This is our fifth instalment of our series Indie Game Developer Interviews where we cover the day to day of indie studios and look into how they make their amazing games.

iThrive Games have an important message: Empathy is an important and necessary building block to any game. 

We should start listening to them now.

We sat down with Heidi McDonald, senior creative director, to talk about how games should create meaningful ways for teens to engage in their own emotional development. iThrive are a team of psychologists, game developers and social and emotional learning experts who know that games have the ability to empower teens to develop emotionally, stretch their skills and embrace curiosity. They partner with studios, educators and mental health professionals to provide in-depth tool kits, sessions, tutorials, boot camps to bring their expert knowledge to the forefront. 

The gaming ecosystem is changing rapidly thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and gaming-on-the-go meaning that you can find your kid playing games any times anywhere. 

It's getting harder and harder for parents to know what games their kids are playing and if these games are appropriate for them.

iThrive strikes a fresh and new direction to this approach and contacts these studios, educators and mental health advocates directly in order to provide an actionable pathway to how game studios can take a more mental health friendly and empathy led approach when designing their games. 


 iThrive has such a powerful message, especially when it comes to teenagers being empowered by games. Could you elaborate on why you chose teenagers as your target audience?

 Our founder, Dorothy Batten, was bedridden for several months with an injury. During this time, she got her masters’ degree in positive psychology, online, while simultaneously parenting two teenaged sons, who were always playing video games. She had an epiphany about the kinds of emotional resilience and positive practices she was studying. She realized how teenagers in particular are often emotionally vulnerable and could use more fortification in those ways, and how one way to help teens with this might be to meet them where they are, using video games to help them improve these positive practices. She founded iThrive based on this idea, and both literature reviews and a landscape analysis suggested that our organization’s work addresses a need that parents, educators, mental health clinicians and even teens themselves appear to have right now. We have also taken this into the game developer space, to help developers design more intentionally for outcomes like empathy.

 Mental Health has been a rising topic of importance – especially when it comes to gaming and the gaming community. From your perspective, how has the dynamic between the gaming community and mental health changed?

 I think that there is more of an awareness now of the fact that games can have a positive impact on people. Anytime there is a horrifying event on the news in the US, involving guns, it feels like the media and government officials are quick to blame video games. However, this is not at all borne out by the science, which has many findings to the contrary to suggest that games help people. There is no conclusive evidence that video games lead to violence or school shootings (see https://hevga.org/). The rise of mental health and gaming organizations like Take This! and the Fair Play Alliance suggests that players and developers are starting to think about how we use games as a positive influence. Groups like the Bodhana Group are using pen and paper RPG’s for group therapy. There are more and more games and apps themed on mental health (see Hellblade!), or made with the explicit purpose of improving mental health. Our mental health expert, Kelli Dunlap, recently wrote a blog post about mental health tropes in video games that are unhelpful and need to be considered and re-evaluated among game developers. 

Could you tell me more about your history with iThrive and how you got involved?

 I was working as a game designer at Schell Games in Pittsburgh, where I worked on nine games as a writer and doing systems and features design. I did a conference talk at PAX West in 2015 about romance in games, where I mentioned Dragon Age a lot, and afterward, a young guy came up to me and we geeked out about Dragon Age for about an hour. Then I asked him, "hey, what’s your story, where do you work?" He told me about iThrive and I thought…wow. When I got back to Pittsburgh and looked them up online and saw what they were looking to do…to make discoveries about how games can be designed for better mental health outcomes? I saw that they were hiring a game person and knew I wanted to be one of the people who gets to discover that stuff. It’s important, and exciting!

Has the gaming community (game designers, studios) embraced the change towards more empathic led games? Do you see a shift in attitude and how the community is addressing this issue?

 Yes and no. I would say that often in the AAA space, they need business reasons to care about including something, so they may not be as interested in making in-game changes, but I’ve been seeing a lot of the bigger companies take steps to ensure good sportsmanship between players of cooperative games. The indie developers get it…they are already making very compelling examples of games that encourage thinking and behavior around social and emotional learning, even if they didn’t deliberately design for that at the outset. We look to those devs to learn more about their process, to see if there’s anything we can share in our design resources. We produce design resources (free online at ithrivegames.org) that are developed by game development experts, through the framework of neuroscience and social psychology, to give to the game development community as a resource for anyone interested in making games like this but isn’t sure how to go about it. We test and refine these design guides through game jams we host at various universities. What I can say after 6-8 months of doing these jams on positive psychology outcomes, all over America, is that there does seem to be a new generation of developers out there who care about making games that help other people. That is really inspiring!

 As teenagers primarily still get their money from their parents, do you engage with parents as an audience? How do you do that?

  • Educators (who teach teens), who might need guidance about how to use games in the classroom, teaching social and emotional learning themes.
  • Mental health clinicians (who work with teens), who might need resource information about how games can be used to help certain disorders, or at the very least, a framework through which to engage teens based on their love of video games.
  • Game developers, who might want to make games about these topics but need subject matter expertise about social and emotional learning, and whose products teens use every day.

 We do a number of activities to engage with teens more directly, and we do recognize that parents are an important part of that process. We hope to expand our efforts to include parents, as our organization grows. We’ve existed since 2015 and have grown a lot since then, so who knows where we will be in a few more years!

What is that you think is original to games that can empowering particularly for youth?

Games offer a degree of agency over your own experience that other media such as books or movies do not. Avatars can be aspirational. You can be heroic more easily, experiment with your identity safely, have more control over a game world than you might, in the real world.

What do you think designers should keep in mind when thinking about designing for empathy?

A lot of the burden falls on narrative in games I think of as empathy games. A friend of mine named Toiya Kristen Finley said, “The personal is universal, and the universal, personal.” Designers should tap into their own feelings of joy, pride, and loss when making their games. Developing empathy for your own emotions and bringing them to bear in your game will help others have empathy for your characters. Working to understand the psychological process we go through when developing empathy – what conditions need to exist for empathy to take hold, and what that journey looks like -- might help you understand how to construct it on a deeper level. We have materials explaining this in our Empathy Design Kit. Two pitfalls we tend to see are people confusing sympathy and empathy, or people putting their players through a trauma in the name of awareness. Should a game never have upsetting content? No. We’re just saying, do it thoughtfully, with sensitivity and expert help, and don’t send anyone into a psychological crisis. Trauma is not required for empathy to take hold; this is especially important when you consider how visceral virtual reality can be.

 Any future projects you’re excited for?

 We are about to announce something at GenCon, in Indianapolis this August, which I’m pretty excited about. We will also be doing a series of panels there. In September, we will have our 4th Design Hive, which is the Think Tank we host twice a year with game experts, and where we develop new Design Kits. We will likely be producing three to four more of these Design Kits on various positive psychology practices, selected by our mental health and education experts. We also have some more game jams coming up at DigiPen, Renssaeler Polytechnic Institute, and possibly another that is about to be scheduled in Minnesota. I’d love to do one in Montreal! We have a lot of exciting stuff going on!

What are your current favourite games? Also any games you’d recommend to teenagers?

We have curated lists of games on our website that we recommend for teens, for each of the different positive behaviors, but here are games that I’ve personally really liked recently (they’re mostly indies):

 A Mortician’s Tale because it deals with death in a quiet, respectful, informational way. It presents questions about maintaining the dignity of the deceased, funeral practices and mortuary science, and about how different people react to death. I’ve not ever seen this topic handled by a game and I think it was managed in a way that is interesting and full of heart.

 Million Onion Hotel is this goofy little mobile game that you initially think is a digital whack-a-mole, but actually does employ strategy at the higher levels. It takes place at a hotel where little onions go on vacation. It has such wonderful, joyful, goofy randomness that you just sit there laughing and saying, “I’m not sure what that just was, but I loved it.” The jazz trio soundtrack, backing a Japanese guy on the kazoo, is worth it by itself.

 I am a huge historical piracy nerd, and I really wanted to play Sea of Thieves, because all my friends know I’m a pirate nerd, and after one of my teammates blogged about the game as being rooted in positive design. Unfortunately, I get incredibly motion sick with games that are only in 1st person view, so only lasted about 20 minutes before Sea of Thieves made me seasick. I’m the worst pirate. I like it in theory, and everything I’ve seen and read about it. I’m really sorry I wasn’t able to enjoy it because it looks fantastic!

 My 14 year old son loves Cuphead. I’m horrible at it, having never cleared a single level…but I still just love the little guy with his little headstraw going boing-boing-boing. It makes me joyful. My son wrote a blog about Cuphead, here.


We've got great things coming up soon! In the meantime, check out our previous interview with Finji's co-founders Adam and Bekah!

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About The Author: Caroline Corbett-Thompson

Caroline is the Marketing Director at Itavio. You'll find her listening to NPR and scowling 99% of the time.

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