Theme vs. Mechanics

When I’m thinking about Game Design there are two elements that I’m trying to use in order to make my point, Theme and Mechanics. (For those of you that don’t know, I design games to explain the complicated systems that are involved with aspects of sustainability.)


While there are games out there that are abstract, or have a specific storyline, more often you are going to find that games have a theme.   In Ticket to Ride you are competing to build train routes, Agricola deals with farmers & resource management, and  Battlestar Gallactica deals with… well it follows the plot.

When playing a game that deals with a particular topic you are doing the education through the story or the theme to get your point across.

The other option is to make the mechanic do the teaching.  For example, in a game where I’m trying to teach about recycling I would have an interaction in the game that gave a benefit to recycling.  It wouldn’t have to be called recycling or even have that topic at all, but simple by gaining benefit over and over for that type of action players would become better recyclers.

Habits are practiced actions which is why games are so good at teaching.  If you repeat something over and over again you are more likely to hold on to that habit.  People seek new behaviors in life regularly for purposes such as diet, exercise, et cetera and over the past 10 years we’ve seen a great influx of games for purposes other than just the sake of play.  Gamification of the online portal or website is also on the upswing as the internet becomes crowded and companies are seeking to create a draw to their sites.

The games that I’m working on are didactic because of this.  Having the desire to change is only part of the equation.  Going green means a shift in actions many of which are lifelong ingrained habits.  Those habits worked for us up until now, but with the world on the precipice of wide scale extinction we need to shift into high gear.  So how do you eradicate habits that aren’t good for you?

So when I’m choosing to build a tool and I have to decide between theme or mechanic it really depends on the nuance tat I’m going for.  Am I trying to make someone think about the topic?  Then it’s the theme.  If I’m trying to ingrain a shift in habit?  Then it is mechanic, for sure.

Games for Didactic Use

One of the things that is important to me is creating positive change in the world.  While I loved teaching, I felt that there had to be a better way to connect with people.  After watching the failures of schools to produce responsible students and that of the environmental movement increasing changes for the survival of the species it seemed clear that there is a better way.  So I researched and read and looked at what appeared to be successful.  What I’ve come to is that games area fun and engaging way to connect with and communicate a message.  While the message can be communicated through both the theme and the mechanics either should provide a better way for information to be retained as behavior change.

The use of games for education is a growing field, although it has been in practice for decades in experiential education.  Using games in education, in a didactic purpose, is linked with greater understanding and better assimilation of the information by players.  I may not be a scientist, but I can observe that there is movement on the games front as this understanding percolates through society and more play pops up. Continue reading “Games for Didactic Use”

Called to Council

Receiving the call to Tulum rang strongly in my being.  What resonated was the request to come for a Vision Council or perhaps it was the unwritten call to the fibers of my being.  Frankly, the location could have been a slum for all I knew.  That being said it was mid-winter in New England and most places to the South would be a dream to visit that time of year.  The greatest draw was the council’s purpose of progressing and “holding the vision of creating a gathering where elders, teachers and lineage holders from around the world come may together to share and integrate wisdom.”  From the point of receiving that first email from Paititi my soul’s song grew louder and more beautiful as our council to discuss what has come to be known Weaving Wisdoms drew closer.

Continue reading “Called to Council”

Food Security in the Valley

PVGrowsA Food-Secure Pioneer Valley- from Our Fields to Our Tables

While I couldn’t possibly capture the whole of the wonderful energy and information that flew through the air at the PVGrows Fall Forum, I can certainly try to grab some of the highlights and bits that I held onto in order to enlighten those who couldn’t make it.

The first big handy chunk of information was the description of a healthy food system.  The elements of this included: vibrant gardens, justice & fairness, healthy people, sustainable ecosystems, thriving local economies, and strong communities. Continue reading “Food Security in the Valley”

I’ve Got the Election Purples

The apparent binary division of our political system is evident in the red and blue swaths that typically appear on the election maps. (Anger and sadness?)  But have you seen there are also maps showing shades of purple arising out of the dust of the very recently over election?  People are starting to actively acknowledge, as evidenced by this idea’s birth as a widely spread meme, that the binary does not exist.  We are not divided, just arranged on a spectrum of beliefs.  (Of course with this being said the spectrum is not linear at all – but for the sake of simple understanding let’s go with it.)

Purple Map 2012
2012 Election Purple Map

With the closeness of this year’s presidential election I heard an outpouring of emotion connected with being on the ‘right’ side and wanting to win.  Some threatened moving to another country if their candidate didn’t win, an idea that Jet Blue turned into a marketing idea. Others sank into fear and despair at a projected future that in all likelihood will not happen. Continue reading “I’ve Got the Election Purples”

Healthy Credit Card Companies

I’ve had a credit card with a major bank for the past 9 years.  It was the first credit card I applied for in college and the APR rate at the time, 10.99% seemed like a lot.

About a month ago I called in because of a mistake in paying off the remaining balance of the card.  The gentleman on the line was very nice and professional, but there is something even deeper and more disturbing about our conversation that was not reflected by this man’s attitude and demeanor as he helped me fix my problem. Continue reading “Healthy Credit Card Companies”

Making Education a Pull not a Push

This TED talk by Charles Leadbeater is great.  He bring into the conversation third world examples of education.  Some of the great points and innovations that I think he hits on include:

1) Project based learning which has to be productive.

2) The inclusion of creativity and using games to teach.

3) Using the Chinese restaurant model – it spreads, looks different depending on where you are, but is recognizable for what it is.


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Don’t get stuck for ideas, there’s free curriculum out there!

Looking to teach more about sustainability, renewable energy, or another cool hip topic that you just don’t feel you know enough about?  Well first, don’t forget, you don’t have to know everything.  That’s the great thing about allowing students to go out and find the information about what interests them.

But if you are hoping to at least make an introduction to new topics in the classroom, check out your favorite non-profit to see if they provide free curriculum, games or lesson plans.  So many have begun to develop these services, it would be a shame not to take advantage of it.  Who better to hear about issues from than the experts?

For ease here are a few examples:

Oxfam Cool Planet for Teachers

Northeast Sustainable Energy Association

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