their serious video game idea to game designer, Dave Kidd. You can read about the project here. To begin the project, I showed my class a game review by Hex and Bajo on Good Game. It is a review of the video game Papo and Yo which I found particularly moving when I saw it review. It uses the video game form to communicate a powerful message about alcoholism and its impact on children. You can see the review here.

We spent time in class discussing the role of video games in wider society and how they have the potential to do good. Students worked in small teams to brainstorm a range of issues that need action or advocacy in our world. From this list, each team selected an issue they would like to design a serious game around. They then researched the issue to develop their appreciation for the seriousness of the issue as well as what they wanted their game to communicate and to whom. The issues students selected were wide-ranging: youth homelessness, kidnapping, bullying, teenage drug use, suicide, childhood innocence and racism. The next part was more complex, but also more creative. Each team had to brainstorm and then work-up their game elements: narrative, genre, sounds, objectives, feedback, resources, graphic style etc. I also asked them to consider their audience, the message of their game and organisations who would be interested in publishing their game.

I am a complete newbie when it comes to game design, so a lot of these aspects I had to teach myself via YouTube and other online sources. In order to give some expertise (and credibility) to the project, I invited Dave Kidd to speak to my class about his experiences with game design. Dave has designed the popular text-based zombie adventure game Zafe House Diaries which is available on Steam. His insight into the challenges of designing a video game – from the early stages of narrative to the finer details of coding images – was inspiring for my students. One student told me afterwards the he was going to start his own game design company. It was nice to also have some reassurance that I wasn’t completely off track with my expectations for what students would need to prepare for their pitch! The cool thing was that Dave agreed to come back and hear my students’ serious game design pitches. Having an expert from outside of the school who actually works in the field of gaming as a designer was so powerful for my students’ learning. My students have two weeks between hearing Dave speak and when he would return to get their pitches ready. In that time I ensured each team presented a ‘draft’ pitch to the class and received feedback and feedforward from me, Gerard (the awesome uni student doing his honours research on my gaming class) and from their peers. The class took this really seriously and all teams improved as a result of the feedback they received.

The big day came about and I was just as scared as my students. I knew that the teams were prepared to varying degrees yet this is part of the learning process. During the team pitches, I was truly proud of what all teams had achieved. They all took the project super seriously and had developed some interesting and original concepts for their serious games. Ultimately the two most effective pitches were from the only to teams of girls! I loved this so much, as it really affirms my belief that gaming is not a male-exclusive domain and that the creativity and innovative thinking of girls can (and do) bring something unique and powerful to the gaming world. The most effective pitch was for a game called ‘Through the Streets’ which gives the player insight into the causes and effects of youth homelessness. The runner-up team had a really creative game call ‘In The Dark’ which explores the consequences of parents failing to be honest with their children in an attempt to (naively) protect their innocence. I really loved the ideas for both of these games but what made them so successful was the time put into fully realising each concept as a game that truly has potential to be made, as well as a game that would have a profound effect on the player.

Below are the comments that Dave emailed me about the top three games. I have to admit, his high praise of my students brought tears to my eyes. This course has caused me a lot of heartache in the last term (Am I doing games justice? Am I too serious? I don’t know anything!) so it was cool to have someone from outside of the school appreciate and value my students’ learning.

The most notable was Through the Streets. Out of all the ideas, this was easiest to imagine as a final game. The conventional, RPG-like system is well suited to the issue — homelessness is about tough decisions, constrained choices, survivability, risk-taking and development — and this idea is such an obvious fit that I’m surprised it hasn’t been done by the serious game dev crowd. The little touches, like the radio, are really clever and give it a kind of ‘indie charm’. I genuinely hope they continue with it.

Next is In the Dark. The through-the-looking-glass idea is great (and it’s interesting to see how this theme was in other presentations too), and I’m impressed at how thoroughly they fleshed out the concept, resources, assets etc. I’ve no doubt that there’s a complete game floating around in their heads, and they seem to be so organised that they could probably pull it off.

But unlike Through the Streets, I didn’t get the sense that the gameplay really connected with the project’s goal (the ‘serious game’ aspect was mostly contained in the theme – the gameplay seemed like an action game talking to magical creatures). But my god, this might be the first game to have a ‘hug’ button! Extra points for that.

The third notable one was Trail Blazer. There were a lot of really interesting things about this. Multiple endings, for example, is something few designers think of, but is really important (I think) for serious games. The nod to Oregon Trail is surprising – it’s a very old game, but very excellent and suitable. They also mentioned something about how your actions in one scenario can influence the next scenario – again, this really fits with serious games (ie, there are consequences). They were also the only team to put together a kind of prototype — the MS Paint style graphics were actually pretty cool — and I’m still blown away that it was written in batch code.

This feels like a classic indie punk game from the 80s, with the kind of content you’d expect from high school boys. I think it’s kinda great to be honest. And it’s quite straightforward to make, especially for these guys. I’d love to see them do it!

I will endeavour to post students’ PPTs and websites here so you can read more about their serious games.





One thought on “Pitching serious games is serious business

  1. Your willingness to go beyond the ‘norm’ and take risks just blows me away. Thank you so much for sharing and reinforcing my belief that sometimes it doesn’t matter if you don’t know it all just yet, sometimes we just have to try.

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