28.03.2020

Let's make a purposeful game

There are many possible reasons why you would want to make a game, but whatever it is, one particular advice will pop up in pretty much every resource: If you want to get into game development, start small, try things out, learn as you go. There is a pretty interesting GDC talk by Douglas Wilson and Bennett Foddy (2018) about the benefits of their class that lets students make a game every week. So, when I started out, I did something similar. I had weekly prototypes, one of a small tank shooter inspired by the Wii Play classic Tanks!, one of a Panel de Pon style puzzle fighter, one of a platformer featuring a young cloud named Nimboi. I did not have the most polished projects to show for, but I intuitively learned many basic principles of game design and working with Unity.

game prototype One of my early prototypes. Looks like the next big thing, doesn't it?

But more importantly: I was hooked. I wanted to make something real. I had this idea of a little social game that would create fun situations for people that need a bit of social nudging - Lia. The concept was based on a cool psychological theory that I really want to talk about when I go deeper into the development of Lia. For now, it is really only important that I wanted to build on my knowledge of psychological research to create a different kind of game. A game that was fun and engaging, but also a bit… more. Like with pretty much any activity, you automatically train abilities by repetition when playing video games. In terms of design, this is a factor that creators should probably always be aware of - Daniel Cook (2013) shares some interesting thoughts regarding implications for game design. But most games focus on very gameplay-specific skills. If you play a lot of Super Mario Bros., you will get better at the cognitive and motoric skills that are required to jump through the mushroom kingdom. There is certainly translation to some real-world applications (e.g. found in Strobach, Frensch & Schubert, 2012). But these seem almost accidental. Of course, there is nothing wrong with building a game for fun and stress-relieve, these are essential resources in our modern world. But personally, I wanted to design my game with the main purpose to help foster some helpful abilities for everyday life. And the research shows that there is certainly potential for that (Bavelier et al., 2001).

This was 2016 and pretty much the birth of the "games with purpose" concept that would later influence the Vanilla Noir philosophy. Of course - fun was always an essential aspect, because it was still the aim to develop games and not psychological interventions. When I met Madeleine in 2018 and we started to work on collaborations, the last missing ingredient was added to our game design approach: Make it beautiful. Gaming is art, not only regarding the graphical assets or the music. Gameplay should also aim to enable users to express themselves creatively. And with this abstract idea of what game design should be in our personal projects, Madeleine and I created Vanilla Noir.

So when we make something, the first thought is always: What is the purpose? What change do we want and how can we achieve it? We're both psychologists, so naturally it is practically instinct to aim at improving aspects of well-being. The second thought is then: How can we make it beautiful? As I said, it's not just about the looks, but also the feel and how everything fits together in the end product. This naturally leads into the arguably most important question: Is it still a fun game? These are not independent questions, because a game is more than the sum of its parts and that means the design process should be a holistic one.

A good purposeful game can only achieve its purpose by being a good game. So, that is what we aim to do. We would love for you to join us in this journey of game design and psychology and help us improve and grow. We're two people with some ideas and now it's time to see where they lead us.

Written by Maximilian Croissant
28.03.2020