Saturday, September 21, 2019

Public Science Literacy Through Entertainment Games

In this video, game designer Sande Chen discusses how public science literacy is cultivated through game-based learning, simulations, citizen science games, and game creation.

Last year, I was honored to speak at the 2018 World Conference on Science Literacy in Beijing, China.  It was an amazing day to hear from colleagues and analysts about their work in serious games, game-based learning, or gamification. Many thanks to TenCent Technology, who hosted and organized the forum.

You can view the video online here:  https://v.qq.com/x/page/j0930tmm9c5.html




A summary of the day (in Chinese) is posted here.   


About Me:   

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer with over 15 years of experience in the game industry.  Her writing credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus, MMO Hall of Fame inductee Wizard101, and the 2007 PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing.  She is the co-author of the book, Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform, and was a contributor to Secrets of the Game Business, Writing For Video Game Genres, and Professional Techniques for Videogame Writing.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Second Annual Interactive Fiction Creator's Conference

Hi!  I'm pleased to share with you that I will be a keynote speaker at the Second Annual Interactive Fiction Creator's Conference, presented by Decision Fiction.  I will be talking about game design and interactive fiction on Saturday September 28th at 11 AM.  The conference is free to attend and online.  Simply sign up at the link.

I hope you will tune in to hear what writers, technologists, and game developers have to say about the state of interactive fiction. The theme is "Interactive Fiction For Everyone!"

I am especially delighted about this event because this will be my second time as an remote speaker. I'm certain it won't be as complicated as the last time when I used an avatar in a virtual world to present a lecture about how technology is changing storytelling. There was no Microsoft Powerpoint in that virtual world, lol!



the details! 

Second Annual Interactive Fiction Creator's Conference
When: Saturday September 28th & Sunday September 29th
Where: Online!
Sign Up Here: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/second-annual/register?session=1

About Me:   

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer with over 15 years of experience in the game industry.  Her writing credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus, MMO Hall of Fame inductee Wizard101, and the 2007 PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing.  She is the co-author of the book, Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform, and was a contributor to Secrets of the Game Business, Writing For Video Game Genres, and Professional Techniques for Videogame Writing.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Preview: Decision Fiction

In this article, game writer Sande Chen gives a preview of the upcoming choice-based story app from Decision Fiction.

Now that the TV viewers have experienced interactive choices on NetFlix's "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch," start-up company Decision Fiction is hoping it's time for prose lovers to fall in love with choice-based stories.  The app will be available on iOS, Android, and messaging services.

Unlike other companies in the CYOA marketplace, Decision Fiction's focus is not on visual storytelling or even gamers, but on writers and readers. Writers don't have to write cinematics or learn scripting. They can submit in Twine or whatever is easiest for them. Meanwhile, readers have Avatars and are guided through the interactive fiction experience by gamification.  There will be Missions, similar to Achievements, that can unlock special badges. Artifacts, a type of power-up, can be bought, won, and used in-game. One example of an Artifact is the Reverse Motion Potion, which allows a reader to undo the last decision. Avatars can be dressed up with costumes, which can also be bought or earned in stories.

While gamification to an extent has been used before in reading communities such as Goodreads, Decision Fiction aims for more than just lists and reviews by the addition of these virtual goods.  This approach is unique among the reader-centric apps.  Even Galatea, which brands itself as "immersive fiction" or "addictive fiction," does not require virtual goods because its interaction consists of ARG-like character text messaging, sound effects, and visuals.

Decision Fiction considers itself an aggregator and distributor of interactive fiction gamebooks. It's a space not quite visual novel and not quite novel. Among its ambitions, Decision Fiction aims to be the one to create a new literary genre for mainstream readers.

To do so, Decision Fiction will include analytics so that writers can see what's working and what's not working for readers. This ecosystem of writers and readers is of utmost importance to the company.

This philosophy comes from a collaboration between an interactive fiction writer and technologists. Last month, I had the opportunity to speak with Sir Robinson and Tejas Bhatt about the genesis of Decision Fiction.  Bhatt had never heard about interactive fiction before meeting Robinson in an Internet chatroom, but was excited by the idea of building a platform that would solve this question: How can interactive fiction be monetized successfully?

Decision Fiction's route of gamifying interactive fiction and using virtual goods may be the answer.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 15 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.,

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Storytelling with Game Consequences

In this article, game designer Sande Chen reports on Jason Rohrer's session at the 2019 Taipei Game Developers Conference, in which he gave his thoughts about storytelling in games, games as art, and how his game design processes have evolved.

Independent game developer Jason Rohrer, best known for his game, Passage, debuted an open source image selector (available on GitHub) at the 2019 Taipei Game Developers Forum on Thursday, July 11, 2019 to go along with his non-linear, spontaneous presentation about storytelling in games, games as art, and the evolution of his work.

His latest effort, One Hour One Life, is a multiplayer online survival game in which players can spawn either as a helpless baby, a woman, or a man, and as the title implies, one hour corresponds to one lifetime. Cooperation is key to survival. 

Rohrer took a roundabout approach in explaining why permadeath was necessary in the design of his game. He wanted the players to feel like their choices had real game consequences and so if players allow babies to die, then there's no Undo or Rewind. There will never be a playthrough where the babies live and the players will never know what would have happened if the babies had lived. Since it's multiplayer, all the players are witnesses to the babies' deaths.

One Hour, One Life

Rohrer explained that storytelling engines haven't quite advanced to the point where he didn't feel like the storytelling was forced or fake. They either take the branching narrative approach or AI a la Facade. He's skeptical of AI ever producing great creative works and jokingly asked if we wanted HAL to tell our stories. As for branching narratives, even when there are a multitude of options, he still felt that because the player can replay the choice, the consequences don't feel impactful.  

Rohrer acknowledged that he's usually associated with the genre of games known as "art games," or games with artistic purpose. He thinks about what it is that games can uniquely do and how games can tell stories. None of his games are like Choose Your Own Adventures (CYOA). With Cultivation (2005), it was about building a mechanical system that allows the player to make and reflect on choices within that system. With Passage (2007), the game mechanics are metaphorical as if they were lines of a poem. He continued in this mode until he began to feel like this was like a high school English class where students write essays about what something means. No one goes to the movies to look for symbolism, he pointed out.

Now he thinks about creating "unique aesthetic experiences" that can only occur within video games. For instance, Inside a Star-Filled Sky is an infinite, recursive shooter. One can enter a monster and find another world with monsters and enter those monsters and find another world, etc.  It creates this feeling of diving in so deep that one forgets what one was doing in the first place.  

He mused about whether or not the game industry would ever produce that "Citizen Kane of games" a game so powerfully meaningful it's a transformative experience. He argued that there hasn't even been a game equivalent to the film Titanic, let alone Citizen Kane. He put up a list of games like Shadow of the Colossus, the first Zelda, and Metal Gear Solid II and said that even these amazing games paled as culturally relevant experiences when compared to masterpieces like the novel, Lolita.

Whether or not games are culturally relevant has been a subject of debate for more than a decade.  A watershed moment occurred in 2009 when industry watchers proclaimed with great fanfare that the video game industry had surpassed film because Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (CoD: MW2) had earned over a billion dollars.  Yet, as Rohrer showed in a graph, CoD: MW2 only sold around 20 million units whereas the film Avatar sold 360 million, Titanic sold 400 million, and the classic Gone With the Wind moved a billion units.  Therefore, the average man on the street probably knows Gone With the Wind or Titanic or Avatar, but what about CoD: MW2?  Even if that average Joe were to go play CoD: MW2, Rohrer argued, that person would not say, "OMG this experience has enriched my life! I'm in tears because CoD: MW2 has so deeply changed my life forever."

Rohrer acknowledged that there was a skill barrier to beating and winning at video games. Perhaps, he said, this barrier is so great that video games will never be as accessible as movies, books, and other mainstream media and therefore, cannot achieve cultural relevancy.  Another issue is that as technology marches on, classic games are no longer available, since the hardware becomes obsolete. This didn't occur with other media. Analog TVs still work with converters. CDs from 1983 still work, but a game like Quake was originally designed for specific hardware and emulators don't always capture that original experience. Rohrer had no doubt that engineers could make gaming systems backwards compatible if it were an industry expectation.  

For about 15 years, Rohrer has been creating games that are insightful and innovative. Mainstream media press have found his work to be deeply moving and complex, even tear-inducing. Despite his intellectual ponderings on whether or not video games can be considered masterpieces of art, others have already decided that Rohrer's work fits that description. In 2016, he became the first video game creator to have a solo retrospective in an art museum.

[Jason Rohrer's recorded session will be available on IGDA Taiwan's YouTube channel soon.]

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 15 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG., 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Braid Behind the Scenes

In this article, game designer Sande Chen summarizes Jonathan Blow's session at the 2019 Taipei Game Developers Forum, in which he gave a behind-the-scenes look at the development of his game, Braid.

Speaking to a packed audience at the 2019 Taipei Game Developers Forum last Wednesday, July 10, 2019, independent game developer Jonathan Blow detailed a three-year struggle against naysayers during the development of his game, Braid. The 2008 runaway indie hit, considered by many to be a masterpiece, obviously defied its critics when it sold 55,000 units in its first week on XBox Live Arcade and earned Blow more than 4 million dollars in revenue.


Blow took the audience back to the very beginning with his Super Rough Draft Version, a bare-bones prototype featuring programmer art made in Paint. Despite the simplicity, this early playable level encapsulated the design principles he intended for the game. He had been thinking about the Rewind ability, in which a player is able to rewind prior actions  This had been implemented in previous games like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time so that players could rewind and fix mistakes, but hadn't been groundbreaking. Blow wondered how a game would change if a player had unlimited Rewind and did not have to worry about dying.

Moreover, all the puzzles in his game would be tied to this Rewind ability.  It would be about realizing mistakes, seeing the puzzle differently, and taking a different approach.  Because this was an untested concept, he wanted the game genre to be one that was simple and familiar so that when things got weird, players would not get confused.  He chose to do a platformer.

Finally, he was purposefully aiming for a game with "artistic attitude," even though at the time, it was controversial to consider games as art. Film critic Roger Ebert would famously say that video games can never be art. Blow explained that because there was no concept of art games or a big enough indie game community, it was very hard for him to recruit an artist to work on his game.  He would send prospective artists his demo and get shot down.

He read segments of an e-mail from one such artist who gave lots of unsolicited advice on how to make the game better because "the video game industry is very unforgiving." Blow speculated that the artist thought he was a confused newbie who didn't know anything about game design. The Independent Games Festival (IGF) judges in 2006 thought otherwise. Braid won Innovation in Game Design.

Encouraged by this development, Blow resubmitted Braid to IGF the following year, hoping to win a grander prize, but it didn't even become a Finalist.

Steam, which in 2007 was a heavily curated storefront, would be another dead end.  Steam projected that the game would sell less than 5000 copies and rejected the game. Blow even tried a back channel to Valve, which did not succeed.

Still, despite all the negativity from outside sources, Blow's friends maintained that Braid was something special and that they really liked it.

Blow persisted and got the attention of someone at XBox Live but even then, Braid was almost canceled twice by Microsoft and his art outsourcing company lost interest in the game.

Thinking back, Blow wondered why people, especially people paid to find future hits, didn't see Braid's potential.  He concluded that it's really hard for people to look at a work-in-progress and see its finished form.  Because of this, a lot of times, feedback will be wrong or at least conservative.  Therefore, it's vital that a game creator be able to communicate the future vision to team members and others.

In 2008, Braid won numerous awards, including XBox Live Arcade Game of the Year, and a decade later. is considered a transformative work that changed the market landscape by proving that independent games could be financially successful.

[Jonathan Blow's recorded session will be available on IGDA Taiwan's YouTube channel soon.]

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 15 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Pre-K Apps, Screen Time, and Infants

In this article, game designer Sande Chen reviews current guidelines on screen time and discusses what this means for Pre-K app developers.

Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) revised its guidelines on screen time, recommending severe limits for children under 5.  The guidelines state that infants less than 1 year old should not be exposed to electronic screens of any kind and that children between ages 2-4 should only have one hour of sedentary screen time.  This largely echoes the current guidelines issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 2016, which state that children under 18 months should avoid all screens except for occasional video chat with family members. As more research emerges on how screen time disrupts normal brain development in infants, it is expected that the AAP will update its guidelines as well.

So what does this mean for app developers in the lucrative Pre-K market?

While most Pre-K app developers target ages 3+, there is a subcategory of educational games and programs known as lapware, ostensibly targeted to the non-verbal child sitting in a caregiver's lap.


We already know from survey data that despite these guidelines, parents routinely expose infants to electronic screens.  Some parents even admit to leaving smartphones and tablets in the crib overnight, perhaps leading to this invention of a crib with a multimedia tablet dock.

While we could abdicate responsibility to parents for making the choice to use electronic babysitters, we can instead choose to address the concerns that screen time is harming child development.

How can we do this?

As I argued in "What's Wrong with Pre-K Game Apps," we should be developing apps for co-use by a caregiver and child.  Children under the age of 3 learn through social interaction and it's important to retain this face-to-face aspect.  Furthermore, we need to tone down the bells and whistles not only because the overstimulation of screen time seems to lead to hyperactivity, but also because young children don't learn very well when there are too many distractions.

Of course, in regards to infants, if parents choose to limit children's screen time, that is all and well, but parents should also remember to limit their screen time too.  A recent 20/20 report entitled "Screen Time" showed clip after clip of babies and toddlers trying to catch the attention of distracted parents with smartphones.  Even young children under the age of 3 are aware when a parent's attention wavers.

Overall, as an industry, we are facing increasing pressure to take responsibility for limiting screen time. By June 2019, apps sold in China will be required to have a "youth mode" to allow parents to limit screen time and prevent children from accessing the app from 10 PM to 6 AM.  This follows similar regulations and fines in South Korea and Taiwan.  Before the regulators come for you, why not show that not all screen time is inherently detrimental to children's health?

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 15 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Augmented Reality Gaming Kid Toys

In this article, game designer Sande Chen takes a look at various augmented reality gaming kid toys on the market.

Have you kept up with the latest tech-savvy gaming kid toys?  In the past, there were the little critters that had thumb drives and plugged kids into a virtual world of mini-games.  There were interactive toys that tried to talk with you, or through cleverly scripted questions, made kids feel like a doll or animal really knew them (especially after Mom or Dad inputted birthdates and fave activities).

Considering the popularity of Pokemon Go, it's not surprising that augmented reality has made its debut among educational and entertainment toys.  All of them require an app installation.  Here's a couple to consider.

In 2017, kids age three and up were introduced to Parker the teddy bear, whose owners can play teddy bear doctor by viewing Parker's insides and monitoring the bear's Happiness Factor.  The app also includes a number of math and science puzzles.


Hasbro's first AR offering came in 2018 with the Marvel Avengers: Infinity War Hero Vision Iron Man AR Experience.  The app is downloaded and the phone inserted into the AR goggles so that kids can pretend to be Iron Man and battle enemies in the living room.


The latest of note is LEGO Ninjago AR, which brings LEGO sets to life with animations and characters. Two players can team up and fight against hordes of Dragon Hunters, unlock power-ups, and post high scores.


So far, ratings on Amazon and the Apple app store have been mediocre. There's technical issues such as the app crashing or an ill-fitting helmet.  As more apps come to market and more devices become capable of handling AR, there's hope that these problems will get sorted out.  Despite the snafus, it's an exciting time for kids to be playing with these enhanced physical toys.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 15 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.