From Angst to Engagement: Insights from our DePaul University Game Jam

By iThrive Games
April 7, 2017

iThrive Games has been hosting a series of paper prototype game jams in recent months. We had one in January at MagFest, and on April 1, we held one at DePaul University in Chicago. No fooling!

This jam was different in that we included both college students and high school students. We presented game design resources to help them design around positive psychology concepts, and then let them loose to come up with game ideas. Some 42 people attended, and eight games were conceptualized or even designed! Spending the day with these folks was very rewarding for me, and left me with these important insights:

1. The high school students, by and large, had better ideas. The college students were coming up on final exams, so the instruction they'd experienced all semester about things like systems design and game balancing were at the forefront of their minds when approaching the exercise. While this meant that their ideas were often very well fleshed out and robust, it was the high school students who were unlimited by any constraints, who were more able to think outside the box and demonstrate great innovation. Pairing college students with high school students benefitted both groups and improved the ideas!

2. More presentation time resulted in more thoughtful design. At the MagFest Jam, we spent only 15 minutes talking about how to design for positive psychology and expected that the participants would be more dependent on our handouts to help them. This time, we spent 45 minutes explaining the resources and walking people through an example of how they might go about the process. This resulted in much more thoughtful ideas about what concept to use and how to express that in a game! We learned that participants respond well to more explanation, and the products reflect a greater understanding of what we're trying to do.

3. We learned how to engage reluctant teens. We had one 17-year-old participant who arrived with his mother. An aspiring computer programmer, he initially scoffed at the idea of an analog game jam. When we talked about things like kindness and empathy, he became openly hostile. They were getting ready to leave. I recognized immediately that this young man represents a contingent of typical teens, so I was intent on figuring out how to reach him. Here's what kept him at the jam until the end, until he had a game to present!

4. Even computer programmers need to understand and know how to prepare game design documents. In the games industry, everything you do on a game is reflected in the game design document. People of all disciplines need to know how to read these documents, respond to them, document their work, and to prepare their own (to help other team members understand how all the pieces of a game need to exist and interact with each other). Our jam requires you to prepare a game design document, which can help you with a required industry skill!

5. Finding out what games teens like, and why they like them, can provide direction. Popular games like Call of Duty, Doom, and Halo (which might be criticized as violent) are games that can still encourage positive things in certain kinds of players, so shouldn't necessarily be dismissed. The key is to recognize that each family needs to work together to determine what healthy gaming looks like for them, and this mom was okay with her son's gaming choices. This 17-year-old boy (a high school senior) likes shooters and horror games because they let him blow off steam, and let him explore and overcome danger. We decided that this connected well with resilience and curiosity, and he was able to move forward.

6. Not every positive psychology concept has to be "touchy-feely." For those kids who don't feel as comfortable exploring concepts such as kindness, optimism or empathy, there are equally important practices such as curiosity, growth mindset and resilience that might appeal to them to use.

We emerged at the end of the afternoon full of pizza and game ideas about everything from breaking up cliques, to a multi-player escape room experience to fight anxiety, to a cooperative game where players rebuild a destroyed city. People really enjoyed themselves and even stayed afterward to thank us and ask us to do more events!

Interested in attending or hosting an iThrive Games Jam? Leave a comment or send us a message!