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Changing the World: Exploring Fun With an Educational Evil Cat Game

Feb 12, 2020 By Crissy Campbell

Written by Lauren Carlton.

Last summer Director Richard Smith welcomed MDM students to their third and final academic semester. After distributing the team and project assignments, he had one extra, unofficial request.

He challenged every team to consider, over the course of the term, how its project would change the world. Although participation in the challenge was purely voluntary, each member of the class enthusiastically agreed.

Towards the end of the semester, Dr. Smith asked me to interview each team and document their reflections. My name is Lauren Carlton; I’m a graduate of the MDM program’s 12th cohort, and I was keen to see how the teams approached Dr. Smith’s challenge while simultaneously tackling the challenges presented by their own projects.

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Team Fundue was satisfyingly balanced. With three programmers (Auriel Xue, Peter Pan, and Laura Thorne), two artists (Ayana LaSalle and Sophie Bai), and one project manager (Sam Stumborg), it was ready for anything. The team’s client was CDM’s Dr Rachel Ralph, who wanted to build a game that was fun, nudged players towards environmental awareness, and would help Dr. Ralph create a “theory of fun,” an idea first posited by game designer Raph Koster in 2003. They received guidance from an extensive network of game industry veterans, like CDM’s neighbors Truly Social Games, during the course of their project, which helped them both gather and manage information as they went.

From the beginning, Team Fundue faced two primary questions. First, “Is there such a thing as a universal theory of fun?” Second, and more crucial to Dr. Smith’s challenge, was “will a ‘nudge to action’ even work?”

Over the course of the brainstorming stage, the team completed a staggering amount of research. They played 74 games across several platforms, including board games, mobile games, console games, and regular old card games. Throughout this meticulously organized chaos, everyone made notes on their top ten and bottom five, which distilled into a list of each team member’s take on the universal elements of fun. These elements generally comprised surprise, randomness, risk and reward, and a sub-conglomeration the team called GORP, which stands for goals, objectives, roles, and progression. While it’s possible to have a game without GORP, games that lack GORP aren’t as much fun overall as games that have it. There’s also the aspect of skill; if a game is fun but doesn't require skill, it’s unlikely to see play again.

Ideation proved to be tricky on several levels. There are a virtually infinite number of factors to consider when making any sort of educational or morality-based game without being preachy or condescending. The hypothesis they came up with was that an effective way to get people to do good might be to allow them to play a character that revels in doing evil. The team didn’t want a dark game, and a game that simply invited players to be sociopaths seemed counterproductive.

Unless, perhaps, the sociopaths were furry and cute.

On the surface, it almost sounded like another bad idea. What if winning was losing? What if the point was to kill the earth, to be the worst person you could be and do the worst possible things you could do in order to bring about the outcome—destroying the environment—the game was intended to help prevent?

The twist: the character is a cat, so the enthusiastic ecological degradation is adorable instead of awful.

The result: cat vs. the environment in the war of the century.

The cat’s owner is a good, environmentally friendly person, and the cat—a creature of comfort, like all cats—resents the inconveniences this consideration imposes on him. Nothing the owner does for the environment is a big deal overall, but the cat is petty about the interruption of his comfortable life, so he embarks on a quest of disproportionate revenge. For example, one scenario features the owner setting up solar panels on the roof—which happens to be the cat’s favorite sunbathing spot, so the cat goes up and knocks them all off. Another involves the cat trying to prevent a camping trip by flicking cigarette ashes out the car window in an attempt to set forest fires—one can’t go camping if there’s no forest to camp in.

It’s a game where the player can channel their inner cat to be as terrible as they want. As every cat-servant knows, even the most seemingly content housekitty has the heart of a sociopath. Every cat has the freedom to be an absolute nuisance without suffering any sort of guilt. At the end of the day, a cat’s human will not only forgive them, but continue to love them unconditionally.

Their hypothesis—that having a player’s character engage in bad behavior could nudge the player towards good real-life behavior—was borne out during user testing. The team discovered that focusing on doing the wrong thing, and giving the player’s character license to behave worse than the player ever would, emphasized that thing’s wrongness. The main piece of feedback the team gathered from testers was “we had fun, but felt guilty about it.” The team hoped this guilt would encourage players to reflect on their real-life impact, which would, in turn, inspire them to change their behavior.

Educational games are notoriously tricky to design. If there’s too much game, players won’t learn; if there’s too much learning, players won’t have fun, and won’t want to keep playing. However, it’s possible to use games for educational purposes by putting the educational objectives between the players and their goal.

The team felt it was inherently easy to change the world with a design brief specifically intended to encourage environmentalism. Dr. Ralph had explained that she wasn’t looking to do things like telling people to go out and protest, but was more interested in nudging people to think differently, which would then eventually spark action. As a result, they hadn’t had to put much thought towards Dr. Smith’s challenge besides considering that the most effective way to meet it would also be the most effective way to fulfil their client’s request.

Was Dr. Smith’s challenge to consider how this project would change the world something Team Fundue thought about during the entire semester? Not really—not constantly, anyway—but they believed the challenge did guide the project’s eventual direction. They concluded that from throwing themselves into their research in a really big way to reaching for both the best and the worst ideas possible, the team’s collective willingness to consider unconventional ways to make meaningful change ultimately allowed the project to make a much greater impact than it would have otherwise. And that’s the cat’s meow.

Watch the game trailer: