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GDC talk: Training Designers to Collaborate with Researchers

How can we empower designers to increase “impact,” especially in collaborating with researchers?

Next week Benjamin Stokes will be presenting at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco. This talk extends our research on #GameImpact with G4C, and amazing conversations with pioneers in training designers for research collaborations, including Heather Desurvire, Mary Flanagan, and Jessica Hammer.

Training Designers to Collaborate with Researchers: Reframing, Scaffolding, and Roles

Feb. 27th, 2:10pm — See details.

Graduates in design are under increasing pressure to collaborate with social scientists, including to measure impact, and to improve the product itself. How should game educators prepare them?

Reports show growing fragmentation between designers and researchers; silos are deepening as language is politicized. This session will analyze several models for training students to collaborate with researchers on “impact.”

Are entirely new courses needed on “game research methods,” beyond usability? How can students be empowered to stand up for good design, even as they share power with outside experts?

Takeaways: Attendees will take away several distinct strategies (for the classroom and beyond) for training designers to work with external researchers. Learn what several universities are doing, including different approaches to usability training, managing up, and reframing creativity for impact. Each strategy builds the capacity of students to collaborate with outsiders.

gathering input at conferences

We have been having a great time getting feedback at events. Last month we were in NYC for the 13th annual Festival of Games for Change. We had some great conversations, like with the visualizations of Dot Connector studio on engagement models.

Here is a snapshot of the “crowd-sourced” discussion we facilitated about barriers to impact:


To gather input, the crowd presented a fascinating sample: about 10-20% were highly experienced, including designers and academics who had been attending similar events for years; another 30% were newcomers, hungry for perspective; and perhaps 50% were somewhere in-between, including funders with deep experience in a content domain, but eager for ways to be smarter and learn from other disciplines.

Asking the right questions is one of our primary goals. We found particular traction from these questions:

  • What barriers? Newcomers especially wanted a glimpse of what’s hard, and how to get started.
  • What language? Experts immediately wanted to debate the right language.  Conflicting views emerged immediately.
  • Is this our field? Critical mass is necessary for engagement, and the right identity frames helped build a broad tent.

More analysis to come soon, after our talk with folks at DiGRA-FDG next week…

Visualization ideas from Dot Connector Studio

We are collecting “tools to think with” for strategy with games and social impact.

Last week at G4C we met with Jessica Clark and Katie Donnelly and discovered some neat visualizations compiled by their Dot Connector Studio team, including some based on prior work from AIR, CMSI, TFI Interactive, etc., and reinterpreted (see their full overview).

Below are a few that we think might be useful for the #GameImpact project:

(1) Engagement Models — 10 different models with visuals.  See their full list (PDF).


(2) Partner Types — useful to resist simply “build it and they will come”!


(3) Roadmap for creating new projects — a great way to represent some of the “hooks and triggers” for strategic questions.  The focus here is on film, but much applies to games.  See also their full PDF.



Thanks again to Dot Connector Studio for sharing these!

Session at DiGRA-FDG: Increasing coherence in ‘impact’

Join us in Scotland on August 4th for the first joint convening of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) and the Foundations of Digital Games conference (FDG):


Our session is: “Increasing coherence in ‘impact’: crossing disciplines and framing.” We’ll be presenting alongside talks by Jesper Juul and Hanli Geyser at 4pm.


In the past decade game design for “impact” has proliferated. Yet fragmentation is also growing between researchers, designers and funders in their ability to compare game proposals and communicate effectively about impact. Success in this endeavor may require new umbrella language to guide meaningful comparison and improve efficacy — especially across stakeholders. Fortunately, strategies for reducing friction and aligning design with research are surfacing.

In a report published last year by Games for Change and ETC Press (2015), we first revealed some of the hidden barriers in language and framing around “game impact.” Based on dozens of interviews with sector leaders (primarily in the United States), the report identified five areas of concern that increase confusion and undermine impact.

Findings to be discussed (and explored outside the United States) include:

  • the gulf between research and practice is growing as silos begin to deepen; some types of impact are persistently marginalized by disciplinary divides;
  • we need common language and new frames to compare impact across domains, especially with diverse stakeholders
  • for research to affect practice, special care is needed to avoid framing research in opposition to creativity.

In response to the report, more than 30 individuals submitted formal suggestions, including some leading game studios and academics. The feedback opened new areas of inquiry. In the past several months, we identified several “risky assumptions” that may drive fragmentation. Diagnosing assumptions is more delicate and subjective than documenting fragmentation; yet it yields more actionable insights.

Continue Reading >>

Panel at G4C Festival: Increasing Social Impact with Tools to Design Across Sectors

g4c-13fest-smJoin our session on June 24th at 4pm with Colleen Macklin, Asi Burak and Benjamin Stokes.

Title: Increasing Social Impact: Tools to Design Across Sectors


For two years, the GameImpact project investigated sources of failure in articulating game impact. Our first results (published last year) showed the fault lines — especially across sub-fields. Now we introduce and debate several “thinking tools” for executive producers, lead designers and funders. Here are strategies to avoid the holes between research and design, between impact and intention.

New chapter: Countering 4 Risky Assumptions

We are thrilled to announce that chapter two is now available for download. With some neat infographics, “Countering Four Risky Assumptions,” (PDF, 1.2mb) describes concrete steps to reduce the fragmentation in our field. The full report on Impact with Games now includes this new chapter, alongside updates to our initial research based on ideas received over the past year.

Chapter 2: Countering Four Risky Assumptions Info Graphic

The launch for the new chapter officially takes place on April 18th at the G4C-Tribeca Games and Media Summit in NYC.


Each of the “risky assumptions” in this new chapter cuts across disciplines and design practices. They are sneaky, and seem to aggravate the field fragmentation that is described in the main report. But they can be countered. The evidence for these deep assumptions, though well attested by leaders in the field, is often indirect; therefore, this chapter offers careful provocations rather than definitive conclusions.

The publication also highlights some great ideas that emerged from our community, as part of revising the first report (see summary of changes).

We look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Revisions to Report #1 based on feedback

Based on your feedback, we are pleased to release an updated report for download. (There have been more than 5,000 downloads in the first year of our report, “Impact with Games: A Fragmented Field,” according to ETC Press, our publisher.)  This includes our new chapter 2: countering four risky assumptions (also published separately).

Many meaningful comments were received after our initial launch. (Thank you!) Some responses (both ours and others) we weighed and chose not to incorporate into the final report. These include the temptation to pick sides. For example, several people asked us to weigh in on “which genres have more impact.” While this may be a fascinating debate, there are benefits to deliberately stepping back, not picking a side — seeking to frame that conversation rather than join in specific debates.

We also tabled some suggested solutions that turned out to concern other problems (not fragmentation). These include:

  • Why the market is tough — this is true, and limited resources do aggravate fragmentation, but this report is more concerned with how we talk past each other about impact (whereas the feedback we heard in this area was mostly about how it is hard to get paid doing good work, which is a significant but separate concern)
  • More games need evaluation — this may be true, but our focus is on research that advances the whole field, rather than pushing for evaluation for every single game
  • Several wanted to “measure engagement” as a proxy for multiple kinds of impact — which is an important strategy, and something we may get to in future reports; but it is less a clear sign of fragmentation (and so is less relevant for this report). We hope to investigate such opportunities in future reports.

We did take action to make several SUBSTANTIVE CHANGES in response to feedback. First, we introduced a new chapter on “Countering Four Risky Assumptions.” The idea is to identify some hidden causes, related to practical development processes, that might contribute to fragmentation across the board and to propose counter approaches. We specifically challenged the assumptions that:

Second, we made our language more consistent throughout. For example, around “social impact games” vs “impact” — we decided to be more consistent, and refer to the set of possible games as “social impact games” (a broad umbrella, with the main criteria being they were designed for an impact, or else are being studied as having an impact), and secondarily to discuss “impact” in multiple forms.


Benjamin, Aubrey and Gerad (on behalf of the editorial team)

Featured on Packard Foundation site

2015-09-21--PackardNeat!  Our report was just featured on the “What We’re Learning” section of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s website.  We’re in their focus area on “Impact, Theory and Practice.”  We’re proud to have Packard funding this work!

Soft-launch for Report #1

g4c-festival-12-thumbHighlights from our soft-launch of the report are below, at the 12th annual Tribeca/G4C Festival.  They include:

  • a VIP breakfast to launch the report
  • our panel talk
  • table discussions to gather feedback

At a VIP breakfast on Day 1, we launched the report to a packed room of industry experts. In the picture below, the President of the Entertainment Software Association Michael Gallagher talks with HH Prince Fahad Al Saud of Saudi Arabia (who also presented on his game Saudi Girls Revolution). Our presentation came from team members Nicole Walden and Benjamin Stokes.

IMG_3368-midSecond, our big panel was at the Games & Media summit, at the intersection of film and games. We featured speakers who are “impact designers” from the world of documentary film, museum games and game design education. The session particularly focused on a tricky balancing act: “Optimizing for Impact AND Creativity.” Here are two pictures:


(On the left: Benjamin Stokes from our advisory group, Katherine Isbister –– Game Innovation Lab at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, Caty Borum ChattooCenter for Media and Social Impact (CMSi) at American University, and Colleen MacklinPETLab at Parsons, The New School for Design.)

Panel description:

“Can we reclaim evaluation to better empower artists, our audience, and marginalized voices? What tricks of impact design can filmmakers borrow from games and vice versa? This session taps experts in ‘impact design’ who are trying new ways to maximize impact. A key focus is on shifting the hidden power relations inherent in assessment, to develop approaches that increase creativity (not stifle it). Seeking to democratize assessment and optimize it as a tool for quality rather than judgment, the panel will highlight several ambitious assessments and provide tips for teams and the field.”

We also shared pieces of our report with attendees during two practitioner lunch discussions. We received some really interesting feedback from game designers, funders and researchers — but also art historians, game distributors, and educators. Much of this feedback will end up in future reports and on our blog (we’d share a picture, but were too busy eating to take any!).

We also announced a slew of collaborators (see logos below, and list on the report page) — and more are coming!  If your organization would also like to help spread the discussion of “games + impact” — including how our field is fragmented, and what can be done — let us know!


Draft report for Festival

Our first report on fragmentation will be in “open draft” mode, beginning April 22nd, 2015.  This is just in time for the Games for Change Festival.  Take a look!