Awards Nominee Spotlight: Quandary

Quandary, the latest game by the Learning Games Network, allows players to shape the future of a new society while learning how to recognize ethical issues and deal with challenging situations in their own lives.

Designed for players aged aged 8 to 14, Quandary is free-to-play online here. Set in a fantastical science fiction world with graphic novel-style storytelling, players lead a new human colony on a distant planet. By sorting the colonists’ thoughts into facts, solutions, and opinions and taking into account arguments from multiple perspectives, players develop skills such as critical thinking and decision-making.

We contacted executive producer Peter Stidwill to ask about the development process of Quandary.

What motivates you to make games for social impact?

Our philosophy at the Learning Games Network is that play is how we learn best. Our motivation comes from seeing players respond positively when engaging in challenging gameplay that requires thoughtfulness and reflection. Quandary is a perfect example of a game that does just this. Players must make difficult decisions in which there are no clear right or wrong answers but important consequences. They gain practice in recognizing ethical issues, equipping them to deal with challenging situations in their own lives.

How long was Quandary in development and what tools were used to make it?

Quandary was developed by a team of experts across the fields of child development, social and emotional learning, and game design, and took over two years from conception to launch.

Scholars from Harvard and Tufts University devised a prototype that was tested for viability. Designers at the MIT Education Arcade and the Learning Games Network, a nonprofit spin-off of the MIT Education Arcade and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Games+Learning+Society Center, refined the game. Technical and graphic production was by FableVision, an award-winning storytelling digital media production and learning company. The main production tool was Adobe Flash.

How did you fund the game?

Quandary was funded by a private family foundation that identified gaming as one of their key platforms to engage a young audience in thinking about ethical issues, emphasizing skills such as critical thinking, perspective-taking, and decision-making. The funder also wanted to maximize reach and so the game is completely free to play at

How did you come up with the scenarios in Quandary?

In consultation with child development experts, we sought to create an engaging narrative that was both relatable but also fantastical. We conceived of a captivating graphic novel style that invokes a world where pre-industrial technology meets fantastical science fiction as human colonists attempt to build a viable outpost on a distant planet. This game world provides a space rife with ethical dilemmas and a diverse set of characters and perspectives, and crucially gives the player the freedom of identity to explore their role.

Of the three scenarios currently in the game, we sought a balance between dilemmas immediately relevant to the target audience (e.g., the formation of cliques within a group) and novel situations (e.g., a predator attacking precious food supplies). We also wanted a mix of individual, community, and societal dilemmas.

How many schools are using Quandary? What sort of feedback have you gotten from players/students, teachers, or parents?

Unlike many educational games, we were lucky enough to have a marketing budget that allowed us to advertise via the Cartoon Network website, which helped drive high traffic during our launch period. We coupled this with a grassroots push to our teacher networks and teamed-up with BrainPOP to feature the game on their GameUp portal. Quandary will also be one of the first games to be featured on the new Playful Learning portal launching this summer, driving uptake and increasing the sharing of teacher tips and classroom implementation ideas. Players, teachers, and parents alike have been very receptive. We’ve been featured on Moms Rising (Quandary: Help your child think ethically through gameplay), and we’ve had numerous requests for new features and content — something we are addressing with an extension to the game coming later this year. Watch this space!

What do you think of the current state of games for social impact?

While there are many great examples of games for learning and change, there are still significant barriers that limit uptake. Collections such as Games for Change’s own site are a great way for people to find, discuss, and build work in our field. But there is a distribution problem within the school context and tackling it is a core part of our mission at the Learning Games Network. That’s why this summer, along with our partners, we’re launching Playful Learning.

Playful Learning is a new initiative that comprises a growing knowledge base of games (learning games and commercial games alike) and a network of grassroots teachers ranging from games-based learning gurus to the playfully curious. We want to equip teachers with the knowledge, tools, and support they need to bring alive the philosophy that we learn best through play.

Edited by Anne Peng.

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