Gaming for Good

This September, I had just ended my eight-week internship at the ‘Fosterclub house’ where I had the opportunity to advocate for foster youth at the National American Council on Adoptable Children (in Atlanta, GA), the Daniel Memorial Independent Living Conference (in Orlando, FL), and the Idaho & Oregon state foster youth teen camps. I also flew to Japan with the International Foster Care Alliance, to facilitate workshops and give speeches to learn as well as give information on policies and strategic planning for the future of international foster youth.

These experiences were nothing short of incredible, and although the networking opportunities were plentiful, and the traveling was an undeniable perk, the most valuable experience was being an advisor a listening ear for the foster youth who needed it the most. I accredit many other organizations and people who have helped me come as far as I have today as a resilient foster youth and advocate including The Mockingbird Society, National Foster Youth Institute, and the place it all started six years ago - California Youth Connection.

Between a full-time course load, a demanding job at my college radio station, and various extracurriculars I thought I was going to have to take a break from foster youth advocacy. However, I was wrong and, in fact, I've been advocating in a different and more innovative way, than I have before - through playing board games.

These aren’t just any board games though, these are board games for social good. Upon my arrival back from Japan into my liberal arts college at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington - I had neglected to look at open classes until two days before the quarter started. Most of the classes were filled and the ones that weren’t primarily resembled the leftovers. However, there was one class that was actually open and seemed pretty interesting, called ‘Games For Social Good’.

On the first day of class we were tasked with creating a board game that teaches people about a topic that relates to social good. There were a variety of games created - including ones about the Mormon religion, gentrification, and racial activist groups. I created one about the foster care experience. It wasn’t easy but after three prototypes and many nights trying to re-channel my trauma so I could create the board game that accurately depicted the foster care experience, I had finally done it! In the game, you randomly select a ‘case plan’ of a real-life celebrity that was in foster care. This case plan includes a description of the youth and a set of eight given values out of sixteen important things to have in life. These values are broken into four categories: necessities, core emotions, relationships, and well-being.

Each character also has an already filled out ACES test with a pre-assigned ACES score. ACES is the adverse childhood experience test that helps gauge the future trajectory of youth depending on the level of trauma they faced as a child. Foster youth almost always have extremely high ACES scores, which leaves us susceptible to mental illness, health problems, and ultimately can lead to premature passing. However, resilience in foster youth can trump the negative effects of ACES.

Every character starts at ‘Valley of the Moon’ which is a real children’s home facility in Sonoma, California that I used to live in. In the game, it is moderately difficult to leave the ‘Valley of the Moon’ square which is a real issue with the actual facility, as it is meant for emergency shelter only and holds teenage foster youth for months (and sometimes years). Once immersed in gameplay, there are six types of squares players can land on. These include ACES squares, Advocacy squares, Group Home squares, Foster Home squares, Situation squares, and Question squares.

For every ACES square you have to move back the number of your assigned ACES score. There are Advocacy squares that include some foster youth advocacy non-profits (including the ones above) and every time you land on one, you become an ‘advocate’ for that place and get to increase your roll by double. Perhaps, the most impactful mechanic of the game is the giving up and earning back to your personal values.

In the game, you are given eight values to start off with and have to give up the value ‘parents’ immediately within the game. Then every time you enter a foster home or group home you must have a certain amount of shared values with them, as they have descriptions and assigned values as well. If you don’t share enough values, you have to give up one under the premise that if you don’t share enough commonalities with the placement you live in, it probably won’t work out. Based on the values you possess in your hand, you can land on situation cards which will either be a positive foster care experience (if you have that value) or a negative foster care experience (if you do not have that value). Lastly, there are question cards which have either challenges or trivia relating to a specific value in foster care. This symbolizes that even though it may be easy to lose values through foster care, it is much harder to try to rebuild those same values back in your life.

It is definitely a treacherous experience to attempt winning ‘Foster Care Frenzy’ because it simulates the difficulty that youth face in the child welfare system. At the end, however, one player will make it to the ‘rectangle of resiliency’, where all of their values are theoretically restored and they beat their ACES score. This player is deemed the ‘Ambassador of Foster Care’ and all of the other players are deemed ‘Foster Youth Advocates’. Each of the foster home cards is based on names of legislators all around the nation that have participated in the National Foster Youth Institute Foster Shadow Day & have supported foster care legislation in the past. All of the Foster Youth Advocates must find their most recent foster home and write a letter to that representative (the template is already created for them). Then, the Ambassador of Foster Care is in charge of making sure all of those letters get sent out to the legislators.

This has definitely been a unique foster care advocacy project, that I’ve gotten to work on. It has been extremely fulfilling to reach audiences who may otherwise be unexposed to foster care as well as create multi-dimensional change through teaching players, as well as writing to legislators. This experience has taught me as a curriculum developer and facilitator that we need to continuously be working on ways to making training on child welfare more experiential, innovative, and interesting so we can reach as many people with the mission to inform them. This may be the end of the quarter but it is not the end of ‘Foster Care Frenzy’ as I will continue to find ways to develop and disseminate the game to as many people as possible.