We Need “Thoughtful Games” and “Radical Games” – An Interview with Game Designer Hannah Shaffer

Hannah works on a game in progress.

Hannah works on a game in progress.

Hannah Shaffer is a game designer in Massachusetts. She’s the creator of Questlandia, a game “about personal shortcomings, the cost of courage, and the challenge of enacting meaningful change.” Hannah also made 14 Days – a storytelling game about living life with chronic pain. That game is currently on Kickstarter (until July 28th, 2015, so back it soon!).

TESA: What got you into game design? And what made you want to design games about building better worlds?

Hannah: I’ve always loved games, though it took me awhile to make the mental jump from “I love games!” to “I can make games!” After graduating from college I had been toying with the idea of making a video game and it wasn’t really going anywhere.

Right around the time I’d conceded defeat and decided to abandon the idea, I met a group of independent roleplaying game designers in Massachusetts. The meeting not only rekindled my love of games, but it got me thinking about designing tabletop games—something I’d never considered before.

As for designing games about building better worlds? I think video games (and especially tabletop games) have a really visceral quality. When you’re totally immersed in the world of a game, and you feel like you have a real stake in the story, you get to ride this powerful emotional wave of joy, disappointment, laughter, or fear.

There are lots of games that make people feel powerful. I like the idea of using games to help people feel empathy, or closeness, or maybe even powerless (a feeling that’s scary, but has a lot of value).

Cover art for Questlandia, done by Evan Rowland.

Cover art for Questlandia, by Evan Rowland.

How do your games fit into social justice movements?

I think Questlandia is a neat social justice game because it explores how certain power structures are beneficial to some groups of people and harmful to others. Most Questlandia games end with a major kingdom collapse, so it’s been a great way for players to look at unstable political systems, or the way power grabs cause a society to self-implode.

A game like 14 Days takes a much more literal approach. In 14 Days, you play out two weeks in the life of a person with migraines. It’s a tool for helping people understand what it’s like to live with chronic pain. I think empathy is an important part of social justice movements, and it’s something I really like seeing in games.

In your experience, how do many games support dominant power structures? Is that a problem?

This is such a big question, and very timely. One way that many games (and mainstream media) support dominant power structures is in relation to visibility. Choosing whose stories get told and whose don’t, and painting a one-sided picture that says “this is what a relationship looks like, this is what a hero looks like, this is what resolving a conflict looks like.”

I would say this is a big problem. When media prioritizes things like whiteness or maleness or straightness, it says “this is what normal looks like,” and it erases all of the people who don’t match that picture. Then there are games that glorify violence against women, or fantasy games that use “the rape story” to avoid more nuanced storytelling.

Fortunately, lots of people are talking about these issues right now. Some great examples that I can think of, off the top of my head are:

The cover for 14 Days, done by Evan Rowland.

The cover for 14 Days, by Evan Rowland.

How were you able to get your game to market? What were the challenges you faced?

Questlandia wouldn’t have been possible without Kickstarter, or without the great community that exists right now around independently published RPGs.

Before crowdfunding the game, Evan Rowland and I spent about two years sharing it with people, writing about the design process, and expanding our own gaming community by attending conventions. Finishing the game was hard work, as was the experience of sending it out into the world for public critique. There were also the practical challenges of shipping, taxes, sourcing materials, researching US-based printing companies, etc.

What lessons did you learn from your game design that you’d want to make sure other people knew about before trying to make games for social change?

I think talking about what you’re working on is an important part of the process. If you don’t already have an established fan base, it’s going to be hard to rally enthusiasm and support if it seems like your game has materialized out of thin air. We did a good amount of sharing before releasing Questlandia, but we could have done so much more!

How do you hope people will use your games?

I hope people will use my games to go out on a limb, and to explore new worlds and new experiences, even if those experiences are emotionally challenging. Humor is really important to me, and it’s a big part of the games I’m trying to make, so hopefully that balances out some of the tough parts.

Artwork for Questlandia, done by Evan Rowland.

Artwork for Questlandia, by Evan Rowland.

What’s your hope for gaming for social change in the near future?

Now that the tools to make games are more accessible than ever, I hope we’ll keep seeing an increase in small games, thoughtful games, radical games, and games produced by people who have been minority voices in this industry for too long.