It's interesting how eventful the year has been, when it has really just begun. Only a little over a month ago, I arrived in Australia as a Fulbright Scholar studying the Psychology of Game Design, or more specifically, how the design of social systems in online games impacts player behavior, but though I'm far from my usual stomping grounds, I've stayed involved - and in many ways - am busier now than ever.

But then, that might just be because GDC - the Game Developers Conference - is coming up, and my work with the IGDA Serious Games SIG is keeping me quite busy, in addition to time spent preparing for my talk at GDC on "Crowdsourcing: Communities as a Force for Good" with noted Community Manager Rick Heaton of Extra Life and Russ Pitts, founder of Mental Health Charity TakeThis

Not that I'd want to give up either.

It has been an honor to serve as chair of the Serious Games SIG, and to work with the dedicated and passionate members of my steering committee, who all believe that games have a potential for more than just entertainment. 

That games, in many ways, have changed - and continue to change - the world. 

We used to think of Video Games as Magic Circles, synthetic worlds wholly apart from the world outside, but games (in general) have been part of the human experience since before we were properly human. And as our medium evolves, with online play and social connectedness becoming more and more important, we're finding that those worlds aren't quite so separate after all.

But then, designers have known this for a while, since much of good game design is based on psychology. We've just experienced a bit of language drift in the decades apart, with knowledge and the terminology used to describe that knowledge locked within siloes, with the terribly designed "Video Games and Violence" studies of a decade or so ago and the panic they engendered driving the division in both directions. 

Today, even though the conversation has moved on in the academic sphere, and in industry, it hasn't elsewhere, with the aftershocks of that conflict lingering on, both in elements of the game community which have become sensitized to criticism that uses language similar to that used a decade ago, and in the minds of some parents and officials, who are genuinely concerned about the possible risks of the new media - risks that are often overblown and exaggerated. Studies may have failed to find a connection between games and violence, but that sensationalist topic is still what is on people's minds, not the demonstrated power games have to cure, heal, and support people who so desperately need it.

One only has to look to the Anti-Vaccination movement and all the deaths that occurred because of it as an example of what happens when an unscrupulous academic writes something for a headline. Anti-Vaxxing only gained popular support after an article about a landmark study that purported to show a link between the Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccine and the onset of autism was published in the Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world. Which would have been fine, except that the study in question was a product of fraud, and its author, Andrew Wakefield, a self-interested hack. Though he violated his Hippocratic oath and every canon of academic ethics, and has since been stripped of his license to practice, people in the movement still cite him and his study, meaning that responsibility for the resurgence in world-wide infections, to epidemics, and widespread deaths can be laid squarely at his feet.

In games, the situation is similar enough, with a mad rush of well-intentioned people buying into the rhetoric of games causing violence and attempting to do something about it, while others, in reaction chose to portray them as simple entertainment with no effect on the real world. And though the conversation is no longer on the headlines of national newspapers after Brown vs Entertainment Merchants Association (2011), in which the literature on games and violence was rejected by the US Supreme Court, as it had been in "every court to consider them", as it "did not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively”, and “suffer[ed] from significant, admitted flaws in methodology,” undercurrents linger on. 

There are a number of people who still clearly remember that time, and have come to associate criticism of any aspect of games with an attempt to bring down the medium - because there was something of an existential threat five years ago. Today, the industry is bigger than ever, having surpassed film in revenue, but that fear remains.

And fear, in history has been the driver of many, many ugly incidents.

Which brings me back to being a Fulbright Scholar. In the wake of World War II, the most destructive conflict the world has ever seen, U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright famously said: “If we do not want to die together in war, we must learn to live together in peace.” That end, he created the Fulbright program - the largest exchange program in the world - to build bridges of peace and understanding between the nations of the world.

Because fear - especially the fear of a community - isn't something you can fight with reason. It isn't something you can logic away. And its not something you can just decree to be gone.

Its something you have to understand and grapple with emotionally. 

As a registered nurse, therapeutic communication is one of the first things you learn - how to acknowledge the other person's fear, anxieties, distorted beliefs without necessarily validating them - how to listen, how to reflect, how to heal. That voice of acknowledgement, not simple refutation, is something I think is missing in the discourse today, and as a Fulbright Scholar, I seek to build bridges and make peace - not just across national boundaries and between nations, but across boundaries between worlds, cultures, and understanding.

In the modern age - the age where virtual and real have become one - it is important to be connected to the world around you, but also to understand the many worlds each of us live in - the many attitudes, beliefs, and backgrounds that have shaped us and have made us who we are today. Only then can there truly be peace; only then, can we truly heal one another.

This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

(Originally posted on the AFK Serious Games Blog @

By now, you’ve probably heard of Prune, the artful and meditative puzzler by Joel McDonald that is a masterpiece of minimalist narrative. You might even have had the fortune to play it, drawn in at first by the art style and simple mechanics, only to play for longer and longer as you worked out the bits and pieces of a story told entirely without words, and became invested in it.

If you haven’t, you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about, or even why I’m writing about a mobile game that wasn’t positioned as a serious or therapeutic game, and which lacks the systems of scarcity and conflict that one might leverage for educational purposes. 

Simply put, it’s because I find that Prune does have a message: one that it allows you to discover through playing at your own pace. More to the point, its a message conveyed entirely without words, with the only words in the entirety of the game being the title (and the credits once you finish the game), but which is all the more poignant for it. 

And while I understand that those who develop them often mean well in wishing to make sure those who play learn what they are intended to, I’m not sure that’s what games are good for. 

Games can be powerful for allowing one to experience the world from someone else’s point of view – Beyond Eyes comes to mind as an example of that. They can be powerful tools to test our models of how people will behave in situations that are hard to replicate in reality – here World of Warcraft‘s Corrupted Blood Incident comes to mind. And they can be powerful in helping one understand the past and the world around them in terms of systems, learning how even the smallest actions (or lack of action) can shape the world around them, as anyone who has played a game like Starcraft or Age of Empires knows all too well. 

Game design isn’t – and shouldn’t be – about finding ways to present players with walls of text in tired, old ways. At its heart, its about building a world and helping players find their place in – and their way through – the world. It’s about telling a story, and letting players make that story their own. It’s about crafting experiences that touch the soul, whether through focused engagement and action, reflective meditation, or simply taking a Journey through another place and time.

Everything else, everything that doesn’t build towards what one wants a game to be, should be be pruned away so the central idea – what is vital – doesn't just endure, but thrives. 

[Game available on AndroidiOS, and Windows]

It's been a long time since my last E3, or even the E for All Expo, when it existed as an offshoot of the main conference (both of which I have to thank Indiecade for, as I had previously volunteered during my time at USC). I suppose much has changed since then, in terms of the titles (back then, Assassin’s Creed was a new franchise!) and their official stance on “prosumers” – given that back then, E for All was spun off specifically for the general public, but the one thing that hasn't changed is the spectacle of it all. The offerings at the press conferences, the way the booths are designed and laid out, the presence of so many people – excitement hung in the air over what would be announced. And with the age of social media upon us, most had already heard rumors of what might be announced or talked about.

I’ve had the incredible fortune now to be a two-time IGDA Scholar (details on how to apply here), once for GDC 2014 and once for E3 2015, two very different experiences, but both worthy in their own right. Part of this is for the material benefits of the Scholarship: an all-access pass to each event, exclusive access to special events, tours of local game studios, networking opportunities with (high placed) industry veterans, and even a mentor in our game discipline. 

But more of it, I think, is the people I shared these experiences with. The other Scholars, of course, who were among the best and brightest in their fields, each doing unique and interesting things with art, narrative, procedural generation and more. And certainly, the hard-working volunteers, many of whom were former Scholars themselves, without who none of this would be possible. 

My own specialty of course, lies in what some have called serious games, others persuasive games, and still others, earnest games. Whatever one likes to call them, they’re basically games which are meant to do more than simply entertain. What they are beyond that depends on who you talk to, as there is no one clearcut definition (yet), just as there is no real agreement on what constitutes a game as opposed to an interactive experience. That’s because games are still a fairly young field, and as with most such fields, definitions and boundaries are often fast and loose and fluid, shaped as much by what we do in practice as much as what we formally define.

Trade shows like E3 are a big part of this, given how press conferences, the titles being promoted, and even how the titles are promoted shape public perception of games. The very language used in a press release or a gaming article, or the sex and gender of a game character and how a company reacts to reaction can be rather telling. And so can how the public responds, with social media allowing us a window into the reactions and thoughts of fans – often without any filtering, and sometimes (as I’ve learned as community manager), not very…nice. 

So, I was quite pleased to attend Bethesda’s first press conference at E3 (they’ve previously just had a booth), where they showed off DOOM, Dishonored 2 (which I was pleased to see featured Emily as a protagonist, given the events of Dishonored), a bit of The Elder Scrolls Online, and of course Fallout 4 as the flagship title. But the lineup – aside from Fallout Shelter, an iOS game, which was completely new and released that night – was expected. What wasn’t was that Fallout 4 would be out in a matter of months, presenting a large shift how previous announcements in the industry have been handled – where a game may be announced over two years before release. 

During E3 itself, I had the privilege of meeting Kellee Santiago – one of the co-founders of thatgamecompany, partner at the Indie Fund, and Chair of the Indiecade Festival Awards Jury. I’ve met Kellee’s co-founder Jenova before - both during my time at USC, when he spoke about Flow at the MFA thesis show, as well as at GDC 2014 as part of the Scholars program - but it was interesting to get another perspective, since Kellee served more as a producer, handling the business side of thatgamecompany, while Jenova was Creative Director. Talking with her shed more light on the company’s deal with Sony, the growing pains of a small studio as they grew beyond their initial handful, and what the Indie Fund, as well as others, look for – which is important as going indie is not easy, something I know all too well.

The Scholars also met with Justin Berenbaum of 505 Games, a man who has a wealth of experience in the business of games and who sits on the IGDA’s Board of Directors, where we received some tips about how and when to follow up, and some of the art of self-presentation and leadership. With the exception of Warren Spector’s Denius-Sams Gaming Academy and the IGDA’s Leadership Summit, there aren’t many opportunities to learn about leadership aside from trial and error. Most learning opportunities tend to involve becoming better at one’s particular field of development – design, programming, art, or so – instead of preparing people to direct and produce projects, which can be akin to herding a group of uncooperative cats, given how each discipline has its own priorities.

This is even more so with Serious Games, which can also involve academic, educators, scientists, health professionals, program officers and more, each of which come with their own discipline-specific jargon – and a set of views on what various words of plain speech mean, often driven by their discipline’s funding models and so forth. The word “immediately”, for instance, can mean just that to someone in industry, or within a few days to someone in academia. In the same way, one group may prioritize engagement and “fun”, another may only care about efficacy, and a third may be most concerned with how an innovation or experience can be monetized. Bringing these into balance to ship a good product is hard (and time-consuming). 

Just as shipping a good, bug-free game can be challenging in the industry, especially for teams of hundreds of people. The more people there are on a team, the more chances something could go wrong, a misunderstanding could occur, or a communication failure can happen. 

And yet, many good games are finished and shipped, with Nintendo, especially, having a good reputation among fans for games that are fun, accessible – and ok, often difficult to master, given the saying that some things are hard, and some things are “Nintendo Hard.” As Scholars, we were able to meet with several of their senior executives, as well as with Charles Martinet, the voice behind Mario and Luigi, and learned a little more about their Treehouse localization group and their inspirations behind some of their newest titles like Yoshi’s Woolly World and Starfox Zero, both of which represent beloved, long-lived franchises in a market where sequel fatigue is very real. If you think of other franchises beloved by games, like Zelda, Mario, Pokemon and other such, you’ll notice an interesting thing: most of them are made by Nintendo

They capture a kind of long-lived magic in an industry where there is a great deal of pressure for something new, something shinier, something that pushes the envelope, and for my work with Serious Games, I see their example as quite meaningful. Serious Games need classics to unify around, titles people will remember and play for the experience – not just because of the learning opportunities – because the learning in games is usually from game developers looking at mechanics, systems design, and so forth, or fans looking at narrative or learning how to best get through a level. 

We have two powerful examples of more meaningful, “serious” games today - Journey or This War of Mine, one of which speaks to the human condition, and the other covering the horror of war, something that many have felt games cannot truly describe. But why? Are games not simply another medium in which stories might be told, like film, literature, and so forth? There is no reason we cannot present powerful experiences through this interactive medium – experiences that might even be more powerful than the others because of its interactive nature. 

Going to something like E3, I see all sort of possibilities in presentation, and opportunities to make existing games richer by implementing small tweaks to their systems - using a RPG's party management and interactions systems to have a more humane approach to mental health, for example. Or incorporating within RTS and strategy games - which already focus on resource management - game modes focusing on economy and balancing ecology with production. 

The games we use today can be used for serious purposes; games can be fun as well as therapeutic or allowing us to learn. One only need look at Tetris and how it is used to build hand-eye coordination for physiotherapy, how the Wii is used in nursing homes, and how Assassin’s Creed or Age of Empires inspired tangential learning when players, who became invested in the game worlds, looked into the source material behind them and discovered the richness of history. These games – these systems – weren’t sold because they were powerful learning experiences, but because they were fun; because they were hyped, because they offered something new, something rich and engaging, and built names for themselves that we still recognize today. 

Serious games, sadly, has little in the way of promotion, and so much of what is made is lost amongst everything else being produced these days, no matter the efficacy of any particular learning or health intervention. It comes down to excitement, engagement, and experience - if these are lacking, people will not play them or talk about them. And without these, the media perception with continue to result in travesties like Elika’s Escape, a false game pitch cum publicity stunt staged by UNICEF which belittled games as being incapable of portraying the experience of war, and portrayed those who played them as being unaware of the world around them and incapable of dealing with reality. 

This is particularly disturbing when one considers that this was staged one month following the release of This War of Mine – a game which touches upon the theme of survival in war from the point of view of a civilian, with a player’s choices making them reflect on how difficult such situations could be, and gameplay conveying the powerlessness and horror of those caught in a warzone. 

A game that partners with the charity War Child to raise money to help protect children from the brutal effects of war and its consequences. 

A powerful game – like Journey before it – which gives the lie to claims that games cannot be more than just entertainment. 

But people need to hear about them – to see what games can do, to be exposed to these rich experiences. E3 represents perhaps the biggest focus of the industry’s efforts to be noticed by the media, and there is so much to be learned from how they build franchises, shape perception, and how they react to perception – even in missteps and failures.

As a Scholar, I am grateful to the IGDA and the ESA for giving me the opportunity to attend, to be dazzled, and to learn. And of course, to meet others working on innovations in narrative, design, and more – powerful ways of telling stories and encapsulating experiences that linger, beyond the thrills of adrenaline and dopamine. It is an honor to be one of their number, to count them as my peers, and to work with them on future collaborations. 

For as Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I will move the world.” Games can be that lever, if they have a firm base upon which to rest. I think together, we can build that…don’t you? 

What if we could revolutionize the future of mental healthcare? What if, instead of treating mental illness - we could prevent it? What if we could do this through games, seamlessly integrating therapeutic elements into compelling narratives and engaging mechanics - building a foundation for resilience and improved mental health without the player even becoming aware of it?

As the individual who first conceptualized the Innovajoy Project in its current form, that is the mission of myself and my team: to expand the provision of mental health care through the use of games.

Copyright SculptureAnother point of network culture - a love of change and what is free. A more open source movement


We've all heard of the negative effects of stress - how it impacts personal stability, has huge economic costs, and in cases of prolonged exposure, can even trigger mood disorders. Indeed, the World Health Organization has named stress the "Health Epidemic of the 21st Century."

But stress does not have to be harmful - and is not harmful, if it is coherent, according to Aaron Antonovsky, who studied stress and its related outcomes. From his research, if one's stressors were comprehensible (predictable and understandable), manageable (you have the skills or resources to manage your stress - and its associated stressors), and most of all, meaningful (either interesting in their own right or endured for a higher purpose), then one could remain healthy - and even thrive - in a high stress environment.

Of these, the last is most important, as a sense of meaning gives people the motivation to comprehend and manage events in their lives - that gives rise to good health, as he would put it, leads to a salutogenic response.

Journey to the West

The first of the games under development as part of the Innovajoy project, Journey to the West aims to instill this sense of coherence in college students through cognitive behavioral therapy, packaged in the form of a mobile-optimized RPG, with compelling narratives and uniquely engaging mechanics. It is designed around a "Journey to the West," with the journey of the characters reflecting the usergroup's separation from their established social networks, and their struggle to engage and find acceptance. Indeed, surveys of college students from around the world cite social isolation as their #1 stressor - and a powerful one, with with 60% of this population suffering from stress-related mood or sleep disorders, and 1 in 5 deaths in this population resulting from suicide.

Uniquely, Journey to the West is presented as a mobile game that targets the general college student - not solely students who have already been diagnosed with a condition and who are seeing a provider, as previous apps have been. This population rarely uses health apps (save perhaps exercise apps such as the acclaimed Zombies, Run!), and just as rarely seeks therapeutic intervention when stressed (whether due to stigma, time constraints, or inadequate provision of care).

Thus, unlike most mHealth apps, which simply present exercises as something to be done in very set, prescribed fashion, Journey to the West weaves them into a dynamic, changing whole, utilizing the context of the story and game genre (RPG - role playing game) to present them in a non-threatening way. For example, to encourage deep breathing, proper breathing is tied to the activation of certain magical skills - appropriate because in Asian cultures, mastery of one's breath is the underlying principle behind medicine, martial arts, meditation – even magic.

This allows the user to practice this skill without the anxiety of learning a health intervention, with the avatar's role as a surrogate of self (reinforced through customization and growth - cosmetic options and learned skills) encouraging its use. Further, this virtual surrogacy allows interactions and connections with virtual companions to take on new meaning, allowing users to learn more effective skills for social engagement - as well as how to recognize warning signs in others.

Journey to the West is currently a work in progress, but has been recognized as addressing a topical issue in a number of publications and has won several awards for innovation and potential market impact.


Lee, M. (2014). Sticky Ends: Employing Thinly-Sliced Narratives in Serious Games for Mobile Platforms. International Journal of Multimedia and Ubiquitous Engineering, 9(10), 349-362. doi: 10.14257/ijmue.2014.9.10.34

Lee, M & Hanrahan, N. (2014). A Story in Slices: Designing Narrative-Based Serious Games for Mobile Platforms. In Proceedings of the Serious Games Conference 2014: Bridging Communities, Harnessing Technologies and Enriching Lives, Ilsan KINTEX, Korea [CD]. Singapore: Gyeonggi Content Agency, Korean Game Society, & Research Publishing.

Lee, M., Kang, L., & Hanrahan, N. (2014). Addressing Cultural Contexts in the Management of Stress via Narrative and Mobile Technology. In Widerhold, B., & Riva G (eds). Annual Review of Cybertherapy and Telemedicine 2014 (pp. 173-177). Amsterdam: iOS Press. doi:10.3233/978-1-61499-401-5-173

In the News:

Words can't really express how much of an honor and a privilege it is to talk about the world-changing potential of games to something like the G20, but I'll give it a shot.

The focus of our talk was one of the world's most critical priorities: water management.

We often don't think about where our water comes from, until we either run out of it or it starts making us sick. On Earth, the blue planet, we tend to take it for granted, but the fact is, in many places around the world, its a struggle to get clean, potable water, either due to lack of industry - or too much of it. And no two places are alike - even the United States - which as a whole has huge amounts of surplus, has regional variations: Southern California is suffering a major drought, and the relatively dry Great Plains region has been forced to overdraw its aquifers to support farms, livestock, and people.

But whatever else there is, the critical link in the chain is the people involved.

Thus, Tethys, the solution put forward by AFK Studios, is a population based intervention. Through this game, we aim to support technological innovations and local life-changing projects through a funding model powered by mobile games and online communities. In this model, players are connected with global causes through gameplay, with game revenue directly financing microloans to seed promising projects. Successful project deployments are reflected in-game, giving sustainability a welcome spotlight, and showing players the direct impact of even a small contribution.

And since our 15 (20) minutes in the spotlight, we haven't been complacent. We've continued to build and grow, refining our concept, working on a prototype, and interfacing with partners to make what we do possible. 

For we have dreams, goals, visions.

We founded AFK Studios because we shared a common vision of what games could -- and should -- be. As storytellers and world-builders, we’ve long been fascinated with what made narratives powerful. Rich, larger than life characters; colorful worlds of intrigue, suspense and imagination; and rich, interwoven storylines that made people care. We know people see the world through stories, looking for narratives to make sense of a complex, ever-changing world. We believe games can provide these narratives, offering a unique experience through the control and understanding one gains from playful interaction. At AFK Studios, we seek to bridge the barrier between virtual worlds and social causes by making games that not only educate, but offer interaction and engagement with the causes we promote. Through our work, we let people learn through play and empower them to make real world change by funding prosocial projects through in-game purchases and by promoting awareness in the online community - gaming for the greater good. 

I am very honored that AFK Studios, a venture I began in 2014 along my talented co-founders Rahul Khurana and Kathleen Yin, has been selected as one of The Feast's 15 Initiatives to Watch in 2015.

This is no small thing.

The Feast is a global network of innovators working to change the world, and to be chosen as one of its 15 "most remarkable projects that are creating the future we want to see", serving as an example of social innovation for the community to rally behind, is humbling.

These days, games often grab attention simply for the breathtaking visuals they include, the vast sums of money spent on development, or sometimes, the sheer hype that they generate, but very little heed is paid to things like serious games, games meant to inform, teach, and bring social good.

The reason for this? Most of these games either aren't very fun or aren't distributed to a large audience, so what they can is widely overlooked in favor of the glitter and glam of the industry at large.

As a designer, I've long believed that games can be powerful avenues for engagement and learning - I've even done some research on this and have published a paper or two on the topic - but I also believe that first and foremost, games need to be fun.

AFK Studios was born out of this - the desire to change the world through games - while also aiming to do something even more ambitious: changing games, one world at a time.

Game Concept for PC

Tempest Aeterna is a third person action RPG, based loosely on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Like its namesake, it begins shortly after a ship founders off the coast of a mysterious isle, with the few survivors of the wreck washed ashore. There, they quickly learn of the existence of magic after stumbling across a teenage girl sealing away rogue spirits with spell and spear. She is Mirian, estranged daughter of the isle’s Archmagus Prospero, and this is her first encounter with other humans in over a decade. Gameplay involves combat against spirits and magical golems, mastery of alchemy, solving puzzles, and choosing Mirian’s path, as she attempts to solve the mysteries of the island, her actions affecting not only plot progression but ultimately the game’s ending.

Recently, the inspirations behind most games have been the product of either original in-house studio work or a particularly interesting piece from the film/television sector, with two prime examples from the action genre being “Halo: Combat Evolved” and “Star Wars: Force Unleashed” (works that tackled interesting problems in philosophy as well as being quite entertaining). However, this overlooks a large spectrum of works which many films and TV programs have referenced in the past—works familiar to the average person, and yet are in the public domain: works of literature from before the turn of the 20th Century. One of the most interesting of these titles is Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, a play well-suited for adaptation into an action / adventure RPG—with language and plot somewhat revised for a modern audience, of course. Not only would this have the benefit of name recognition, but it is also a chance to tap into the edutainment market and open up an entire array of works for future use.

Why? Video games target the same audiences that Theatre (the first form of multimedia) did many years ago during the Renaissance, and currently deal with the same criticisms theatre once faced (e.g. promoting violence, leading to moral degeneracy, etc), as well as being a powerful medium that can be extremely thought provoking.

Chosen Medium: Video Game, RPG, possibly exploiting the Unreal Engine

Working Title: “Rivenscryr” (reading the divide/understanding separation)

Overall Feel: Much darker than Shakespeare’s original work, this game significantly modifies elements of the play to make it more workable for purposes of game play. For instance, the ending may not be a happy one for Prospero (who in this adaptation is slightly more fixed on the notion of revenge), and focuses more on the story of Miranda (whose character has been somewhat altered to give her more playability, and to make the story more interesting). Prospero is an unbalanced character to start with, as all-powerful characters are not good in RPGs.

Language: Updated to a more crisp and fresh feel, though certain verse passages have been kept for the feel and wonder they evoke, such as Caliban’s description of the island. 

A Note about weapons/armor/magic: As the characters are on an island, most weapons will either be created of what can be found there or are. Thus Miranda and Prospero will be spear/staff users, while any people new to the island (shipwrecked), will probably be using swords. In many cases, an “armor upgrade” will merely be an additional magical shell or enchantment on existing equipment. 

A Note about Final Attacks: There is a overdrive meter that increases when one takes damage, and when it is fully activated, one can perform a unique ability. There are four levels of overdrives, each of which is obtained a different way (begin with one, clearing forest of illusion grants another, unlocking a certain amount of memories a third, and defeating Caliban the fourth) 

Major Characters

Miranda (Mirian): The heorine of the game, Miranda is the daughter of Prospero, brought to the island at an early age. Thus, she is quite innocent about the outside world, and has never seen any men other than her father and Caliban, but she is not exactly sheltered either. She begins as naïve and non-judgmental, though this changes through the course of the game, when Prospero gets out of hand. Normally compassionate, and gentle, she can be surprisingly firm at times, especially when it is necessary for the greater good. She wields a long spear engraved with runes and is a spellcaster of element water, having grown up on the island. 

Prospero: Twelve years before the events of the game, Prospero was the duke of Milan. Overthrown by his brother, Antonio, in concert with Alonso, king of Naples, he as forced to flee in a boat with his daughter. He arrived on the island and co-existed for a time with the witch Sycorax before a falling out in which he destroyed her utterly. Since then, he has spent his time on the island refining the magic that gives him the power he needs to punish his enemies. Away from humanity for years, he has come to long for a chance to prove himself - to take vengeance for what was lost. As an Archmagus, he controls all elements equally and wields a twisted staff. 

Caliban: A twisted beast, Caliban is the son of Sycorax (and of Prospero in this adaptation), who was born human, but had his memory erased and form twisted by Prospero in a fit of pique after Sycorax betrayed him. At present, he is treated as Prospero’s slave and seen as a monster by many other characters. Defiant and often unyielding, he desires freedom and the power that Prospero has over the island, as well as Miranda. In combat, he is extremely powerful physically, but has a weakness to magic, especially wind magic (and to a lesser degree water), as he is of the Earth Element.

Ariel: The “airy spirit” who serves Prospero, Ariel was “rescued” from a long imprisonment at the hands of the witch Sycorax by the magus. In return for this, he promised to be Prospero’s servant until Prospero decides to release him, but as Prospero has grown increasingly autocratic and defensive over the past 12 years, Ariel has become increasingly resentful and filled with a barely suppressed rage. While he cannot confront Prospero directly, he seeks a way that he might be able to overthrow his authority and obtain his freedom. Quite powerful, he is one of the main helpers you will have in the game, able to warp you to different places on the map at certain times, and to heal you or raise a stat, if you have the experience or mana to spare. Other than that, he is mischievous and ubiquitous, able to traverse the length of the island in an instant and to change shapes at will. His Element is Wind. 

Sycorax: A witch and mother of Caliban, she is long dead by the time the game begins, though like the others, she holds a grudge against Prospero. Of course, she doesn’t much care for Ariel either, having been the one to imprison him in a pine tree for disobedience. She ruled the island alone before Prospero, and for a time, alongside him when he arrived, but after having a child by him, they had a falling out, resulting in her death. She is still quite powerful, even in death, though she has been sealed into the area that her old hut used to be in. A former sorceress who held sway over Fire and Earth. 

Boatswain: Once vigorously good-natured, he died in the shipwreck scene, going down with the ship and drowning. As a ghost he now haunts the shipwreck along with his fellow vengeful shades, trying to find out why all of this happened. In combat, uses a sword, and casts status effects. 

Ship’s Captain: Unnamed and bitter over the loss of his ship, he is now a powerful spirit who swears his allegiance only to the sea. Like the boatswain, he wishes to find out why his ship was sunk, and he is now bitter and angry, waiting for someone from the island to step aboard so he can question them. Proficient with the sword, as well as water magic (gained after death) 

Ferdinand: The Son and heir of the King of Naples, this is the comic relief character, a prime example of a fool in love, who alternates between being hypermasculine and emasculated, trying to impress her and failing. Miranda, not having seen any other men but her father and Caliban, completely misunderstands his intent and manages to show him up, thinking he needs her help.

Other Characters: These include the King of Naples, his brother, Prospero’s Brother, and the butler and fool, all of which are slain in Prospero’s lust for revenge. 

Setting: All the action takes place on or around the island physically, though some will occur on the spirit/dream plane. Some of the locales are as follows.

* Miranda’s Hut: A place where the main character can rest to restore HP and Mana, as well as obtain flowers that can be used to restore both, or items that may be able to temporarily raise a stat. A map of the island is located here, as well as a place where save data can be recorded, and an in game journal 

Shipwreck (water elemental area): Accessible by Ariel’s “warping” function or Miranda’s magic-based “waterwalking." Here can be found the half-sunken remains of a vessel run aground on a reef, with ghosts and vengeful sea sprites (powerful magical attackers, physically resistant) lurking throughout. The "boss" of this area is the Captain's Ghost, whose restless spirit is tied to his ship. After defeating him, one can find items/knowledge from mainland in the armory and captain’s quarters, as well as the shades of those who knew Prospero as he once was. The BGM here will be a mournful cello piece, with the sound of waves in the background.

 * Forest of Illusion (created by Ariel to hide himself away when he finally grows too tired of Prospero’s constant orders. Miranda must pass through here to the pine tree at its center to find out why he is being so discourteous and non-responsive): This is a realm of mists and shadows, of fog and pale moonlight, where nothing is quite as it seems, and figments of dreams (creatures drawn from legend) slink about half formed and then dissolve again. In this place, Magic abilities are cut to half-effectiveness, with spirit energy regenerating more slowly - though one can accelerate this by slaying the odd beasts here. Wandering, items may be found there that exist nowhere else on the island. In terms of sound and background, one will hear distorted sound clips from a stage performance of “The Tempest”, especially when one encounters either the Guardians of the Wood. These Guardians, like Ariel himself, cannot easily be harmed, with damage nullifying mechanics and position-based vulnerabilities - stealth and taking advantage of terrain is advised. Following this, one encounters Ariel himself, where the objective is simply to survive - he is exceptionally powerful, and takes normal damage only from fire elemental magic - all else is resisted. Not a true boss in that he does not need to be truly defeated, only to hold out, as after some time, he will relent and tell you his story.

 * Sycorax’s hut (to where the spirit of the witch is now bound): A place of shadows, echoes, odd dissonances where impressions of the past remain, ghostly afterimages flickering into and out of phase with the rest of reality. Contains several powerful fire-magic items, hidden through puzzles and riddles, and interacting with objects may reveal traces of past memories. Disturbing enough items, however, awakens a Keeper of Memory” who must be driven back, at which point the ghost of the witch will appear in a burst of shadow and flame. Sycorax cannot be harmed in this form (as after all, she is already dead) and will eventually disarm you, before presenting you a series of puzzles. Depending on how many you solve, you may gain a different reward.

* Caliban’s Cave (Earth Elemental area, where Caliban has gone to ground after one of Prospero’s fits of anger): In this place, soaked in the power of a curse, Golems may rise from the ground in response to his emotions (these are physically resistant and physically powerful in melee attacks, but weak to magic). In this area, clips of “The Tempest” can be heard, specifically those relating to Caliban and his relationship with Prospero. This is a place of very bad memories for Miranda, as it was there he tried to rape her long ago. It is a fairly barren area, golems aside, and eventually, one will encounter the boss, Caliban. He is very much like a golem in mechanic, though with higher speed and attack power, so healing or crowd control may be useful. Once defeated, he will no longer be an adversary, and will return towards the end of the game after handing over an orb of earth. 

* Beach and Woods: The general areas where one can go to train/level up, gaining experience by fighting rogue sprites, as well as where one encounters the shipwrecked people for the first time after leaving the Forest of Illusion. Ferdinand essentially falls head over heels for Miranda upon seeing her, and the other men proves themselves lechers who are instantly beaten away by her. NOTE: At the end of Act II, this will serve as the scene of Prospero’s final act of retribution of slaying all the shipwrecked people except Ferdinand.

* A Possible "World of Dreams": In this mode, one can revisit the other areas in a 'spirit form' for a different experience. Ariel is solid here, and often plays in this realm, among half-forgotten s
ymbols of the past, recollections of the memorable moments from the game. This is the area from which one will wake, and to which one will return.

* Prospero’s Cell (Place of the Final Battle): A magically grounded bunker where Ariel cannot enter, meant to protect Prospero and amplify his power over nature. It is austere, adorned only by the books of sorcery that he studies and by a curious magical symbol traversing the room 

Significant Points in Plot: 
Opening: A cut scene with Miranda and Prospero looking out at the recent shipwreck
  • Present: Miranda comments on the tragedy of the shipwreck and wonders about the storm 
  • Flashback I: Static and grainy view of men at sea in the mist of the storm (cinematic) 
  • Return to Present: Prospero talks of his true past and his thirst for revenge 
  • Flashback II: Simple, clear, vivid, with multiple stills flashing on the screen instead of cinematic, showing how Prospero, former Duke of Milan, was usurped by brother and forced to flee to island 
  • Return to Present: Prospero reveals that the shipwreck was his doing and casts a sleeping charm on Miranda, so all goes black.
Beginning of Gameplay: Wake in Miranda’s Hut, begin your process of exploring (from here, it diverges with Shakespearian canon). 

Final Battle Ending: Rescue by a surprising savior 
  • Miranda and Prospero are fighting one another with all their skill and power, and when Miranda lowers Prospero to a fraction of his HP, the Archmagus himself enters a desperation mode
  • Possessed by his magic and caring only about his own survival, he launches a powerful series of omni-elemental attacks towards Miranda, intending to end the threat to his person, once and for all 
  • Caliban rushes into the room and takes the hit instead, remorseful for what he has done in the past 
  • Prospero is drained and shocked, letting Miranda disarm him
  • He surrenders, and as his mind clears, he recognizes full well the truth of his deeds: that he nearly killed his daughter in his rage, and that the way Caliban acted was not entirely inhuman.
  • Miranda’s last and most powerful limit break activates, causing a ray of light to shine down from the heavens upon her, and a flare of light to erupt and fill the screen. All goes white. 
Game Ending: Specter of the Past, Revelations, and Broken Man
  •   Day again, on the beach, Miranda and Prospero gathered together with Caliban, Ariel, and Ferdinand
  • Prospero, old and defeated now, reveals the truth about Caliban, that he is really the son of Sycorax and himself, and that after his falling out with his former lover, he erased Caliban’s memory and warped his form so that he would not have any reminders of her nearby. Using the what magic he has left, he reverses the curse on Caliban, revealing him to be a handsome young man who can now remember everything. . .and who will become the Duke of Milan
  • Ferdinand proposes marriage to Miranda, who turns him down again. 
  • Prospero makes one last request of Ariel, to make the seas calm for the journey back to the mainland, and then releases him from service.
  • Miranda then takes Prospero’s staff, and shatters it into a thousand little pieces, and watches as the others go their separate ways. 
  • The story of the Tempest has now ended, but for this new Sorceress - her tale. . .her adventures are only beginning. . . 

 Unlockables Extras: 
 * Caliban’s Side Story: What his life was like before Prospero’s fit of pique, and what his daily routine was like, as well as his take on the battle, and why he decided to take the blast meant for Miranda. Closes with him in Milan, assuming his place as the new duke.
 * Sycorax’s Tale: Her life in Algiers and the events that led to her subsequent exile, with a mini-game involving the first taming of Ariel. Ends with a cutscene of Prospero coming to the island with a young Miranda. 
 * Ariel’s commentaries: Only one being saw the whole affair unfold from beginning to end, from Sycorax’s first coming to the island to all eventually leaving him in freedom once again, and that is Ariel, the spirit. With this, you have the option of hearing Ariel’s commentary on everything that happened, including the side stories. 
* I, the Bard: After beating the game once, if one enters the special code, Prospero’s lines will be peppered with quotes from other plays - villains, mostly. Perhaps he shall at times demand a pound of flesh? 
 * The Bard-Tree: Within the Forest of Illusion, there is only one weeping willow, that if struck, will mournfully recite Jacques’ Speech, one of Hamlet’s Soliloquies, or one of Oberon’s speeches. If attacked with magic, will drop the “Shaking Spear”, which can do extra damage against ghosts and Prospero 

I am writing on behalf of Matthew Lee’s production, Rivenscryr, which was created as his thesis project for the Honors in Multimedia Scholarship program at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy (IML), a research unit with the School of Cinematic Arts. I was Matthew’s professor, and served as one of his two advisors for the project. As such, I am very familiar with this work and with the intensely focused effort that characterized its inception, planning and production. Rivenscryr is truly a remarkable piece that has captured the attention of many, both at USC and in the larger scholarly community.

Created in Second Life, the online virtual world, Rivenscryr animates Shakespeare’s The Tempest, from the point of the view of the absent character Sycorax. Matthew proceeded from the notion that theatre is the first form of multimedia and, indeed, this is a belief held by prominent media scholars, from Janet Murray (Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, MIT Press, 1998) to Brenda Laurel (Computers as Theatre, Addison-Wesley, 1993). However that which these pioneers could only theorize, Matthew actually enacted in Rivenscryr. He made full use of the affordances of Second Life, a feat that has, to my knowledge, not been replicated before or since. Nearly all constructions in Second Life simply mimic the real world. Matthew, however, pushed its limits and created a piece that transcends the laws of physics, which took a considerable amount of programming to effect. But this effort required not only technical prowess, but also a great deal of conceptualization, and this is where I believe Matthew distinguished himself.

Using a virtual space to create one that adheres enough to the real world to give actors a sense of grounding, while also exposing them to new ways of traversing a stage, interacting with others, and enacting gestural language, is a delicate balance. It requires not only a re-examination of the confines of the real world even as it imagines what could be. Rivenscryr blurs the boundaries of the virtual and the real, anticipating new roles for participants. While constructing Rivenscryr, Matthew had to consider multiple rhetorical situations in which players might find themselves, due to the interactive potential of Second Life. He advanced a theory of avatars functioning as both actors and spectators—as “spect-actors”—which guided the experience. The space he created includes digital versions of extant Shakespearean text, but also reveals an excess of meaning and experience made possible by emergent technologies.

While I would not presume expertise with the tenets of directing, I feel that Matthew’s translation of The Tempest across multiple registers is remarkable. 

The world of theatre is perhaps the first form of "interactive multimedia" known to man. From the beginning, it has combined the visual with the audio, analysis of images juxtaposed with music, sound effects and spoken word. That is, until the philosopher Aristotle began the dramatic literature tradition, with a play consisting solely of a written work (this was this same for music as well, with some composers preferring to simply sit down with a score rather than attend a performance to preserve the purity of it). This tradition remained well into the 20th Century, until the Theatre Arts tradition took hold, prompting the view of a play as all of its performative elements *and* the text, each complimenting the other.

In the education system, though, the dramatic literature tradition continues to be dominant, with the texts covered in standard classes through literary analysis, much in the same way one would critique a novel. This hurts the quality of education, as a reductionistic emphasis on text alone is not sufficient to understand a theatrical work, especially as the older works are harder to grasp due to issues of language and context. What is missing is visualization and interactivity, a model that has been shown to be one of the most effective ways of imparting information (problem based models are often more successful than simply essays and tests based on the analysis of quotes).

However, it is my belief that the exploration of a writer's world cannot be undertaken simply with text, especially centuries removed from the context in which it was crafted. Granted, some scholars can do this well enough, and teasing unwritten details from the pages of a script is something that is done regularly (and painstakingly!) in the theatre, but for the layperson, this is impractical. Most do not have the training or the background to so dissect a piece, and recreating the sociopolitical environment in which the "The Tempest" was written is nigh impossible. Not to mention that a full size set would also be quite difficult, as property tends to be expensive, and land rather limited. However, a virtual environment, infinitely expandable and adaptable to deal with traffic and future growth, is much more suited for this.

Rivenscryr is an attempt to visualize and explore the world of "The Tempest", using the environment of Second Life as a starting point - while putting a typically Shakespearean twist onto the interpretation. Why Second Life? It is a pre-existing 3D environment with no pre-defined boundaries, intensely customizable and without too many restrictions. The fact is that within Second Life lies many possibilities for embedding other environments, with hidden objects and structures guiding how an avatar may interact with the world at any given point, which in turn may make one think about the rules of our world. A viewer would ideally get a taste for how complex and how interconnected this world is, as well as how it draws from reality to construct itself. In going through this environment, one might hope to get a taste of what it is like to be an explorer or even a creator of a place, defining their experience by their own actions. In an academic context, this is valuable because it is different from traditional methods of teaching and exploring a text, being a project where the written word might literally come to life. Like works such as the visualization of the Temple Mount, or the visualization of Troy, it gives viewers a new tool to experience what was only known in text.

This project is an example of an experiential argument, a form of scholarly multimedia, in which an author develops an argument but does so by creating an embodied experience such that users glean the maker's points only by becoming immersed in the space of the argument. In Rivenscryr, I argue that it is the invisible character Sycorax, the mother of Caliban who dies prior to the play's beginning, who exerts the greatest influence of any in the play - second only to the literally invisible Ariel. Not Prospero the mage, who serves as narrator and Ariel's current keeper, but the one he allegedly defeated - yet whose presence lingers. 

This argument is made within Second Life, inviting visitors to move from room to room and level to level gathering information and snippets of the argument. However, that doesn't mean it does not include a tremendous amount of text - entire versions of the play, for example, as well as background and supplemental information and the lexia that make up the project. Indeed, I am making visible the invisible, crafting the voice of the silenced, the one who could not tell her story. 


"...not a “game” in the conventional sense, but a multimedia “world” which the “audience” could explore various issues by moving around within the world." 
Paul Backer, Associate Professor of Theatre Practice, USC School of Dramatic Arts

"While Rivenscryr might have made a dazzling thesis paper, it is far richer as an immersive experience."
Elizabeth Daley, Dean, USC School of Cinematic Arts

"...a remarkable piece that has captured the attention of many, both at USC and in the larger scholarly community."
Virginia Kuhn, Associate Director, Institue for Multimedia Literacy

Featured in:

  • Cunningham, A. (2010). Clarity in Multimedia: The Role of Interactive Media in Teaching Political Science Theories. Journal of Political Science Education, 6(3), 297-309.
  • Daley, E. & Willis, H. (2010). Multimedia Literacy: A Critical Component of Twenty-First Century Education. In M. Suarez-Orozco & C. Sattin-Bajaj (Eds.), Educating the Whole Child for the Whole World: The Ross School Model and Education for the Global Era (pp. 97-108). New York: NYU Press.
  • Willis, H. (2008) Infrastructures in Virtual Learning. Presented at the 2008 New Media Consortium Summer Conference. Presentation and Paper.