Empowering teams working on transformational projects

Company promotion via Games for Change.

Schell Games is an independent game studio based in Pittsburgh with an unusually diverse project history. From the studio’s inception nearly 15 years ago, we’ve tackled many unique design challenges running the full spectrum of games and game-like experiences — from mobile apps and theme park rides to interactive toys and virtual reality. For the past five years in particular, we’ve created a number of games designed not only to entertain and engage players, but also to change them. At Schell Games, we call these Transformational Games.

Happy Atoms combines a digital app with a physical modeling set. Students create molecules with the physical set, scan them with image recognition technology in the app, and explore the molecules they discover through guided chemistry quests. Happy Atoms began as an internal passion project at Schell Games, with production development supported in part by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Chemistry is a broad topic, and this project used the Transformational Framework to help the team make decisions on where to focus their efforts to improve student intuition and curiosity in relation to atoms and molecules.
We have a strong design culture at our studio that relishes new challenges and working with unusual constraints. We find both challenges and constraints in plenty of supply when working on Transformational Games. While these projects can be exciting and rewarding in terms of their potential positive impact on the world, teams working on these games often struggle mightily with issues like working with diverse stakeholders, unfamiliar domain content, and defining what it means to be successful.

Night Shift is a game designed to train emergency room doctors to make better decisions about whether they should transfer patients. This project is a collaboration between Schell Games and the Department of Critical Care Medicine in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, funded by the National Institutes of Health and currently in trials to evaluate its effectiveness. This project used the Transformational Framework to help navigate the needs of a very specific and technical audience.
To help our teams become more confident and effective in addressing these issues, we’ve developed a pre-production tool we call the Transformational Framework. This Framework is really a series of exploratory questions that drive the first phase of the development process, covering eight critical topics:

  1. High-Level Purpose: What is the big-picture goal for impact on the world that is motivating your game’s development? How does this impact goal compete with other goals like profit, popularity, or critical acclaim?
  2. Audience & Context: Who is the audience for your game — not only those who will play it but the gatekeepers and community members that will also affect the game’s impact? Where, when, and how often will the game be played and how will that help or hurt the game’s effectiveness?
  3. Barriers: What things stand in the way of your purpose and how you want to change your players? Why aren’t they already changed?
  4. Player Transformations: What are the defining ways you want your players to be different after playing your game?
  5. Expert Resources: Who or what are the people, books, etc., that you consider authoritative sources of insight and feedback on your domain and how will you integrate them into your process?
  6. Key Concepts: What is the critical content from your subject matter that your game experience needs to be embody? And just as importantly, what content will be excluded?
  7. Supporting Research: What pre-existing theory and case studies are informing your choices?
  8. Assessment Plan: How will you and others determine if your game is effective?

We’ve found working through the Transformational Framework helps everyone on the team better understand how to contribute to the direction of the game, even if they don’t have formal training in the game’s subject matter. Because the Framework drives many critical conversations early in the process, it helps teams and clients uncover mismatched assumptions before development is too far along. The Framework also gives our teams a shared language that they can use when discussing lessons learned between projects.
PlayForward is a game designed to help at-risk teens develop the skills they need to make smarter life choices, thereby reducing their exposure to HIV. This game was developed in partnership with Yale University’s play2PREVENT lab and has been the subject of a multi-year clinical trial to evaluate its effectiveness. As the first big Transformational Games project at Schell Games, this project was a huge inspiration for development of the Transformational Framework.
At Schell Games, we have a simple shared philosophy: we make things we’re proud of, with people we like, to make the world a better place.  We use the Transformational Framework as a tool to help our teams be more successful in this work, and we’d love for you to use it in your process, too.  To learn more about using the Transformational Framework, join us on January 31 for a special G4C Industry Circle YouTube Live session.