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OpenJS World 2021 Keynote Recap: Game Design Thinking + Social Justice with Ashlyn Sparrow, Assistant Director, Weston Game Lab

By October 1, 2021Blog, OpenJS World

During OpenJS World, which was held virtually June 2-3, 2021, we heard from many inspiring people involved in all areas of technology. The presentations are recorded and available for free through the OpenJS Foundation. We are highlighting key points from those valuable contributions here.  

Ashlyn Sparrow, assistant director of the Weston Game Lab, gave a keynote entitled “Game Design Thinking + Social Justice” on how the world of gaming not only influences billions of people across the world, but also how it has a remarkable effect on their social thinking and capacities.  

Games have evolved into a cultural phenomenon and a multibillion-dollar industry. Games like Minecraft, Call of Duty, Among Us and Pokémon Go have seen a dramatic number of downloads within a very short period of time. The most fascinating aspect of gamers is their average age of 37 which explains how games of all kinds, regardless of their medium, influence people of all ages. While describing how fascinating the gaming environment is, Ashley brings up the transmedial (meaning a large number of different media) nature of games. There are board games, card games, computer games, that are all making an impact and establishing a loyal following of their own.  

Gamification and inventive reassuring  

Many things in our daily lives are gamified. Gamification is the process of incorporating gaming objects into non-gaming references. The most notable example of this is how technological advancements use gamification to enhance user personalization. For instance, Fitbit rewards users with stars as an appreciation for achievement. Similarly, Khan Academy rewards students with badges for reaching academic milestones.  

Games are everywhere and influence major aspects of our day-to-day lives.  

Games and social impact 

Gaming allows for mistakes and creativity. If you fail an English test in school, it can have a negative implication on your academic career. However, there are no strict penalties for failing to unlock a mission in a game. It is more of a friendly suggestion encouraging you to do better.  

Results of any kind can be optimized and improved when a safe space for mistakes and failures exists, along with opportunities to recover. This is one of the aspects of gaming that gets people hooked. When people are given a space to grow in an environment where they have power and control over how they navigate, they aspire to succeed by failure, experimentation and improvement.  

This ideal environment is what every single game is based on: room for errors and improvements.  

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Seeing the World as a Game Designer 

Just as a game designer considers dynamics, narratives, aesthetics and socio-cultural implications, individuals should think about themselves while also seeking different perspectives.  

A game designer will consider both experts and novices when creating a game, resulting in the concept of difficulty level. Just like a game designer will go to great lengths to make it a pleasurable experience for the audience, an individual must seek out the people they wish to surround themselves with and choose the characteristics and skills they want to inculcate in themselves.  

Just as a game has the same set of rules, gifts, and unlocks for all players regardless of their background, social problems can be eradicated when opportunities and rewards are equitable for all.  


The most intriguing feature of a game is its inclusiveness and adaptability. A gamer in the west would play Call of Duty the same way as one in the east. Games make no distinctions based on social status.  

Ashley explains in her concluding statements why it is essential to consider the most marginalised people of society. This is vital because the people on the edge will be able to deliver better improvements and insights to what you ultimately want should benefit all. Just like a game designer would consider people of all kinds while drafting the overview of a game, all social decisions should be configured including people on all levels of society. 

Watch original video –  

  • 00:00– Introduction
  • 00:32– Gaming as an industry
  • 04:19– Definition of a game
  • 05:19– Elements of a game
  • 07:48– Game designs and socio-cultural systems
  • 10:45– Games and Social impact
  • 17:16– Redesigning system for the future