A Primer for Telling Critical Stories through Accessible Games

by Erin Kathleen Bahl, Sergio C. Figueiredo, and Jeffrey D. Greene


Recent scholarship in video game design and development has taken an affective turn, asking questions about the individual and collective experiences that games engender in players. For instance, Katherine Isbister, in How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design, explores how the worlds of games extend and persist beyond a specific play-experience into social, nongame environments, claiming that game designers have come to realize that “extended play is far more meaningful when embedded in understandable human social frameworks for collective action” (2017, 123). Through these frameworks we experience sets of values in a game and learn how the systems that structure our play support or challenge them. Games allow us to explore and experiment with values, as well as to learn about the functions of those values within and beyond a game environment (see Anable 2018; Juul 2013; Sicart 2014). Values are social, cultural, technological, and/or institutional conventions, ones that can be altered with purposeful and conscientious design practices (De Koven 2013, 9).

Contributing to the increasing interest in affective game design, Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum propose a three-part method for uncovering values in games and cultivating a design practice for engaging and changing conventional values. Conscientious game design, they write, begins by acknowledging that “(1) there are common (not necessarily universal) values; (2) artifacts may embody ethical and political values; and (3) steps taken in design and development have the power to affect the nature of those values” (2014, 11). Through this recursive design practice, Flanagan and Nissenbaum aim to provide game designers with a process for seeing their active roles in “shaping the social, ethical, and political values” in games and for converting these “insights into practices in the world” (12).

One of the most immediate challenges for game developers and designers is getting into compliance with the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) of 2010 by January 2019. According to the International Game Developers Association, beginning in 2019 the criteria for developing accessible games for people with a wide range of conditions “must be considered from early in development,” and the design and testing process must involve people with disabilities (“About CVAA,” n.d.). However, the CVAA does not require accessible gaming experiences but only accessible communications within the gaming experience. While the CVAA certainly advances accessibility in terms of motor functions, contemporary game developers have become increasingly concerned that the design of gaming experiences has been overlooked (see Portelli 2017).

In response, Stefan Gualeni proposes that “the interrelated processes of researching, crafting, and iterating that define the practice of design… materialize and refine not only [the designers’] functional plan, but also their ethos, their sensitivity and ideologies” (2014, 4). These practices are implemented more often than not among independent game design organizations, such as Molleindustria, an organization with the stated mission of producing radical games addressing the “tyranny of entertainment.”1 Even organizations with missions of wider scope have started exploring the potential of developing games to challenge dominant cultural narratives. A recent example is When Rivers Were Trails (2019), an indigenous-cultures-themed game created by the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and Michigan State University’s Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab, and supported by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.2 This particular game disrupts the messages and representations in the original western pioneer game, Oregon Trail, and asks players to make difficult decisions within the context of the Dawes Act of 1887 that divided tribal lands among individual Native Americans (Dawes Act 1887; see also Jawort 2019). Yet, bringing these conscientious design practices into the mainstream remains a major challenge for telling these sorts of critical, nondominant narratives.

In light of developing scholarly discussions on the social values and affective experiences embedded in experiential game design, as well as increased exigencies for accessible design in video game industry contexts, we view game design documents as a particularly rich site for inquiry, critique, and practice in upper-level writing classrooms. Noting the game design document’s power as a “vision statement” guiding collaborative design workflows (Colby & Colby 2019), we suggest that that developing game design documents is one route for students to practice professional writing genres in ways that critically examine social value systems in narratives and anticipate accessible player experiences in concrete, situated ways.

Game Design Documents: Definition and History

As video games have grown in complexity, so too have their budgets and documentation needs. The early days of game design often involved a team of one: a lone programmer endeavoring to produce a single title. Today, video game budgets can run into the millions, and hundreds of disparate artists, designers, programmers, quality assurance engineers, testers, marketing professionals, writers, and more may constitute a design team. It’s no surprise that video game documentation has evolved in order to keep a large team on track with a unified vision through various stages of development.

Historically, video game developers have used a game design document, or GDD, to help “[communicate] a vision for a game, …mapping out as much information as possible about how that game will function, what players will experience, and how players will interact with the game world” (Rouse 2005, 356). A GDD is an internal reference text written by a development team to convey information about many aspects of a video game project, including play mechanics, controls, story elements, levels and game progression, artificial intelligence, user interface, and more.

Although many GDDs contain similar elements and components, it’s important to note that it has no single, standard format (Greene and Palmer 2014). Instead, each GDD is unique to the individual project. For example, a 2D puzzle game might need a very robust section on game mechanics, but it won’t necessarily require the lengthy worldbuilding write-up that an open-world RPG (role-playing game) would receive. Additionally, a team may have one or several separate GDDs for different aspects of the design process. For example, an early concept document might be used for funding and venture capital, while a technical design document is often necessary for defining programming/technical aspects of the project. Finally, GDDs are rarely static; they are living documents, constantly revised and updated by members of the design team as the project moves through various stages of the development process. To support this, recent game design documents have shifted into content management systems such as Wikis or Confluence (Ryan 1999).3 For instructors looking to bring game design into a composition or workplace writing classroom, GDDs serve as an excellent entry point. The production of a GDD requires no technical knowledge and gives students a low-stakes opportunity to engage with document design, narrative authorship, and game studies in a manner that reflects the real-world practice of game development.

Primer Guidelines

Below we present primer guidelines for helping students create game design documents that critique dominant cultural narratives and anticipate accessible design. We break this primer into three sections to address each component of this overall goal. However, we view them as iterative, recursive processes, and development of a GDD should attend to each dimension simultaneously rather than sequentially.

In each section, we provide recommendations for identifying the basic components of GDDs, analyzing the concepts underlying effective GDDs, and applying these concepts in active, collaborative design scenarios. These guidelines are suggestive rather than exhaustive; we encourage instructors to investigate additional resources, such as Accessible Player Experiences, and adapt them to their course goals, student needs, and available technologies.4

Create Game Design Documents

Instructors might open this sequence with a discussion establishing distinctions between external and internal documentation in game design. For example, manuals and tutorials are intended for external consumer audiences, whereas game design documents, concept documents, and technical bibles are written for development team members and other internal stakeholders.

To create game design documents, students should first examine several industry examples in close detail. We suggest students identify the main sections of a GDD and learn their standard or essential components, as well as the ways in which they might be adapted for different audiences or gaming goals. Some GDDs they examine could include An Ant’s Life, Grand Theft Auto 1 (originally titled Race ‘n’ Chase), and Grim Fandango.5 Since there is some variation in elements included in GDDs in professional contexts, instructors might provide templates or style guides with the components required for a particular course, such as those developed by Chris Taylor and Mark Baldwin.6 If time permits, the class can develop a “house template” as a way of synthesizing information gathered from different templates and weighing the advantages/disadvantages of including different kinds of information in the early conceptual stages of game design. As supplements, students might also examine rulebooks or player handbooks that provide metacommentary on game rules/game design/gameplay to increase awareness of genre conventions, player expectations, and available possibilities within gaming discourse. Please see the “Supplementary Resources” section at the end of this essay for additional examples.

Once they are familiar with the genre of game design documents, students may benefit from a practice round of GDD drafting based on an existing game before generating their own GDD. One option to help them get comfortable with the discourse is to have the entire class play through a short game and then work together to reverse engineer a plausible game design document by filling in a template. This could also be a point to examine multiple short, socially critical games such as Depression Quest (2013), Papers, Please (2017), or That Dragon, Cancer (2016) to set up a discussion on designing narrative experiences that implicitly critique dominant social narratives.7 For example, Depression Quest is a 20-30 minute freely available game that guides players through interactive text options about navigating depression in the face of significant social, professional, personal, and financial pressures. Activities that many may consider “normal” (such as routine self-care, communication with loved ones, and completing work tasks) are often listed but crossed out and unavailable for selection. Players must proceed via options available to the unnamed character’s current mental state and energy level, with results of varying and unforeseeable detriment or benefit.

Based on these foundations, students should be able to move to brainstorming the experiences they themselves want to create in their own game design documents. To create the GDD, we suggest forming small groups of students and that each group divides the work among its members. All contributors should have input; however, some might focus on character or environment descriptions and others on actions and mechanics, enabling students to gravitate toward sections that interest them and that build on their strengths, experiences, and gaming knowledge.

Critique Dominant Cultural Narratives

Although there are multiple components to game design documents, the narrative structure is one of the core driving features that determine game development. Thus, parallel to learning about the genre of game design documents, students should develop a critical vocabulary for analyzing narrative structures. One useful resource in this regard might be Vladimir Propp’s (1968) narrative functions for folk tale morphology that break stories down into their fundamental sequential order based on actions undertaken by primary personas. Another resource might be David Herman’s Basic Elements of Narrative, which provides a structure for analyzing features of narrative across media (including situatedness, event sequencing, worldmaking and disruption, and the experience of a world in flux [2009, xvi]) and which is suited to immersive environments. A third example is Stefano Gualeni’s (2016) analysis, which is grounded in the view that self-reflexive video games are often intentionally designed to provoke a sense of “unease and unfamiliarity” in players.

Students might then apply these critical vocabularies to dominant cultural narratives to analyze their sequences, functions, characters, environments, and underlying procedural assumptions. For greater coherence, the course as a whole might focus on certain themes related to dominant narratives on topics such as gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, religion and spirituality, disability, class, and more. This approach would allow for greater depth and detail in both identifying and critiquing dominant narrative structures. However, students might also choose their own theme in order to focus on narratives that best fit the kind of experience they want to create, as well as the kind of critique their team wants to make. In either case, this session should consider a range of media in ways that help students distinguish the unique narrative affordances of designing for video game environments.

These activities will prepare students to consider how the narrative experience they are designing connects to dominant cultural narratives and to find interesting, insightful ways to subvert those narratives. Responding to these dominant narratives via Propp, they might design personas not typically represented or have their characters proceed through functional sequences that diverge from standard patterns. Responding via Herman, they might enact critique that comments on one or more dimensions of the narrative discourse context (i.e., a video game platform), event sequence, storyworld (and world-disrupting event), or experience of a world in flux. Regardless of the way they design their GDD narrative, students should be able to generate a separate process-based reflection on how their document critiques dominant narratives and enacts this critique in the gameplay experience.

Anticipate Accessible Design

Simultaneous to developing critical vocabularies for game design documents as a genre and enacting critiques in narrative structure, students should also develop conceptual and technical skills for accessible game design. Along with Accessible Games, we argue that accessibility needs to be part of game design from the start, rather than a retrofit addressing problems as they arise after the game is complete.8 Thus, anticipating a range of abilities plays a key role in developing game design documents.

Students should be familiar with accessibility standards for online information presented through resources such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 (2018), “Accessible Player Experiences” offered by AbleGamers, and “Game Accessibility Guidelines,” the latter of which is a collaborative document that offers accessible game design recommendations addressing motor, cognitive, vision, hearing, speech, and general domains, with basic, intermediate, and advanced recommendation levels within each domain.9 Additionally, students should be able to address current accessibility standards required at game-industry and federal levels, as well as ethical dimensions of accessible design that accompany legal and professional dimensions. At the time of this writing, standards for video games have not been solidified, partly because the FCC’s waiver on accessibility requirements for text chat in online video games recently expired (Twenty-First Century 2010). The continued development of these standards provides a rich opportunity for classroom discussion and for students to have a stake and voice in these ongoing conversations.

Accessibility standards can very easily become abstract checklists of regulations; it is thus important to situate discussions on this topic in concrete user personas (especially in connection to what we emphasize in this primer). WCAG 2.1 guidelines, for example, recommend eight plausible personas, or stories, of users with disabilities seeking to access online information, which provides another way to navigate accessibility standards: students use specific personas as lenses to explore design recommendations most relevant to creating particular game experiences. Although “Accessible Player Experiences” does not include concrete named personas, it groups recommendations based on the type of challenge that certain user populations might encounter. Thus, as students develop their game design documents, they can also research and generate personas for an audience that includes gamers of diverse physical and cognitive abilities, needs, and preferences.

Researching accessibility standards and situating them in specific personas prepares students to build these considerations into their game design documents during the development stage. They should consider accessibility in all dimensions of their game but especially those that involve direct user interaction such as interface information display and input controls. This consists of presenting important information via more than one channel to increase access options; an oncoming attacker, for example, might be signaled through auditory (sound effects, change in music), visual (appearance of new character, warning indications on map), textual (descriptive captions), and haptic (controller vibration) cues. Additionally, players need to be able to successfully complete actions using a number of possible input devices, rather than with only one. Whether using joystick controllers, keyboards, voice input, mouse, touchscreen, or a custom-designed device, the game design document should anticipate a successful, enjoyable gameplay experience for all modes of engagement. Furthermore, designers must anticipate flexible information interfaces that set players up for the best possible playing experience based on individual cognitive processing speeds and preferences. “Accessible Player Experiences” offers a set of twelve access design patterns and ten challenge design patterns that address these considerations in greater detail and provide examples of how they’ve been successfully implemented in a range of games.10 Overall, students’ goals in developing game design documents should anticipate as much adaptability as possible to give players of all abilities the flexibility to play their game in a way that embraces their access needs and that foregrounds player agency in the game’s experience design.

Final Thoughts

In this primer, we’ve provided a set of recommendations for incorporating video games into writing classroom pedagogy in ways that foreground critical narratives and accessibility at the conceptual stage through game design documents. We encourage game development follow-up to these conceptual documents if time and conditions permit. However, our hope is that this emphasis on writing will make video game design processes more accessible to students and teachers alike and help students develop greater agency in recognizing, critiquing, and changing the value-laden systems implicit in designed narrative experiences.

1 See Molleindustria - Radical Games against the Tyranny of Entertainment.

2 See this issue’s special feature contribution “When Rivers Were Trails” by Elizabeth LaPensée and Nichlas Emmons.

3 See Tim Ryan’s January 10, 2018, comment on his 1999 article: The Anatomy of a Design Document, Part 1: Documentation Guidelines for the Game Concept and Proposal.

4 See Accessible Player Experiences (APX).

5 Ant’s Life - game design document (GDD), Grand Theft Auto Design Document, and Grim Fandango Puzzle Document.

6 See Taylor’s template here and Baldwin’s here.

7 Depression Quest, Papers, Please, and That Dragon, Cancer.

8 See AbleGamers Welcomes You to a New Way Forward in Game Accessibility.

9 See Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, W3C Recommendation 05 June 2018, Accessible Player Experiences (APX), and Game Accessibility Guidelines.

10 See Accessible Player Experiences (APX).

Works Cited

About CVAA.” n.d. International Game Developers Association Game Access Special Interest Group. Accessed January 5, 2019.

Anable, Aubrey. 2018. Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Colby, Richard, and Rebekah Shultz Colby. 2019. “Game Design Documentation: Four Perspectives from Independent Game Studios.” In Communication Design Quarterly. Online First. Accessed 1 Aug. 2019.

Dawes Act. 1887. An Act to Provide for the Allotment of Lands in Severalty to Indians on the Various Reservations (General Allotment Act or Dawes Act), Statutes at Large 24, 388-91, NADP Document A1887.      

De Koven, Bernard. 2013. The Well-Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Depression Quest. 2013. Designed by Zoë Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler. Windows, macOSX, Linux, Steam.

Flanagan, Mary, and Helen Nissenbaum. 2014. “Groundwork for Values in Games.” In their Values at Play in Digital Games, 3-14. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Greene, Jeff, and Laura Palmer. 2014. “It’s All Fun and Games until Someone Pulls out a Manual: Finding a Role for Technical Communicators in the Game Industry.” In Computer Games and Technical Communication: Critical Methods and Applications at the Intersection, edited by Jennifer DeWinter and Ryan M. Moeller, 17-34. New York: Routledge.

Gualeni, Stefano. 2014. “Freer Than We Think: Game Design as a Liberation Practice.” Paper presented at the Philosophy of Computer Games Conference. Istanbul, Turkey, November 13-16.

--. 2016. “Self-reflexive Videogames: Observations and Corollaries on Virtual Worlds as Philosophical Artifacts.” GAME: The Italian Journal of Game Studies, no. 5.

Herman, David. 2009. Basic Elements of Narrative. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Isbister, Katherine. 2017. How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Jawort, Adrian. 2019. “Real Native History in a Video Game: An Indigenous Take on The Oregon Trail.” Indian Country Today, March 5, 2019.

Juul, Jesper. 2013. The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Papers, Please. 2017. Designed by 3909 LLC. Windows, macOSX, Linux, iPad, PlayStation Vita, Steam.

Portelli, Jean-Luc. 2017. “Experimental, Experiential Game Design.” Think. Accessed May 30, 2019.

Propp, Vladimir. 1968. Morphology of the Folktale, 2nd ed. Translated by Laurence Scott. Edited by Louis A. Wagner. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Rouse, Richard. 2005. Game Design Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. Plano, TX: Wordware.

Ryan, Tim. 1999. “The Anatomy of a Design Document, Part 1: Documentation Guidelines for the Game Concept and Proposal.” Gamasutra: The Art and Business of Making Games. October 19, 2018.

Sicart, Miguel. 2014. Play Matters. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

That Dragon, Cancer. 2016. Designed by Ryan Green, Josh Larson, Amy Green, Jon Hillman, RyanCousins, Mike Perrotto, and Brock Henderson. iPhone, iPad, Windows, macOSX, Steam, Ouya, Forge TV, Cortex.

Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. 2010. Pub. L. 111-260. 124 Stat. 2751.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1.” 2018. World Wide Web Consortium. June 5, 2018.

When Rivers Were Trails. 2019. Designed by Indian Land Tenure Foundation and Michigan State University’s Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab. Windows, macOS, iOS, Android.

Supplementary Resources

“AbleGamers Welcomes You to a New Way Forward in Game Accessibility.” n.d. Accessible Games. Accessed April 30, 2019.

Bouchard, R. Philip. 2017. “I Designed the Oregon Trail, You Have Died of Dysentery.” Format, July 24, 2017.

Brown, James, Jr., and Eric Alexander. 2016. “Procedural Rhetoric, Proairesis, Game Design, and the Revaluing of Invention.” In Play/Write: Digital Rhetoric, Writing, Games, edited by Douglas Eyman and Andrea D. Davis, 270-87. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.

Buhlman, Jason, Gary Gygax, and Dave Arneson. 2009. Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Core Rulebook. Redmond, WA: Paizo.

Dungeons and Dragons Player Handbook. 5th ed. 2014. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.

Huntsman, Tim. 2000. “A Primer for the Design Process, Part 1: Do.” Gamasutra: The Art and Business of Making Games. June 30.

Jacob, James. 2011. Pathfinder: Campaign Setting, Inner Sea World Guide. Bellevue, WA: Paizo.

Morris, Jill. 2016. “Narrative Realities and Alternate Zombies: A Student-Centered Alternate Reality Game.” In Play/Write: Digital Rhetoric, Writing, Games, edited by Douglas Eyman and Andrea D. Davis, 255-69. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.

Reflective Game Design: Fact Sheet.” 2015. Community Research and Development Information Service of the European Commission. Last updated October 15, 2018.

Silverman, David. 2013. “How to Learn Board Game Design and Development.” Envato Tuts+. November 29, 2013.

Stories of Web Users.” 2017. World Wide Web Consortium. Last updated May 15 2017.

Terrell, Richard (KirbyKid). 2011. The Critical-Glossary.

Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010: Report (to Accompany H.R. 3101). 2010. U.S. G.P.O. Congress.

Erin Kathleen Bahl is an assistant professor of applied and professional writing in the Department of English at Kennesaw State University. Her research and design practices focus on webtexts, folklore, and digital writing. She is a section editor for Kairos: A Journal of Technology, Rhetoric, and Pedagogyand design editor for Computers and Composition Online. For publication and presentation records, please see: CV (Google Drive); online portfolio.

Sergio C. Figueiredo is an associate professor in the Department of English at Kennesaw State University. He is the translator of Inventing Comics: A New Translation of Rodolphe Töpffer’s Essays on Graphic Storytelling, Media Rhetorics, and Aesthetic Practice, and his work has appeared in various scholarly and popular venues. For publication and presentation records, please see: CV (Google Drive); Google Scholar Profile; ORCID Profile.

Jeffrey D. Greene is an associate professor in the Department of English at Kennesaw State University. His scholarly research focuses on game studies, narratology, and gamer culture. For publication and presentation records, please see: CV.