I’ve spent the last couple weekends in Guatemala City playing games. Lots of games. All sorts of games. And I’m exhausted.
We tend to assume many things about kids. We assume, for example, that they like and enjoy play, and that play is a part of their everyday life. We also tend to assume that kids remain relatively untainted by society, allowed some buffer time before becoming enmeshed into the world of adults and its complexities. But over the last couple weekends I’ve come to seriously reevaluate these assumptions. I was invited by Ana Domb, an alum of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT (where I’m currently at), to help her run a pilot project supported by the Central American office of Hivos, the Dutch cooperation agency, working with kids to understand play and games, and to help them learn the skills they need to design their own games. And it’s been an extremely interesting challenge to work on.
Our prototyping table
Right rom the start, we understood this was going to be an experiment for us: we’d be working with at-risk youth from underprivileged communities, who already have trouble staying within the formal education system, and who have very little exposure to creative spaces, or even opportunities for play, experimentation and exploration. And we were figuring out exactly how far we’d be able to push them into becoming designers: without having had exposure to concepts such as ideation, prototyping, iteration, critique, and so on, we wanted to know whether kids would respond and accept these concepts within the limited time we had to explore them.
Then things got a bit more complicated. We were originally expecting to work with kids between 13 and 16 years old, from a single community, who’d been told about what we were going to be working on over two weekends. But shortly before our arrival, that group fell through, and our local counterpart was able to put together a new group for us to work with. However, the new group was significantly different: half of the group came from a rural town about an hour and a half away from the city, while the other half came from the complicated downtown area. The age range was between 11 and 18 years old, and not only did the kids not fully know or understand what they were meeting with us for, they didn’t even fully know each other within their groups.
While the diversity in the group was hard to manage, it did lead us to an enormous amount of observation we might have otherwise missed. Many of the social issues stemming from the Guatemalan context became recreated in our lab-like setting: issues of class, gender, ethnicity, and the urban/rural divide all popped up one way or another. Our play lab was in many ways a challenge to the kids’ expectations: we were constantly and continuously asking them to do things that’d ordinarily got them into trouble. And they didn’t fully understand how to react to that newfound freedom, or how to contextualise it. Kids from the rural area felt awkward playing with kids from the urban area, for example. But by far, the most observable divide was gender: boys had very clear expectations about how to play around and in front of girls, especially the boys from rural areas. To play with girls who were older and more competent at the games we were playing would often become frustrating and push them to look for “gracious” outs - i.e., when a game got too complicated, they’d all default as quickly as possible to a safe space such as playing with a ball, a clearly defined boys-only space where they were safe from exposure to the awkwardness of other games.
We had designed the workshop around the two weekends we’d spend in Guatemala City. During the first weekend, we’d just explore play and games, and try to build an understanding of games as systems, made up of rules, goals, playing elements and practices. We needed to understand how the kids thought about play and how diverse their understanding of games was. We explored that through playing lots of different games requiring very different skills: we played board games, card games, physical games, narrative games, collaborative games, competitive games, fast games, slow games, loud games, quiet games. We made a conscious decision to not try any digital games in the mix, as the technology base the group had access to was very difficult to figure out. And it was fascinating to watch kids react to very different styles of play, and the challenges each represented. Card games, for instance, were complicated for many kids because they relied heavily on literacy and math skills, and kids would develop all sorts of coping mechanisms to not let their shortcomings become obvious to the other kids - cheating being the main coping mechanism. Games with too many rules were very complicated to kids from rural areas, less used to managing overwhelming streams of complex information, than to urban kids. After we played several games, we were able to observe how kids would feel most at ease once they figured out what games allowed them to play on their own terms: for example, the more silent kids were happiest playing card games that gave them time and space to strategise.
Every time we tried a new game, we stopped for a while to talk about it. What were the rules of the game? What was the goal? What did they like the most, and what did they like the least? We’d alternate between having them play a game and watching others play, and then having them comment and talk about how people played, how they communicated with each other (or failed to do so), and how tactics and strategies came together and affected outcomes. And we also tried to make them comfortable enough to talk about how people cheated at games, and why. Sometimes cheating did not affect the game, while sometimes it totally ruined it. Sometimes it actually made the game more fun, becoming a sort of meta-game about cheating and concealing information. And cheating was in its own way a skill: you had to get away with it to be able to cheat effectively, or otherwise other players would penalise you and take you out of the game. Cheating was not necessarily frowned upon, and this complicated relationship with rules became an interesting ongoing theme of how kids played.
An early prototype repurposing a deck of cards as a shifting game board
Towards the end of the first weekend, we were able to start introducing them to some design concepts. We took very small steps into it: after a lot of conversations about games and rules, we decided to just give them an open assignment. We gave them some prototyping materials - a deck of cards, some dice, some tokens - and asked them to come up with a game of their own just using those. All of the groups were able to come up with simple prototypes, and that work became the basis for the second weekend when we just spent all the time building up prototypes: working in groups, kids came up with their own games, then brought in kids from other groups to playtest while they observed and took notes to later iterate based on the data they had gathered.
Getting them to understand and appreciate iteration was incredibly hard. Coming up with prototypes was such an intense mental effort, that kids tended to think it was a done deal. What else could possibly be added? But it was when they went through the playtesting process that things became more clear: when they observed players playing their game, where they got stuck, and how they interpreted the rules, many things became clear to them as to how their own game could be improved. It took a fair amount of handholding to get them to figure out what appropriate solutions would be to specific problems - simplifying or reducing the number of rules, clarifying how information was presented, balancing elements in the game, and so on - but once they went through the revisions and played them through, it became evident how they were improving on their own work.
In the end, all the groups were able to come up with working prototypes that the other kids could play through. Prototypes were, of course, not perfect, and they were not supposed to be. We made it clear to them not only that they were not being evaluated, but also that the ultimate result from their games was not really what mattered: what was important was that they would learn and understand what made games fun, so they could afterwards make their own games with their friends and family. Even still, the prototypes were very good, considering they were the result of only four days of work and a first introduction to game design. But what was perhaps most interesting was how kids came to self-identify and describe themselves as designers, and they began adopting the language and logic of the design process: they were aware of revisions, of testing, of improving, and they became proud of their own work.
Playtesting and demo time
We learnt a lot from the experiment and there are already many ways in which we’d improve the experience for a next revision, and an immediate next step is to process the enormous amounts of data we’ve come back with and write a paper out of the experience. But as a contained experiment, the process was fascinating and the results were very good, even better than what we originally expected. This wasn’t, of course, about turning these kids into full-time designers. It was more about attempting to build a safe space within which they could play, and grow aware of what it meant to play. For most of these kids, having a safe space where they could just play without much further expectations was something incredibly exceptional - so much so that we spent a large amount of time just giving them the reassurance that it was OK to just play and have fun. It seemed hard for them to believe that someone would not only take them out for a field trip, but do so just so they could meet new kids and play games. Once they got past their reservations, and began talking to each other and at us about what they were thinking, things started moving a lot more smoothly. In just a couple weekends we were able to get this group of kids comfortable about playing and talking about it, and willing and able to come up with their own interactive complex information systems - their own games. We were able to provide them with a space where they could be acknowledged for playing, and where they were able to acknowledge their own work as temporary game designers.