Sabine Harrer: Deep Games, Rituals, and Schmetterlife – Doris C. Rusch Visits the CoE

Elude aims to raise awareness for depression and to inform about this dangerous illness. Screenshot courtesy of GAMBIT Game Lab.

Written by Sabine Harrer, Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies. This post is a part of an ongoing blog series by members and alumni of the CoE. See the full list of published posts and the introduction to the series.

In late October, the CoE welcomed researcher and game designer Doris Rusch, professor of game design at the Game Design Department in Visby, Gotland for a guest visit. During her research stay at the CoE, Rusch shared insights from her current work on rituals in games. Furthermore, she collaborated on a student workshop and a game design project with CoE’s postdoctoral researcher Sabine Harrer.

Rusch has previously worked at the MIT Singapore GAMBIT Games Lab in Cambridge, MA, where she conducted applied games research on the question how the human condition can be explored through games. In this capacity, she designed games about depression, addiction, and personality disorders. For example, the award-winning Elude (2010) used spatial metaphors to communicate struggles of depression to players. Rusch is the founder of the Deep Games lab at DePaul University, Chicago, and the author of Making Deep Games (2017), a book which has been acclaimed by indie game designers.

During her Oasis Lunchtime talk on Existential, Transformative Game Design, Rusch addressed how game design might tap into the therapeutic principles through the shared focus on rituals, and how this differs from a classical Games for Change argument. While Games for Change often express a need for change external to the player, operating with quantifiable metrics for change, therapeutic approaches prioritize personal resonance as a source for transformation. According to Rusch, ritual is a design resource, which can support this focus on player’s own values and beliefs, what Rusch calls “their true north”. In the second part, Rusch demonstrated what this might mean on the practical level of game design, describing her own design strategies, using dream work, active imagination, and small rituals, which produce personal resonance.

The Playing with Rituals workshop. Photo by Sabine Harrer.

Rituals were also the focus of the student workshop Playing with Rituals conducted by Rusch and Harrer. During the workshop, the students explored principles of transformative game design, using a team member’s personal issue as a starting point for design. The process of designing, testing, as well as sharing rituals to address someone else’s needs was intended to explore psychotherapeutic rituals in embodied, playful ways.

Prototyping Schmetterlife: a game about academic achievements, self-doubt, and survival strategies. Photo by Sabine Harrer.

Rusch’s Oasis lecture and the workshop were taken as an inspiration point for the ritual-based game Schmetterlife, co-designed by Rusch and Harrer. The design process was initiated with an imaginary ritual, learning from the experiences of the students. Similar to the workshop, a personal issue was chosen as the starting point to develop a visual landscape. In this process, some attention was paid to the chosen game development engine Bitsy, a browser-based pixel tool by Adam LeDoux. Bitsy prioritizes visuals and narratives over physical mechanics, which impacted the decision to go for a visual method during ideation. Images developed during this phase were then fleshed out in Bitsy’s digital environment. The outcome was a first game prototype of Schmetterlife, a game about academic achievements, self-doubt, and survival strategies in a system stacked against one’s intuitions. Work on Schmetterlife is still in progress, as are further workshops and a publication on the theme of transformative game design.

Dr. Doris C. Rusch is a game designer / researcher with a humanities background, who holds a position as Senior Lecturer in Game Design at Uppsala University. Her games have won numerous awards and she has been an international keynote speaker and presenter including Clash of Realities, DiGRA, Game Developers Conference, Meaningful Play, Nordic Game Conference, FDG, and TEDx. She authored Making Deep Games – Designing Games with Meaning and Purpose (Taylor & Francis 2017).