A Porpoise for Games

I moved to Vancouver back in April to prepare for a long year at VFS. Since I had 3 weeks before my classes would start, I used some of the time to visit the the Vancouver Aquarium. While there I’d frequently come across a particularly playful harbour porpoise in the underwater exhibit. He’d flap his flippers and stare expectantly at the opposite side of the glass trying to interact. Alas, each time he would eventually get bored of my silly faces and swim off.

Wait a second… If I was serious about being a game designer, then shouldn’t I be able to make a fun game for a porpoise?

Absolutely! Here is the process of this somewhat unusual game project that was conducted in April, and the unexpected outcome that made it all worthwhile.


The target of my project is Jack, a harbour porpoise who was stranded in Horseshoe Bay on September 16th, 2011. He was only 4 weeks old when he was transported to the Marine Mammal Research Centre, weighing 12-kilogram. His skin and muscles were so severely damaged, that he required a sling made of pool noodles to help him swim, as well as 24 hour volunteer care around the clock. He was later deemed non-releasable by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, so was introduced to Daisy at the Aquarium where both are ambassadors for their species.


There were two big rules to follow. For starters, all marine mammals at the aquarium are being trained, so it’s important not to disturb that training. Certain hand gestures could give false signals to the animal, and even accidentally train them. Secondly, certain objects could be stimulating but also make them stressed (such as flashing lights, yelling, hitting the glass, etc). If I were to design a game, I’d have to use the basics and check with the staff if I were unsure.


If you saw a woman standing 10 feet away from the porpoise tank writing furiously on a clipboard, then yah… that was probably me. I’m sorry for being creepy. Before a game can be designed, I needed to know what Jack liked.

I monitored Jack from a distance at 10am to 5pm for 3 days to try and answer 4 key questions. What kind of people got his attention, and how? How long was his attention span? What kind of games was he trying to initiate? How often did he come to the glass? (Example of 1 day)


While recording the time of each visit to the glass, I made notes of certain behaviors that may have contributed to his choices. I wasn’t sure what would capture his interests, but certain patterns kept arising. There were four major observations that were repeated during longer visitations. These were:
- Drawn to children and adults with lots of expression.
- Tries to find people when they hide behind the pillar.
- Follows certain people from one side of the exhibit to the other.
- Frequently play with bubbles and catch them.
- Enjoys swimming very fast when excited.


The two mechanics I extracted from the data were an interest in hide and seek & follow the leader. Okay, I could make a game out of that. I put away the notepad and approached the glass to test my theories.

There are two pillars separating the 3 glass planes of the underwater viewing for Jack’s tank. People tried to hide behind them to play with Jack, so that was the first goal. With an enthusiastic expression I caught Jack’s attention and hid behind the pillar.

It was awkward but effective. Jack returned to play as I used the thin post to shield my body and face. Unfortunately, My progress soon hit a speed bump. Jack was attracting a lot of attention by being at the glass. Moving left and right around the post became difficult with the growing crowd. When I stopped moving, he would get bored and leave. Hmm… this wouldn’t work.


A new condition for the game had emerged. If I was going to make a fun game, it would need to be playable without using the pillars, and can be played in a very small area. My new strategy was to specifically identify what Jack was looking for when playing hide and seek.

After enough play testing I was able to make the interesting discovery that Jack only cared for the person’s eyes, and nothing else. That was helpful! Using the new data, I found a way to finally merge both hide and seek & follow the leader while working within the new constraints.


The final game requires two hands to be placed on the side of your face with thumbs near the corner of your eyes (similar to blinders on a horse). This hides your eyes from anyone looking at your face from the side, but leaves your eyes visible for anyone facing you.

This forces Jack to swim in front of you if he wants to see your eyes. You could increase the difficulty by folding my fingers down in the shape of a spyglass, which forces him to be more accurate. Once he found your eyes, you can add the complexity of follow the leader by moving left, right, down or up. He’d have to skillfully swim at your pace while keeping even with my eyes.


It’s simple, it’s easy, and Jack LOVES it. Even 4 months later he still eagerly swims down and can be engaged in the game for hours. His reward is nothing more than an excited expression when he finds the eyes, which I think makes him excited too.

If we compare the records from then and now, there is a dramatic increase in the visits at the glass, and an increase in the length of those visits. The game has built a foundation of friendship with Jack. Whenever I need to take a break from all the homework, I can always sit by the glass and have him hover beside me like a big floaty companion.


The purpose of the game was to have fun…. or was it? After this strange study, I began to think of fun as more of a ‘journey’ as we play games, much like a metaphorical train transporting us somewhere. It allows us to have a memorable, fun, and enchanting experience. We allow ourselves to be taken away by fun, and it’s why we keep coming back. We like the ride.

But if fun is the journey… then what is the destination? I believe I achieved the goal of making a fun game for Jack, but the reward – the destination – came in the form of a fish that Jack offered me two weeks after I began this project. As he floated in front of me with the fish in his mouth, I realized that it wasn’t just about the game. It was about the relationship developed in the process.

Maybe that was the real porpoise of the game after all.

You can look for Jack in the underwater exhibit of the Canada Arctic gallery in the Vancouver Aquarium. He is friendly and very interactive, just please be respectful and don’t hit the glass or shine light.

Thanks to the staff at the Vancouver Aquarium for their patience during this study and teaching me more about Jack and harbour porpoises. Also, thank you to the supporting volunteers of the the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, whose dedication enables the rescue, rehabilitation and release of wild marine mammals along our coast.

Janel Jolly is a Game Design Student at VFS and a winner of our Women in Games Scholarship