This wasn’t my first rodeo. Aside from house ruling games, and many times creating various games as a child, I’d been riding this particular bucking bronco of game design for years. In fact, I’d been designing games with much harder mechanics for over a decade. And this is that story.

My wife has a background in social work. In 2001, we decided to take a risk and live in a treatment home with up to 6 behaviorally challenged children. It was an exceedingly tough task, but one that had its intrinsic rewards.  One of those rewards resided in a part of the job that hooked into my creative pursuits – that of creating individualized systems to help motivate the children to make preferred decisions.

Simply put – I took what most of us view as mundane and made it into a game. If I had a child that struggled with accepting no from others, I incentivized it so accepting “no” was rewarded. And one of the easiest ways I found to make it fun for the kids who REALLY didn’t want to accept a simple no? Add a theme to it.

Over the years, I created various systems addressing a myriad of behaviors and then themed them around: baseball, football, Harry Potter, Barbie, Spider Man, and in case you think it was all not game-related: Pokemon (x2), YuGiOh (x3), and the classic Battleship. Each of these had mechanics that fit some aspect of the theme. For instance with the Battleship system, each day he accomplished behavioral goals, he pulled a tab on the grid used for battleship. When he found then sank a ship, he got a tangible reward.

This process also taught me a lot about design long before I created my first game. First, the value of simplicity. I mentioned a lot of different systems, and many of them were great, but I also created some that had such specific rules for specific situations that they were unusable by anyone but me (and this sometimes included the child as well). This led to undue frustration for others, and forced me to simplify my systems. Now, if you know anything about game design, you know the mantra “Keep it Simple”. Now, plenty of games aren’t simple, but it’s always better to allow player to accomplish any game-playing task the simplest way. It just makes sense.

Next, I learned the value of theme. For our children, the challenge of going against their natural instincts was diminished by the simple thought of not having as many energy cards to move their PokeBall closer to capturing the Pokemon at the end of the night. They resisted their natural inclination to act out negatively just because they wanted to capture that fictitious character. I mentioned that with the Battleship system, the young man got a tangible reward once he sunk a ship, and the bigger ships gave bigger rewards. How big? To be honest, when he was asked what he wanted for the tangible, his words were akin to: “I don’t know. Some candy bars, I guess.” In his case, it wasn’t the candy bar that drove him, but it was the chance to figure out where the ships were hidden. It was the theme that won it for him.

To this day, I still design from theme first. And I still struggle with keeping it simple, but we’ll break more into those two sections in subsequent posts. Hang on – it’s going to be an interesting ride!

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