Heidi McDonald

Senior Creative Director for iThrive Games

Heidi McDonald is the Senior Creative Director for iThrive Games, who directs iThrive’s developer outreach activities and provides creative direction on game development projects. Drawing on her experience as a game designer and writer (including 9 titles for Schell Games), she produces instructional design resources and provides consultations for game developers making games with social emotional learning outcomes. Heidi was honored with Women in Gaming’s Rising Star Award in 2013, and her work in games has won awards from entities including Serious Play, the Pittsburgh Technology Council, and the IGF. Author and editor of Digital Love: Romance and Sexuality in Games, Heidi has published and lectured extensively on romance and sexuality in games and how they relate to players’ emotional engagement. She is also known for her collection of magnificent hats and for popping up places dressed as her pirate alter-ego, Lizzie Bones. She has dedicated her career to the idea that games can do amazing things for human beings.

Panel Description:

Panel: Game Writing With Existing Licenses
(Speaking with Eddy Webb, and Randy Begel)

Sometimes when you work in game writing, you get to make up your own characters because you are working on a studio-owned IP. Often, though, you are tasked with writing for a world with canon that already exists, which presents its own specific set of challenges. Heidi McDonald moderates a panel of industry all-star narrative designers with experience in game writing using existing licenses. There will also be a Q&A period for other writers about writing with existing licenses.

Sample questions for panelists:
–The balance between fan service, game writing conventions, and the existing material.
–How to keep stories and characters original yet within established constraints.
–Working with clients who have oversight, or content bibles.

Talk Description:

The Role of Narrative in Games Promoting Empathy and Kindness

iThrive Games is a non-profit organization whose mission is to support the development of meaningful games that can help adolescents thrive in their daily lives, by helping them to develop prosocial skills such as empathy, kindness, curiosity and growth mindset. In the past two years, iThrive has determined a model for producing science-based game design resources that will help makers understand what facets of games they can include and exclude to help their game toward creating these outcomes. These resources are regularly used and tested all around the US in our game jams and by university students who are building games with our support. The materials are rooted in the latest neuroscience and social psychology research, and co-developed by the iThrive team and panels of top-tier game developers and researchers.

Of the various prosocial outcomes that iThrive has produced design resources for, empathy and kindness seem to be the two that hold the largest areas of opportunity for game writers, because of the inherent burden on story to deliver these parts of a meaningful experience. Examples of the building blocks for empathy that translate well to games include: perspective taking, placing yourself in the shoes of another, caring about the world and its people, and universal themes. McDonald will offer examples of this, done effectively. Also discussed will be iThrive’s emerging work around kindness, what the components of kindness are, and the challenges presented for narrative designers around breaking the “kindness for reward” conventions that players have come to expect from games.

Building on her Narrative Summit talk at GDC 2018 about empathy, iThrive Senior Creative Director and veteran lecturer and author Heidi McDonald would utilize this hour at ECGC to explain:
• Briefly who iThrive is and about our work and how it’s developed.
• The science behind empathy and kindness, and what conditions are necessary to create these.
• How those conditions are generally presented in games, and which specific ones indicate an extra burden on narrative and story.
• Examples of the above, found in popular games and why they work so well.
• Introduction to our free design resources (which we hope to distribute copies of, on-site).
• Invitation to the audience to use iThrive’s design resources and report back on their helpfulness, and to make ourselves available as subject matter experts for developer consults.

Panel Description:

Bounce That Game: Why Festival Judges Disqualify Your Work
(Speaking with Patrick Coursey)

This panel came out of a drunken Facebook exchange that Ian Schreiber and Heidi McDonald had while judging games for IndieCade earlier this year. We each judge several game festivals a year and we have seen several common mistakes that indie devs make, when submitting their games to festivals…reasons that cause us judges to Bounce Their Games.

We decided that a fun way to present this would be a live game show format, called Bounce That Game, with buzzers we bring with us. During the “game show,” three of us (the “contestants”) communicate a list of DO’s and DON’Ts to help indie makers create work that will please professional festival judges, or at least keep us from sticking forks through our eyes. A bonus round will ensue, where we include tips for festival organizers.

At the end of the hour, a winner will be declared: THE AUDIENCE! Because now they know how specifically they are more likely to have their work progress in festival competitions, and not piss off the judges.

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