By respecting the power of play, developers can change the world
Updated: Jun 22, 2021
The power of play is a familiar phrase. It rings true for most of us, but we’re a bit fuzzy on what it actually means. What power does it have and why?
Andreas Stjärnhem knows, and he’s built his business, Sticky Beat, by harnessing that power.
At this week’s Friday Stories, Andreas will share what he knows with aspiring games makers and industry professionals. Before the event, we invited him to tell us more about his work and why games are an important cultural - and political - force.
Andreas is a life-long gamer. As a kid, video games, role-playing games, and board games were a big part of his life. You’d find him running the length of the soccer pitch, too. He wrestled and boxed, and he was even a dancer. One way or another, games and play shaped Andreas’s childhood. He recalls that while no one ever quizzed him on why he liked to chase a ball with 22 other guys, he had to defend the fantasy-filled creative games he enjoyed so much.
Only later did he come to understand the importance of these games. Andreas explains: ‘When I started Sticky Beat, I realized that by playing a lot of games, I came to understand the game mechanics that teach us things without us realizing it.’
Play, he discovered, unlocks the mind:
‘Games open doors in the mind and teach us stuff. And we can use that power to teach people stuff that’s hard to learn, complex, abstract, but important stuff. Games can teach people important stuff.’
Using play to activate new knowledge is now Andreas’s mission. Sticky Beat’s ‘core business is taking tough subjects and making something playful out of them.’ And his approach works because digital games are no longer treated with suspicion as they were in his childhood. Since then, the industry has evolved from a niche sub-culture to an economic juggernaut. Now everyone plays games.
For Andreas, it’s an opportunity to capitalize on a lifetime of play: ‘It’s been 40 years of games and seven years discovering how to use them to make people realize stuff.’
Teaching urgent lessons
Sticky Beat is successfully tackling subjects like health care, sustainable energy, and in Electionville, the company’s most recent release, they explore the participatory politics of social democracy.
Electionville is a new, digital version of a board game originally created by the communications agency Fabel and commissioned by the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions. In it, players undertake the work of county councilors. Immersing users in the political wrangling and negotiations that come with local governance, players understand the significance of individual and collective action in healthy democracies.
Electionville is explicitly designed as an educational tool, but learning is inherent to every game. Even playing stupid games can teach us something, according to Andreas. And, he suggests, that’s why we play them. ‘As a species,’ he says, ‘we have always played games to know how to interact with the real world out there. Even Hide and Seek tells us how we’re supposed to react if something happens and we have to hide. Any kind of game we play teaches us something.’
But what is there to learn about democracy when it’s practiced in so many countries around the world? Andreas cautions that the lessons embedded in Electionville are at risk of being forgotten. ‘Democracy is under threat right now,’ he explains. ‘We take it for granted. We don’t care about it. We don’t take care of it. And we citizens of democratic societies all have responsibility for democracy working.’
The game is a timely reminder of that and that this is expressed in a video game makes Electionville’s release even more profound:
‘It’s timely because we’re using technology to spread this idea… But it’s also technology that is killing democracy. When the internet arrived we thought this is total freedom of information, now everyone can get the information they need, it’s totally democratic. But you forget that not all people have the same goal. They see something else. They want to do something else.’
This capacity to inform and influence players - for better or worse - is the power of games and the motivation behind Andreas’s work on games like Electionville. But why are games so effective?
The responsibility of game makers
More than 300 million people worldwide use Zoom. Although it’s not universally disliked, the app’s failings are well known. Andreas uses Zoom’s surprising popularity to emphasize that bad a product can be incredibly successful, but that is never true in games. ‘When you put your game in the hands of players,’ he stresses, ‘they will tell you in ten seconds if it’s good or bad. That’s the challenge and the marvelous, magical thing about games. They’ll start feeling things from the get-go. They feel if they connect with it.’
Quoting neuroscientist António Damásio, Andreas proposes that humans are not thinking machines that feel, humans are feeling machines that think. This explains the power of good games: they connect with the feeling machine. ‘The thinking machine is part of it,’ he reflects, ‘but it’s the emotional being that wants to get to the next level, to discover that next continent, to defeat that big end-level boss. It’s the emotional being in players.’
Making that connection is key to launching a successful game, Andreas believes, especially games with an educational agenda. By connecting with the player’s emotional inner-life, you gain access to them in a way other technologies and creative mediums cannot. They can only aspire to engage and activate people in the way that games do. Play isn’t just powerful, he asserts, it is a superpower unique to games: ‘To get under the skin of people and to get them to open their minds is a superpower.’
Andreas calls this the gift of games: ‘You can use that for a lot of different things, but you have to know - and take responsibility - for that immense power. Because with great power comes great responsibility.’
Quick to add that not everyone has to make games that say something, Andreas does believe that designers and developers must recognize - and respect - this responsibility. ‘You don’t have to make games about democracy or oil disasters,’ he clarifies, ‘But whatever you do, you’re connecting to a person who’ll feel things, and you should at least know that and take care of that.”
But Sticky Beat is going further. It’s using the power of play to promote positive change in society: ‘We’re living in extremely interesting times but also extremely dangerous times. We need to use games to save the world.’
Want to attend this coming Friday Stories with Andreas?