Meaningful Play 2022 at Michigan State University

Session Information

TitleMagic, Myth, & Meaning in Game Design

Andy PhelpsAndrew "Andy" Phelps is an artist, designer, and professor at the Human Interface Technology Laboratory NZ (HITLabNZ) within the College of Engineering at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand exploring virtual and augmented reality, games and education, and art and interactive media experiences. He is also the Programme Manager of the Digital Screen Campus at Canterbury centered on the intersection and convergence of film, games, and virtual production. He is also a professor in the Film & Media Arts division of the School of Communication, holds a joint appointment in the Department of Computer Science, and is the director of the AU Game Center at American University in Washington DC, USA. Prior to these appointments he served as a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology as the founding director of the School of Interactive Games & Media, the RIT Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction & Creativity, and MAGIC Spell Studios. Phelps is also currently president of the Higher Education Video Game Alliance (HEVGA). His latest games are The Witch's Way (, 2021) and Fragile Equilibrium (XBOX, Steam, 2019), and he maintains a website of his publications, popular writing, artwork, curriculum development, and more at

Doris RuschDr. Doris C. Rusch is a professor of game design with a special focus on Transformative Play at Uppsala University, Department of Game Design. She is the author of "Making Deep Games" and numerous journal papers and book chapters, has given conference presentations and keynotes at GDC, FDG, Meaningful Play, FROG, DiGRA and a variety of other games conferences. She is the vision holder and lead designer on many award winning games that deal with mental health issues and other salient aspects of the human condition, e.g. Elude (a game on depression), Akrasia (addiction), the interactive documentary project For the Records (created together with documentary filmmaker Anuradha Rana, the project deals with bipolar disorder, eating disorder, ADHD and OCD), Soteria - Dreams as Currency (anxiety) and A Beautiful Story (a game about domestic violence and the cycle of abuse). She received the Spirit of Inquiry award for this work at DePaul University. Her TEDx talk on "Why Game Designers are Better Lovers" presents a take on game design inspired by her practice as a life coach and discusses how creating games with others based on personal issues can stimulate dialogue, empathy, a deep connection and create a liberating and playful distance to the issue as well as open it up to explorations and solutions. Lately, she dedicates her attention to Operation SASSY - an initiative to promote soulfulness and sustainability in academia through playful interventions, self-inquiry and collaboration.

TimeThursday, October 13, 9:00a-10:00a
LocationMSU Union Ballroom
DescriptionWe are facing many social, cultural, economic and environmental crises, and with mental health issues rising worldwide, these crises are also internalized. Instead of the constant paralyzing dread, can we instead imagine, create, and connect ourselves to a future that is worth living in, and where we as humans are worth saving? What can we, as game researchers, contribute to the design of this future, so its uncertainty unfolds in a way that is not only sustainable but regenerative? How can we work - from a theoretical, practical, and boundary-crossing perspective - with games as these liminal possibility spaces, to explore and envision new ways of thinking, acting and being; possibility spaces in which we can investigate what has meaning for us and how we can live in alignment with our deepest values? As storyteller and mythologist Martin Shaw put it: "Bad storytellers make spells. Great storytellers break spells." How can we work with games as the mythical and ritualistic media of the 21st century to understand the spells we as individuals, cultures and communities are under and do our part to break them?

Conceptually, this collection of shimmering ideas are slowly forming and coalescing over several years of shared work, informed by existential psychotherapy in so far as its starting points are the fundamental questions of "meaning", "identity", "death" and "isolation". Our work has courted myth and ritual as symbolic forms of communication that connect us deeply to our unconscious and re-establish communication between our rational and feeling selves and how we can harness myth and ritual for the design of games that contribute to a meaningful life. The journey has led deeper and deeper into recognizing the need for inner alignment with personal values as the foundation for a sense of connectedness and oneness with oneself, others and the environment. It has been profoundly inspired by the work of Monica Sharma and Karen O'Brien on transformational leadership for sustainability. It has opened the door to an inquiry into the question of how to design games for empathy, connection, reflection, and the ability to change our minds.

Building on our initial work some years ago at DiGRA on an existential, transformational framework for game design, this talk presents our latest thinking on these subjects, and also offers a challenge to the design community, asking how we can focus not on broad, surface level outcomes, but on deeply personal, individual and lasting change through games and playable media.

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