Collaboratively Crafting Feminist Documentary Games

by Susana Ruiz

Over the last fifty years we have seen a blossoming of new models of play. From the rise of the New Games movement formed by Stewart Brand and others in the 1960s, to the emergence of the role-playing game in the 1970s, to the current moment’s growth of independent games, art games, documentary games, political games, and more—we are changing what play can mean. This lesson plan is a snapshot adaptation of a quarter-long course I teach at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The lesson encourages students to take a play-oriented approach to storytelling, meaning making, and ideology. Specifically, students investigate the potentials and frictions that arise when combining documentary storytelling, social activism, and game design.

Key theoretical and practical questions this lesson plan aims to incite include, How can we establish and elevate the genres of documentary games and activist games, and why should (or shouldn’t) we? Do these games require a re-evaluation or expansion of traditional/capitalist game design and development workflows? How might we communicate to a broad public why games matter in contemporary culture and how they may play a crucial role in social justice, political resistance, sociality, creativity, and other rich areas of human life? What can playful thinking contribute to the documentary filmmaking and activist communities, and in turn, what can the rich and complex hundred-year history of documentary film production contribute to game development? Lastly, how can games authentically and ethically document subjective realities as well as intervene in society and help shape a better future?

Lesson Plan

Session 1: Screening and Preparation

The lesson plan consists of two sessions, the first of which is a screening. While the activities are not dependent on any one specific film, the screening should be a documentary that in some crucial way addresses feminist themes or women’s experiences. The students can even democratically decide what to screen. As a suggestion, I offer the expansive collection of documentary films in the Women and Girls Lead Global campaign by the Independent Television Service. Immediately after the screening, create groups consisting of four to five students. In preparation for the next session, ask students to complete the following two tasks:

  1. Read the article “Grow-a-Game: A Tool for Values Conscious Design and Analysis of Digital Games” by Jonathan Belman, Helen Nissenbaum, Mary Flanagan, and Jim Diamond (2011). 
  2. As a group, come prepared to work on creating your own board game and card game. In order to do this, bring the following “paper prototyping” materials to class:
    • Blank cards in four different colors. Index cards work best, although flash cards or Post-it Notes also work. A total of approximately three hundred cards is adequate (seventy-five of each color).
    • Four black markers/Sharpies.
    • Additional optional materials, which will help your team brainstorm: construction paper, poster board, markers, objects that can be used as game pieces/pawns/tokens (they can be actual game pawns/chips/etc., or you can be creative and bring ordinary things like uncooked beans or pasta!), spinner, dice, time keeper, and any other surprising or interesting objects you think have potential for gameplay and fun.

Session 2: Design Workshop

The session begins with a general explanation of the activities—a collaborative game design workshop centered around the issues, values, and stories highlighted in the last session’s film screening and using the Values at Play (VAP) methodology from the assigned article, which was developed by game artists and scholars at Tiltfactor (Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014). While there is much that can be discussed about the film, the article, VAP, and game design in general, I like to jump right into the design exercises to emphasize the idea that designing games can be an approach to critical thinking and pedagogy. In Part I of the workshop, students participate in four brief brainstorming sessions intended to introduce VAP. In Part II, students implement VAP in response to three unique game design challenges.

Part I

The first exercise asks students to think about the values the film communicates in their small groups. This is a brainstorming exercise, and the general rule is that more is better. To get them started, remind them about the assigned article’s broad and expansive framing of humanistic values. They are going to write down these values on cards, with one value per card. After deciding as a group which card color will represent values (for example, in keeping with the article and the VAP’s Grow-a-Game card deck, they would choose blue), students will write as many values as possible as single words or short phrases, such as equity, love, access to education, fair elections, etc. The idea is to engage critically, creatively, and expansively with the film’s content. In other words, if a student thinks it can reasonably be argued that a certain value is expressed in some way—even if it is not a major theme—then it should be included. At the end of this part of the workshop (I find that five minutes is appropriate for this task), ask students to turn their value cards face down.

The next exercise asks each student to think about the problems or issues they saw the film communicating. They’ll choose a different card color and, similar to the previous activity, write their ideas as single words or short phrases (e.g., global warming, poverty, lack of mental health services, lack of POC academics, etc.). Again, more is better, so encourage them to think of many possibilities, from big problems to small, nuanced ones. After five or so minutes, students once again keep their problem cards face down near them.

The third exercise follows the same format, this time asking students to write as many verbs as they can that reflect something the film illustrates or expresses (e.g., protesting, arresting, cooking, hiding).

Lastly, the fourth exercise asks students to brainstorm games; the game can be in any format, including digital games, playground games, card and board games, theatre games, etc. While more is better in this case as well, encourage students to avoid games that are too niche or obscure.

After completing the four brainstorms, each student should reveal all their cards and discuss with their group members what everyone wrote. The goal is to create a set of cards that the team feels strongly in support of, so ask students to place their cards face up on tables or even the floor and collectively work to organize and consolidate them. In doing so, they will remove duplicates, and rigorous discussion should ensue in order to determine the specific number of cards to keep. While the exercise is also flexible in this regard, I recommend that a group of four students end up with a set of ten cards in each category. (The discussion about the game cards is different from that about the other cards, as the games did not need to reflect the film’s content. For this consolidation, I suggest that the group keep only games that all group members have at least some knowledge about.) This discussion and card selection process is important because students are effectively engaged in collaboratively analyzing the film while simultaneously creating game assets. The discussion should be fifteen or twenty minutes, and at this point we are at approximately the midpoint of the workshop.

Part II

Each group is asked to separate their cards by color, shuffle each group, and place them face down. Students then randomly choose one value card and one game card and are given the following challenge: Collectively design a game that takes as its foundation the game listed on the game card and modify it to express and affirm the value listed on the value card. For example, modify the game of chess to express and affirm the value of gender equity. Groups should work on this challenge for five to ten minutes, preparing to clearly and efficiently communicate their ideas and the reasons for their decisions. When time is up, all groups succinctly describe their game concepts to the whole class.

Now, each group chooses a new value card, a new game card, and a verb card from the face-down decks. The next challenge is the following: Collectively design a game that takes as its foundation the game listed on the game card and modify it to express and affirm the value listed on the value card by using the verb listed on the verb card as the main in-game action (or game mechanic). For example, modify the game of Pac-Man to express and affirm the value of equal access to health care by integrating dancing as the main in-game action. When time is up, all groups describe their game concepts to the whole class.

The last exercise asks groups to choose a new value card, a new verb card, and a problem card. They will have more time for this exercise (I recommend a minimum of twenty minutes), and the challenge is as follows: Using the physical materials you brought to class, collectively design your own card or board game about the problem listed on the problem card expressing and affirming the value listed on the value card by using the verb listed on the verb card as the main in-game action (game mechanic). For example, collectively design a board game about the lack of LGBTQ history in the public school curriculum that expresses and affirms courage using staring as the main in-game action. When time is up, all groups present their games to the whole class.

You may make your own decision as to whether or not groups are allowed to change a particular card if they find themselves struggling. When doing so, you can consider the assigned reading’s observation that “Some combinations seem to present an impossible challenge. . . . But in our experience using the Grow-A-Game cards with students, designers, and scholars, there seem to be few if any insurmountable challenges once initial reactions or resistance are put aside. Unusual constraints, in fact, do not appear to stymie the design process. Rather, they encourage more creative and unconventional ways around a problem, perspectives on a story, and fundamentally interesting and novel designs” (Belman et al. 2001, 5).

Optional Follow-up Assignment

The outcome of this lesson plan is a set of rough but playable physical board games that are directly informed and inspired by individual reflection and collective discussion around a feminist documentary film. The workshop’s iterative exercises gradually included more constraints and complexity, requiring students to think deeply and creatively about how game structures communicate meaning. As a follow-up assignment, students can be asked to work outside of class on refining, packaging, and sharing their games using online resources such as The Game Crafter or Print & Play.


I have implemented the Values at Play methodology and the Grow-a-Game cards in many situations, both within and beyond the classroom. I find the cards to be an adaptable and convivial tool to quickly get a group of people (with varying levels of experience with games) to think about how to design playful systems. The cards provide an out-of-the-box methodological foundation that can be further customized and expanded in countless ways. For example, the design for the following two games started as Grow-a-Game card exercises.


inCHARACTER is a component of Women and Girls Lead Global—an innovative public media campaign by the Independent Television Service (ITVS) that celebrates, educates, and activates women, girls, and their allies across the globe to address the challenges of the twenty-first century. inCHARACTER is a hybrid digital and physical card game designed to be played at community events around the country and that leverages the extraordinary Women and Girls Lead collection of gender-justice films. The goal of the game is to extend the impact of the documentaries and provide an opportunity for more direct engagement with the stories and issues the films reveal. Essentially, it is a discourse-prompting game about gender equity, documentary storytelling, and social change. The game engenders metacritical conversations about the many possible relationships between the subjects featured on the game cards, the communities the subjects are part of, the filmmakers who choose to tell these subjects’ stories, and the game designers who craft a playable experience.

151 Directors

The second example, 151 Directors, is a social physical game and it is part of a series titled Experiments in Game-Based Pedagogy: Playful Approaches for the Media Production & Digital Humanities College Classroom. The series investigates the unique affordances as well as challenges and limitations of play and experiential games in college-level media education. 151 Directors was designed to be played in an undergraduate film-directing course, whimsically gesturing toward realities within the film industry. Production sets are often high-pressure environments that replicate and propagate a dearth of inclusion, diversity, and equity. This game helps players understand that directors, actors, and producers need to balance creativity with efficiency while practicing ethical behavior. The set must be a place where everyone is safe, included, and respected. Ultimately, the hope is that drawing on these values when engaging with film production and filmmaker cultures will enable students to create their own inclusive, collaborative-based cultures on campus and beyond.

Works Cited

Belman, Jonathan, Helen Nissenbaum, Mary Flanagan, and Jim Diamond. 2011. “Grow-a-Game: A Tool for Values Conscious Design and Analysis of Digital Games.” DiGRA Nordic ‘11: Proceedings of 2011 DiGRA International Conference. Hilversum, the Netherlands, September.

Flanagan, Mary, and Helen Nissenbaum. 2014. Values at Play in Digital Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Additional Reading

Boal, Augusto. 2002. Games for Actors and Non-actors. London: Routledge.

Frasca, Gonzalo. 2001. “Videogames of the Oppressed.” Master’s thesis, Georgia Institute of Technology.

Gunraj, Andrea, Susana Ruiz, and Ashley York. 2011. “Power to the People: Anti-oppressive Game Design.” In Designing Games for Ethics: Models, Techniques and Frameworks, edited by Karen Schrier and David Gibson, 253-74. New York: Information Science Reference.

Khaled, Rilla. 2018. “Questions over Answers: Reflective Game Design.” In Playful Disruption of Digital Media, edited by Daniel Cermak-Sassenrath, 3-27. Singapore: Springer.

Macklin, Colleen, and John Sharp. 2016. Games, Design and Play: A Detailed Approach to Iterative Game Design. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

Murray, Soraya. 2018. On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space. London: I. B. Tauris.

Phillips, Amanda. 2018. “Game Studies for Great Justice.” In The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers, 117-27. New York: Routledge.

Sweeney, Linda Booth, and Dennis L. Meadows. 2010. The Systems Thinking Playbook: Exercises to Stretch and Build Learning and Systems Thinking Capabilities. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.

Susana Ruiz (pronouns: she/they) is an assistant professor of film and digital media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she holds research, teaching, and service positions in several programs, including the Film and Digital Media Department, the Digital Arts and New Media Program, the Games and Playable Media Program, and the Social Documentation Program. Ruiz’s creative and scholarly work is concerned with how the intersection of art practice, playful design, and digital storytelling can enable new approaches to social activism, aesthetics, and public pedagogy.