All images from “Bloomwood Stories: Block Party" courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

Video games: They’re not just for fun.

Of course, they have to be entertaining enough so people want to play them, but there are many other things that games can achieve. And Carnegie Mellon University wants to be where the games of the future are designed. That’s why CMU’s School of Computer Science has opened the Center for Transformational Play.

“Our mission is to make Carnegie Mellon the best place in the world for making transformational games,” says Jessica Hammer, director of the Center. “These are games that help people change how they think, or how they feel, or how they behave.”

Solving puzzles, detecting patterns, reacting quickly to new challenges — these gaming skills can be applied to problems of all kinds. Games can change minds, bring people together and allow users to (virtually) walk a mile in another’s shoes. They can help with difficult conversations and spark action.

So far, the Center for Transformational Play has worked on games teaching cybersecurity to adults and children, games that help mitigate “climate despair” and games that help people figure out how to use the library to find out more about healthcare.

Recently, a game that does the latter, “Bloomwood Stories: Block Party,” was named the best student-designed game at the International Conference on Meaningful Play.

“Our goal as researchers is to increase what we call self-efficacy, which is people’s belief that they can address these problems themselves,” says Hammer. “So that when our players run into a health problem, they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember from that game, I can go to the library and ask a librarian to connect me with health resources,’ even if I don’t have a doctor or don’t feel comfortable navigating the medical system.”

The Center will include faculty, students and staff from CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, Entertainment Technology Center, Heinz College, College of Fine Arts, Integrative Design, Arts and Technology Network (IDeATe), Neuroscience Institute and psychology and sociology departments.

“To create truly transformational games, we need people who have a deep understanding of psychology and sociology,” says Hammer.” We need people who create art and compelling narratives. We need to understand how to integrate cutting-edge technologies, and we need domain experts in the biggest challenges facing society.”

The plan is to bring learners together for seminars, workshops and game nights, and research possibilities for new games. The Center also intends to become a source of deep expertise in gaming in general.

The staff will include about 20 faculty members, primarily focused in the RAND Building on Fifth Avenue, but also scattered across campus. They will partner with game companies starting with South Side-based Simcoach Games.  

“We work in all kinds of domains,” says Hammer. “We believe that a lot of these problems that are big and complicated are about how human beings interact with complicated systems. Games are a tool that can help us collectively make the changes that we want to see.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife,...