Transformative Play

Can games transform us in profound, meaningful, and lasting ways?

Whether played in leisure time or in professional contexts, play can impact us significantly. Games invite us to shift our perspectives, our behavior, our relationships, and our ways of interacting with the world around us. These shifts in perspective can lead us to feel more empowered, empathetic, aware, engaged, and skilled.

At the Games & Society Lab, we investigate the potential of games as a means for personal and social transformation. Whether through design, play, or discussion, games can inspire us to change our perceptions of ourselves, our communities, and our lives.  

Get involved with the Transformative Play Initiative

Exploring Transformative Play

Research Approaches

At the Games & Society Lab, we research the ways in which games can be vehicles of change and ignite processes of transformation. We are particularly interested in applied play, in which games are employed as a means to assist participants on their journeys of growth. Guiding questions include:

  • What design and implementation practices increase the potential for transformative experiences?

  • What considerations are necessary to foreground when designing culturally responsive and inclusive play experiences?

  • What challenges arise in the design, participation, and research of transformative play?

  • How can we research processes of change over time and assess the effectiveness of playful interventions?

  • How can we cultivate transformational communities that support participants through change processes?

  • How do we design play communities that emphasize safety and encourage bravery when exploring edges for growth?

Conceptual Frameworks

We invite research from a wide variety of conceptual frameworks related to the theory, design, and study of games with regard to transformation including, but not limited to:

  • Design studies

  • Deep game design

  • Applied Theatre

  • Role-playing game studies

  • Developmental psychology

  • Transformational leadership

  • Conflict transformation

  • Ritual studies

  • Psychodynamics

  • Coaching

  • Game design as process

  • Critical making

  • Performance studies

  • Experiential learning

  • Education 

  • Peace studies

  • Group dynamics

  • Depth psychology

  • Counseling

Research Projects

Transformative Play Initiative

Games and Learning in Young Children

Existential Transformative Design Framework

Skill Mill

Strengthening Trans Allyship through Game Design


Peer reviewed articles

Rusch, Doris C., and Andrew M. Phelps. 2020. “Existential Transformational Game Design: Harnessing the ‘Psychomagic’ of Symbolic Enactment.” Frontiers in Psychology (November 4).
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Phelps, Andy, and Doris C. Rusch. 2020. “Navigating Existential, Transformative Game Design.” In Proceedings from DiGRA ’20 – Proceedings of the 2020 DiGRA International Conference: Play Everywhere: 1-4.
View publication

Conference presentations

Baird, Josephine. 2020. “The Mechanics and Misdirection of The Missing: Trans Exploration, Expression and Embodiment in Videogame-Based-Learning.” Paper presented at FROG: Future and Reality of Gaming 2020, Vienna, Austria.

Linnamäki, Jori. 2020. “An Approach to Board Game Design that Centres Allyship and Empowers Trans People.” Paper presented at FROG: Future and Reality of Gaming 2020, Vienna, Austria.

Linnamäki, Jori, and Josephine Baird. 2020. “A Reflection on the Ethical Decision-making Process during Participatory Game Design with and for Vulnerable Populations.” Paper presented at Gender Studies Conference 2020: Reclaiming Futures, Tampere University, Finland.

Rusch, Doris, and Andy Phelps. 2020. “Games of the Soul.” Paper presented at FROG: Future and Reality of Gaming 2020, Vienna, Austria.

Last modified: 2021-07-29