Advocacy Games vs Hobby Games

While you may know of Balangay because of the commercial games we’ve released like Darna at ang Nawawalang Bato and Lastikman: Tagu-taguan, the majority of Balangay’s game design work is in designing what we like to call “Advocacy Games”.

From our humble beginnings, Balangay’s main objective was to design games that can be used as an alternative information, educational, and communication (IEC) material. Tabletop games can deliver lessons and messages that other media struggle in. The interactivity, social aspect, and ability to model complex realities make games a great tool to add to the advocate’s arsenal. Since we started in 2014, we’ve worked with NGOs, foundations, and other advocates to make games about Climate Change, Positive Discipline, Disaster Risk Reduction and Management, Voter’s Education, Land Use Negotiations, and others.

What makes advocacy games different from hobby, or commercial, games? What is different in designing them? Today I’ll share some of our lessons and experiences.

What is an “Advocacy Game”?

There is no hard rule that differentiates between what is an Advocacy game and what is a Hobby game. Some games can be both. For us, what makes an advocacy game an advocacy game is that:

  • it has a message that it is trying to convey to its audience
  • it meets the communication needs of the advocate partner

Advocacy games have to prioritize the two aspects above more than the usual metrics of a commercial game. While hobby games prioritize things like replayability, marketability, innovation, etc, advocacy games focus on the takeaway lesson, accessibility, and circumstances of the advocacy program.

What is the Essential Learning?

In game design, we often talk about the Essential Experience. When we design advocacy games, we instead look at the Essential Learning. Advocacy games needs to have a message. However, I think this is a tricky and nuanced topic that I might need a whole other blog post to discuss in detail. There are many different kinds of messages an advocacy can give: from simple lessons to complex criticisms. Personally, I believe games work best as advocacy materials when they don’t have a heavy-handed message but are more about understanding the complex interlocking problems that exist in reality.

For example, an advocacy message can be “Don’t use one-time use plastic!” and you could easily make a game where using recyclable materials gives you victory points and using one-time use plastic deducts points. But games can do so much more. Instead of that, why not tackle the root causes of why people use single use plastics even if they know it’s bad for the environment? What about a game where you are a business and you are trying to survive amidst debt? You have a choice to use more expensive recyclable materials, or cheaper one-time use plastics. Which will you choose if the profitability of your business means being able to buy medicines for your sick child?

With games, we can model the complex realities of why people tend to choose the “bad” actions. We can model situations where there is no clear correct answer and leave the players to figure it out for themselves. I believe games where the ethics and morality of the situation is grey tend to be the best advocacy games.

Games as a supplementary Advocacy Material to other mediums

For the message of “Don’t use one-time use plastic!”, do we really need a game to give that message? There are other mediums like videos, comics, or infographics that can portray that message quicker, cheaper, and with a wider reach.

I believe games are best when part of a toolkit of many materials so that they could complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The strengths of games (interactivity, socialness, complex modelling) also give them inherent weaknesses. Games have to be learned and taught which requires time and attention from both the advocate and the players. Tabletop games are not as accessible as other mediums because they don’t spread organically in social media like images or videos. With simpler messages, it might be better to just make an infographic or other kind of social media post and let your message reach thousands in a lot less time.

But when those other mediums struggle with non-linear and complex messages, that’s where games can shine. Part of being an advocacy game designer is looking out for your advocacy partner’s needs and resources. Generally, when I first meet a client, I try to find the aspects of their advocacy that will be better represented by a game and that’s what I focus on. I also look at what parts of their advocacies are already well represented in their other communication materials and try to avoid those.

Viewing Games as Tools

Aside from the message, there are other considerations when designing Advocacy Games. It helps to see an advocacy game as a tool, so you know how to design it to do its job.

  • Where will it be used?
    • In our experience, most of our advocacy games are used in Workshops, classrooms, and formal settings.
    • Game Time: The length it takes to run the game is very important because formal settings run on a schedule. You need to have a strict set up time, game time, and a time to discuss player reflections and the results of the game.
    • Number of Players: In a workshop, expect 30-ish players. Most probably, you will separate the participants into groups to play the game which means multiple copies of the game have to be ready and easily setup.
  • Who will use the game?
    • Expect participants to be non-gamers: Expect that many players will be unfamiliar with modern tabletop games and maybe have only played Snakes and Ladders or Monopoly only. Most advocacy programs have specific target audiences so it’s important to design for that target.
    • Easy to Teach: Likewise, the advocates who will be teaching the games will probably not be gamers either so make it easy for them to teach the game.
  • How will the game be used?
    • Discussion Guide: In all the games we’ve done so far, a discussion guide for after playing the game is required. The guide serves two purposes: it concretizes the lesson by making the players reflect on their game experience, and it helps the advocates measure if the game was a success or not in giving the lesson.

Takeaway over Replayability

In a hobby game, you want the game to be replayable in order to justify the retail cost of the game to the consumer. However, with advocacy games, there is a chance that the participant will only play the game once and that’s it. Thus, the takeaway lesson has to reach the player within the first playthrough.

With hobby games, the first playthrough is often just a learning game and much of what the game can offer is delivered in subsequent playthroughs to get the player to enjoy playing again and again. When we design advocacy games, we treat it more like a one-shot in that it has to give the message in one sitting. If it can be made to be replayable, then that’s great! But if we have to make the tradeoff, we will focus on the takeaway.

Be careful with Abstractions

All tabletop games have some level of abstraction in modelling reality. With hobby games, there’s a lot more leeway in the abstractions because the end goal is just fun. With advocacy games, abstractions have to be dealt with carefully because you want the player to connect the happenings in the game with real life.

The mechanics and themes of the game have to make sense and be intuitive. You want players to leave your game with some insight on real life. The last thing you want is for the player to disassociate with the game’s theme and just focus on winning (as is what happens with many hobby games).

Anyone want to work with us?

I’ve only scratched the surface in this blog on our work in Advocacy games. If you are an advocate and are interested in collaborating with us for an advocacy game. You can reach us via email at [email protected]. We’d love to hear your ideas and make your game a reality!

If you are a designer who’s also designed Advocacy Games before, let’s connect! I haven’t encountered many of us making games in this kind of field, so I’d want to hear your thoughts about it too.

Follow Nico Valdez:

Game Designer

Nico is a game designer, programmer, songwriter, ex-audio engineer, amateur fiction writer, and president of Balangay Entertainment®. One of the less competitive members of Balangay, Nico only wins against 2k, Marx, and Aya when he's played the game before and they haven't. Nico always wins against Aa. He'll play almost anything as long as it's not loud. He likes euro games for their strategy and thematic games for their roleplaying. He doesn't like party games that much because they get too noisy for his ear disability.

  1. Bruce R Foster

    I enjoyed the content of your article on advocacy games . Clear message has to be etched into the players’minds apart from simply winning the prize.

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