Energize is an educational tool for understanding how to plan and implement sustainable energy solutions. It represents the potential that games have for teaching people complex ideas, like environmental realities, by demonstrating the obstacles, considerations, and possibilities involved. AC Atienza, English graduate student, collaborated with the Waterloo Global Science Initiative (WGSI) via a Mitacs partnership and co-op term to turn their prototype and concept of Energize into a fully-realized game. AC was also able to apply findings from the research creation process into driving the production of their game poetics Major Research Project for their graduate degree.
In part 2, the conclusion of "Behind the redesign of Energize, the sustainable energy game", we take a deep dive into AC's holistic game design approach and learn how Energize evolved through iterative playtesting.
What research methods did you use to develop the game design?
At first, I read a lot of books on how to design things and how to do gamification. Then, I did a literature review to understand some fundamental questions, like “How do you convey the moral of a story through a game” and, “what makes it easier or harder to understand a thing?” I looked into the literature on rhetoric, game studies, design, and hermeneutics, which considers how people interpret media and how they draw meaning from an object. Then, of course, I played a lot of other games with similar elements to what I wanted for Energize, such as the games Agricola, Spirit Island and Terraforming Mars.
With what I learned in the literature review, I developed the game mechanics so that Energize would express environmental research elements (which I already had, thanks to WGSI and their partners). Playtesting became very important for checking to see how the prototypes were conveying meaning. But I didn’t use typical games user research methods for the playtests. Instead, I used a holistic approach.
Can you tell me more about this holistic approach?
I approached the game design of Energize as a big system, so for playtests I took into account that players would come in and affect that system differently. I sought to learn about each person’s background, playstyle, likes and dislikes, expressions… basically, I observed their overall interaction and responses to the game while they played so I could see their entire experience in relation to what I knew about them.
I wasn’t concerned with tracking specific measurements; instead of isolating certain variables and looking really closely at those, I sought to do the opposite. I took all of my biases, all of the player’s biases and relations to each other, the location, everything I could. I mixed these various things with my previous experience in working with people to understand how people are being affected by certain systems and what that says about the system itself.
I was somewhat inspired by archaeology where it’s not just about looking at an object in the dirt alone, but very much about looking at the surroundings of the object and asking why it’s beside another object, let’s say, or even why one object is ten thousand years down in the soil while an identical object is only one thousand years in the soil.
You can learn by looking closely at things and controlling for a bunch of variables, but I would rather see the full appearance of everything, and trust that my subconscious and my instinct - built up through experience and reflection - can provide answers and insights that I wouldn’t otherwise find with a “detached” approach.
On the note of insights, what’s funny is that suggestions and comments aren’t as useful to me in their direct form as observations about what people do at various moments - especially when they’re caught off-guard. Getting the same person to play the game multiple times is important because then I can see if their reaction changes over time.
It’s also useful to get a wide variety of people to play, though, because that allows me to think about commonalities across the game system. I even ran playtests with other published games (namely Century: Golem Edition) so that I could see what reactions were specific to Energize and what was general to board games. For example, getting frustrated when learning rules seems to be normal, and not necessarily an Energize thing.
This iterative approach also necessitates the recognition that some people will just hate your thing no matter what. It became clear that it was best to optimize Energize for the groups that are on the fence and might learn, while letting the board-game-haters have some other way of learning instead of remaking Energize to not be a board game. We don’t need to save every starfish to save one starfish.
How did you implement what you learned in the playtests for new iterations of Energize?
Holistic testing is very beneficial because it keeps the full context of the system in view, which makes it easier to feel confident about making any changes when it is time to iterate. When iterating, I would consider the findings from many rounds of playtests and make decisions about where and how to implement changes. I love to iterate extremely quickly, but I found that if I went too deep into my changes too quickly, I would change the wrong thing. In fact, the first few versions of Energize I acted too fast and made a few mistakes.
My advice when redesigning any game or system is if you think there is a problem, before making changes, just make a note of it first. Then watch a full playthrough one more time while paying close attention to the issue. This lets you visualize whatever knee-jerk solution you already had in mind while actively watching the system with its “problem element”. You can imagine how your ideal solution would make things different, and you can also double-check that you had correctly identified the right problem, which isn’t always the case.
What surprised you?
Two things really surprised me. First, I was surprised to find that it was extremely easy to brainstorm ways to make the game more fun. I was never at a shortage of ideas in that regard - the true challenge was adding the fun without sacrificing other priorities, especially since the specifications of the game are pretty un-fun in many ways.
Second, kids understood the game really easily. Kids picked up the game, figured out the roles, played their turns, and learned the morals faster than adults. They did, however, make more frequent small mistakes, whereas adults made fewer total mistakes but ended up doing worse overall. I think it is because adults put a higher priority on avoiding loss rather than approaching victory. Meanwhile, kids seem to always pursue total value and were always confident that they could recover from a potential loss if they had to. This led them to ultimately do way better than adults, who would fiercely debate mechanically-suboptimal decisions and then settle on lukewarm, ineffective options.
The images above represent sample game icons from Energize
What were some of the obstacles you faced during game design?
Compromising between being quick to play, fun, educational, and easy-to-learn was a major challenge. In addition to that, I had to work with constraints involved with launching Energize in high school classrooms. Not only did I have to ensure the game could be played in the time of 1 or 2 high school classes, I also had to consider the materials we could reasonably expect teachers to buy. How many marbles or sheets of paper? How many cards can a player expect to see? How long is the rulebook? It was important to me to make it so that the average player who skips the rule book could still have fun just by learning from their peers.
So, how many playtests do you think you ran in total? How many versions of Energize did you create?
I ran 36 playtests while I was on my co-op term, and then another 21 during the official Mitacs internship, so in total I ran 57 playtests with players outside of myself. By myself I did about 150 or so. I don’t have an exact number of players, but every time there were about 4 players per game. I had a lot of repeat play-testers, so I’d estimate between 60-80 people in total.
I’m not sure how many versions of Energize I ended up creating because I only started tracking around version 25. Then, I started overwriting files after the 40th version. Currently, I only have about 10 files now on my computer.
Energize is available online for free as a print-and-play - contact us for more information. Schools, community centres, and citizens across Waterloo can reach out to Mathew Thijssen from the UW Sustainability Office to inquire about accessing the game. AC says that the context driving Energize – its relevance to Waterloo - can be rearticulated to fit any region across Canada should other municipalities want to pursue a research project that will produce own, specialized version.