iThrive Design Hives are annual retreats with veteran game developers and scholars in the field. The iThrive team, along with these folks, works to identify best practices in game design, on various topics, after we review the scientific literature around components of social and emotional well-being. We seek to produce resources that support the design of compelling and engaging games around habits like empathy, stress management, curiosity, kindness, and many other strengthening practices.
Design Hive discussions inform iThrive Design Kits — our design tools for game developers — and other projects and products, like our in-development RPG engine, the Critical Strengths Engine. The iThrive Design Kits that result from discussions at these Hives are field-tested at iThrive Game Jams as part of the iteration process. Among other Hive topics, we nearly always source from experts a good portion of the design guidance that eventually becomes a Design Kit (that is, when we’re not playing games, swimming in the pool, eating creme brulee, and flying drones in people’s hotel rooms).
This year, we held our Design Hive at the Tapatio Cliffs Hilton in Phoenix, Arizona, where it was a mild 106 degrees! We were lucky enough to host these attendees, each of whom added something unique to the experience:
- Ellen Beeman, a fascinating conversational partner who shared thoughtful insights to support the continued development of the Critical Strengths Engine and our work with universities.
- Osama Dorias, who was able to frame our conversations from the perspective of a professional developer and ground us in realistic game production processes and schedules.
- Rami Ismail, who reminded us to think globally since teenagers in different parts of the world don’t always care about the same things.
- Jennell Jaquays, who provided valuable historical context around games and shared particularly good advice on our Critical Strengths Engine.
- Molly Proffitt, our secret weapon as far as keeping conversations focused and helping to (literally) arrange the insights into something that made sense; she categorized over a hundred post-its in a matter of minutes!
- Mike Sellers, who enriched our discussions with his masterful way of analyzing and designing games as systems, and also shared his good humor and intimate knowledge of the industry.
- Ian Schreiber, who always asked exactly the right questions to get the group talking thoughtfully. We especially benefited from his encyclopedic knowledge of games and game mechanics.
- Eddy Webb, whose analytical mind left no doubt as to why he’s such a big Sherlock Holmes fan! He helped the group arrive at important insights and is a fantastic gamerunner.
We playtested our Critical Strengths Engine using an adventure, created by Eddy Webb, which takes place in the Pugmire universe. We all got the chance to “be a good dog”! Ian Schreiber was particularly pleased to play alongside Eddy because, as he said, it’s always extra special to get to play a game run by its creator. Personally, I was happy to have defeated a group of undead cats by throwing catnip at them.
We also dove deep on several topics near and dear to the mission and heart of iThrive, and our discussions resulted in these in-development projects (look out for them on our website soon!):
- Design Kits on the topics of:
- Designing for teens
- Designing for mental health games
- Designing for self-reflection and self-awareness
- A new iteration of our Critical Strengths Engine
There was one thing that particularly warmed my heart. Osama Dorias, who founded the IGDA’s Muslims in Games SIG, had met Rami Ismail before but had never really gotten to hang out with him. The sense of brotherhood that developed between these two at our Design Hive was palpable. They taught each other card tricks at the dinner table, flew drones, and laughed and had the greatest time. It was so rewarding to see this happen because we’d invited them both to our event.
We also, ironically, had an actual bee show up at the Hive this year. It flew in right after lunch. I am personally allergic to bee stings and didn’t have an EpiPen on me in the conference room. Mike Sellers and Jennell Jaquays cooperated to temporarily trap it under a drinking glass, saving me from harm. We then wondered whether we should ask the bee about its thoughts and feelings on designing games for teens, as Jennell noted, it was now a captive audience.
The Design Hives are the highlight of my professional year and are so valuable to furthering iThrive’s work in the game developer community. I’m grateful to iThrive team members who participated in planning and facilitating, and to our attendees, who brought their brains, their hearts, their humor, and in some cases, their drones and their games, to share with us. This event left me the very best kind of exhausted, but, I need to rest up and hop to it, because there is such important work to do as a result of this!