Neighbours: Using serious games as a tool for community building & research

One of the main goals of the circulate project is to create design tools and frameworks that can aid professionals in the field and community members in the design of digital services for research communities.

Neighbours is one of these tools. Created to help community members and facilitators to explore the values within a community, with the ultimate goal of providing valuable insights for community regulations and the development of platforms to promote the production, sharing and management of their common resources.

The Game

Neighbours is a scenario game drawing on games like Black Stories and Cards Against Humanity. By having players interact and discuss dilemmas which may arise in community living, we aim to better understand the underlying economic and social values in collective living societies.

The game starts off with one player taking the role of question master and the rest of the players taking the role of guesser. The question master reads out a scenario and three possible options he/she can go for. The guessers subsequently need to guess which option the game master is most likely to go for, thereby discussing the topic, revealing their assumptions about their community member and voicing their own opinion. The game is further complicated by adding extra details to the scenario over the course of 3 rounds, with the guessers being able to reevaluate their answer. Finally, the question master reveals their stance, promoting more discussion on the dilemma at hand. The role of question master is then passed on to the next player.

The purpose of the game is not to win, or get as many right guesses as you can (although you are a tight knit community if you do). It’s mainly to stimulate conversation and to have everyone cite their opinion on a specific topic.

The process & design decisions

Serious games as an approach

The initial purpose of the project wasn’t to create a game but to perform an ethnographic observation on private & collective use of common resources, thereby gaining an understanding of how to design effective platforms aiding resource management in circular resource communities.

We performed exploratory interviews at a community called ZEE, a collective living community of 25 apartments in East Amsterdam. It was built in a collaborative process in which the residents were heavily involved from the start: from ideation to realization. The community shares various collective spaces: a large lounge and dining room, a guest-room, a roof terrace and a courtyard space.

Through the interviews it became clear that a deeper problem needed to be addressed: it proved hard to gain insight into community dynamics as residents found their challenges very uncomfortable to talk about and even harder to actively address with one another.

Additionally, we found out one of the main needs of the community was to get more of a community feeling and for residents to get to know others.

We therefore looked at serious games as a potential approach. The idea is that games can situate potentially sensitive issues, which could be hard to talk about, in a hypothetical reality and a safe space. A game would allow for dialogue and create an open playing field where people could discuss their concerns without them becoming personal.

Discovering the challenges within communities

Through our initial interviews at Zee and literature research on people living in communities in general we gained a sense of the challenges which are most prevalent in the community.

We categorized the challenges we had identified into themes.
We fit these themes into the existing framework of the circulate project, and identified the two dilemmas which we felt were the most prevalent in the case study:

Collective versus private interests (people prefer to rely on ones self and ones immediate family or prioritise a group culture where collective interests are put first)

Qualified versus quantified values (rules are either clear and determined or trust-based and dynamic)

Creating the game

We conducted a 5-part workshop with a professional game designer consisting of various stages:

  1. Determining the type of game

We play tested various games and assessed how the outcomes of these games could fit our objectives. We eventually decided on a scenario-based game as these are relatively quick to play, easy to learn and stimulate discussion.

  1. Determining the structure of the game

We assessed how different formats of scenario games determine different interactions and dynamics. Our scenario game makes use of a scenario description, 3 answers and 3 extra details over the course of 3 rounds. This allows for maximum opportunities for discussion whilst keeping the playing time to a suitable amount of time for the game to be played at Friday drinks or community get togethers.

  1. Determine the content of the game

The scenario cards are based on both the identified challenges in communities and the two circulate dilemmas.

For the scenario description we chose a common community challenge, related to a dilemma, and translated it into a fictional, absurd scenario. Funny, but far removed from reality to allow participants to easily discuss tough topics.

For the answers, we mapped the dilemmas onto three-point scales. Each answer represents a position on one of the dilemma scales.

The details add an extra piece of information to the scenario description. They are meant to shed a new light on the basic scenario, possibly increasing tension and making players more conscious of their choices.

  1. Determining the details of the game
    We established which gaming aspects we did and did not need to obtain our objectives. We settled on the amount of rounds, amount of players and added a rotating question master. As one of our main goals was to promote a community feeling and for the members to get to know each other, we decided against a point system and instead opted for a collaborative winning strategy: the more scenarios guessed correctly, the more tight knit the community.
  2. Playtesting and refining
    We play tested the game with fellow researchers, students at the University of Applied Sciences Amsterdam and refined the game accordingly. A concept version of the game was printed including scenario cards, rules and 3d printed game accessories.

Playing the game

The final official playtest was conducted with the members of a resource community in Amsterdam called de Warre. The game was played in a relaxed group setting between five residents in the common area of their collective living environment.

The game provoked discussion about community rules, and how these were established. It also proved to be a successful method for making decisions about shared values, which may set the precedent for rules and requirements to come. The residents confirmed our previous findings about community members not daring share their thoughts on community challenges and decision making. Additionally, the community members recognised several dilemmas described in the scenarios and talked about the tedious process in which they usually resolve these challenges.

As diverse opinions were shared on the various dilemmas, the game promoted a greater sense of awareness of the values and priorities of individual members of the community. Furthermore, when a scenario was far thrown from one likely to be experienced by the group, direct opinions emerged which could potentially be uncomfortable to share in real-life contexts.

Lastly, during the game, residents seemed to reflect on the valuable characteristics of the group: “We’ve never made a problem of people making noise in this house”. In this sense, the game seemed to enable residents to realise their own strong points by comparing them to the scenarios which arose. Where residents seemed to have a good relationship on a personal level, they seemed to be receptive to each other’s individual preferences, even when these were very different to their own.

Next steps

The game is currently being printed in limited edition and we are facilitating scenario creation workshops to adjust the game for the needs of specific resource communities.