5 Things Documentary Filmmakers Can Learn from Game Designers

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Minecraft game by students from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt participating in Games for Peace

The Virtual Peace Village: A scene from Minecraft collaboratively created by students from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt participating in Games for Peace.

Digital game designers have taken many notes from the pages of filmmaking history when it comes to character and story development. However, filmmakers can learn a thing or two from game aficionados as well, especially when it comes to audience development. After all, games live or die by their ability to connect and engage with players. Clearly the Tribeca Film Institute thinks that there is crossover between filmmaking and gaming, as they have now partnered with Games for Change to have their annual conference take place alongside the Tribeca Film Festival in its Innovation Week.

Here’s what I picked up from a week of Games for Change panels:

1. Know Your Audience

In discussing the development of games for pre-schoolers, Jesse Schell of Schell Games said that he constantly reminds his team, “You are not three.” That means that they spend a lot of time putting their in-the-works projects in front of actual three-year-olds to gauge response and iterate accordingly. Filmmakers might fear that incorporating this idea into their process could compromise their artistic vision, but documentaries frequently have a social goal, so perhaps it’s time to embrace what resonates with audiences while we’re still making our films.

Deborah S. Levine of Planned Parenthood worked on a series of games to address teen pregnancy, and backed up every production decision with scientific research about her audience. Levine told the Games for Change audience, “To encourage offline behavior, you need to understand theoretical framework for behaviors. Understand what works in real world.” In other words, if you want your film to motivate an audience to act, find out what else motivates them and address or incorporate it directly.

2. Personal Interaction Still Matters

Uri Mishol co-founded Games for Peace to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when he realized one thing that the two societies have in common — their kids play video games. Thus, he and his team began to modify Minecraft — the mega-popular, multi-player, communication-based computer game — to suit multi-lingual Arab and Jewish players. One of their projects has 8th grade classes — one from an Arab school and one from a Jewish school — meet weekly in a virtual Minecraft game world. But the deal is sealed when the students meet face to face after six online encounters. It’s these real world meetings that reinforce the relationships formed online and ultimately create real change.

Documentary filmmakers have long-embraced this concept with community screenings and house parties, but this presentation led me to ponder how can we push it further. How can we plan for live elements that work alongside our storyworlds from the earliest development stages?

3. Invite Your Audiences to Participate

Games have always been about audience participation, but levels of audience engagement are growing exponentially as players can now modify, build and expand upon the games themselves. In games like Minecraft, part of the “play” is game creation. Games for Change offered several great examples of this, like the teen presenter known by her online avatar “Snowkitty” who created a game within the Minecraft framework to encourage other kids to recycle. Imagine if documentaries could activate audiences this way!

And this participation doesn’t have to be digital. As game designer Peter Vigeant reminded us, “Everything digital has roots in the analog world. Use best practices.” He pointed to a technique used by Karl Rohnke, an experiential education pioneer. Rohnke would challenge reluctant groups to participate in live games, such as a ropes course, and would pique their curiosity with something small or silly before getting to the larger task at hand. Vigeant explained, “It’s an invitation to participate. Once a group is hooked, they’re in. It’s not just about participation, but co-facilitation. The group makes the outcome.” The group takes the game and makes it theirs.

Documentary filmmakers have an increasing number of ways to employ this strategy and turn viewers into participants, whether by including interactive elements in the films, by crowdsourcing or releasing media to an audience for remixing, to name a few.

4. Reinforce Your Message

Filmmakers have no shortage of vision, but I was impressed by the extent to which the game designers’ social goals seemed to permeate every decision that they made, rather than getting lost in an artistic haze along the way. Angela Santomero, who has an incredible track record in children’s television, starting with the creation of Blue’s Clues in the 90′s, is now executive producer of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” spinoff for preschoolers on PBS. The show and its associated digital learning games are designed as a contemporary legacy to the lessons taught by Mister Rogers since the late 60′s.

In ensuring that their learning goals are met, Santomero shared, “We carefully script and model strategies for socio-emotional skills that kids can repeat in real world. Every half-hour is based on a strategy. They hear it multiple times in multiple ways in multiple contexts.” And these same strategies are reinforced in the digital games.

Granted, most documentary film audiences are not small children, and do not want to be preached to or hit over the head with a message. However, there is something to be said for a certain kind of repetition or reinforcement. Think about how many times audiences play video games compared with how many times they watch the same movie. Perhaps through our transmedia or outreach strategies we can give our audiences multiple access points to the most essential information in our films, in ways that can make it stick.

5. Don’t Underestimate the Power of Play

The game creators at Games for Change are addressing serious issues — sometimes deadly serious — but they are doing it through fun and play. If I took anything away from the series of talks, it was the important reminder that fun can be a very powerful motivational tool, and one that is under-utilized in the world of social change documentaries.

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Liz Nord
Liz Nord
Filmmaker and multi-platform producer Liz Nord (Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock In The Holy Land) is embracing transmedia with her new documentary project, Jerusalem Unfiltered and as director of Lyka's Adventure Labs. She has produced media projects around the world, including MTV's Emmy Award-winning 2008 presidential election coverage, and has presented on a wide range of creativity and media-related topics, notably as a TED speaker at TEDxDumbo.