Play in Difficult Times

Danielle Chen | 02/11/2020

Do you like playing board games? Have you ever struggled to talk about a difficult topic with someone? What could these two things possibly have in common?

Every once in a while we have to tell another person something we know they don’t want to hear — perhaps a close family member is diagnosed with a terminal disease or passes away, or a teenager is facing sexual identity issues, or parents are going through divorce, or a child is being bullied at school. Everyone has their own way of coping when it comes to stressful and difficult moments: some people like to talk about it, some like to keep it to themselves, and some don’t know how to process their feelings. According to psychologists and social workers in the mental health space, a great way to navigate through a difficult time is by sharing thoughts and feelings with others. But how can we encourage people to do so?

I created the board game rekindling with two teammates from graduate school; it uses collaborative gameplay to help families talk about difficult situations. We decided to focus on the topic of cancer for our game, as everyone on my team has had an experience associated with cancer. Through conversations and secondary research, we knew we weren’t alone — most people have had some sort of experience with cancer.

We first talked to families who had been affected by cancer diagnoses to better understand the challenges they have gone through. We also spoke with psychologists and social workers who have worked with families affected by cancer to learn how they help their patients open up and verbalize their frustrations. We went through several ideation cycles and prototypes, and then brought late-stage prototypes back to the families we talked to in order to gather feedback and iterate upon them some more, finally landing on the idea of using a collaborative board game to help facilitate difficult conversations.

The first thing we learned from our interviews with the families is that parents’ overprotectiveness makes it hard for their children to contribute to the situation. Secondly, when an uncertain future is paired with parents’ lack of transparency after a cancer diagnosis, it exacerbates confusion and frustration in the family. And lastly, post-diagnosis, families often find themselves entering into a stressful world that is distinct from their usual world — where communication becomes disjointed and happiness becomes secondary.

To address these common pain points, we developed three design criteria forrekindling: it must offer opportunities for contribution, it must normalize unpredictability and it must physically unite families in a playful way. Our overall aim was to help make the discussion of challenging topics a more approachable and engaging experience.

Keeping these design criteria in mind, we created a board game that strives to facilitate tough conversations in families by:

  1. Offering opportunities for each family member to contribute during the gameplay.

    • The game includes 90 prompt cards with questions ranging from light-hearted, to thought-provoking, to cancer-related.
    • Each family member is encouraged to contribute to the game by answering all the questions on the cards and sharing their answers with one another.
    • Since everyone answers each question differently, playing rekindling helps families build understanding and empathy toward one another.
  2. Gradually building familiarity to normalize unpredictability.

    • The players are instructed to place the game board pieces in response to how they want the flow of their conversation to go.
    • Once the players are familiar with the categories, they can choose to randomize the order of the prompt cards by using a colored die, reflecting the unpredictability of an ever-changing or life-threatening situation.
    • The goal is to help families address difficult topics as they arise and realize it’s okay to not know what comes next.
  3. Physically uniting families to build a creative structure together by the end of each game.

    • The game includes magnetic shapes to provide a tactile building experience and act as a buffer during difficult conversations.
    • Families work to build an abstract structure together — engaging family members, and serving as a reminder to play the game again and continue the conversation.

We received positive feedback on the game from families we play tested with, and were asked by psychologists and social workers for a copy because they were all excited to use it with their patients for other topics beyond cancer.

A few months ago, I had the honor of exhibiting rekindling at Cherry Street Pier for DesignPhiladelphia. Each fall during its 10-day festival, DesignPhiladelphia celebrates and promotes the historic role of design in the region while showcasing the innovation yet to come. Hundreds of thousands of people come to explore the world of design during this event.

In order to create a conversational and interactive experience for the audience during the festival, I constructed a life-sized version of the game so people could step onto the game board and become part of the game by interacting with its pieces using their whole bodies. I also included a giant whiteboard that encouraged people to write down things they felt were difficult to talk about. The intention of this exhibition wasn’t just to showcase our product and create a fun experience, but also to provoke conversations — the exact reason why we created rekindling. The feedback I received from attendees was tremendously positive — everyone had fun playing the life-sized board game with their friends and families, and covered the whiteboard with a wide range of thoughtful answers on challenging topics they would like to address.

Having difficult conversations is … well, difficult. People tend to feel overwhelmed and stressed in such situations and forget to take a moment to embrace a gift that each one of us was born with: the ability to play. In books based on research that focused specifically on cancer patients, scholars have found that patients who have kept a playful and open attitude during their treatments have either recovered sooner or lived longer than their diagnosed expectancy.

My wish for you, dear reader, is that you can spend some time thinking about topics you have been wanting to talk about with family members or friends, and that you can then hold meaningful, productive and engaging discussions by adding some playful elements to your conversations.