What are transformational games?
Being in this industry for as long as we have, I’ve grown fond of the term ‘transformational games’ over serious games. Transformational games focus on facilitating real-world change through the player’s actions and is a more descriptive term than “serious games”. Transformational games stem from the concept of the Transformational Framework by Sabrina Culyba and Schell Games.
Whether it’s entertainment games, educational games or marketing games, you should know that game design of any kind is not easy. With that said, making a transformational game has the added expectation of fundamentally changing the perception of your players.
The framework consists of eight critical topics framed into exploratory questions meant to act as a guide for your team to adapt and make unique into your own process. Each part of the framework connects back to common challenges faced by transformational game developers:
- High-level Purpose: The big picture goal (although for this blog I have broken this down further into Objectives and Key Performance Indicators)
- Audience & Context: Looking at more than just the traditional target audience demographics and learning as much as possible about the people who will be playing or supporting the game, and the environment they will be doing this in
- Player Transformation: How you want your players to change
- Barriers: Anything that may stand in the way of the purpose of your game for its players
- Domain Concepts: The unique procedures and storytelling that your game experience must embody
- Expert Resources: Any exterior books, people or professionals that can provide insight for your game
- Prior Works: Case studies and references that can be built into your game strategy
- Assessment Plan: What is your plan for pre and post-release evaluation, also known as Impact Measurement
The process is non-linear and every piece of the puzzle is interconnected to allow for your team's unique process to be worked into it, allowing for revisits to any part as the development progress. It is also important to be flexible throughout your process, and not get stuck in your early decisions.
The 3 critical concepts have been identified by our team after taking into consideration the intricacies of the framework itself, along with our own experience of creating transformational games. While the framework itself is used as a guide for pre-production, we’ve taken it one step further to encapsulate the milestones through to post-release.
Before we dive into whether or not this kind of project is right for you and your business, you need to be aware of these two approaches - Designing for Intent or Adapted Game Technology.
Designing for Intent vs. Adapted Games
Transformational games can be approached in two ways - purpose-driven game design or adapted game design. This would also set up your objectives and key performance indicators for your game, as this insight is important to consider from the beginning.
About 82% of Australians agreed that games can improve general knowledge and critical thinking skills. This can be seen in purpose-driven games such as Duolingo (Duolingo), which is a language-learning platform with game-style features or Win the White House (Filament Games and iCivic) which was designed to introduce and educate the public on the processes and strategy involved in the American presidential election.
There are also games made for entertainment that were later adapted into the classroom settings to be more educational/transformational but these are often because there was unintentional alignment between the game and the goals for the later project, and they were massively successful. 60% of Australian schools have used games to introduce certain parts of the curriculum. Mostly stemming from popular games such as Minecraft that developed Minecraft: Education Edition as a way for students to learn in a more virtual interactive environment.
However, the game mechanics are not flexible and the topics that could be included for teaching purposes are not always adaptable. This is why combining game design and transformational design is the key.
And at last, we get into the top 3 critical components when taking on a transformational game project. Taking some inspiration from the framework, I draw experience from Chaos Theory's projects, processes and the constant open communication we have with our clients. I’ve arrived at the following - Objectives, Key Performance Indicators and Impact Measurement.
Having a clear objective for your project is the most critical step. This might sound obvious, but it is very common for projects to have a vague purpose that can be interpreted by the stakeholders in different ways.
For example, education games can sometimes have objectives such as “teach students about how gravity works”. This isn’t an ideal purpose because there is so much room for interpretation. A much better purpose would be “teach year 10 students the fundamentals of Newtonian physics”.
So why is it important to have a vision and how do you define your objectives?
There are three key reasons for having objectives before the preproduction of a transformational game -
- Alignment: It helps to align the vision within the team and amongst your stakeholders over important design decisions
- Inspiration: Provides an insightful or meaningful outlook on why the work matters to help your team persevere during development struggles
- Direction: While other transformational framework pieces may change, the objectives act as a guiding light, moving the project towards the desired impact
What are some tips for setting great goals?
- Be specific. So that different members of the team don’t interpret it in their own way.
- Be measurable. Make sure that you can measure the impact that you want to have. This will be very important later in the process.
- Identify your priorities. What is most important? What is nice to have?
- Focus on the impact you want to have, not the game that you want to build.
- Involve the whole team, or at least make sure that all key decision-makers are involved.
- Make it memorable. You want the whole team to know what the purpose of this project is.
- Your objectives and goals are for your team. External messaging about the project can also be refined as you go or at a later stage.
The starting point to creating a successful objective-driven transformational game is to have a solid vision or mission statement, which could also be in collaboration with a client. A good set of objectives would be impact-focused rather than product-focused, it has to be concise and easy to remember and bring up throughout the process and it has to make sense for your team and stakeholders more than outsiders.
Key Performance Indicators
Going beyond the change that you are looking to have within your players there will always be other outcomes that your team is looking to get out of the project. Some common objectives for transformational games are:
- To fundamentally change your players and have an impact on their lives
- To make money
- To gain recognition
- Possibly more than profit and recognition, you would want to make your mark for creative expression on a topic
Which of these goals are most important? It is common to want all of these outcomes, but understanding which are the most important is critical. The design choices for having maximum impact on changing players will often compete with making money or creative expression. A free game will reach more people, after all.
It is also important to understand that pure entertainment games or traditional education projects usually don’t suffer from this same level of competing interests. This is also compounded by the different disciplines of game development. Your artists might be looking for creative expression, the project investor might be looking to make their money back, the subject matter experts might be looking to gain recognition, and the rest of the team are looking to maximize the impact of the game on players.
To align all of your stakeholders towards the Objectives you’ve already set out, you can employ the use of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These provide targets to better gauge how successful your game is. There are a lot of ways to set KPIs but the main point is to have your team agree on all of them and then actively work towards achieving them.
A helpful tool to setting good KPIs or goals is by using the SMART framework. You can read up in more detail about the uses of SMART goals here. In the simplest form, your goals should be:
The next section deals with how to go about measuring some of these metrics and improving your performance.
Impact measurement is another important step of the process. The sooner you can validate what is and isn’t working, the sooner you know where your effort needs to be focused to create an effective game.
If you are not measuring impact then you are shooting in the dark and success is more a matter of chance than intentional design. Ultimately, the result of impact measurement is being able to tell the story of how your game succeeded or failed. Your impact measurement will be unique to the type of game you’ve made, the audience you cater to and what your goals were in the beginning. Some games have an immediate cause-effect outcome, while others may take longer to prove that the appropriate outcome was reached.
If your ultimate objective is easy to measure then your impact measurement plan should be simple, just measure the outcome. If your objective is more nebulous and difficult to directly observe, such as reducing climate change using a game, then you will likely need to use an impact measurement framework. There are several frameworks out there that you could tailor to your project, but I suggest using the Theory of Change framework, as it is a good all-around tool for both immediate and long term effect measurement.
Theory of Change Framework
The Theory of Change or ‘logic model’ is a useful graphical measurement of how you would arrive at your intended outcome through core activities by breaking down larger problems. This breakdown is defined by Key Evaluation Questions (KEQs), which are formulated along the lines of whether or not your game is appropriate for the target audience, how effective it is in creating change, whether it has the potential to be expanded on or added to, or similar questions that help evaluate the outcome of your Objectives and Key Performance Indicators. Whilst the specifics of the model would change based on the application, the basics of the model can be broken down into four identifiable and measurable points:
- Activities: This includes developing the game, releasing it and then having players download, log into, buy or simply just engage with it in real-time (not just playtesting)
- Outputs: These are the result of your development team and the player completing the activities, and are a directly measurable stage. Did the player complete all the levels in the game? Did they sign a pledge to walk to work once a week? These are the metrics that indicate the game is being effective, and are what we can focus on improving through additional development.
- Outcomes: This step is focused on validating if the Outputs have changed a player's perceptions and behaviours. This is another key step in the measurement process and might require to follow up interviews or direct observation of players to get a sample of how the outputs are translating into outcomes.
- Vision: The final step on measuring impact, after defining whether or not your players are having their perceptions and behaviours changed, is whether that change is directly related to your initial objectives. Again, if this can be achieved through direct measurement then that is great, but for more nebulous objectives you may need to infer the impact of your game. If you can broadly quantify the problem you are looking to solve and show that playing the game will result in approximately X outcomes per player (while knowing the impact of your outcomes), then you can calculate the final impact of your project!
Another useful tool that complements the Theory of Change framework is the Social Return on Investment (SROI).
The SROI questionnaire by The Social Value UK is designed to evaluate the impact measurement process of a business and whether or not it has achieved societal change, but the framework can be useful when looking at game development. The tool is used to gauge social value, rather than monetary. The questionnaire is structured around seven principles - involve stakeholders, understand what changes, value what matters, only include what is material, do not over-claim, be transparent and verify results. The higher your score on the questionnaire, the more chance you can use it for assurance and accreditation within your organisation and towards your project.
Ultimately, being able to critically evaluate everything you are putting into your game is what counts. Think of it in the simplest terms, how did you decide what to eat or cook today? How did you come to that decision and what factors played a role in the solution? In the impact measurement process, it is also good to start the process early and match your indicators with the actual stages of game development.
Your team can decide which items are more or less important at any point. Or structure it around the time it would take to finish a particular action, so documentation throughout the process to evaluate yourself as you go will prove the most helpful. Finally, remember that there is no perfect answer, there may always be uncertainties but as long as your journey is aligned with your objectives and key performance indicators, you will do well!
So what's next?
Your journey into creating transformational games begins with knowing how to set objectives and KPIs, as well as how to manage expectations with impact measurement. Transformational games are at the core of what we do at Chaos Theory, and now it could be at the heart of your next project.
If you have any more questions on the process of game design and its components, or if you just need help with how to get started with transformational games, you can book a 30 minute free consultation and brainstorming session with me here.