« From one thing,
Know ten thousand things. »
– Miyamoto Musashi, the Book of Five Rings

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about game design, design thinking and social responsibility.

Over the last decade I’ve often noticed that the principles and ideas we develop for game design can be applied to… well, almost anything, really.

I don’t necessarily mean gamification, although a lot of fascinating things can be achieved by making playful experiences out of mundane activities, I mean learning to use design to inform and shape the behaviour of people and their surrounding systems.  

Sometimes at surprising scale.

Learning to look at any design from the point of view of what it needs to achieve, what problems it needs to solve, where it needs to be deep or shallow, how players will interact with it, what it actually* incentivises them to do, how it will affect player behaviour elsewhere, how it will interact with its surroundings, where it will fall apart or fall short, where it is open to abuse… and that almost everything exists within a network of systems.

The example of system design often comes to mind when I read about corruption in politics or economics, but it’s far from the only one.

Game designers build up a broad and eclectic toolkit of skills and perspectives. 

We learn to design for a specific platform, a specific audience, a specific market, to consider accessibility, inclusivity, user experience, monetisation, cognitive load, cultural and linguistic variations, to identify and track key metrics… honestly, these lists go on and get increasingly esoteric, game designers are Jacks- and Janes-of-all-trades.

And that’s not even considering all the strange pieces of specific knowledge you acquire in the process of building particular projects; you become strangely conversant with things like social dynamics, cognitive psychology, urban planning, street racing, wilderness survival, smelting processes, how children learn languages, how people parse information etc.

You rarely become an expert in any of these, but you build up a kind of diagonal knowledge that often serves you in surprising ways, and you learn to apply it in your designs… often also in surprising ways.

These days, I find myself looking outwards, at how (game) design thinking can be applied to address real-world problems.

How we can incentivise an increasingly digital population to visit museums and art galleries, how we can design a garden project to encourage community and togetherness, how to make it easier for people to seek and receive therapy, to combat loneliness among seniors and immigrants, share resources, food and knowledge among a community… sometimes in and through the virtual realm, and sometimes out of it.

These are far from a new idea, there are amazing projects all over the world which work to solve meaningful problems by applying design thinking.  Some of them fail and some of them succeed – and that’s another strange lesson from game development : some designs fail.  That’s okay.  You roll up your sleeves and iterate, iterate, iterate.

If this interests you, there’s an unusual university in Aarhus, called Kaospilot, which (among other things) teaches students how to apply design thinking to meaningful, real world problems.

I’m not quite sure where this all leads yet, but I notice that just as games are capable of much, much more than entertainment, game design is capable of much, much more than game development.

I’ve had the opportunity in the last few months to work on some fascinating applications of game design, to help people connect through indoor gardening, to bake bread for others, to learn how to apply for jobs… and these feel like the tip of a vast iceberg.

Let’s see how deep this thing goes.

*Because all too often, particularly interlinked systems turn out to incentivise players to behave in undesirable or unexpected ways (see Corruption).