The Sculpture’s Journey (Transformational Game Design)

The Sculpture’s Journey is a cooperative tabletop game I developed for iThrive games, aimed at encouraging teenagers to develop a growth mindset. Specifically, I chose to build an experience that would help players recontextualize setbacks as opportunities for growth. Ultimately, I designed a game that provides a low-stakes opportunity for players to experiment (and be successful) with growth mindset behaviors and demonstrates the idea of gaining experience from failure in a concrete, literal way. I playtested with both teenagers and adults, and showcased the game at the Entertainment Technology Center’s fall festival, where several sets of teachers tried it for themselves and requested copies.

The complete game layout, including player instructions and Moderator Guide.

iThrive Games is a California-based company that focuses on empowering teens through gameplay. Through game jams and educational projects, they explore the potential for games to have positive impacts on teens. The Sculpture’s Journey was one of three games developed by my team at the Entertainment Technology Center as part of a semester-long project during the fall of 2017. As the game designer for The Sculpture’s Journey, I developed the gameplay and accompanying Moderator Guide. While the game can be played independently by two players, the Moderator Guide is designed to enable a third person (particularly a teacher, parent, or counselor) to guide the conversation towards the specific ideas they want to emphasize and help the players draw conclusions about how the game reflects their lives.

In The Sculpture’s Journey, the players work together to help two little clay creatures fulfill their dreams of becoming a sculpture. To do that, they must explore the board to collect clay tokens and defeat each stage of the sculpting process. The game is intentionally light and low-stakes; the biggest blocker to people developing a growth mindset is fear. Growth mindset behavior is centered around taking risks that often do not have immediately obvious rewards. For someone used to the seeming security of a fixed mindset, the idea of accepting and forging ahead into the unknowns in their life can be terrifying. In order to get past that fear, I designed The Sculpture’s Journey to demonstrate the eventual benefits of growth mindset behavior without requiring any personal risk from the players.

The clay characters players help fulfill their dreams.

Developing Understanding, Not Skill

The first major question I needed to answer while designing The Sculpture’s Journey was how to use a game to demonstrate something that is relatively easy to explain but incredibly hard to discover for oneself. Growth mindset is typically taught by explaining that brains grow and change in response to our lives. We become better at the things we do a lot because our brains are adapting to the practice, just like our other muscles get stronger the more we use them. When someone has a growth mindset, they understand that any desired trait can be developed, including things like artistic ability, athletics, and intelligence. When someone has a fixed mindset, they believe that their traits are innate and therefore not changeable. Unfortunately, mindsets develop subtly and early. Even growth mindset people are rarely conscious of their mindset –  it’s just how they work. Therefore, instead of designing a game to help players discover that a growth mindset exists, which would require long term guided observation of their own behavior, I designed The Sculpture’s Journey to supplement a lesson about mindsets and act as an opportunity for players to discover the benefits of a growth mindset.

The partially-revealed game board, with the tracker for movement resources.

The next big question that came up during development was whether or not to make the game skill-based. The straightforward solution to demonstrating a growth mindset is introducing someone to a new skill and getting them to try it long enough to observe that they improve. In fact, a common technique for studying mindsets is asking people to complete a task (say, a series of math problems) and telling some of them that studies have shown that our brains get better at these problems the more we do them. The problem with this method, for my purposes, is that it focuses the mindset on one particular skill. Everyone has different mindsets about different things. Someone may think that their coding skills will improve the more code they write and simultaneously believe that they will simply never be good at drawing. My goal was not to help students develop a growth mindset about a particular skill or trait, it was to encourage them to cultivate a high-level growth mindset that could apply to many things. Knowing that, I chose not to center the game on any particular skill.

Designing Growth Mindset Behaviors

The first half of the game is spent exploring the board using Effort and Courage, which are literal resources in the game. Players need to use Courage to uncover unknown parts of the board and Effort to move through known parts of the board. This is designed to contradict the common misconception that with a growth mindset all you have to do to make progress is to put in more effort.

The Effort and Courage counter. Players roll the two dice each turn and choose one value to allocate to each resource.

As players explore the board, they encounter monsters based on the stages of the sculpting process, which they must defeat to win the game. To defeat a monster, players must roll equal to or higher than it’s XP on a single six-sided Experience die. Players quickly discover that there are monsters with more XP than the players could possibly roll. The crucial learning moment of the game is when players understand that they can earn more Experience, but only by losing to monsters. This is based on a central concept of growth mindset: that failure is more valuable to learning than success. It demonstrates how much progress those who are willing to fail can make, as players who refuse to attempt to fight monsters they are not sure of beating cannot progress all the way through the game.

During development, I learned that the game was encouraging another misinterpretation of growth mindset: the idea that you should try everything, no matter how impossible, instead of attempting things that are just barely out of reach. To fix that, I added a threshold below which players do not earn experience for failing. After that change, I saw players seek out the monsters that were a little too big for them instead of going straight for the biggest monsters to be sure of losing to them.

Results

During playtesting, I found that players generally fell into one of two patterns of behavior:

  1. Diving in and fighting monsters right away, and therefore quickly gaining Experience.
  2. Revealing the entire board in search of something they can be sure of beating, and only then starting to fight monsters and gain experience.

The game is actually more effective for the second group, which tends to be the group that needs it more. The group that starts fighting monsters right away are often those inclined towards growth mindsets anyway. They typically lose to a monster and get an Experience die accidentally, and immediately integrate that understanding into their play strategy, so there is less of a distinct realization. The second group does not believe that losing to a monster can be beneficial until they do so and are handed their new Experience, despite the fact that all monster tiles explicitly say that losing results in increasing Experience.

Two of our student playtesters.

What makes this game work is the fact that the major learning moment happens about one-third of the way into the game. This leaves the remaining two-thirds for players to try out their new strategy and be incredibly successful with it. I intentionally overpower players towards the end of the game so that monsters that seem to have terrible consequences are defeated surprisingly easily with their accumulated experience and so that seemingly terrible consequences are merely inconvenient. This way, rather than getting to the end of the game and learning that they should have done things differently, players learn early on that there is a more effective strategy and get to feel good about using it for the rest of the game.

The fully-revealed game board, with both resource trackers.

The other major component of The Sculpture’s Journey is the Moderator Guide. The Guide is designed to help someone like a teacher, parent, or counselor prompt the players to consider how the game represents real life. Originally, the Moderator role existed to be a source of surprise information, but playtesting quickly revealed that the game is much more satisfying when players uncover information for themselves, and more versatile when it can be played without someone reading out instructions. The role shifted to what it is now as a result of a particularly illuminating playtest during which I asked the 17- and 18-year-old players what happened when they fought a monster and lost. One answered that the two of them had gained Experience that made it easier to fight the monsters, connecting the dots as he explained. The other mimed having his mind blown as the metaphor dawned on him, and the two chatted about their realizations for the next few minutes as we packed up for the day.

That playtest helped me realize that while players always adjust to the in-game logic, they sometimes need a little push to realize what it represents. Therefore, the Moderator Guide is a set of instructions for emphasizing particular ideas represented in the game. These instructions include questions to ask during gameplay to get the players talking, when to ask those questions, ways to adjust gameplay and the setup of the board for particular outcomes, and follow-up discussion questions. The fact that the game is cooperative means that the players are typically already talking to each other and explaining their strategies, so all the moderator needs to do is guide that conversation towards the ideas they want their players to discover.

Playtesting an early version of the game with a student as the moderator.

In addition to students, I have been able to show The Sculpture’s Journey to several teachers, all of whom have been enthusiastic about it as a teaching tool. Several have requested copies, and iThrive is tracking their use of the game and their results for research, which they plan to use to secure the funding to produce The Sculpture’s Journey commercially.

Game materials, including the moderator guide, can be found here.