(btw, a great game-making tool that emphasizes storytelling and player choice is Twine. Check out Kelly Tran and my quick-n-dirty resources for running a Twine game jam!)
Games are made up of interconnected systems (rules, mechanics, structures). Players explore and learn how these systems are interrelated through their play–through making decisions that matter, that are meaningful–and, in doing so, they gain systems thinking and become part of the system.
Players bring with them some sort of imagined future or the hope for some improvement to the current conditions in the system. Through their activity, players exercise agency and steer the game’s outcome. All the while, though, players are equally being played, constrained and controlled by the game. Generally, I seek to encourage resistance towards the inherent control in a game’s rules and structures, to make compelling narratives emerge from this struggle and transgression.
And our lives are made up of interrelated systems, of course. From navigating health care to applying to college, from dealing with bullies (online or otherwise) to being a community activist, success often depends on being savvy to our lived systems and understanding them enough to make meaningful decisions.
These societal systems are the way they are because of complex networks of social life. People have to deal with other people, and they often end up making laws or building systemic structures to regulate and constrain that sometimes result in less-than-ideal or less-than-fair systems. Furthermore, social life is dynamic, and our systems need to be interrogated continually and adapt to our collective needs. Collectively we can critique and resist the status quo and speak up when we see injustice. Collectively we can learn and make things better.
To do this, however, we need to be empathetic beings. We need to be able to understand how others live and be who they are. A highly effective way to promote empathy development is through reading great works of literature. Readers can experience what it’s like to be someone else, to take on a new POV and understand these new perspectives. This is true of games, too–maybe even more so. Players can more explicitly place themselves in a character’s shoes and make decisions that affect the outcome of a game.
Furthermore, players can become designers, too, and share their own stories and let others gain insights into their own lives and experiences. In authoring stories, players again gain some agency and the hope of reaching new audiences–gain understanding of themselves and others.
In summary, games are a great way to help people develop a critical eye towards systems understanding and they’re a great way to share stories and voices and give us guidelines for how to critique those systems. Games are about agency and empathy.