Designing Games for Change

Picture Impact
5 min readJun 6, 2021

Coming from a company of some serious (and not so serious) game players, we’d like to share our passion for games and how they can be an excellent tool for working with complexity, specifically with behavior change and human development. We build core life skills through play, such as social navigation, negotiation, creativity, confidence, and decision-making. Play also brings us joy and connection.

“Nothing lights up the brain like play.” — Stuart Brown

An illustration with two women cutting and crafting something

Games are a form of play. There is evidence that people have played games since our very beginnings. Gameplay isn’t just about having fun, though that is a critical element (have you ever voluntarily played an un-fun game more than once? We don’t think so!). Games allow us to practice our humanity.

“Exploring conceptual spaces is critical to our success in life. Our brains have serious trouble grasping probability. Exploring a probability space is the only way to learn about it.” — Raph Koster

Games allow us to explore possibilities within the safety of what game designers call the “magic circle”-the imagined world within gameplay where friends can be enemies, worlds are created and destroyed, and anything goes (as long as it works within the rules of the game). This space of speculation, future-making, suspension of preconceptions, and (un)bounded creativity is familiar territory in our fields of design and evaluation. It is also a critical space for human development.

“Games give experiences meaning, they provide a set of boundaries within a ‘safe’ environment to explore, think and ‘try new things out.”— Karl Kapp

While the content of play is often about taking risks (fighting dragons, going on an adventure, blowing your whole savings to grab up Park Place), the context of play is one of physical and social safety. In this role, as a place of safe, connected risk-taking, games can be a platform for grappling with complexity, learning how to make decisions, and seeing the consequences of our actions before they cause harm. Games allow us to explore the whole range of who we could be together without leaving the safety of our kitchen table.

The game of Life is a perennial favorite with kids everywhere. Current favorites on our team are Cartographers, Hive, Wingspan, Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated, Pulsar 2849, and Terraforming Mars. We love playing games; it was only natural that we would lean into the process of making one.


In 2019, Picture Impact was part of a team of teams looking for new ways to approach the problem of young people (specifically adolescent girls and young women) in Zimbabwe not seeking out health care and not following advice on health risk prevention. If you have been the parent of a teen, this might be familiar behavior to you, and it has real consequences, often ones that have a lifelong impact. One team focused on an entertainment-education approach to inspiring/motivating young people through story (a full-length feature film!). We took a different approach grounded in neuroscience, positive youth development, and fun (because young people love to have fun): game design.

While we dreamed of a retail-ready game, that process requires layers of development beyond the scope of typical program implementation. Within the My Health My Life activity, we developed and tested a game prototype that will be delivered through the DREAMS program.

Image describes various aspects of game design for this project

Our game design process drew on a mix of methods, including audience analysis, market research, prototyping, and participatory workshops held with a range of youth in Zimbabwe. The youth generated game content, provided feedback on the look and feel of the game, responded to key concepts, and play-tested our prototype. These interactive sessions with youth focused on having fun and gathering information. Weaving in insights from the design research, we further developed scoring, a quick-play guide, and a guide for gameplay facilitators (peer educators/counselors, community health workers, parents, teachers, and other helping professionals).

  • Preview the poster we developed for the SBCC Summit (postponed from 2020 to 2022) on Gamification, Games, and SBC.
  • Learn more about the games, gamification, and the game design process here.
  • Read about why games are a great approach for teens facing tough life challenges here.

For Example: “IS IT?”

Entertain. Surprise. Intrigue your friends. Keep them coming back for another story. If you can imagine it, you can tell it.

“Is it?” is a fun game you can play at home, school, in clubs, or just hanging out with your friends. Play in groups of 5 or more to laugh and try on new freedoms and possibilities together.

Two teams compete as the audience judges; who told the best story? Teams each get eight image cards and the same story prompt. With only 2 minutes on the clock, teams must decide which images to use, what story to tell, and who is their best orator among them. After the stories are told, image cards are added up, and the audience awards extra points for Plot Twist!, Best Fit, and Entertainer. The team with the most points wins the round, and each player receives a token. New teams are formed as new players jump in, and gameplay begins again.

At the end of the day, who will have the most tokens? Who is the master storyteller? Is it you?

“A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.”

— Jane McGonigal



Picture Impact

We are strategists, designers and evaluators. We help people see what needs changing and envision a new future