Doris Rusch & Andrew Phelps

Dr. Doris C. Rusch is a game designer / researcher with a humanities background who holds a position as Senior Lecturer in Game Design at Uppsala University. Her games have won numerous awards and she has been an international keynote speaker and presenter including Clash of Realities, DiGRA, Game Developers Conference, Meaningful Play, Nordic Game Conference, FDG and TEDx. She authored Making Deep Games – Designing Games with Meaning and Purpose (Taylor & Francis 2017).

Andrew “Andy” Phelps is a designer and professor at the Human Interface Technology Laboratory NZ (HITLabNZ) within the College of Engineering at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand where he explores virtual and augmented reality, games and education, and art and interactive media experiences. He is also a professor in the Film & Media Arts division of the School of Communication, holds a joint appointment in the Department of Computer Science, and is the director of the AU Game Lab at American University in Washington DC, USA. Prior to these appointments he served as a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology where he was the founding director of the School of Interactive Games & Media, the RIT Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction & Creativity, and MAGIC Spell Studios. Phelps is also currently president of the Higher Education Video Game Alliance (HEVGA), and his work in games is recognized internationally, has been presented at numerous academic conferences, published in multiple books and journals, and is supported by grants from multiple federal agencies as well as industry. His latest game is Fragile Equilibrium (XBOX, Steam, 2019), and he maintains a website of his publications, popular
writing, artwork, curriculum development, and more at

Games of the Soul

FROG 2020 – Keynote

This talk explores a design framework for creating existential, transformative games – games that directly engage the player in the contemplation of life – with the ostensible goals of reflection, awareness, empathy, and growth.  Through this work, we seek to re-contextualize games as experiential, expressive works of art that can move us profoundly and evoke lasting inner shifts. These existential media experiences engage their players directly in the consideration of the human condition writ large, our position in the universe, the role and meaning of our lives and relationships in ways that are complex and at once both deeply personal, and resonant across the human experience. In considering a design framework for creating games of this type, our work draws from the theory and practice of existential psychotherapy and its main themes and goals to inform the conception of game ideas and gameplay experiences. In examining the design of these games with the goal of theorizing a design framework, several elements emerge:

The first is that several of these games use myth to communicate existential ideas in a way that speaks to the unconscious and encourages self-reflection and environmental awareness.  In this manner these games can be said to ‘resonate’ with their players in ways that use a shared culture, vocabulary, and societal backdrop to convey ideas well beyond and below the surface of the initial role of myth as a social, cultural, narrative, or aesthetic tool in game design.  These games use myth as a shortcut to the contemplation of the spiritual, to questions of existence.

The second is that, often in combination with myth, these games are deeply rooted in ritual (both in their play and, in a certain sense, their creation).  The repeated patterns of game play speak to the way repeated patterns, symbols, and practices draw players into channels of thought and reflection in ways so deeply human.  These games use myth and ritual as existential navigation and personal calibration tools, and in this manner exhibit similar characteristics to the practice of psychotherapy.

Third, these games can be said to be a form of ‘experiential’ game in which the true narrative and purpose of the game is never overtly stated, and indeed is rarely an explicit narrative at all, but rather seeks to be felt rather than read.  These games focus on the experiential nature of the game itself as it is played, seeking to convey their messages and resonances through this very act, to be evocative, and to invite emotional reflection and response via metaphor.

Given these elements and understanding their criticality, how do we go about creating new myths, in creating new resonances?  What practices can help designers create more and better work in this area? This talk explores these questions in depth, presents early work on our theory of design for effective games of this type, and ponders the nudge that games can give us, when we listen, for meaningful, transformational change.


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