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Willow in Mind

Role: Illustrator and Storyline Author
Team: Matthew Nelson, Ismail Azam
Tools: Adobe Draw


How might we use technology to promote healthy relationships by increasing social connectedness and education?


ReimagineLabs sought out my Fung Fellowship cohort to design a collaborative game to educate 11-14 year olds in low-income single parent households about healthy relationships.

Drawing from human-centered design, strategic foresight, and co-design, reimagine lab is a unique effort to develop cross-sector prevention strategies to end multigenerational cycles of family and domestic violence. This effort is focused on building strategies not only at individual and community levels but also systemic and societal. ReimagineLabs goals are uniquely positioned to identify preventative approaches to end cycles of family and domestic vioence in California.


We conducted 9 interviews prior to brainstorming.

We spoke to 5 kids ages 11-14, 4 adults ages 18+, and 3 professionals. The 3 professionals were:

1. Melissa Bayne, Psychology Ph.D. professor at Cal teaching a course called “Love and Close Relationships”
2. Greg Niemeyer, Associate Professor at Cal teaching a course called game design methods
3. Trevor Beffa, Gaming expert at Microsoft

Key insights

Based on our interviews we defined a healthy relationship, social connectedness, and features of a good game.

Commonly mentioned characteristics of a healthy relationship: open-mindedness, honesty, communication, safe space, common goal, compromise, dependability, mutual gain.

Social connectedness is the measure of how people come together and interact. At an individual level, social connectedness involves the quality and number of connections one has with other people in a social circle of family, friends, and acquaintances.

We found commonly mentioned characteristics of a good game to be: (1) Multiplayer co-op games (2) Remotely played games (3) Beautifully crafted graphics (4) Challenging game play (5) Moving storyline

Competing ideas

We considered creating either an in person co-op or a remote co-op.

The pros of creating an in-person co-op is that it's much easier to facilitate healthy relationships with other players and hence a better method of building stronger ties with family relationships. The cons we considered were that it's difficult to coordinate a group of people to physically come over and play together as a group, and these games are only fun if users do have an in person group.

The pros of creating a remote co-op include more challenging game play when a diverse set of players are brought into the picture. The cons are that the game would need wifi connection and the potential of online trolls disrupting user experience.

Final concept

We settled on a remote co-op multiplayer role-playing platform game. The players must reach the end of each level together as a group.

Game begins with clip of the main antagonist yelling at the main characters to find a mysterious magical willow tree, which becomes the goal of the game. The main characters are essentially forced to trek through nature and the wild to find the willow tree. As the game progresses, you see clips of a beautiful woman, who you eventually learn is the deceased wife of the main antagonist name Willow. And finally you learn that the antagonist is the main characters’ father. The main antagonist’s anger, we learn, comes from his grief over his deceased wife.

Character design

Each main character struggles with mental health, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc. Each character has a unique trigger. Each character also has a unique coping method.

Our team defined mindfulness as a key component of healthy relationships. Often times it can be challenging to be mindful about other people's mental states. Even in my own experience, sometimes I catch myself losing patience and thinking "Why is this so-and-so so stressed out? If I can handle this much on this stuff on my plate, why can't this person do the same?" Hence, my team agreed that mental health was an important problem area for educating people about the importance of mindfulness.

We determined each character to have unique triggers and coping methods as such to say that there is not one mental illness experience.

Game play

The goal of the game is to reach the end of each level as a group, leveling up until you find the mystical willow tree.

Players run through the wild, cutting through foliage, crossing rivers, etc. Throughout game play, some characters may be presented with situations that trigger their mental illness. The team should work together to understand other player's unique triggers and coping methods to reach the end of a level together.


The storyline and characters were designed to build mindfulness and teach about communication, familial relationships, and mental health.


This project was a very different kind of design than I've ever done before.

Not a gamer myself, I found this project extremely daunting at first, and I had to learn from scratch the design cycle in context of video games. It was awesome to see how user experience design translates to game design. Considering my team was constrained to 2 weeks to complete this project, we are happy with the amount of detail we were able to put into the game proposal.

My team plans on working on this project further after our workload lightens up next semester. We plan to take our game past an initial proposal and bring it to life with code.

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