Roberta Taylor

Roberta Taylor is an analogue game designer and consultant from Alberta, Canada.

Telling stories through games has amazing potential for building empathy by immersing a player in a new environment in a safe manner. You can’t force anyone to learn something or alter their perspective, but by creating empathy during gameplay, you may spark curiosity or create an openness to new perspectives or ideas. Emotional involvement in gameplay makes a topic personally relevant in a new way, and true learning is about connecting new information to what we already know, so information gained during gameplay has great potential for sticking.

I want to mention a few different ways that game designers can use games to engage and inform.

Game designers use games to tell stories. Games can invite players to create a new story or to walk through an old one, and both have their place.

The Red Burnoose: Algeria 1857 will, for most players, serve to introduce them to a piece of history they didn’t know about, while also looking at the conflict from the perspective of the colonized, This deliberately includes the civilians, including women, children, and the elderly, who are so often written out of military history. To play many wargames, you might think there were only soldiers in the land. If a player comes away thinking differently about modern day Algeria, or about women’s roles in warfare, or about colonization more broadly, then the game has done what I hoped. It is important to note that when the story is historical, it is the responsibility of the designer to consider whose story they are telling, and think carefully about this. Are there voices that should be included? Who has been left out of the narrative and why? And if the story belongs to another culture, it becomes very important for the designer to ensure that they tell the story in an appropriate, accurate, and respectful manner, and not being appropriative. Cultural consultants are just the beginning of a mature and thoughtful approach to history and culture in games.

Game designers can use games to encourage curiosity about a subject. Facts can be included in a way that invites exploration rather than overload and overwhelm. A beautiful example of this in action in the hobby market is Elizabeth Hargraves’ Wingspan, which is essentially just an engine builder, but players often become very interested in the birds and stop to read the flavour text or look to see what the birds’ habitats are.

Game designers can use games to allow players to practice specific types of interaction or thinking. Shadows of the Academy was designed as a cooperative game that was themed around fighting the evils of tobacco, but the core value that the game was aiming to instil in players was increased social capital through cooperating in gameplay. Playing out scenarios in a safe environment can help people deal better with them when encountered outside of play.

I recently finished the initial design work for an unnamed game that is intended to be used with medical students to increase the impact of brief lessons on the health economy within a socialized medical system and the ethics of decisions made within that context. Huge topic, but within a 4 year med degree, most students will only have a couple of hours of teaching on this. The educators who I worked with wanted to find a way to make that time more impactful, and we created a simple game that asks would-be practitioners to consider how they might choose to prioritize one patient over another and why, as well as what that means to the system at large. We’re asking them to look at biases and to consider how they would choose between a mentally ill homeless patient, for example, and a successful person with a rare illness that is unlikely to be cured but who is advocating for receiving every possible treatment, regardless of the cost. There are no easy answers here, but if students haven’t already thought about their values and their role in the system as a whole, these decisions are going to be made without as much thought when they are faced with real patients in their new practices. And so by engaging them emotionally through gameplay, we hope to have them consider the ethics and economics of the situations long after they leave the class, and in doing so, hopefully move towards being a more compassionate and intentional practitioner. Amazing stuff, and I think that there is so much space for games in both educational and hobby spaces to do this, to start conversations, to get folks thinking.

I am a huge believer in learning every day, all my life. And what better way to keep learning than to keep being curious? Games that introduce new ideas and perspectives help do this, and that’s what I want to accomplish with all my more serious games.

The Red Burnoose: Algeria 1857
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