Design Video Games That Make Learning Effortless | Dr. Kelly Tran & Kevin Caldwell | #6

Funsmith Fireside Chats Episode #6

Guest: Kevin Caldwell and Dr. Kelly Tran

In this episode, we discuss the differences that come with developing games for kids, especially the ethical considerations of creating products for children and balancing monetary gain with mindful design.

Our two experts (the first design duo we’ve had on our show!) explain their backgrounds and what motivated them to purse this path of weaving learning and kids games together.

Dr. Kelly Tran and Kevin Caldwell are the founders of Evolved Play, a “Games and Learning” company that focuses on designing ethically and creating software that helps kids develop not just as players, but as human beings. Specifically to help learn life lessons in a seem less and effortless way.

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Listen to The Full Episode


Podcast Platforms:

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Referenced Links & Resources

Connect with Doctor Kelly Tran:

Connect with Kevin Caldwell:

Connect with Alex:

Connect with Ari:

Mentioned Resources:

Evolved Play

League of Legends

Riot Games

SEL – Social Emotional Learning

Game Design Learning Resources:

Game design courses

Career goal workshop

Game design mentorship

Episode Chapters (with Timestamp)

0:00 – Introduction

1:11 – Greetings and welcomes

2:42 – Kelly talks about the alignment between game mechanics and learning outcomes

4:23 – The funny story of how Kelly and Kevin met each other

6:35 – Kelly’s background in research, design, and teaching

8:17 – Kevin’s experience in industrial design, team sports, and game development

9:48 – The role of chance and synchronicity in creating new experiences

10:22 – Communication styles and friction when collaborating remotely

11:59 – How company culture is becoming more accessible, appreciative, and flexible

13:28 – Learning from working at Riot – creating space for different perspectives in teamwork

14:10 – What makes a good work environment in game studios today?

15:55 – Kevin recalls his best and worst work experiences at different companies

17:10 – Kelly’s decision to leave academia behind and change her life path

20:05 – Role models for underrepresented groups – the importance of visibility and mentoring others

20:59 – Alex shares why he left the industry to pursue a teaching career

22:41 – What’s cooking at Evolved Play – current projects

24:06 – Play testing with kids – educational and fun

26:42 – The importance of lean development for children’s games – finding the right challenge

28:18 – Knowing when and where to use uncertainty – and how it affects play behavior

29:48 – Lessons to be learned from game mechanics – using Mario Party as an example

31:57 – What led Kelly to pursue a PhD in game design in the first place

34:06 – Kevin’s children as a source of inspiration and motivation for his work

38:49 – What changes with age – thoughts on health, self-care and family life

41:00 – Women in leadership positions – positive changes in the workplace

43:47 – Benefits and challenges of remote work as it relates to family and self-management

46:06 – Socio-emotional learning (SEL) – teaching values and soft skills to young players

47:45 – The potential of engaging RPG narrative to help kids learn

49:32 – The problem with screen time: how to prevent over-engagement and addictive gaming?

53:08 – How to teach kids grit and resilience through gaming experiences?

55:07 – Kevin’s own experiences with emotional regulation.

56:08 – Commercialization of games: exploitation of player involvement and emotional distress.

58:13 – Ethical game design – focus on quality screen time rather than maximizing screen time

01:00:19 – Monetization practices in games that are unhealthy for children

More Guest Quotes From This Episode

“We’re looking at creating a digital landscape, an environment that can help kids and families learn in a really productive and healthy way.”

“Early experience testing is fundamental in thinking about game development, how to design and produce games, and develop quality games.”

“Recognizing that everybody has a different and valid perspective, thinking how to make space and facilitate the team and product development and product release with as many voices represented as possible in working towards starting and building the company is very important.”

“It’s so important when you’re working on a team together, you’re going to be spending a majority of your life with these folks, sharing ideas needing to be vulnerable, expressing those ideas and being to work through difficult problems. In some ways, it’s an extremely serious relationship, and other times you want to be able to have levity, lightness, moments, alignment, and how you connect with each other.”

“User-testing with kids is so much wider like in any other context because they’re humans with totally different perspectives, then finding out that the kids really love exploring and moving around.”

“Kids give honest and great feedback, usually not too worried about your feelings, which is great because we can iterate on that, and some of the suggestions from kids are really nice.”

“The exploration, the discovery, is very synonymous with life, but with kids, it’s like how do you navigate, where and why do you choose to go, what are you looking for, etc. Kids don’t necessarily have the answers to those questions, but they have the motivation, the interest, which has been really exciting to see.”

“Knowing when and where to put uncertainty, and the way of expressing it is incredibly important in a game.”

“Creating something that would allow us to enjoy our child, and be there for a child, and learn from her as much as she’s learning from us is part of our aspiration to grow.”

“Create life that is balanced and allows us to learn from the variety of experiences that we have.”

“There’s more to life than us burning ourselves out to create a product.”

“Self-management is one of the things that we’re focusing on with our product. It’s like how do we help kids develop healthy habits and perspectives on longevity.”

“If there were more women in leadership to begin with at a lot of companies where the crunch was so bad, it probably wouldn’t have gotten bad. Women have always been the ones who are the caretakers and have to think about being home with the family.”

“SEL or Social Emotional Learning is the framework that we were working from. It’s a productive teaching of soft skills.”

What was your favorite part from this episode?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

By the way, whenever you’re ready, here are 3 ways to help you start or level-up your game design career:

1. First Principles of Game Design: Skill Development Program: Join game devs who got hired or promoted across 51 AAA and Indie game studios including Riot, Blizzard, Ubisoft, Bethesda, and etc.

Improve player retention and word of mouth by learning to accurately diagnose why the players are losing interest in any game and how to adjust accordingly – one of the main skills studios hire for.

2. Game Design Mentorship – Get access to live weekly video calls and chat feedback support directly from veteran game designer with 25 years of industry experience (see example sessions).

3. Game Design Career Goal Strategy Workshop: A live workshop to help you figure out exact action steps to reach your goal, whether you aim to

  • Break into the video game industry
  • Get promoted (or pivot) from your current position
  • Ship a successful Indie game

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One Response

  1. Great episode… seems like there are alot of predatory practices. Glad you are advocating for ethical design practices

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[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan