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Participatory design (PD) has become widely popular within the interaction design community, but to date has had little influence within serious game design processes. We argue that serious game design complicates the notion of involving users as co-designers, as serious game designers must be fluent with both domain content and game design. In this paper, we share our experiences of using PD during the design process of a serious game. We present observations stemming from attempts to apply the existing PD methods of brainstorming and storyboarding. Reflecting on the shortcomings of these methods, we go on to propose a novel PD method that leverages two fundamental qualities of serious games–domain expertise and procedurality–to scaffold players’ existing knowledge and make co-design of serious games an attainable goal.
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International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction ( )
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International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction
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Bridging serious games and participatory design
Rilla Khaled a, Asimina Vasalou b,
aInstitute of Digital Games, University of Malta, Msida, Malta
bLondon Knowledge Lab, Institute of Education, 23-29 Emerald Street, London, United Kingdom
article info
Participatory design
Serious games
Procedural literacy
Conflict resolution education
Participatory design (PD) has become widely popular within the interaction design community, but to
date has had little influence within serious game design processes. We argue that serious game design
complicates the notion of involving users as co-designers, as serious game designers must be fluent with
both domain content and game design. In this paper, we share our experiences of using PD during the
design process of a serious game. We present observations stemming from attempts to apply the existing
PD methods of brainstorming and storyboarding. Reflecting on the shortcomings of these methods, we
go on to propose a novel PD method that leverages two fundamental qualities of serious games – domain
expertise and procedurality – to scaffold players’ existing knowledge and make co-design of serious games
an attainable goal.
©2014 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
Serious games are chameleon technologies. As games, they are
expected to entertain, motivate and engage. As learning tech-
nologies, they must appropriately embody domain knowledge
and sound pedagogical principles. Depending on their context of
use, they need to integrate with existing social and technological
structures and dynamics. The multiplicity of design needs serious
games must fulfil ramps up the difficulty of designing them, es-
pecially contrasted against conventional entertainment-oriented
games [1].
Serious game design has inherited many of its design tra-
ditions from entertainment-oriented game design. In typical
entertainment-oriented game design, the player is rarely con-
sulted in early stage game design, and often involved only when a
playable version of a game exists [2,3]. Accordingly, in well-known
approaches and best practice for serious game design, the player’s
involvement during the conceptual design stage is minimal [4,1].
Despite this historical focus on designer agency, increasingly, de-
sign processes for games are changing. Entertainment game de-
signers have begun investigating ways of crafting experiences in
collaboration with players, e.g. [5,3], while growing numbers of
serious game designers have explored ways to involve players in
Corresponding author. Tel.: +44 7796143213.
E-mail addresses: (R. Khaled),, (A. Vasalou).
the design process as a way to mitigate their knowledge gaps,
e.g. [6–9].
These changing practices come at a time when technology
designers are calling for the increased use of co-design with end
users [10]. Those who advocate participatory approaches to design
argue that they increase the public’s engagement with research,
facilitate learning and change, ensure that technologies are aligned
to people’s needs and remove designer subjectivity [11–13].
Participatory design (PD) is as much a moral proposition about how
to design as it is a pragmatic one about ensuring that needs are met
through design.
In taking a co-design focused, participatory approach to serious
game design, the lack of a deep tradition of participatory game de-
sign and, more fundamentally, some of the challenges of applying
PD within serious game design mean that several basic issues re-
main unresolved. In the specific case of serious games targeted at
young audiences, how should we incorporate children’s taste in
games when working in highly specific domains? What should we
do when the end users themselves do not understand the domain?
How should we proceed when the game design ideas provided
by children are inappropriate? As design visionaries continue to
propagate the designer’s changing role from a translator to facili-
tator and the end user’s role from informant to co-designer [12,10],
serious game designers are faced with the challenge of incorporat-
ing and leveraging these philosophies such that players can bene-
fit from the opportunities that they offer, in light of the challenges
they may introduce.
2212-8689/©2014 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
2R. Khaled, A. Vasalou / International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction ( )
2. PD and serious games design
PD emerged in Scandinavia in the 1970s, in response to con-
cerns from workers and union members that the introduction of
IT in the workplace would lead to reduced influence in the work-
place, disempowerment, and a loss of jobs [11]. In recent years, PD
has become commonplace within mainstream design practice and
its application has widely diversified [13]. Despite its uptake within
the wider interaction design community, PD within serious game
design practice has been limited. While efforts have been made to-
wards incorporating users in the design process, user participa-
tion has often taken constrained forms, for example, to provide
feedback to ideas that designers have developed [8] or to provide
inspirational input to designers [6]. Efforts to involve users as co-
designers have often proven difficult. During the design of a game
for developing social skills, Tan et al. asked children to play an early
game prototype and to create storyboards of potential game nar-
ratives. While children provided a wealth of information that was
used to improve the game, they often proposed ideas well beyond
the learning objectives of the game, including violent and compet-
itive mechanics that conflicted with the very purpose of the game
being designed [8]. Similarly, Mazzone et al. involved young people
in the design of a game for improving teenagers’ emotional intelli-
gence. When they asked participants to design actions in relation
to game rewards, the output consisted of unfocused ideas. This led
the authors to conclude that the task required too high a level of
abstraction for participants to meaningfully contribute [7].
The difficulties of involving users in serious game design be-
come more understandable when taking into consideration a typ-
ical serious game design process. In the Design, Play, Experience
model of serious game design, Winn characterises successful seri-
ous game design as a synthesis of pedagogical theory, domain con-
tent, and game design. As learning objectives are central to most
serious games, Winn proposes that designers begin by focusing on
domain content and pedagogical approaches, as these are most in-
flexible. Next, designers should consider settings, characters, and
narratives that make sense in light of the learning focus. Designers
can then move to establishing mechanics that make the domain
content playable. Finally, designers should consider user interface
aspects [1]. However, as the serious games community generally
agrees that serious games should be endogenous (where context
is intertwined with content) rather than exogenous (where con-
text and content are independent) [4], designers need to be able to
tightly couple domain content to game mechanics. That is, those
contributing to design need to be knowledgeable of both. As a re-
sult, two significant participation barriers for end users in serious
game design are domain content familiarity and game design lit-
eracy. A similar barrier emerges when examining the application
of PD in the context of educational technologies, which are con-
ceptually related to serious games. Concerning the design of learn-
ing environments, Scaife et al. propose that children be involved as
informants rather than co-designers, given that children frequently
lack knowledge of the domain area, thus limiting their abilities to
propose relevant ideas [14].
In summary, the serious game design process complicates the
notion of involving users as co-designers. Serious game designers
must be fluent with both domain content and game design. Users,
conversely, may lack one or both of these forms of knowledge. At
the same time, PD approaches to serious game design could pro-
vide significant value for users, for example, by strengthening their
domain knowledge as a result of actively contributing to the de-
sign process. We thus argue that it is imperative to continue build-
ing our understanding of how PD methods can apply to serious
games, such that the aspirations of PD can be achieved through
serious game design processes. The present paper fits with this
objective. We detail the use of PD across the design cycle of a
serious game intended to teach primary school children conflict
resolution skills. In a first case study, we examine the ability of ex-
isting methods, namely brainstorming and storyboarding, to sup-
port children’s ideation. Building from lessons learned during the
use of these methods, we then present a second case study that in-
troduces a novel method for involving participants in serious game
design. Before presenting the case studies, we provide the back-
ground and rationale of our project.
3. Village Voices: a serious game for teaching conflict resolu-
tion skills
Conflicts are inevitable episodes occurring in all stages and
spheres of life, and mastery of conflict resolution skills plays a
part in determining how well an individual can integrate into
society [15]. As such, conflict education is seen as important to
introduce at an early age. This is expressed in educational policies,
both in England and the United States [15]. Given the importance of
conflict education for social and emotional learning, we set out to
develop a structured and engaging serious game for use in schools
that would facilitate learning about conflict resolution.
One approach that has been strongly influential in conflict edu-
cation is the use of drama-based methods and workshops. Through
role-play, children are encouraged to try out different conflict re-
sponses in a supervised environment. As such, we decided to de-
sign an open-world multi-player game that would similarly enable
a broad range of behaviours. In particular, our work was informed
by Bodine and Crawford’s influential conflict education model [16].
One principle in particular, teaching children how to separate the
people from the problem, became the focus of our project. This prin-
ciple assists in disambiguating children’s general relationship dif-
ficulties and the deeper factors exacerbating the conflict with the
surface reason for conflict. Three types of relationship difficulties
are emphasised: perceptual difficulties such as how people may see
an issue from different perspectives, emotional difficulties, i.e. ac-
knowledging that strong emotions distort an issue and make it
seem more serious than it would otherwise appear, and commu-
nication difficulties marked by problems with sharing one or more
parties’ perspectives or feelings on an issue.
Our serious game, Village Voices, is a four-player game set in a
fictional village during pre-industrialisation times. It is designed
to be played in a classroom under teacher supervision. When the
game begins, each player is assigned one of four characters to play:
the blacksmith, the innkeeper, the alchemist, or the carpenter. As
part of daily life in the village, players undertake various actions
related to maintenance of their characters’ livelihoods, and also
complete quests. For example, the alchemist tends to his crop
of magic mushrooms, keeps an eye on his health, and might be
building a barrier wall to keep wolves out of the village. At the
same time, all of the characters are interdependent; thus situations
inevitably arise that trigger conflicts or exacerbate existing ones.
For example, in order to complete the wall, the alchemist may need
to obtain an item from the innkeeper, who he is not on good terms
with due to a previous theft incident. While players may initially
be faced with simple quests involving no trades or only one trade
with other characters, more difficult quests involve trades with all
three of the other characters. Given that players have the ability to
perform actions that can lead to conflict including theft, property
damage, spreading rumours, and not sharing collective resources
such as food, completing multi-player quests can rapidly become
Many digital learning games adopt an explicitly didactic ap-
proach to conveying domain knowledge. But what constitutes con-
structive resolution of conflict can be situationally and culturally
dependent. Instead of explicitly instructing players how to resolve
R. Khaled, A. Vasalou / International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction ( ) 3
Fig. 1. Reporting on feelings in Village Voices.
particular conflicts, Village Voices creates situations in which play-
ers are pushed into conflicts with one another. Players therefore
experience conflict from a first-person perspective, and must use
the affordances of the game, along with offline conversation and
negotiation, to establish and enact conflict management strate-
gies. Fig. 1 presents a screenshot of Village Voices, during which one
player has been requested to report her post-theft feelings towards
another player.
4. Case study 1: germinal and organisational methods
In our first case study, we present experiences of using two ex-
isting PD methods during an early stage of game design for the pur-
pose of generating game narratives and mechanics. In particular,
we focus on how the two methods supported the generation of ef-
fective ideas.
4.1. Participants
The workshop took place at a dedicated lab space at the
innovation centre in the city of Bath (South West of England). The
researchers had established connections with the Black families
education centre early on in the project. The centre was interested
in contributing to our project given their focus on inter-racial
conflict. Through the centre, three boys aged 10 were invited to
take part. The participants were familiar with each other as they all
attended events at the centre on a weekly basis. All of the children
reported playing games regularly.
4.2. Procedure and method
The workshop was held early in the design process. As a result,
the game design concept presented in Section 3had not been
yet developed. The aim of the workshop was two-fold: to obtain
conflict-focused narratives to feature in the game, as well as the
game mechanics that would realise them.
In PD, designers and users navigate the problem space through
the use of boundary objects, including low fidelity prototypes,
role-playing games, and sketches [11,10,13]. During early design
stages, the boundary objects used are typically open-ended
and ambiguous, thus inviting stakeholders to imbue them with
meaning potentially unforeseen by designers [17]. In line with
this view, we loosely defined the scope of our game, as we hoped
to keep the design space sufficiently flexible such as to invite
children’s interpretations.
Our first activity, brainstorming, was based on a germinal ap-
proach intended to create new ideas from scratch [18]. We intro-
duced ‘games for conflict education’ as a boundary object. Through
a series of examples, we explained to children that conflict varied
in its intensity, that people responded in different ways to conflict
with responses ranging from collaborative to aggressive, and that
conflict had a longer-term impact on people’s relationships. These
definitions were reinforced by asking children to reflect on their
own experiences with peer conflict. After introducing key concepts
to conflict, we moved on to brainstorming on specific game ele-
ments: we asked the children to detail what the goals of a con-
flict resolution game should be, how players should be allowed to
progress in such a game, what actions the game should make avail-
able and which actions should be rewarded.
Next, we introduced participants to our second activity, story-
boarding, based on an organisational approach to elicit causal in-
ferences between potential game characters’ actions and action
consequences [18]. Our boundary object was a ‘conflict narrative’,
which we defined to children as an event that triggers conflicts and
provokes responses between the parties involved. Children were
provided with the comic book tool, Pixton.Pixton allows users to
choose a variety of environments and characters. Characters can
be customised through the assignment of postures, emotion ex-
pressions and dialogue. After acquainting the children with Pixton’s
basic functionality, each of them used it to storyboard a conflict
narrative. At the end of the session, children were given printouts
of their comics.
The workshop lasted four hours in total including an initial
warm up phase during which children created game characters
with play dough, and regular breaks. The workshop was facilitated
by a design researcher and a developmental psychologist. Chil-
dren’s interactions and ideas were video recorded, and notes were
taken by one of the researchers.
4R. Khaled, A. Vasalou / International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction ( )
Fig. 2. Example storyboard displaying conflict, responses and outcomes.
4.3. Analysis
We conducted thematic analysis on the data collected during
the workshop focusing on how characteristics of each method in-
fluenced idea effectiveness. In previous work, Shah et al. have pro-
posed four metrics for establishing idea effectiveness for engineer-
ing design. Novelty captures how new the idea is compared to other
ideas; variety of ideas measures differences between ideas pro-
posed, with more ideas indicating a widening of the design space;
quality expresses how feasible the idea is to implement and how
well it meets the initial specification; quantity measures the num-
ber of ideas produced [19]. In the context of product design, O’Quin
and Besemer have proposed three dimensions for capturing cre-
ativity [20]. Their model has been applied to assess ideas, pro-
cesses and products. Two of their three dimensions concur with
Shah et al.’s metrics. These are: novelty in the concept or process
produced and resolution.Resolution focuses on one aspect of qual-
ity, whether the idea is fit for the purpose it was meant to fulfil. The
third dimension proposed by O’Quin and Besemer is style and en-
capsulates the presentation or aesthetics of the technology, once
a product has been created. Our analysis was focused on the di-
mensions that were shared between the two models: novelty and
4.4. Results and discussion
During the brainstorming activity, the children’s ideas were
largely grounded in game concepts they had encountered before.
None of the ideas were novel when compared to each other, nor
when they were placed in the broader context of game design.
Indeed, some of the ideas proposed could well have applied to
any game, regardless of whether or not there was an educational
objective involved. One such example is customisation, with
participants voicing desires to customise not only their avatars,
but also the game world. One boy drew a parallel with a game he
regularly played: ‘‘in Miniclip there’s this thing where you can, like,
make your own person’’. Even though the nature of the features
proposed would not have disrupted the core learning objective of
the game, they did not add any particular value from the context
of conflict education. Implementing them would have taken away
resources from more educationally relevant features.
Ideas concerning game mechanics directly related to conflict
education seemed to be particularly problematic for the partic-
ipants. While the children were literate with game tropes, they
were unable to meaningfully connect them to conflict resolu-
tion, often leaving their ideas highly underspecified. For instance,
while in-game currency was repeatedly mentioned as a reward for
achieving game objectives, the children were less clear as to what
these objectives might be. In the words of one of our participants:
‘‘You have to unlock stuff and you get money’’. Another suggested
that a ‘‘Health bar could go down if you make bad decisions’’, but
stopped short of defining what a bad decision might be. In yet an-
other case, a mechanic from an action game was proposed as a con-
flict resolution response, but the participant’s emphasis seemed to
be the creation of thrilling actions rather than the significance of
the action in the context of conflict: ‘‘When you’re cycling to school,
there could be a kind of gang. .. cycle through objects while they’re
chasing you’’.
During the storyboarding activity, children used the tool Pixton
to create conflict triggers, responses and outcomes between
conflict participants. This activity elicited prototypical examples
of conflict. Specifically, two participants created bullying incidents
that occurred at school, while a third one represented a property
dispute over a basketball. They all proposed aggressive and violent
reactions between the conflict parties, along with withdrawal
responses. Two children developed scenarios in which a teacher
mandated a fair resolution between the conflict parties. Fig. 2
R. Khaled, A. Vasalou / International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction ( ) 5
presents an example storyboard. In ascertaining the quality of
the ideas generated, we observed that children’s identification of
conflict triggers was limited to intense episodes of conflict, even
though previous research has shown that the most pervasive forms
of conflict are the least severe [9]. The responses children proposed
for conflict were also limited, and in fact deemed suboptimal in
contemporary conflict resolution management programmes [16].
Given children’s narrow and overly antagonistic understanding of
conflict, we were unable to use their narratives as a basis for game
Neither of the activities involved in our first workshop yielded
particularly promising outputs. The limited domain knowledge
of the children became a barrier when it came to developing
ideas that fulfilled the initial specification, i.e. to teach conflict
resolution skills. This barrier became more severe as a result of the
overly open-ended qualities of our boundary objects, which did
not scaffold children’s idea generation to surmount their lack of
knowledge. As a consequence, children fell back on what they did
have knowledge of: familiar game mechanics and design tropes.
Despite the limitations of the activities, however, they enabled us
to observe children’s high game literacy and enthusiasm for games.
Children were swift to imagine and articulate complex interactions
between game components such as goals, rewards, actions and
5. Case study 2: transformational methods for PD
In our second case study, we present a novel PD method that
we developed for use during later stages of game design. As with
the methods used in the first case study, our intention was to elicit
narratives and mechanics for the game from participants. Again,
we focus on how attributes of our method helped support the
generation of effective ideas.
We point out that between the workshops described in the
first case study and the ones that we went on to conduct for the
second case study, our design concept had matured significantly.
Given the paucity of usable concepts generated by end users during
our brainstorming and storyboarding workshop, and due to time
constraints enforced by our project timeframe, we proceeded in
developing an initial barebones multiplayer game system. The
multiplayer aspect of the game was informed by the conflict
resolution literature, Bodine and Crawford’s approach to conflict
resolution education [2], as well as our project commitment
to computationally model conflict between players. The basic
mechanics of the game were inspired both by Bodine and
Crawford’s approach as well as passive forms of input obtained
through ethnographies conducted at local schools [19]. For
example, one category of conflicts observed at schools, property
disputes, inspired a stealing mechanic, while friendship disputes
inspired a rumour spreading mechanic. In this way, the barebones
game system, an early version of Village Voices, was capable of
supporting game mechanics related to the most prevalent causes
and triggers of conflicts amongst the target age group according to
our research. This barebones game system served as the boundary
object of concern for the second case study.
5.1. Participants
Two workshops were organised with thirteen children in total.
The first took place at a community centre in the town of Leaming-
ton Spa (Midlands of England). Researchers advertised the work-
shop through flyers posted at a number of locations throughout
the town including a community centre, the main leisure centre
and several toy stores. Ten children (nine boys) between the ages
of 9–11 attended. Some of the children knew each other from local
schools and four of the children were siblings. All of the children
played games on a regular basis. The second workshop was organ-
ised at another community centre, also in the town of Leamington
Spa. It was advertised through a local school that had recently par-
ticipated in conflict peer mediation training. Three girls aged 10
who had received the training attended. The girls were friends at
school. Unlike participants from the other workshops, they only
played games occasionally.
5.2. Procedure and method
The first workshop lasted four hours. Children were divided into
two teams of five. Five researchers were present: a game designer,
a design researcher who led the facilitation of the two groups, and
three note takers. The second workshop lasted three hours and
followed the same procedure as that of the first workshop. Two
design researchers were present, with one acting as a facilitator
and the other as a note taker. In both workshops, parental and child
consent were obtained prior to any workshop activity. During the
workshops, video recordings were made for analysis purposes. Our
analysis followed the same protocol (focusing on idea novelty and
quality) as in case study one.
In both workshops, the barebones game system served as a
focal point of attention. We had previously observed a lack of
domain knowledge as being a significant barrier for the elicitation
of novel and quality ideas, thus our intention was to remove the
burden of establishing pedagogically appropriate concepts from
scratch, while capitalising on children’s game literacy. As such, we
devised an activity based on a transformational approach in which
ideas were generated and developed based on the barebones game
system [15]. Our system provided children with pedagogically-
appropriate ideation scaffolding, as it already incorporated conflict
resolution training best practice. It was open to the incorporation
of newly invented mechanics, provided the new additions fit
with its existing system components. We guided the children
through a series of steps targeted at enabling them to unpack the
barebones game system, make additions to constituent parts, and
then recombine the newly modified parts back into the whole
design concept. These steps are described next.
Children were first presented with a short video and an
explanation of the Village Voices concept. After we ensured that
they had grasped the basic rationale of the game, we incrementally
introduced game design tasks.
Characters and trades. Three game characters were introduced:
the alchemist, the innkeeper and the blacksmith. By introducing
multiple characters early on, we hoped to prompt children to
view conflict as an interpersonal issue where each party might
have interests and positions. Each team was given three Lego mini
figurines representing each character, and asked to brainstorm
potential trades between them. While children brainstormed, each
facilitator drew a network of trades and connections between the
three characters. Following the definition of trades, children were
asked to define rules to govern trades and used art materials to
design physical locations for the game characters.
Motivations and metres. After establishing mechanics and features
around trading, children were asked to develop an engaging game
world by defining quests and fun activities for the characters. In
addition, we presented them with three metres we had developed
for the game: livelihood, health and liking (concerning other
players). We had already determined that our game would not
explicitly state whether resolution approaches were correct or
incorrect; instead we opted to have players’ relationship statuses
with one another serve as feedback as to whether a resolution
approach was perceived as acceptable. We asked the children
to explain how the metres would be affected during trades and
newly introduced quests. We introduced Rory’s Story Cube dice
6R. Khaled, A. Vasalou / International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction ( )
Fig. 3. Game mechanics (Guru) and character trades (Alchemist and Innkeeper).
as an optional additional prompt in case children needed help
generating ideas. Each side of the dice presents an icon, and dice
users must tell a story that brings the icons together.
Conflicts and resolution strategies. After exploring relationships be-
tween game events and metres, we shifted our focus to translating
learning objectives into game mechanics. Children were asked to
design potential sources and triggers of conflict between charac-
ters, as well as actions that game characters could employ as con-
flict responses. We prompted children to propose both competitive
and collaborative responses, as well as constructive and destruc-
tive responses. Additionally, we presented two conflict resolution-
related game features we had developed. The first one was the guru
status indicator that a player would obtain on demonstrating a de-
gree of expertise in conflict resolution. Both children who had built
up their expertise through game progression and teachers would
be able to occupy this role. The second was the concept of a town
council that would convene to give advice each time a conflict oc-
curred. Players would be required to participate in the council and
contribute towards discussions of how to resolve the conflict in
question. Children critiqued these features and further developed
them, and also established new supporting mechanics. Fig. 3 shows
some ideas regarding game mechanics for the guru and character
trades between the alchemist and innkeeper.
5.3. Results and discussion
Children proposed numerous ideas to address the game design
challenges posed. While idea quantity was not a focus in our
analysis, children’s level of engagement within the workshop
was exemplified through their desire to stretch their imagination
beyond what was asked of them. For example, in two out of the
three groups, children proposed new characters, such as a sheriff
and a farmer. During the workshops, two modes of collaboration
naturally emerged. In the first mode, children freely proposed
ideas in response to game components, which the facilitator
documented and synthesised on a shared canvas of paper. This
brainstorming was often followed by focused activities where
children would further develop a particular idea using low-fidelity
art materials. The second mode of collaboration was characterised
by strong consensus between children regarding particular game
design decisions. For example, all of the children agreed that
rules regarding fair trade needed to be established by the players.
Additionally, one of the groups was strongly opposed to our idea
of the teacher occupying the guru role out of concern that it
would defeat the purpose of the game. As one of the participants
explained, ‘‘Teachers are strict and the game will not be fun’’.
Children offered many novel ideas to extend the narrative of the
game. Importantly, these ideas remained within the boundaries of
the Village Voices concept and were thus feasible to implement.
For example, on being told that the game would be played within
the classroom, children proposed that students grouped together
in a game session visit other students’ ‘villages’. They suggested
that successful game progression might be communicated by the
village transforming into a city. Unsurprisingly, the alchemist role
prompted many design interpretations, with children proposing
potions for healing, harmful spells, or granting special powers.
Children also managed to propose novel ideas in relation to
the overall learning objectives of the game, although the quality
of the ideas varied. In a few cases, children took inspiration from
the learning objectives, while not strictly observing what the
objectives entailed. For example, one team suggested that a non-
player sheriff character could punish those involved in conflict,
thus avoiding the need for players to manage conflicts themselves.
Another team proposed that those with guru status could help
players with a low welfare status, without elaborating on what
the players would learn through this process. They recommended
the addition of a ‘bank’ to give loans to those who had been
uncooperative with other villagers, thus providing players with the
option to avoid learning about conflict resolution.
Other ideas, however, were both feasible and suitable. In con-
nection with what kinds of conflicts could arise between char-
acters, children proposed that the alchemist might accidentally
make faulty potions for other characters that would potentially
lead to those characters becoming ill. The children agreed that
there should be negative consequences for the alchemist in this
case, but that the consequences should be lighter than those re-
sulting from the situation in which the alchemist had intentionally
provided other characters with a faulty potion. This illustrated a
degree of reflection into the importance of intent during conflict.
Some children asserted the status of the game as a tool for con-
flict education. They argued that even though players might be ag-
gressive within the game, a condition of success within the game
would be to resolve the conflict. Extending the concept of the town
council, they suggested that in cases where players were unable or
unwilling to resolve the conflict through the council, they would
R. Khaled, A. Vasalou / International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction ( ) 7
require a lawyer, resulting in a reduction of livelihood, and thus
introducing incentives to engage in conflict resolution.
As a boundary object, the barebones game system scaffolded
the drawing of relationships between game system elements
and conflict resolution concepts and invited the addition of new,
supporting concepts. Indeed, both workshops yielded output that
was novel and of quality. However, the different expertise of
the participants across the two workshops led to differences in
the types and strengths of ideas produced. As children from the
first workshop had a high degree of game literacy, they readily
made sense of systems of relationships and were able to think
procedurally, a mode of perception natively exercised by playing
games [21]. As a result, they were adept at proposing complex
interdependencies between characters, metres, mechanics, and
game subsystems. While some of their ideas did not align with
our learning objectives, many of the ideas did, supporting the
notion that the incomplete barebones game system successfully
embedded domain expertise, while also inviting relevant ideation.
Moreover, while articulating how the larger ecosystem of game
behaviours would work, we observed that children initially naïve
to the domain of conflict resolution were now reflecting on what
fair conflict resolution should entail.
In contrast, children from the second workshop were less
familiar with games, but had all undertaken peer mediation
training. The ideas they proposed in relation to the game’s
learning objectives were more consistent with our understanding
of the domain, drew directly from peer mediation expertise
and represented target audience best practice. Nonetheless, they
struggled to contribute ideas not directly related to conflict, and
needed to use the Rory’s Story Cube dice as additional support for
brainstorming. The differing strengths of workshop participants in
relation to our method highlight a literacy issue. While ideation
around the basic game system was easier for those with high game
literacy, ideation around learning objectives was easier for those
with prior training in peer mediation. In traditional PD, being from
the target user group constitutes a form of expertise that qualifies
participation. Our findings suggest, however, that participants who
are already literate with qualities of the boundary object – in our
case, games and domain knowledge – are more likely to produce
effective ideas in relation to it.
6. Conclusion
PD introduces new opportunities for designers and players of
serious games. Informed by experiences of using existing PD meth-
ods for game design ideation, we developed a novel PD method to
scaffold ideation that supported and represented core concerns of
serious games, namely, domain expertise and procedurality. We
conclude with three key considerations for involving children in
PD for serious games.
Children were most effectively able to participate as co-
designers during middle stages of the game design process. In an
early design stage, before we had settled on which domain content
and pedagogical theory to communicate in our game, the boundary
objects we used were open-ended, and failed to provide enough
theoretical scaffolding to assist participants in establishing specific
and relevant ideas. In contrast, the more specific boundary object
used in later workshops elicited novel ideas that supported the
educational objectives of the game. Qualities of boundary objects
used in PD for serious games should be considered in light of
the role they play in supporting and eliciting ideation. During
later stages of the design cycle, designers are better positioned to
develop boundary objects that embody the necessary theoretical
underpinnings and scaffolds to support children in generating
effective ideas.
Moreover, to maximise the chances of successful ideation
from participants, it is necessary to devise boundary objects
that relate to their expertise. During the brainstorming and
storyboarding activities, the boundary objects provided did not
deeply resonate with the expertise of the children. In contrast,
during the transformational game activity, participants from the
first workshop were able to exercise their procedural literacy,
while participants from the second workshop were able to draw
on their conflict mediation training. Of course, in design situations
in which there are longitudinal relationships between participants
and the design team, it is possible to train participants such that
they gradually acquire the expertise needed to contribute as co-
designers. However, this can be a costly investment and, as in our
case, assumes a degree of access to participants that many design
teams lack [6].
Finally, many children today have grown up with ubiquitous ac-
cess to games, and correspondingly, have a high degree of game
literacy. For participants who were familiar with games, the trans-
formational method usefully leveraged their game literacy. That
is, they were able to harness their abilities to think procedurally
as a way to access and understand new domain content, namely,
conflict resolution, and to be able to systematically consider con-
flict cause-and-effect relationships and action–consequence pair-
ings. Given that a potential benefit of involving children in PD
concerns empowerment by exposing them to domain content,
drawing on participants’ procedural literacy as a means to facili-
tate understanding is a powerful approach that we believe has ex-
tension to many domains.
We thank Gordon Ingram, Anastasia Pappa, Richard Joiner, and
the enthusiastic participants of all of the workshops. This work has
been supported by the EU FP7 ICT projects SIREN (project number:
258453) and ILearnRW (project number: 318803).
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