Friday, August 26, 2016

The Search for Meaningful Work

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses research on work-related motivation, in particular on "perceived meaning," to see how this research applies to the game industry.

The number of businesses using a sales bonus, merit bonus, or performance-based incentive to motivate employees keeps rising and yet, study after study indicates that pay for performance programs are barely effective.  In fact, the most recent study conducted by market research firm, Willis Towers Watson, published in February 2016, found that only 20% of senior managers at North American companies surveyed felt that merit-based pay made any difference.

On the surface, pay for performance makes perfect sense. Put up a leaderboard of sorts, get employees pumped up in friendly competition, and reward them for their effort. Give the carrot and employees perform, right?  But, as we know from our understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivators like a cash payout can actually lead to the opposite effect: demotivation.

Employees at Disneyland hotels resented their performance-measuring leaderboard, calling it "the electronic whip." According to a 2013 study by the Institute of Leadership and Management, only 13% of employees are motivated by bonuses.  Instead, intrinsic motivators like job enjoyment, getting along with co-workers, and fair treatment by management rank higher. Blindly adding leaderboards, badges, and bonuses without addressing job satisfaction may be a misguided approach.

Of particular concern to the game industry is the demotivation that occurs after a long-term project has been canceled.  Duke University Professor Dan Ariely began studying "perceived meaning" in work after noticing the apathy that sets in after a team works on a project for many years only to have it canceled.  He found that the affected employees felt that their work was meaningless, just like King Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who was sentenced to roll up an immense boulder up a hill and watch it roll back down for all of eternity.

It turns out that meaningful work is very important and doing meaningful work is a reward in itself.  In the study, Man's Search for Meaning: The Case of Legos," by Ariely, Kamenica, and Prelec, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, the researchers purposefully set up pointless Sisyphean situations in which test subjects watched their reports shredded upon completion or their projects smashed in front of their eyes.  Test subjects who were given "perceived meaning," such as how their work would impact underprivileged students, performed better and even were willing to accept less pay for their work.

The study also showed that even the slightest amount of acknowledgement of the effort it took to complete the task increased motivation in the test subjects.  What does this mean for managers?  Basically, small things like showing appreciation to employees and reminding employees how their individual efforts connect to a larger goal can make a big impact.  If the larger project never gets completed, maybe an interim goal has significance.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 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, August 19, 2016

Game Editing Demystified

In this article, game designer Sande Chen examines the little known role of game editors in game development.

With increasing budgets and the need for costly voice recording, some game companies are employing teams of editors as well as writers on large game projects.  If you consider Fallout 4 had over 111,000 lines of voiceover dialog, which was recorded over the span of years, there's a need for consistency of style, pronunciation, and character personality in these recordings.  On an organizational level, it helps that there's someone there who is keeping track of how to pronounce fictional names and locations as well as guarding the lore.
Photo by Stan Jourdan (Flickr)

In addition to working with voiceover directors, game editors of course work with writers to refine their text, just as a book editor would do with an author.  Editors ensure continuity across branching narrative, which may be sprawling.  Their job is not to rewrite the story, but to make everything better.  This includes the normal proofreading tasks of fixing grammar mistakes and typos.

Game editors also work with localization teams on issues of cultural sensitivity or copyright infringement.  They may be on hand to give advice on how to avoid unknowingly offending certain groups.

According to Cameron Harris, who helped launch the IGDA Game Editing SIG and accompanying Facebook group, the efforts of game editors saved Bioware over 1 million dollars on the Mass Effect trilogy through a reduction of word count and overall oversight.

Clearly, game editors make an impact on the bottom line as well as on the quality of the narrative.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 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.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

SXSW Panel Picker: Beyond Turtles: Using Games to Teach Real Code

Hi!  It's that time of the year again for the SXSW 2017 Panel Picker.  Please vote for our panel on game-based computer science education.  We'll explain why game-based learning is good for computer science education and spotlight learning games used in classrooms now.

Register to vote and cast your vote here:

Beyond Turtles: Using Games to Teach Real Code

Session Description:

It’s 2017! Your students need to learn computer science. How do you teach them in a way that gets them excited about coding? How do you reach geeks and non-geeks, girls and boys, computer experts and total novices? How do you do this without a CS degree, comprehensive curriculum resources and standards, and a magic wand of learnination?

A diverse panel of learning experts will dive into how game-based learning can create growth mindsets and overwhelming coding obsessions in every student. We’ll discuss what to look for in learning games, common pitfalls in teaching CS and bringing games into the classroom, and how to be the content expert without having studied CS before.

And here's an interview I did with Microsoft New York on the importance of computer science education during Computer Science Education Week last year.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Games For Change Festival: Breaking Into the Education Market

In this video, game designer Sande Chen discusses the difficulties faced by game developers in breaking into the education market.

If you missed my presentation about the educational market at the 13th Annual Games For Change Festival, it's now on Games For Change's official YouTube channel along with other coverage from the conference.  Thank you all for the support.

As a reminder, all 5 research reports based on my research for the Cooney Center are on the Games and Learning website.  They can be found here:

Friday, July 22, 2016

What Game Designers Can Learn From Cinema

In this article, game designer Sande Chen explores the ways film directors are masters of audience manipulation and what that means for game design.

Last Monday, I had to opportunity to hear game director and writer Sam Barlow talk about the inspiration behind his award-winning game, Her Story, at the BAFTA Master Class in Lincoln Center.  Surprisingly, it began with an analysis of Alfred Hitchcock's famous movie, The BirdsI'm a graduate of USC Cinematic Arts who has studied Hitchcock in cinematography class, so I was all for it; it's just that usually, when speakers talk about film and games, it's about the differences, not the similarities or what we can learn from the great film directors of the past.

Barlow didn't talk about the visual language of films, but more about Hitchcock's deft manipulation of the audience's expectations.  It's similar to what writers would call "hopes and fears."  However, these are not the characters' hopes and fears, but rather, those of the audience.  We know The Birds is a horror film about birds, so we the audience anticipate a bunch of scenes with birds attacking.  In fact, at the beginning, we may not even mind if the main character gets attacked because she comes off as smug and spoiled.

Barlow points out that the birds don't start attacking right away.  There's a build-up of anticipation.  The first attack, depicted in this scene, doesn't happen until some 30 minutes later. 

When there's a switch from mystery to suspense, the audience knows more than the characters and therefore can shout at the characters, "Don't do that!"  They become invested in the story.  What the audience knows or doesn't know is up to the director.

In contrast, traditionally, readers of mysteries marveled at the grand reveal of the killer in a whodunit.  Nowadays, more often than not, in a TV crime show, we may already know who's dead and who killed the victim.  Our viewership has become more sophisticated because we're more interested in the how and the why of the crime.  We are active viewers.

Can this work in interactive fiction?  As Barlow explains, Her Story builds upon viewer expectations about police procedurals. The player has certain expectations as to what might be happening and dives right into the investigation.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose experience spans over 10 years in the game industry.  Her credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus and the 2007 RPG of the Year, The Witcher.  She is the chapter leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Upcoming Workshops: Game Writing and Sci Fi Deep Dive

If you've been coming to my workshops at PlayCrafting NYC, then you know that we've been covering many different topics in game writing.  This month's Game Writing Portfolio Workout on Monday, July 25, will be the culmination of all we've discussed because we will be going through exercises based on writing tests given by game companies.  Hopefully, through this process, you'll come to understand your strengths and weaknesses. 

If you come this month, bring a laptop or notepad and be prepared to do a lot of writing!

As always, Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development, has Early Bird tickets, but if they sell out (and they have in the past), you'll have to pay full price.

The details!
Date:  Monday July 25, 2016
Time: 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM

And coming up on Saturday, September 10, for the first time, will be my half-day workshop on incorporating science fiction, fantasy, and horror elements into any type of writing.  I've been yearning to do a deep dive about genre fiction and what better place than at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in historic Philipse Manor at Sleepy Hollow, NY.  This workshop will be limited to 15 students and if you become a member of the HVWC, then you receive a discount off courses as well as other benefits, such as help in submitting your work to journals, agents, and publications.

The details!  
Date: Saturday, September 10, 2016
Time: 12:30 PM - 4:30 PM

About Me

My background is a mixture of theatre, film, journalism, economics, and writing.  I received a S.B. in Writing and Humanistic Studies (now the major of Comparative Media Studies) at MIT and then I specialized in Screenwriting at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.  My first published game as a writer was on the epic space combat RPG, Terminus, which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival.  Afterwards, I worked on the episodic fantasy series Siege of Avalon, MMO Wizard101, and the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher, for which I was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. I currently head the WGAE Videogame Writers Caucus and am SIG leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Upcoming Wearable Tech

In this article, game designer Sande Chen previews upcoming wearable technology and how it may transform the way we live our lives.

HoloLens Photo: Microsoft Sweden
While much excitement has been generated by the potential of high-end VR devices, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and the more affordable smartphone-using Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, I'd like to spotlight two more technologies coming to consumers.  Microsoft HoloLens isn't VR, but what's known as "mixed reality," whereby holographic images are projected atop real environments.  If you've ever played an augmented reality game like Niantic's Ingress, then this is similar except that there's no phone.  This is a head-mounted display.

Here's a video from Microsoft that depicts uses for the HoloLens in daily life, in education, in collaborative workspaces, and in entertainment.

Google's Project Jacquard is technology woven into everyday clothes. Yes, like this upcoming first-ever "smart garment," Levi's Commuter x Jacquard.  Basically, conductive yarns can be woven into clothing, like jeans, jackets, shirts (well, anything fabric), turning them into touchscreen devices.  With the jacket, you can answer phone calls, get directions, and turn on music.  And it's machine washable.  How's that for functional?

Is there any new technology you're excited about?  Let me know in the comments!

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 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.