Using game design to discover your potential

Game Lab affiliate researcher Konstantin Mitgutsch will be with us in May to discover our superpowers!

He is running an innovative and creative workshop that uses game design and play to help participants understand their skills and abilities: their superpowers!

His recent Medium post links this work to his exploration of game design, transformative experiences, learning, and life coaching:

This idea of personal Superpowers began to emerge a few years ago at MIT, while I was studying how people learn through passion. At the time I was focused on gamers, asking them to chronicle all games they’d played at various stages of their lives and then to tell me their personal stories.

Players’ Biographies in Tan/Mitgutsch 2015

The extent to which the content of the games impacted how people made sense of their stories surprised me, but after years of exploratory research and hundreds of biographies, an even more surprising insight emerged: While sharing their gaming experience, the players disclosed all of the personal strengths they had developed over time. Interestingly, these weren’t common skills like problem-solving, communication or creative thinking, but instead referred to qualities like getting the bigger picture, channelling fictive characters or constructive playful leadership. However, these strengths seemed to be trapped within the games, with players knowing neither how to apply them to other domains, nor even how to communicate them to other people.

You can register for the May 21 workshop via Eventbrite.

Posted in Research, Thoughts

How Not to Wipe; or, How MMORPGs Work to Disassociate Gender and Caretaking

As l started working as a games researcher, I found I had some holes in my play history that were hindering my research opportunities. Namely, I had never played a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG or MMO) before, a type of game known for slurping down gobs of one’s time and energy but also, as discussed in games research literature, as fantastic sites of social learning, interaction, and worldbuilding. Thus, I decided to play one when it arrived as a perfect way into the complex genre. As a nearly exclusively console-based player and knowing my unabashed love for the series from whence it comes, it surprises me little that Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (hereafter FFXIV) ended up hooking me. However, I started the game in earnest the summer before my master’s thesis year at MIT. Perhaps not such a wise choice.

Promotional art from Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, showing part of the gameworld.

Promotional art from Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, showing part of the gameworld.

But! As these things sometimes go, I did indeed also begin my thesis in earnest as well, and I kept finding parallels between what I was writing and what I was playing. Although my time with FFXIV never found its way directly into my thesis, here I’ll make the case I have been itching to make: how the design needs, constraints, and solutions that FFXIV and other MMOs, particularly MMO role-playing games (MMORPGs) can inspire game design that pushes against restrictive assumptions about gender.

First, a digest of my thesis: I argue that mechanics, the interaction points and input options that allow the player to change the game state in some way (such as making an avatar run and jump or selecting matching icons to clear part of the game board), are a part of a game’s storytelling and worldbuilding, along with its art (including sound) and scripted narrative. In my thesis, I investigated that argument through caretaking mechanics, which I defined as mechanics focused at least thematically on helping and caring for others, and which I grouped into three particular manifestations: healing, protection, and building relationships. I considered how these mechanics are featured in (single player) role-playing and action genres and in particular games’ overall aesthetics, characters, and worlds, finding that these mechanics often suggested or imposed an adherence to stereotypical gender roles. These roles cast women and girls as nurturing, emotionally sensitive, and strongly connected to nature, whereas men are the opposite (emotionally distant and more attuned to science and military technology) but are also responsible for delivering (otherwise assumed helpless) women from dangerous situations.

Where my thesis leaves off is where much work begins. My thesis could only make the criticism, but putting that critique into action and seeing more nuance in gender in games is a multifaceted problem. It requires changes in game writing and art (much of which is happening, as more interesting and nuanced characters of both genders emerge) as well as in game design and the mechanical tropes developers implement and players have learned to structure interaction in games. So I wonder, how can healing, protection, relationship building, and any other caretaking mechanics shift in a way that not only broadens who, in a gendered sense, can access them, but also values the intense emotional, sometimes physical, and often mental labor that goes into caring for others?

Although this promotional image from the first version of Final Fantasy XIV upholds gendered associations with healing, healing in-game is quite different, being unconnected to gender and fast-paced.

Although this promotional image from the first version of Final Fantasy XIV upholds gendered associations with healing, healing in-game is quite different, being unconnected to gender and fast-paced.

Here I alleviate any bated breath by returning to my first point: I’ve been playing a lot of an MMORPG. Although I began and continued playing FFXIV for reasons other than my work, I found, through learning the game while maining (bear with me; I’ll explain all of this) a tank class and then taking up a healing one as I had begun writing my thesis (and later a DPS, to round out my repertoire), that this game plays very differently from the single player entries in the series. Indeed, it marks playing each kind of class as uniquely difficult labor, and I have seen closer to a balance of avatar genders in each role, when compared to who’s doing what in the single player games I researched.

As promised, here’s a primer on what any of that means: many MMORPGs work with the tank-heal-damage system. That is, one (or more) player character(s) attracts enemies’ attention as the tank, who has high defense and hit points and is kept alive by the healer(s), as the other characters do damage on the enemy (known as DPS, or damage per second). In FFXIV, any given player character can switch freely between any class (all of which fall within one of the tank-healer-DPS roles) they’ve undertaken, but many players lean towards (or main) one or just a few to play most often, as progressing and properly outfitting a class take quite a bit of time and effort.

Each role has its own ability sets, assigned duties, and expectations on players. Tanks must make sure they keep hold of enemies’ attention, which is diverted by the damage enemies take and other players’ heals that occur near them. Healers must keep tanks alive, as well as any DPS who have taken damage, and they are usually expected to help inflict damage on enemies when there is no healing to be done. The DPS need to maximize the damage they do at all times in order to win the battle. Battles are often designed with timers that mark how long players have to inflict a certain amount of damage, or else the enemy may perform an attack that kills the whole party, resulting in restarting the battle. Everyone is also expected to handle what are (somewhat confusingly here) called mechanics, which are special circumstances in a battle to require players to read, know, and adapt to such shifts; however, if there are special actions to be taken, usually that falls on DPS and healers.

This is a battle in which I participated in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Roles are marked in the upper left corner, as designated blue for tanks, green for healers, and red for DPS.

This is a battle in which I participated in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Roles are marked in the upper left corner, as designated blue for tanks, green for healers, and red for DPS.

All of these roles are required to find success in an MMO by design; each player has a role to fill and each role has its specified boundaries and requirements. Notably, whereas some MMOs have noticeable changes between male and female characters’ ability statistics (sometimes also based on race) FFXIV does not; rather, players choose roles to focus on the kind of work they are interested in doing. That labor of healing and of the tank’s protection is recognizably difficult, vital, and celebrated. Anecdotally, I’ve found that tanks and healers are rarer than DPS, and so they’re welcomed into most parties and are often the first to get commendations (a system for voting for a player after completing a mission with them, ostensibly for their strong performance).

These systems clearly work in games wherein the whole party/group is controlled by humans, but I think there is potential for some of those design elements in single player games. That could work as (somewhat) simply as having similar role schemes but with computer-controlled party members or as intricately as redesigning the focus of battles in single player games so that healing and protection are crucial mechanics, rather than last resorts if a player has not pushed their character(s) to be offensively powerful.

As for who can access healing and protection mechanics, as Comparative Media Studies’s own Professor Ed Schiappa would advise (as he did my thesis; thank you!), more representation is best: A variety of people can and do take up nurturing, protective, and physically and/or emotionally demanding tasks in real life, and thus why not reflect that range of people in these different roles in games? Thus, personality types and the mechanical statistics that are assigned to them need not be locked to gender. (I make this point in my thesis in relation to Final Fantasy XIII, a sadly much maligned entry in the series that I believe has some really interesting connections between non-standard character types and party-based role-playing mechanics.)

Clearly, I’ve been fascinated both in leisure and in work by my experiences with Final Fantasy XIV. I’m curious to see how the specific design necessities in MMOs might offer different approaches to character interactions in single player games (including relationships, which I couldn’t touch on here). Beyond this, however, is my interest in finding more games that ask players to broaden their perspective on the range of people who exist around them and that challenge players to engage more empathically with others, not only through spoken and written text, visuals, and audio, but also through the actions they perform.

Posted in Research

Boston FIG Talk: Good Co-op Bad Co-op

On January 8, 2017, the Recasting Player Two crew headed to the Boston Festival of Indie Games to give a FIG Talk on our research on the gendered dynamics of co-operative play. We spoke to a crowded room of developers, games critics, academics and fans about the passive play and spectatorship, the dynamics of playstyles and roles, and new and more inclusive themes for co-operative game design.

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Posted in Events, Research

Recasting Player Two Workshop #2: Dynamics of Involvement in Cooperative Play

The Recasting Player Two project aims to find ways for academia to collaborate with the development community to promote diversity and equity in game development and gaming culture. In particular, we’re interested in the gendered dynamics of co-located cooperative games; in order to tackle a series of gendered issues in current design practices, we have hosted two workshops bringing together people from the game development community to prototype games and discuss these issues. We wrote about the first workshop Boston Game Maker’s Guild Workshop.

The second Recasting Player Two workshop took place on November 18th at the MIT Game Lab. Building on insights from the first workshop, we resolved to bring together a diverse group of game industry professionals, developers and academics to tackle the more specific issue of passive play and asymmetrical cooperative games. We opened the day by asking our attendees: how can we create games that afford different levels and types of interaction, investment, difficulty and specialization? And in doing so, how can we create more inclusive spaces not just for women, but for other underrepresented groups in gaming as well?

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Posted in Events, Research

Boston Game Maker’s Guild Workshop


A while back, a group of fourteen board game developers from Boston’s Game Makers Guild attended an evening workshop that was jointly organized with the MIT Game Lab. The event was a part of an ongoing project called Recasting Player Two which aims to find ways for academia to collaborate with the development community to promote diversity and equity in the game development and gaming culture.

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Posted in Events, Research

Applications open for Play Labs 2017 – summer accelerator for MIT alumni & students using playful technologies

Applications are open to companies founded by MIT alumni or students for the inaugural edition of PlayLabs, a new summer accelerator for MIT students & alumni using playful technologies, taking place on MIT’s campus, hosted by the MIT Game Lab, and operated by Bayview Labs.

Play Labs is a private venture run by Bayview Labs, and its executive director is Riz Virk, MIT ‘92, a successful entrepreneur in both video games and enterprise software, and angel investor in many playful companies. Play Labs is hosted by the MIT Game Lab, whose faculty and researchers will be involved hands on with startups, and will take place on the MIT Campus.

From the press release:

The focus of the first batch will be Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technologies and applications, though the incubator will also consider startups using other playful tech, including 3d modeling, rendering, streaming, gamification, artificial intelligence, machine vision. The applications of playful technology can be in any industry, including online/mobile/VR gaming, esports, entertainment, education, healthcare, finance, etc.

During the program, startup teams will be mentored by the Executive Director, and by faculty and staff from the MIT Game Lab. Additional speakers and mentors for the accelerator will include many successful entrepreneurs and experts in product design, sales and marketing, and fundraising, drawn from MIT alumni and Seraph Group.

Startups that are accepted into Play Labs will each receive an initial investment of $20,000 from the Play Labs Fund in return for common stock. Startups that graduate from the program and meet certain criteria will be eligible for up to $80,000 in additional funding from Play Labs and its investment partners.

More information, including the application, can be found at

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Playful and Social Interaction Design Returns in Spring 2017

Playful and Social Interaction Design (CMS.842) is the latest addition to the MIT Game Lab’s course offerings. It debuted in the Spring of 2016 and will be offered again Spring 2017. The best way of conveying what we do in the class is to show the results of previous student projects, so follow the link below and explore the online portfolio.

Playful and Social Interaction Design 2016 Projects


Posted in Courses Tagged with: , ,

Playing at Real Estate Development in China!

Originally posted at the Samuel Tak Lee Real Estate Entrepreneurship Lab blog

Since August, the MIT Game Lab has been developing a game about real estate entrepreneurship and socially responsible development for the Samuel Tak Lee MIT Real Estate Entrepreneurship Lab. This past April, Sara Verrilli and I visited China to test our game with undergraduate students in urban planning, architecture, real estate development, and landscaping. We also wanted to get a sense of the scale of real estate development currently in progress there. Our first stop was in Hohhot, at the Inner Mongolia University of Technology.

An incoming graduate student and an instructor at IMUT gave us a two day architectural tour of Hohhot. We saw construction sites in every phase of development, along with a healthy mix of new and old architectural styles. Outside the city, we visited villages in various states of renovation – some being rebuilt, some occupied after renewal, and some still in use, awaiting work. Those two days inspired new ideas for our prototype game’s look and feel – our title screen is now a picture from a district of Hohhot designed by our host, Professor Rong. The ever present blue gates at each construction site became the new icon our artist, Miranda Cover, created for the game.

The night before we met with the students, we taught the game to the instructors and graduate students who were our guides. They enjoyed the game, and were a great help with translating and assisting the students in learning the game the next day.

For the actual test, we played the game twice. The first game was a shorter introductory one, and the students played in pairs, so they could aid each other in learning the game. While they learned the rules, they also discovered translation errors both in game and on our reference cards. Fortunately, we had IMUT instructors who knew the game, and could both translate and make suggestions for future improvements.

After lunch, the students played again, and this was our main test. We divided them into two groups of four, and each group had an IMUT instructor and an MIT staff member to answer questions and observe their game. To keep the game competitive, we offered an MIT logo tshirt to the winner from each group. While this inspired more competitive games, the students still helped each other out. The games were played on a single shared tablet, and while the students could choose to keep the tablet private on their own turns, they tended to keep it on the table, in public view. The students clearly enjoyed the game both times they played it, and the second time, turns were much faster and scores higher.

As designers, we want a player who makes poor decisions early in play to be able to recover if they notice their mistakes. We saw this happen in Hohhot; players changed their strategies mid-game, and were rewarded with better results. We also wanted to know if the game mechanics gave the players the ‘feeling’ of being an entrepreneur, or a real estate developer, or an urban planner – and the students confirmed that yes, they did. Different playstyles did cause different roles to feel more or less expressed in the game.

After leaving Hohhot, we conducted another test with students from Tsinghua University in Beijing. They quickly mastered the gameplay and made nuanced observations about how the systems in our game compared to the real world. Describing what they wished the game could do, these students asked for features and mechanics we had already started designing — confirming we were on the right track!

Based on the feedback from these tests, our student team spent the remainder of their Spring semester at MIT making changes. The user interface and the in-game symbols received significant criticism, so we revised the game’s appearance. We also updated building names and did another game balancing pass. We want players to consider their social responsibility to invest in public infrastructure to help the city thrive, but we also want them exploring the system of debt and profit within the game, to wisely use capital and take calculated risks, as entrepreneurs must.

The game is currently being tested as part of the comprehensive curriculum of the MISTI-STL Summer Camp experience being run in China this summer. In July, I will be observing the camp in Qingdao and Xiamen, as well as conducting tests in Shanghai and these two cities with other interesting types of players: high schoolers who might consider real estate development as a career and professionals who are already practicing real estate development. We have another year of prototyping and design research after this summer and are excited to continue introducing more systems of real estate development and entrepreneurship into our game!

Posted in Research Tagged with: , , , ,

Tickets on sale for “Einstein’s Playground,” our demo at the Charles Hayden Planetarium

Produced with the Museum of Science Boston, on February 11, we’ll be projecting live visuals from our OpenRelativity game engine onto the dome of the Charles Hayden Planetarium to demonstrate the theory of Special Relativity! We originally developed OpenRelativity as a toolkit to produce a wide variety of learning experiences, so we jumped at the opportunity to take our work from the desktop monitor to the giant dome down the river.

This show combines the Master’s thesis work of Zachary Sherin ’15 with the teaching skills of Dr. Gerd Kortemeyer from Michigan State University, both of whom worked with us on “A Slower Speed of Light” in 2012. “Einstein’s Playground” is a new show designed specifically for a live, narrated presentation, using the flexibility of interactivity to adjust to the needs for a large audience.

Tickets are on sale now! Admission: $10 (Feb 11, 7:15pm)

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Open House & Game Testing – Wednesday, July 22nd from 4-6pm

The MIT-Shenkar Summer Game Development Workshop has four games in early development this summer that are in need of your feedback! We invite everyone – young, old, MIT community, game playing, game developing, or even never touched a video game before in your life – to come, play our games, and give us the feedback we need to complete our games by the end of July.

Our doors are open on Wednesday, July 22, from 4pm – 6pm; you are welcome to drop in at any time during those hours and play as many (or as few!) of our games as you wish. Each game takes around ten minutes to complete; some are longer than others. We do recommend that if you want to play all the games, you arrive earlier rather than later! During the Open House, our development teams observe your game playing, answer any questions you may have, and record your comments and opinions about the games you are playing.

There will also be light snacks available, to keep your game playing strength up!

Our games will be in their fifth week of development, but will still have some placeholder artwork and user interfaces (player controls) will still be in development. By testing them now, we intend to get feedback we can use, with time left to use it. This is your big chance to actively influence our games in development!

While we welcome testers of all ages, some of our games are intended for middle school children while others are for older children and adults; children under seven may have difficulty playing our games alone, but might enjoy sitting on a parent’s lap and watching.

Our summer studios are in MIT’s Building 7 on the 4th floor, rooms 7-403 and 7-404. Enter from the 77 Massachusette’s Ave entrance, go straight, and take the stairwell on the right to the fourth floor (across from Student Financial Services). The closest elevator is near the ‘Under the Dome’ sign in Lobby 7 – take it to the 4th floor and follow the signs from there!

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