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7 Doorway to Games

Published onFeb 19, 2019
7 Doorway to Games

Because everybody knows you’re supposed to save. Yet, only 47% of Americans have $400 in a savings account right now to cover an emergency.

—Nick Maynard, SVP, Commonwealth

“Game” Design and “game” Design

This is not really a chapter about game design. But it is definitely about Game design. Gee (2008) has sought to distinguish the “game” (with a little g), which is the software that comes in a box (or more likely delivered to your browser at this point), from the “Game” (with a big G) which also includes all the social and contextual surroundings for the game. The success of a Game, marked by both its effect on individuals and the scale it reaches, is heavily influenced by the entire Game ecosystem, not just the software itself. As designers, we must pay attention to the software, of course, but we also must carefully design the social and contextual surroundings.

Designing and creating these surroundings requires a different set of skills than designing the software. There isn’t a simple formula for creating this context. Instead, it requires understanding who the particular audience is, what their strengths and challenges are, why and where they would be playing the game, and how they transfer that learning. That is all very particular expertise. In school-based projects we might rely on teachers and school administrators to help provide that context. But other venues and audiences demand additional expertise. And this requires partnerships.

All the work we do requires partnerships. Throughout this book you’ve seen examples of partners we have sought. There have been schools, museums, content experts, educators, developers, production partners, and more. Most of our work focuses on middle and high school kids and STEM learning. So we have a good and growing network of great partners in that space. But we delve outside this content area and demographic when there are interesting opportunities.

What this chapter is about is the partnerships required to design, distribute, and implement games that have an impact. These partnerships include game designers and pedagogical experts, of course, but also content specialists, foundations and other funders, distribution channels, facilitators, consumers, and potentially many others. Finding great partners and making those partnerships work is an art in and of itself.

In this chapter we cover the following principles related to partnerships creating resonant Games.

  • Fostering communities of practice

  • Working with the right partners

  • Applying skills to daily life

  • Facilitating lifelong learning

Past Partnerships

One example of partnership is in the English language-learning game Xenos (figure 7.1), which we worked on for quite some time in the Education Arcade. In the early 2000s we were approached by colleagues in the Hewlett Foundation who were taking over the development of an English language-learning experience. The experience was to be for speakers of Mandarin (and later Spanish) who wanted to learn English. They needed design help to make this game work. Through a grant, we took over the design on the project, and in the ensuing years we worked with language and culture experts, development studios, foundations, and international partners to develop the game. In fact, the effort grew so much that the game formed the basis of a nonprofit company that we spun off called the Learning Games Network (LGN).

Figure 7.1 One of the minigames in Xenos, an English language-learning game.

One of the interesting challenges the LGN faced in implementing the game was how to reach the adult audience seeking this type of experience. While the language-learning market is fairly substantial, it primarily supplies products for affluent business travelers seeking language skills. Xenos instead targets low-income adults, often recent immigrants, to provide them with English language skills. So with additional foundation funding, LGN created partnerships with public libraries to run sessions for adults. LGN also partnered with BJs Wholesale Club to provide training to some of its employees. Neither of these was about “game” design. But they were about “Game” design. They were about designing the surrounding context and audience to make the experience successful. They were about creating communities of practice to foster learning.

Communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) are groups of individuals doing things together and interested in similar things. Obvious examples would be a photography club or a baseball team. They can also be a group of coworkers, or less formal groups as we see today in maker spaces. The defining elements of a community of practice are the domain, community, and practice. The domain is the topic or area of interest to the community. The community is the collection of people and the connections they make to each other. And the practices are what they actual do in the community. It is important to note that communities of practice are not homogenous, and the participation of individuals is not consistent. Different people can make unique contributions, and individuals can vary their level of participation, either moving from the periphery to the center over time, or even varying their position intentionally over time.

Reaching adult learners effectively means either tapping into existing communities of practice or creating new ones. In the case of Xenos at BJs, LGN was able to connect to existing communities of practice, the workers. Nonetheless, that community was not established for the purpose of language learning. That was not the domain of the community, nor one of the existing community practices. So Xenos could leverage an existing community, but it needed to insert a new domain and a new set of community practices. Considering ways to make those practices shared across the community requires some careful engineering. The new practices need to be connected to the existing values and activities.

Similarly, creating a new community of practice, like through the public libraries, also requires understanding the nature of the community that you are trying to construct. Are there ways of recruiting from other communities? How will the members of the community be introduced and supported? People in the community must become invested in the outcome and appreciate the need for the community itself.

The Principle of Fostering Communities of Practice

Communities of practice for players, educators, and even designers can greatly benefit the process but must be supported intentionally.

When applied

Resonant games are built by and used by communities. The communities required to create resonant games includes game designers, content experts, artists, players, educators, and marketers. Together this community works to understand the people who will be playing the game and how to reach them. But resonant games are also played in communities, groups of people who are either directly interacting through the game or interacting outside the game. Fostering that community is critical to making the game experience work.

When not applied

Resonant games cannot be built on narrow expertise. An expert in only the content area or only in game design will wind up with a game that is missing key characteristics, or will fail to meet the needs of the community. Games that are designed only for individuals will feel isolating or will fail to spread.

For Xenos, the community was a community of learners. They might come together at the library or just happen to work at the same place and have aligned goals. The game would leverage that community, and through these partnerships hopefully even strengthen that community. Such community is important in all games. Look at even the most successful of games—Minecraft. Part of what makes the game great isn’t just the game play, but the community of personalities large and small participating in the game in various ways from community mods to YouTube stars.

But the community aspect is even more important in a marginalized population. You need to be able to reach this audience, have their trust, and help them support each other. That makes building a community for a game like Xenos even harder.

Problematic Partnerships

There are a lot of people and organizations out there who believe that games are the pathway to success. In some ways, this is fantastic. The power of games to affect how people think and act is finally being noticed and leveraged for many positive purposes. But as you may see from the number of principles that we outline in this book, there isn’t a simple pathway to designing effective games (and certainly not to designing effective Games). Over time we have developed some red flag indicators for partners who see games as the current fad in capturing an audience versus partners who appreciate the richness and complexities of games and game development.

One of those red flags is a conversation that begins with a sentence like, “I’m interested in using games to make kids do X by making it fun.” There are at least two big problems with this approach. First, we don’t want to force anyone to do anything. Games are about connecting to players and meeting them where they are at. They aren’t about coercion. Second, the goal isn’t to make things fun but rather to leverage what is fun about particular topics, and to amplify that through game play. Instead of coming up with a predefined pathway, partners who appreciate these differences come to us with challenges, goals, and even ideas about what they think is fun about the particular topic.

Another red flag arises in conversations with prospective partners when we talk about the complexity and resources required to develop one or more games. These conversations begin with, “Can’t you just …” and then usually are completed by something like “reskin Angry Birds” or “reskin Minecraft” or whatever the game du jour is. They also seek to reduce the required resources by using the same mechanics to model different processes and systems.

The problem with this approach is that it merely creates chocolate-covered broccoli. The learning and outcomes aren’t tied in any way to the game dynamics. And this simply is not effective in promoting learning or change in any way. This isn’t to say that inspiration from other games and genres is negative—just the opposite. Thoughtful partners know what games are out there, how they work, and what people find compelling about them. And those ideas can and should be leveraged, when they can be mined for connections to the systems, processes, and goals of interest.

Many novices assume that the fun in games comes from expensive 3D graphics, intricate details and simulations, and production value. While some popular games do fit those criteria, many games with simple graphics and dynamics offer compelling game play and become big hits. Knowledgeable partners appreciate that there are many styles of games out there with different appeal to different audiences, and success comes from finding the right match, not simply replicating the fanciest production.

Most importantly, good partners do their homework to learn as much as they can about the endeavor of game development, and in turn they learn where they can contribute and where they need input from partners. These criteria apply to all partners, including designers and developers like ourselves, as well as organizations seeking to align with designers and developers to make games.

The Principle of Working with the Right Partners

Game projects benefit from partners that fit the project’s goals and provide complementary expertise.

When applied

Resonant games require not just working with partners, but working with the right partners. That means partners that have complementary skills and aligned goals. Complementary skills optimize work and ensure that all of the requisite pieces of the resonant game can be created. Aligned goals mean that the product can have a coherent vision.

When not applied

Choosing the wrong partners can take many forms. Sometimes that means loading up on some skills and missing others. That produces a lopsided game or a game that doesn’t connect in the right way with the audience. Misaligned goals can be even more problematic: with teams working at odds with each other, the product may never be finished, or at best may come out as a Franken-game, just a set of disparate pieces connected with each other.

The Doorway to Doorway to Dreams

So in 2007 when we received multiple requests from respected colleagues for us to take a meeting with Nick Maynard of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Doorway to Dreams (D2D) Fund (later rebranded Commonwealth, which is how we’ll refer to it here), we kept these principles of good partners in mind. One thing we did was do our homework on Commonwealth. Its mission is to “strengthen the financial opportunity and security of financially vulnerable people by discovering ideas, piloting solutions, and driving innovations to scale.” As Nick said in a 2016 interview, the number of people that fit in that category is staggering, around 162 million Americans. This was a departure from many partners we had worked with before, but certainly a noble mission.

Nick and Commonwealth had certainly done their homework as well. He had played recent popular games (at the time online Flash games were the rage, filling the space that many smartphone games currently fill). He was trying to understand what made these compelling experiences. He had tightly defined his audience of financially vulnerable young adults eighteen to thirty-five, and he knew what he didn’t know. This last trait is perhaps the most important. Not everyone in a game design and development project needs to be a game expert, or even particularly game savvy. They all need to be open minded, willing to learn, and contributing a unique set of skills. Good teams and partners are made of participants with varied skills.

As Nick relates, Commonwealth’s strategy is to have several initiatives in the pipeline at all times. Back around 2006, they had noticed all the game-based initiatives in other areas. “And then our co-founder Peter Tufano started seeing simulations in the business school classroom and so forth, and we started to wonder about the application of games toward financial education.”1 And at the time, the bar was very low in financial education. Nick says there was very little innovation in the space.

That led to this theory of change around Financial Entertainment. So [we could create] casual video games that try to focus on maybe three to five core learning objectives … but with a real hope towards directing people through that experience, to being an off-board to action-taking. In a world where the majority of financial education is a pamphlet or website full of information or, for employees, a big thick 401k pack, the offer is different. It’s “here’s a video game.” And more people, we believe—and our research shows this—will choose a video game over a packet. … If you have the right setup, then you can connect them to all the resources that exist, like their 401k platform, or information about how to set up a savings account.

The Commonwealth theory of change that emerged was

  1. Engage consumers: You have to grab their attention.

  2. Cultivate financial self-efficacy and financial literacy: Then you can start to help them learn about positive financial decisions.

  3. Enable initial action: And link that directly to actions that they can take.

  4. Support sustained behavior: And continue those behaviors over time.

  5. Realize positive economic outcomes: This ultimately leads to real economic change in the lives of individuals.

Game-Changing Games

Commonwealth’s idea was fairly simple—create some casual games that engage eighteen- to thirty-five-year-olds with mechanics and concepts related to financial education, and use that as a jumping-off point into action they can take to immediately improve their financial strategy. One of the key distinctions about this strategy is that the game needed to be designed for both learning and action/behavior. Connecting a game to a real-world situation may seem like it should be easy. Situating a game in a real-world problem that has real consequences should be engaging. But there are potential pitfalls in this design.

The Principle of Applying Skills to Daily Life

Game features and curriculum materials work together to demonstrate authentic context and to tie game play to real-world situations.

When applied

One of the great challenges of learning design is the challenge of transfer. Something that is learned in one context is difficult to apply in another context. With this in mind, resonant game designers consider the context in which the games will be applied and design to create easy transfer from the game context to the real world.

When not applied

Games that are not tied to authentic context can fail to resonate with the players because they fail to see the connection and personal relevance. Even if players wind up playing the game, they will not be successful in transferring their game play to understanding that is manifest outside the game.

There is a whole genre of games for change, or impact. These are games designed not necessarily to teach something new but to change people’s behaviors. The game should make them see something from a new perspective or change their actions and attitudes in some fundamental way. One recent example is That Dragon, Cancer, a game about a four-year-old boy with cancer. It is a game about finding hope.

Creating games that really effect change is much more challenging than it seems. The obvious perspective to take when making a game to understand the predicament of a financially challenged person, for example, is to put yourself into that person’s role and have you try to get out of it. The challenge there is that rather than developing empathy, the player may instead blame the person for making poor choices. A study on the game Spent, a game about poverty, found exactly this (Roussos, 2015). That study found, “Any positive feelings evoked by empathy from seeing the challenges of poverty are off-set—or even outweighed—by the negative feelings brought on by the belief that poverty is personally controllable, which is the inevitable result of playing a poverty game which emphasizes decision-making.”

The author of the game, Colleen Macklin, reflected on the design of the game (Parkin, 2016): “In a game you have complete agency, but in some life situations, people have no choice. … If a game is trying to create empathy in this way, it can back-fire spectacularly.”

Similarly, just telling people the right behavior is not enough to actually change that behavior. Oftentimes people know the right behaviors but still make the wrong choices. This is inherently human. In a recent study of young children’s dietary decisions, researchers taught children about healthy eating and mealtime decision making (Joseph et al., 2015). The children indeed learned that fruit was healthier than cookies, and when given a choice on a test, they were able to make the right decisions. But in real life when they were given that same choice, they reverted to preferring cookies over fruit. Knowledge is not sufficient for inducing behavior change in this case either.

So making a game that leads people to making responsible and proactive decision making about finances must involve more than understanding the perspective of people in that predicament, and it also must involve more than understanding the principles underlying such decision making. Commonwealth realized this: “Everyone was trying to push us to big game companies that did military work. And we wondered, how would 3D visualization of one’s life help? We didn’t feel that consumers wanted to play a game about being poor. And we certainly didn’t think it should be called ‘Don’t Be Poor.’”

Commonwealth focused on casual games, a genre that people in their demographic were familiar with. The organization didn’t have a desire to innovate in game dynamics, but preferred to use familiar dynamics to comfortably challenge people’s thinking. Those interactions could be backed up by a lot of data. Commonwealth knew its audience really well. It had data from interviews, banks, research, and federal agencies. The organization knew the problems that people faced and what they could do about them.

To move the idea forward, Commonwealth held a series of brainstorming sessions with our group, the Education Arcade, in which the first idea arose. Someone proposed the idea of celebrities and celebrity culture. Nick recollects, “What do celebrities spend money on? Back then, game designers thought it would be fun for players if it was drugs and alcohol that ran up credit card debt. And I thought, OK. We can work with this. And that's how that piece came together to create the first game. Afterwards, the goal became to figure out the best game mechanics.”

While the basic theme of the game, problematic celebrities, arose in a game jam, the development of this idea, like all Commonwealth games, was then connected back to continued testing and input from the target audience. What the players actually did, what their challenges and goals were, and how they interacted with the game were all subject to input from potential players. Commonwealth leveraged a marketing tool called Zaltman metaphor elicitation technique (Zaltman, 2001), a form of consumer research, to engage people in the process and subsequently engage with designers. This technique uses a series of images that research subjects bring and assemble with researchers along with in-depth, one-on-one interviews to elicit people’s thoughts, even when those thoughts are floating just beneath the surface of consciousness. It allows researchers to better understand what people are really thinking about the ideas, rather than what people think the researchers want to hear. These images might be of spending or saving money, how to manage their lifestyle and budget, or simply images of well-managed or poorly managed finances.

Once playable versions of what came to be called Celebrity Calamity were available, there was more research on how the games were perceived (figure 7.2). The first playables focused on players managing the finances of celebrities. The designers still needed to consider how this specific audience of adults, looking to learn and improve, would benefit from the game. As Nick explained it,

A big part of it was that we really believe in keeping the consumer at the center of all the decisions we make. … I cannot tell you how someone else needs to be motivated to save money. But they can tell me how they need to be motivated. That is the best case that we could ever make for any decisions, and it’s rooted in consumer preference and consumer demand.

Figure 7.2 Managing the finances of Alice Albudget, the first celebrity in Celebrity Calamity, with the main dashboard showing how happy the celebrity is and allowing the player to review her current financial status, such as current purchases, and the use of credit and debit cards (© 2017 Commonwealth).

The Principle of Facilitating Lifelong Learning

Considering design elements specific to lifelong learners will make the game more relevant and more accessible to players outside school.

When applied

Resonant games are not just about schooling. Instead they connect with concepts and contexts that transcend school, extending to life not just outside school but beyond. They connect to ideas that will be useful for life and applied in the future as well as in the present.

When not applied

Games that focus only on the immediate task at hand may produce short-term gains (e.g., the ability to recall the answer to a math problem), but those gains will be ephemeral and vanish immediately after the test. Learning from experiences that don’t account for this principle is not durable.

The final version of Celebrity Calamity puts players in the role of assistants to famous celebrities. The players’ job is to make the celebrities happy by providing them what they ask for, but also to manage their finances to make sure that they don’t go bankrupt.

The player must book appearances for the celebrity and “purchase” items that the celebrity needs. The bigger challenge comes in managing how to pay for all those things using a combination of credit and debit cards.

The purchasing phase of the game involves simply moving a character back and forth to collect money falling from the sky (a popular, simple mechanic at the time the game launched) as well as the other items that the celebrity has requested (figure 7.3). At the same time, players must avoid unnecessary purchases.

Figure 7.3 The money and item-catching phase of Celebrity Calamity, when the player must catch the falling money and the designated items, seen in the top row (© 2017 Commonwealth).

The celebrities further complicate things from time to time by making very big purchases all on their own. That is something that players need to factor in as they figure out the budget and how much debt to pay off. The game heavily emphasizes the need to pay off that credit card debt with a very high rate and provides a lot of positive reinforcement if and when that debt is paid off. Every round the player sees the current expenses, debt, and finance charges in a way that looks fairly similar to actual credit card statements (figure 7.4).

Figure 7.4 The credit card statement at the end of an early round with no debt (© 2017 Commonwealth).

As players make their way through the game, they are given the opportunity to manage other celebrities who have more demanding needs, which results in more challenging budgeting and finances. At the bottom of each page is always a leaderboard and links to financial resources to help with real life debt.

What worked about this game dynamic was not that it made people understand that debt is bad, or that saving is good. Nick says that what made the game work was “This efficacy component. So Celebrity Calamity moved the needle on self-confidence for folks with very low financial self-esteem. But the sense that this celebrity is making crazy purchases, and I get to bring control to that? That was empowering.” Celebrity Calamity generated over 100,000 plays in the first three years that it was launched, with frequent repeat traffic. Surveys also showed that it was reaching its target audience, with over 80 percent of game play from low- and middle-income players.

A Financial Entertainment Empire

Shortly after the launch of Celebrity Calamity, Commonwealth engaged in design for additional games. The next two were Farm Blitz and Bite ClubFarm Blitz continued with the theme of managing debt, while Bite Club was a game designed for understanding and encouraging retirement savings.

Farm Blitz (figure 7.5) was designed in the style of popular farming games of the time. It also took a more metaphorical approach to debt than Celebrity Calamity. The goal of the game was to grow food on your farm, which in turn required paying for seeds on credit. When you took on debt, the debt was expressed in terms of rabbits that were kept on your farm. The more debt you took on, the more rabbits were represented. And just like real rabbits (and real debt), the rabbits multiplied in numbers if you didn’t get rid of them.

Figure 7.5 The farm plot in Farm Blitz, showing the rabbits (debt) on the left, the farm crops in the middle, and the orchard of trees (savings) on the right (© 2017 Commonwealth).

After acquiring seeds at the beginning of the round, players plant them, and crops spring up. Crops are harvested by moving them around to make rows or columns of three or more of the same type, much like many casual match games. After harvesting as much as possible, players have the option of paying off some or all of the debt they have accumulated, which gets rid of some of the rabbits, or if players have paid their debt, they can stash some of their money in savings, which is represented as an orchard of trees.

Each round players are given a summary of their debt, savings, and cash on hand (figure 7.6), as well as details on finance charges and interest earned (figure 7.7), followed by prompts urging them to get rid of their debt before it multiplies and to save more trees.

Figure 7.6 The summary at the end of a Farm Blitz round, showing the current debt (in terms of rabbits), cash available (cash), and savings (in terms of trees) (© 2017 Commonwealth).

Figure 7.7 End-of-round summary for Farm Blitz showing finance charges and interest earned (© 2017 Commonwealth).

Bite Club took a more direct approach to modeling personal finance, though set in a more fantastical place. In Bite Club, you manage a nightclub frequented by various monsters—vampires, Frankenstein monsters, and so forth (figure7.8). The game borrows from task-management games like Diner Dash to challenge you to place the customers where they would like to be (e.g., at the bar, or dancing on the dance floor). If you make them wait too long, they will leave, and you will lose them as a customer. Satisfying more customers results in a larger take at the club, so most of the game is spent in this task-management mode.

Figure 7.8 The primary focus of game play in Bite Club, task management, placing the customers where they would like to be before they leave (© 2017 Commonwealth).

The mechanics are a little more intricate than the other two games, as the demands for the kinds of things that people want are fairly diverse. Some people (err, monsters) are looking for particular conversations with other patrons, some are looking to sit in a particular place, and others want specific drinks or music to dance to. Like most task-management games, Bite Club is a bit overwhelming, and a lot of triage is necessary.

Between rounds, you are given a financial update and have to make decisions on where to spend the earnings from each round. This is where the connection to savings happens. You come into the game with student debt that you are encouraged to pay off quickly (figure 7.9). There is credit card debt as well. On the savings side, you have regular savings and retirement savings. Retirement savings even includes an employer match (apparently the Bite Club is a good place to work). You need to allocate your cash into the different categories. The one category that is a bit different is retirement savings, which is not only a percentage but also set for several rounds at a time.

Figure 7.9 The financial management screen in Bite Club, showing options to pay off debt and add to savings (© 2017 Commonwealth).

Over time, you can also allocate resources to improving the club (adding tables or other amenities, some of which are just nice, others of which increase the capacity of the club and consequently increase revenue potential). Like the other games, there are many prompts (figure 7.10) that relate to the game’s learning goals. In this case, it is about paying off the debt fast, and then increasing your savings, particularly the retirement savings. To reinforce these goals further, there are periodic challenges to pay off debt or increase savings that result in additional rewards.

Figure 7.10 One of the prompts in Bite Club, suggesting paying off debt and getting money into savings, advice that works in the game and in real life (© 2017 Commonwealth).

Innovating Partners

While Commonwealth was not expressly trying to innovate in game dynamics, they were trying to innovate in partnerships and distribution. This is where they felt the key to their success resided. Nick said,

Another key part of what we’re doing with Financial Entertainment really focuses on the distribution channel and not only providing this information through games, but also through a trusted source. As a result, there were many times when we partnered with employers or educators, or credit unions or banks who licensed our games. At that level we also had several conversations about cocreating games with partners. In terms of distribution, the partnerships were the difference between some stranger telling you to play something and someone that you know and trust saying that this can help you. And that’s what we’ve really been able to benefit from as well.

The question was, “How do you get people to play Celebrity Calamity?” To convince funders that the games were having an impact, Commonwealth needed to get the games into the hands of people in its target audience and get them to engage in game play. This didn’t need to generate revenue, as many for-profit games hope to achieve; it just needed to generate game play. Nick explained,

This was a frequent question multiple stakeholders, including funders, asked us. Even though we had never envisioned just one game to solve it all, we had to start answering that question with just our first game complete. So we created a framework of different venues where we could access the audience that our funders care about—low to moderate income adults, 18 to 35. And then, we pursued strategic partnerships with community colleges, employers, government and nonprofits that could reach our desired audiences.

In some cases, folks came to us. For example, Staples was first introduced to us through a nonprofit in Wisconsin. They liked Celebrity Calamity, but debt and credit management weren’t pressing issues at the time for Staples’ employees. Since they really liked the idea of delivering content through a game, we were able to work with them on a different game that fit their retirement focus.

In a different example, as you saw in our study, Fort Hood (one of the largest army installations) approached us. They saw Celebrity Calamity and said “Wow! Soldiers play video games, let’s do something.”

We also partnered with a community college in Indiana, one of the largest in the country. To reach students within their multiple campuses statewide, we conducted several pilot tests through a diverse approach for outreach and marketing. And we saw positive results. In some cases, we engaged users in different types of tournaments and leader boards.

Through testing in different environments, we were able to learn what would work and what wouldn’t.

They tried a diversity of partnerships and many of them worked. But not all of them. One of the keys was partners who actually did active marketing, rather than passive distribution. Nick advised, “A lot of people want to take the content and put it on their site, but that doesn’t do anything. No one goes to it. Having a partnership where there’s true collaboration, where you’re thinking together about how to reach the consumer and communicate with them was necessary.” Some banks buried the game deep in a consumer portal, while another bank took the effort to create some art based on the game and place it on their home page. That bank had tens of thousands of people pass through to play the game, while those who simply buried it in the portal had nearly zero.

Nick explained that those successful partnerships are in fact often rooted in individuals.

In many of those institutions, there are creative folks who want to try something different, who are given some permission and context in which to do it, and then leverage what the games can offer.

With the community college, the marketing department of the school was the driving force for our games. They sent emails to all students. The number of plays from that email blast was astounding to me! It went to scale immediately.

The breakthrough partnership was with Staples and New York Life. Staples was intrigued by the next game in the Commonwealth lineup, Bite Club. That game and its sister game, Farm Blitz, were funded by the Social Security Administration through a financial literacy center in which Commonwealth was a partner. Through some network based on the early Commonwealth financial education partnerships, the organization connected with high-level executives at Staples. They were interested in promoting retirement savings and wanted to make specific connections to their 401(k) platform through New York Life.

So this integration was more sophisticated than previous links on portals and home pages. As Nick described it,

[This version] had Staples branding on it, … because Staples chose to customize the games. That was another piece they leaned into differently from other partners. They chose to add their branding, logos, and links out to the 401(k) platform, so people can go straight from game to action playing. They chose not to use email marketing, so, we used paper-based marketing with a URL. And people still found their way and played.

Even though most of the distribution was offline, in break rooms with posters and little strips of papers, the reach was quite successful. In some places Commonwealth saw 80–100 percent action rates, where nearly all employees were logging into the games, playing, and taking action. This is in places where “the stores were committed.” This storewide commitment help contribute to the creation of communities of practice in the break room. People who worked in the store could converse and share stories about their game play.

This is a part of the Game that connected game play with the players’ lives. These connections were not distant and intangible, but rather proximate and very discrete. There were specific actions that they could take that seemed meaningful in the context of the game and in their own lives. Nick described what happened during the second push for the game, which came around Halloween:

They had magnets and various other marketing materials common in other employee wellness initiatives but this time with vampires. And then two days before the launch, they pulled the plug because of an unexpected project. The games went viral anyway on their own because word had gotten out. There was all this demand that they were surprised to see. So their team wanted to figure out how to build this in the right way and do outreach. And then, that got them excited to customize the games further and build in the action-taking components.

And so we customized the games to have links in them at key moments, when we think your stress levels might be at the lowest, just basically guessing, here’s a hot link out to the New York Life platform. Go do something. Enroll in your 401(k), increase your contribution, check out the various resources, do something.

Success Is Learning from Failure

Part of creating successful partnerships is learning from unsuccessful efforts and either walking away from them or turning them around into something successful. As Nick Maynard said, “The failures are more important than the successes because it helps navigate us away from what may or may not work.”

And along with Commonwealth’s many successes, it also had a lot of learning opportunities. The failures, or learning opportunities, are useful to think of categorically. It isn’t that the partners are necessarily bad, misaligned, or naive, but there are some structural underpinnings to these partnerships that lead to problems.

One category is partnerships that position the game as an opportunity (or obstacle) within a very directed experience. Nick described one example of a portal that was being built for low-income individuals to find information. The game was placed among the other resources on the site. But no one clicked through. “They didn’t use it because … if you’re going to that site, you’re looking for something. You’re not going to stop and play a video game. You’re trying to solve a financial problem and you need resources for that.”

Learning from that experience, Nick explained why Commonwealth walked away from another partnership that was designed to set up the equivalent in-person approach.

We had a great relationship with a large financial institution. And they suggested distributing our games through their branches. Because of our research we in fact turned down this offer. While games in a branch sounded great in theory, the model wouldn’t work. Customers in branches want to engage with staff about their financials or branch business, and that’s exactly what they should do. They could use the games within an advertising campaign, for example, if they felt that would be attractive to customers, but our games wouldn’t benefit a consumer’s branch experience.

You also need a receptive audience. If people aren’t open to the ideas that you are trying to deliver, then it is definitely a steep climb. Commonwealth saw this in the domain of student debt. A large state university with one of the highest student debt rates in the country called the organization. The university wanted to use the Commonwealth games to help students address the issue. So Commonwealth went out and tested event marketing. The market testers had people dressed as characters from the game, they had kiosks where people could play, and they spread information, but there was no uptake. Ultimately, they decided that trying to reach really busy college students about a topic that they really didn’t want to face at that point was a recipe for failure.

Some of the failures came from what has now become obvious—that communities are required to sustain learning, and the lack of community often bodes poorly for spread. Commonwealth has had success working in military bases. Often these are long-term communities of people who know each other well. In other cases, the communities are much more transient and ephemeral. In cases where the community was long term, word of mouth made the games quickly go viral. In cases where the community was weak and short term, that word of mouth never helped the games spread.

But as much as you can learn from successes and failures, there is still something unpredictable about where the game will spread and where it won’t. At one point, Commonwealth had a partnership with the state of Massachusetts, with two avenues of distribution—state employees, and community colleges. State employees simply got a link on their pay stubs to the game site. For the community colleges, student ambassadors were selected to try to spread information around campus. The latter certainly required more effort and was more deeply embedded in existing communities. Despite that, the pay stub effort worked really well, and state employees played the game quite a lot (sometimes at work, which was not prohibited, as it was at Staples), while the school ambassadors had little success in the schools. Different populations and different opportunities, but still hard to predict all the factors leading to success and failure.


One of the places Commonwealth has had a lot of success, which it didn’t predict initially, is in middle and high schools. The games were not designed for school usage, but Commonwealth found that there was a “halo effect” that moved the games from the adult market into schools. At first it was just word of mouth getting passed around, but once Commonwealth was able to get a glimpse of who was using the games and why, representatives started to go to conferences where those teachers were to attract more. One such conference was that of the Council for Economic Educators. It turns out that many of the classes that teach economics also try to mix in some personal finance. Nick said,

One of the things that we’ve heard over and over again is, it’s hard to teach personal finance when you’re not a personal finance teacher. Because you yourself may not be a pillar of financial health. And so the responsibility of imparting wisdom that you may or may not be comfortable with yourself can be hard. But teaching kids to play a game is not hard.

I think there’s a comfort level. The bedrock of our games is breaking down some of the anxiety around introducing financial concepts. And that worked in terms of talking to a group of teachers about playing this game with their students. They don’t have to be experts. It’s about introducing concepts and understanding how money grows or money goes away, and how that works at a level that they feel comfortable with.

That initial success in schools led to grants specifically targeting schools. Banks were eager to offer local partnerships that targeted the games at those in need. Capital One partnered around Farm Blitz, one of the games that already had some teacher activity. Of course, fitting the games into regimented class periods and lessons is a challenge, particularly when they weren’t designed with those constraints in mind. But interest and adoption were high. It met a lot of other classroom requirements—opportunities for individual and group play, connections through reflection, and a low barrier to entry.

Another partnership was with Zion’s Bank in Utah and Idaho. That partnership targeted 250 schools across those two states. The bank had a financial literacy executive who was looking for new outreach opportunities. Through that partnership, Commonwealth was able to tap into existing activities and outreach, adding a game to existing infrastructure already set up to reach students. And it was a big win for the outreach to include a game compared to the pamphlets students were normally left with.

Over time the games have reached at least one district in all fifty states. And the adoption keeps going. There are schools that preload some of the games on their iPads. And schools come back year after to year to use the games again.

Research Op

Commonwealth has used data to show that what they are doing is effective, and that has opened up further opportunities. It has also engaged in a lot of research, though one of the most interesting studies was more naturalistic.

In the classroom, teachers often think of games as a tool to use to reinforce knowledge that the students have been taught in another way. But we think of games as an experience that gets students thinking and ready to learn from other media. A game prepares the student for future learning (Bransford & Schwartz, 1999).

Commonwealth was doing some outreach in afterschool programs through one of its bank partners. Commonwealth team members had two activities planned for the students, a computer lab for playing Celebrity Calamity and a related financial literacy lecture from a bank representative. It turned out that they didn’t have enough room in the computer lab for the entire group, so they had to split the group up into two. One group had the lecture first and then played the game, while the other group played the game first and then got the lecture. Nick described the results of this program.

In both cases when they played the game, pre- and post-test, scores went up. In the scenario with the lecture first, you have a volunteer from a bank doing the normal outreach. This group of kids didn’t pay attention, weren’t engaged, and didn’t ask any questions. The volunteer didn’t have a good experience, nor did the students.

The [other] group came out of the [game] sessions, and went into the lecture, and was engaged and asking lots of questions. Their brains were turned on. So, it was better for everybody. They were asking questions relevant to the game. They wanted to know more about what the characters were doing, and why they were doing it. And then the group that came in for the game [after the lecture] asked why they didn’t get this first? It was very interesting because we didn’t set it up that way—it was all based on numbers. But it became a natural experiment.

The scenario in which the students got the game first and then the lecture was a lot like the design of the game deployment in Staples and other places of business. They got the game first, which primed them for the next activity. For the students, that activity was about engaging in conversation about personal finance. For the Staples employees, it was learning about 401(k) options.

This action is what all the funders are concerned with, and it is what perpetuates the collaborations at Commonwealth. Nick said,

If you were to create a system where someone plays a game, and then takes steps to save money, or read about information related to an account or features. … That’s a financial action that can be measured. People care about that impact. People care that—it’s not just that 25,000 people played this game [but] 25,000 people played the game, finished the game, and also saved $10 today because they played the game. And for no other reason, would they have saved the $10, right? So that’s what we’re interested in.


As outsiders to game design, Commonwealth has some big takeaways that have driven its work and collaborations.

The first piece of advice is that there is a “difference between really being a partner in a project versus being like someone that we hire as a vendor.” For much of the work that Commonwealth does, it could simply hire contractors. And in some cases, those contracts could even reduce short-term costs, but partnerships are enduring and lead to future work. Thus Commonwealth invests in partnerships.

Second, team members work with people who are going to challenge their assumptions and work toward the best outcome. It isn’t about finding partners that agree with everything they say and take direction. It is about different partners bringing their strengths to bear on the project, and working toward a shared goal.

If some of this sounds strange, Commonwealth also notes that making a game for change (or a game at all) is “different than making software.” It is an iterative and creative process with outcomes that are clear, but the exact pathways to those outcomes need to be created and dreamed up.

And finally, the best advice that they could offer: “Play as many games as possible.”

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