Systems thinking through game design

Craig: Honestly, I think the hardest part about interviewing you is I can’t decide [00:06:00] what to talk about. So I ask guests all the time, is there something you would like to share in here? And Jesse just hit me with something I know nothing about, so you wanted to talk about?

Jesse: Systems thinking through game design. So my first school program was teaching parkour as a boss level, at a school called Quest to Learn. It’s partnered with Institute of Play. And I got [00:06:30] in there with a friend of a friend, an acquaintance, he knew that I did parkour and he heard that his students wanted to do it, so we ran a weeklong session, and it went pretty well. So they asked us to run another one. So we’re thinking about running this other one. And then they asked us to run an after school program, asked us to run a summer camp.

And as we are running more and more there, parkour is my [00:07:00] thing, but I want this to be co-created. I want this to be working within what values the school-What’s the school trying to do? What are these students trying to do? What’s important to them? Can we use parkour to teach them something a little bit more.

I’m in the school and I see they break systems down. You have a goal that you’re trying to achieve, and a challenge, what’s stopping you, what’s in your way. You have the space [00:07:30] that you’re in, you have the core mechanics, what you’re going to use to accomplish your goal. You have maybe some tools, some things you can use as well. And there’s rules to any system. There’s some sort of rules.

So I started working with Brendon Trombley, who I just got to go to China with, to coach in December. [00:08:00] Brendan is a game designer. He will design a simple game to teach about tyranny, where kids, every day, once a day, they’re going to vote whether they want to work or rebel. And if enough people rebel, the king [00:08:30] is overthrown and they have to elect a new king. If they work, one gold gets distributed to the king. And then the king gets to distribute it however he wants.

Craig: Oh, okay. There’s a feedback, right.

Jesse: So that’s the whole game. And you play this for one week with sixth graders, seventh graders. They’re going to experience tyranny for a week. But it only takes one minute a day, [00:09:00] and then it’s happening between classes. It’s in the lunch room, and it’s like, “We have to get this.” Or “Let’s get it this round, and then we’ll distribute to just our class.” And, “Well, that didn’t work.”

Craig: That’s what you said last time.

Jesse: But he’ll also make a game…he made a working hair follicle cell in Minecraft. So you could move around…

Craig: In the hair follicle.

Jesse: And [00:09:30] you could make the hair follicle grow one cubit if you operated the cell correctly.

Craig: That’s neat.

Jesse: And it’s like, “Oh, wow. We can really use these to teach something.” So it started being like, “Okay, well maybe we can use some games to teach movement.” And I think it transitioned totally for me, to how can I use movement to teach this idea? And this idea is, we’re playing all these different movement games, [00:10:00] different parkour games, and as we keep running the program, we’re playing games that other students have created in this process.

Then we’re asking students, “Well, what do you want to get better at?” Maybe it’s teamwork, maybe it’s jumping. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. And then saying, “Okay, how can we create a game that will make everybody who’s playing it better at this thing?” And that’s awesome. You can take some of your favorite games and you say, “Okay, [00:10:30] what’s the goal of tag? What’s the goal of hide and seek? And what are the core mechanics, what do we learn from this game? What does this game teach us? If we get really good at this game, what will we get really good at?”

And it becomes, “I can take this piece and this piece and I can…” Or, “I don’t like this game at all. Let’s change one small thing about it, now what happens?”

Craig: Completely different animal, right.

Jesse: You say like, “Okay, I want to play tag, but we only have one small room. How are we going to play it?” [00:11:00] You change the space a little bit, you change the system. You just pull one piece out and put one piece in, and you see like, how does this change everything? And to me, that was a hugely empowering tool. And I’m driving up on the car yesterday, everybody’s in the van, and I’m like, “What game can we play in a parking lot?” And I can just see, like…

Craig: All the people coming into the parking lot, like, “What is going on [00:11:30] here? 14 idiots running around in a parking lot.”

Jesse: Yeah, what are my goals? What am I trying to achieve here? I want everybody to move together to have a fun time. Be a little bit confused, warm up…

Craig: Movement check.

Jesse: Yeah, movement check. Create an equal space. Create a space that is too complex and too fresh for anybody to possibly be good at it. Which is also an important thing. We keep making these new games. [00:12:00] We don’t want to be good at these games, these games do not matter at all. We want to be adaptable. We want to be ready to play whatever game, and just be open to it, and see what we can gain. And how powerful is it to tell an eight year old or an eleven year old, “Make a game that you’re going to beat us at. Go out, find a parkour challenge that I can’t do. I’m gonna find one you can’t do, and he’s gonna find one neither of us can do, and then we’re gonna try each other’s challenges until we can figure something out about it.”

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