Skip to Content

Discursive Design: Games for Good

Students design games in a studio.

Games as a creative problem-solving conduit were central in the Fall 2023 Discursive Design course taught by Stamps Professor Stephanie Tharp.

The semester began with a project that asked the students to think about food and water issues in the future by visioning forward 5, 10, 20, or 50 years. They proposed scenarios and artifacts to help immerse people in this world and encourage reflection on sociocultural issues. After this, they began work to develop a related tabletop game.

For Tharp, this was the first semester she used game design to engage students in making products that communicate ideas to encourage reflection and dialogue around these issues.

At its core, discursive design is a tool for thinking and reflection,” said Tharp. By using game design as a medium with a theme around food and water, students have been deeply immersed in this environmental subject matter as they developed these games, and at the same time, identified problems and ways to address them. By engaging in this way, the theory and framework of discursive design is grounded through the exploration of game development.”

A local game designer, Tyler Kilgore, joined the class to contextualize the project and critique their work. According to Kilgore, games do much more than serve as a distraction or a way to relax. 

Students speak with local game designer in a studio.

This is a wonderful exercise in game design,” said Kilgore. Games are a great tool for understanding and breaking systems down. It fits very well with the discursive mindset because it makes people think critically about a system’s work. Games are not just a leisure activity. They engage the mind; all gaming has a critical thinking component. Through play, we can solve the critical issues of our time.”

The various games designed by students included a version of Chutes and Ladders that deals with clean water in communities and a game called Carbon 30,” which helps players reach a goal of carbon neutrality within 30 years.

Hansen Wu (BFA 25) created a card game inspired by Gubs. Wu explained his game concept: The game takes place in the near future, where the methane created from cattle farming has negatively impacted the greenhouse, and you play a rancher and have to find a way to profit in that situation. Different defense cards encourage players to find ways to deal with the problem of methane, incentivizing them to be more environmentally conscious. You compete with your fellow ranchers to see who can profit the most.”

The students presented, played, and critiqued each others’ games during the class, creating a group discussion around the topic of future food and water issues. As Kilgore noted, These students are engaging with the world’s problems, one game at a time.”

Story by Jen Hogan.