Expanding the Void – Contemplative Design

Roleplaying games are marvellous tools for fostering empathy. As a medium, our games demand that participants take on alternative perspectives and personalities. By playing in a game in the role of a refugee of a galactic war, you might reflect upon how you would react to the loss of your home or adaptation to a foreign culture. If you portray a character who leads a fantasy kingdom, you might instead be forced into the hard choices of leadership. Each of these experiences has something to teach us.

At their core, roleplaying games are driven by the decisions that the players make at the table. The strongest games are those who design that decision-space with intention and purpose. Apocalypse World is all about how you build and maintain relationships in a world in ruin. Monsterhearts concentrates instead on how teenagers learn to cope with challenges of identity and expectations. Each of these games leads the players to explore different avenues of thought.

The concept of the Fruitful Void, as coined by Vincent Baker back in Dogs in the Vineyard doesn’t have a Faith stat, or rule for determining if a course of action is moral. Monsterhearts doesn’t have a procedure for determining a character’s identity or sexuality.

In my personal design praxis, I combine the concept of intentional experience design with that of the fruitful void. Each of my games revolves around an attempt to foster specific, challenging problems that the players will have to try to examine during play. In Sig, it’s about the conflicting needs of family, faith, and politics. After the War is about how we can learn to support communities which have suffered trauma. Circles of Power asks you to think critically about complex issues of intersectionality and activism. Each of these games carves out conceptual space for players to explore within a safe context It helps us gain valuable skills and a deeper awareness of important issues.

I tend to refer to this approach as contemplative design, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you take a different approach? What kinds of challenging material do your games help us explore? Let’s start a conversation.

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