The Stanford Game Design Thinking Research Group studies the intersection of game design (as a science), behavior design, and design thinking.


The Stanford Game Design Thinking Research Group is a project of the Stanford Peace Innovation Lab. We study the intersection of game design (as a science), behavior design, and design thinking. Game Design Thinking is not about programming apps or adding gamification badges. Game Design Thinking draws on game mechanics, narrative design, psychology and economics.

We play and deconstruct a wide range of digital and analog games in order to construct game design frameworks. We then use these frameworks to create and launch projects along with our partners. These projects facilitate the connection of people and improvement in their lives. Studying the social layer in games is an important part of what we do, and we find ways to incorporate social in our work.

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Game Design

MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research

  • Mechanics
  • Dynamics
  • Aesthetics

Behavior Design

Dr. BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model

  • Motivation
  • Ability
  • Trigger

Design Thinking

The Stanford’s Design Thinking Process

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test


Our research focus for 2015 is empathy. What is the role of empathy in games? Have players felt empathy in games? How could we use games that evoke empathy to bias downstream activities?

About Us

Chris Bennett is the Game Designer in Residence for the Stanford Peace Innovation Lab. Chris has also lectured for the and the Stanford Center for Ethics, and collaborates with the Lab’s many partners in and around the Stanford community. Chris comes from a 20 year background in industry, designing and developing award-winning games for companies like Electronic Arts, Zynga and Disney, where his credited games have been downloaded and played over a billion times. He has talked about games and game design for major media outlets, including NBC TV, NPR, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is called on by organizations such as AARP and USAID for his game design expertise. More recently, Chris has been turning his attention to how the frameworks and methodologies of what makes games engaging can be used to improve and enrich lives.


Spring 2015: Chris Bennett is partnering with the Stanford Graduate School of Education’s Learning, Design and Technology Program to teach a one-credit Directed Research (EDUC 490) course in Game Design Thinking.

Fall 2014Getting to Trust in Conflict Environments: Chris partnered with Lab Co-Directors Mark Nelson and Margarita Quihuis and Lab Security and Development Lead Karen Guittieri to teach a pop-up course at the Stanford Joining the teaching team was Colonel Robert C. Jones (ret.) of the US Special Operations Command. We explored how Game Design Thinking, behavior design and online sharing economy can disrupt the way we understand and build trust in conflict environments.


Spring 2014Collective Action: Ethics and Policy (ETHIC SOC 180M): Chris taught a game design unit to undergrads and graduate students inside of Mark Budolfson’s ethics course. Their aim was to design, prototype and test tabletop games to teach collective action principles to middle and high schoolers. Chris took the student games to Castilleja School in Palo Alto and Girls Inc. of the Island City and brought back valuable play test feedback that the Stanford students incorporated into their projects. The students then presented their games to a distinguished group that included Stanford faculty, sciences and directors from the California Academy of Sciences and the Director of the ACE Lab at Castilleja School.

What we learned was that even though middle and high schoolers learned collective action principles from playing the games, the Stanford students learned even more by designing the games. This is work that we will be expanding on in our future research.




Caritas Scholars: In March, Chris Bennett spoke to the The Caritas Scholars Program and Social Entrepreneurship Lab of 9-12th graders at Alma Heights Christian School in Pacifica about Game Design Thinking and how it can apply to their ongoing social entrepreneurship programs.


In April, Chris was invited back as a distinguished judge to the 2015 Caritas Awards Ceremony honoring these student groups.



(Event photos by Paul Mercado)

Castilleja Global Week: Chris was a featured speaker for the 2015 Senior class at Castilleja School in Palo Alto about trust models before their class trip to San Francisco to study gentrification. This occurred during their Global Week activities around the theme: ‘The City: Fortification to Imagination’. He facilitated a conversation around trust principles between the students and Nanci Kauffman, their Head of School. When the students returned from their field work, Chris helped them to deconstruct what they saw and how they felt about it, and the lessons we could take from that. Then Chris led a portion of the seniors through design thinking exercises to better empathize with those in their own communities.


Design School X: Chris acted as a ‘Game Design Spark’ for David Clifford’s prototype of a new school “to build in our students the agency to affect change, agility to seek out and navigate complex dilemmas and access to one’s purpose and character.” This was a collaboration with the K12 Lab at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford.



CAS Game Design Camp: We had a wonderful collaboration with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco as Chris and Karen Guttieri led a two day youth-focused Game Design Camp.  We helped campers (ages 14-18) to work together towards transforming important environmental issues—like climate change and ocean health—into exciting, interactive experiences. The lens we used was tabletop games, and the campers used their access to expert scientists at the Academy to hone their game prototypes and playtest them with other youths before their final presentations.


Stanford #DTK12 Curriculum Summit: Chris hosted a Leaders Lead session on how to brainstorm and kickoff creative tabletop game prototypes with middle and high school students. This was part of a two-day event to get design thinking teachers and administrators together to learn and collaborate, and was hosted at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford.


Eureka! Teen Achievement Program: Chris designed and facilitated a multi-day game design program for 10th and 11th grade girls who were enrolled in the Eureka! Teen Achievement Program at Girls Inc. of the Island City. The girls designed tabletop games to teach valuable life skills to middle school girls These games were showcased at the Girls Inc. annual Eureka!thon event.

Eureka! is a national, three-year program created by Girls Inc. to encourage girls to explore career paths in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The program consists of four weeks of intensive programming during the summer and additional sessions throughout the school year.




Chris was quoted along with PIL Co-Director Margarita Quihuis in about Facebook Paper.


Chris was quoted in about MOOCs and innovation and about crowdsourcing your goals.

Chris appeared on a Silicon Valley Innovation Institute panel on Persuasive Game Technology, moderated by our own Margarita Quihuis.

Chris quoted by Lauren Hall-Stigerts of Big Fish Games on using game mechanics to change bad habits.

Chris appeared on Andrew P. Mayer’s Active Design podcast discussing what really makes mobile engagement work.


Chris interviewed by Stephanie Spong of Moksa Ventures on exploring the game layer.