My name is Nicholas Laborde, and I believe that games can change the world.
I'm an indie "business guy" in Lafayette, Louisiana, the heart of Cajun culture. Here, we look at the world a little differently; whereas much of American culture can be defined as "live to work," we in Lafayette are far more of a "work to live" culture.
But don't let that dissuade you - we know that work is important. We simply look at things from the lens of what's most important. Simply put, the Cajuns believe in devoting their lives to work worth doing, if and only if that work doesn't compromise who we are (whether that means our values, our family lives, etc.).
I mention this cultural viewpoint because it has a genuinely profound influence on the way I run my company, on the way I do business, and of course, on the way that I make games - and it has led me to the conclusion that we're designing games wrong.
In 2016, almost a year to the date of this article's publication, I lost my grandfather. It hit me like a train that I had only truly just gotten to the age where I could maturely appreciate my loved ones, only for it to be too late to practice that appreciation. In my grieving, I decided to create Evangeline, a 20-minute experience designed for players to reach out to loved ones by the conclusion.
"When designing games, we should stop for a second and consider that crucial first question we all ask ourselves: Who is my audience?"
At first, I had no idea what this game was going to be. Inspired by a particular moment in Tearaway Unfolded (thank you, Media Molecule!), I knew that I had to channel my grieving into something productive not only for myself, but for others. I asked myself, "What would I say to my grandfather if I had gotten to talk to him one last time?"
This is the exact premise behind Evangeline. After our short story arc concludes, we encourage players to pick up the phone and call a loved one - and for no other reason than to express their love and appreciation.
The risks were high for such an unorthodox game objective. What if people skipped past the prompt? What if our story didn't impact them enough to want to make the call? What if people simply think it's not worth doing?
With much trepidation, we launched in January with no idea what to expect.
Within hours, my entire perspective on game design had changed.
I was swarmed with messages and comments from players who had positive moments with their loved ones. One that I will never forget is a player mentioning that they called their mother, who was at work and seemed very busy. He told her that he loved her, and that he wanted to tell her that for no other reason than to show his appreciation.
As the days and weeks went by post-release, I kept getting more and more of these kinds of comments.
This is where I'll sound particularly Molyneux-esque, so forgive my "business guy" pitch-y nature.
I realized that our game was not a game, but a tool - a tool used to connect people with loved ones. Everything else was, as we say in south Louisiana, lagniappe (a Cajun French term for "something extra").
I've since become fascinated with the idea of games having a real-world component as part of their gameplay. This is not about a motion or fitness- based component (and is certainly not to discredit those games); rather, this is about causing real-world change as a result of playing a game. When the impact of Evangeline's end-goal hit me, I can say that it was the closest thing to a "spiritual" moment I have ever experienced. I knew that I had to keep pursuing the idea of real-world action as part of game design. As Raconteur Games begins pre-production on our third game, we're thinking of this real-world component and how our game can make the world a better place simply by players entering into our world.
Of course, this is not to say that this is a magical key to game design that everyone has to adopt. I play Battlefield 1 for an arcade-y romp across virtual war zones, and the likelihood of a game such as that aligning itself with the goal I am suggesting is slim.
Not everyone wants to play a game like the one I created, and there's nothing wrong with that. At the end of the day, entertainment can simply be entertainment with no strings attached; sometimes, we just need a few hours of fun that lets us forget about the world. I wouldn't want to play my game after the end of a tough day when I needed an escape!
Instead, I offer that when designing games, we should stop for a second and consider that crucial first question we all ask ourselves: Who is my audience? By knowing your target audience, you can better dissect what that audience's motivations are and if they would be a good fit for a real-world goal (or whatever goal you have).
When designing Evangeline, I spent a lot of time figuring out who would want to play this game, which helped me feel confident that in the end at least a few people would take us up on our call to action. From the get-go, I was completely aware that this was not a game you played between high-intensity shooter matches, and that the audience had to know upfront that it's about connecting with loved ones.
Throughout my life, I have found that the media that caused me to reflect upon my own life experiences always had the most powerful impacts on me. Let's hearken back to that Tearaway Unfolded moment I mentioned earlier, as spoiler-free as possible. Near the end of the game, the player finds themselves in a particularly treacherous world. When it seems as though the time to turn back and give up would be now, one of the central characters in the game stops the player and says, "This is your story! You are the message, Iota! Don't end up unread - who will you inspire then?"
"No longer are games just experiences on a screen for a set number of hours, with a return on investment proportional to market demand"
As soon as I heard it, I was moved to tears, as that was the morning that I received the news that my grandfather had passed away. The message hit me at the right time and the right place, and it inspired me to reflect on what my message was and who I could "deliver" it to. This was not a formal call to action like I am suggesting, but it was an effective way of causing an examination of who I was and what I wanted to achieve - and if it makes sense to include that in your game, please do. It may even inspire other games!
My challenge to you, developers: Make games that encourage real-world action. Whether you want something as directly impactful as supporting a social or political cause, or you desire an outcome as simple as picking up the phone to spread some love and kindness in a rapidly changing world, incorporating a real-world action as part of your gameplay experience can have incredible effects.
My experiences have led me to the conclusion that we're looking at games in the wrong way. No longer are games just experiences on a screen for a set number of hours, with a return on investment proportional to market demand... games are social and cultural experiences that are growing in depth and complexity, with passionate communities and followings behind them. Why not try to make a tangible change in the world through those people playing your game?
Cliff Bleszinski once said, "Video games are like a religion; you want to get people tattooing your little logo on their body so they'll get somebody else interested in it too." We should try to take that one step further.
I believe that games can change the world, and change begins with action.
Let's make games that leave the world a better place than we found it.