Monday, December 23, 2013

Post Milan Roundup

Things have been crazy lately with the term wrapping up and the ICIS conference. My main reasons for going to the conference was 1) to get in touch with IS researchers, 2) to see old friends, and 3) to get more people interested in this little thing called games research. The poster session went well and I made some very good contacts for future game research. I am so excited!

Very few people at the conference were working on games at the moment but many people said that games and gamification was the "hot new thing" when I mentioned my work. Many also mentioned that people are getting into gamification research right now. Who knows? Maybe in the next two to three years more game research work will become mainstream in the IS community

Coincidentally, signs of this change occurred when I was at the conference. A list of game researchers on Twitter was compiled and released last week. Check out the list to find other people doing cool work. Also the Special Interest Group on Games and Game Design Research passed its first round of approval! I should leave the country more often!

Milan itself was quite interesting. I didn't have a chance to really explore the place until the last day but there was no way I was going to Italy without getting a pizza. It was easily the best pizza I have ever had and it was just at a local cafe.

So in a few days I will give you an idea of what to expect in the New Year and a wrap up of my thoughts on this whole blogging thing so far.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Off to Milan in December

Well after a bit of work over the year, the first paper on the effect of games on the IS discipline has been accepted! I will present it at the Workshop for Information Technology And Systems in Milan. I guess I should play some Championship Manager so that I can fit in.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

That Wonderful Feeling

"The belief that one causes observable changes in the game environment allows the player to attribute positive events to him or herself, which leads to pleasurable emotions like joy and pride." (Klimmt & Hartmann 2006, pg. 159)

-Klimmt, Christoph, and Thilo Hartmann. "Effectance, self-efficacy, and the motivation to play video games." Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequences (2006): 133-145

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Papers,Please: The Future of Gamification

There is a game that I played during the summer as a demo called Papers, Please. It is by far one of the most interesting games I played in a long time. Now that the game is out it is getting rave reviews. The game is seemingly a perfect poster-child for gamification. It is a game that makes desk work fun!

The purpose of gamification is usually to create engagement amongst its users. All gamification efforts try to make mundane and routine tasks fun; and Papers, Please does an excellent job of creating engagement. However, its implementation also shows precisely why gamification as we know it is in trouble.

The premise of the game is that you are a citizen of a fictional Eastern European country in the 80's called Arstotzka who has been chosen as a border agent. Your job is to check passports and various other documents to ensure that the right people are let into wonderful Arstotzka and the bad guys are left out. That's it. Oh also you have to gain enough money to feed your family by processing enough people during the work day. If you do not make enough money then your family will end up being cold, starving, without a home, or dead. As the game progresses the government adds more rules and documents for entering the country. This of course means that there are more chances for you to have the wrong person enter the country. If you let the wrong person through you are fined a certain amount of money.

So let's start with why this game, at first, seems like a justification for gamification.

1) It makes boring work fun.
The game has taken meticulous, routine work and presented it in such a way that people are willing to pay money for the privilege of doing that work. Players continue to do the work, no matter how frustrating it may get and they are willing to learn how to increase their performance. All without any external incentive to do so. If it can work for a fictional border control office then why can it not work for other types of jobs?

2) The game has very little abstraction
This is work that happens/happened in real life. As a player you must check a person's passport photo against the person's face, you must ensure that the issuing city for the passport is from the correct country, you must ensure that a person has the correct visa for the stated reason for visiting the country and so on. Real people get paid real money to do the exact same activities every day. Other games abstract the actions that occur in their worlds. For instance, hacking a turret in Bioshock has no connection to hacking in the real world.

 3) Work = Winning
 The routine and mundane work is how you win and survive in the game. If you do everything correctly and efficiently then you make enough money to move into a nicer apartment and your family does not starve. Do not do the job correctly and you lose money instead of making it and may even be thrown in prison (the Astrokhazan government isn't exactly friendly).

So Papers, Please is directly related to the work of a border agent but this does not explain why it is considered fun. The dirty little secret is that even though the game play is about boring desk work it is the narrative that really makes the game interesting. The tedious work is just a way to create stories and bring the world to life. Sometimes a character will show up at the border crossing who is a disgraced athlete, or a shady nightclub owner,  or part of some rebel group. They may be trying to get into the country or they may just show up to give you a warning. These encounters create moral choices for the player and leave the player reflecting on their actions. It is up to you whether you will simply do your job or whether you will try to beat the "system".

This makes Papers, Please a perfect indictment of  the current point of view for gamification derisively called, "pointsification". According to this view Papers, Please would be a good game even without the story. All you need to do is reward good behaviour with points and punish bad behaviour by taking away points. The game does have an "Endless Mode" where the player can continue the game once the story is completed. However the game sessions are set to end fairly quickly and it seems that endless mode tests whether the tediousness and boredom of the game gets to you rather than prove how fun it is to process people through a border.

So the game proves that to create a good gamification platform you need people who can weave a good story, music, aesthetic, and interface design into a compelling piece of art. This is a tougher sell than sending a "gamification consultant" into a company to advise that they add points to their annual performance reviews but it really is the only way to go. It means that rather than being a cure-all, gamification efforts are difficult, involve risk, and are dependent on the work of dedicated and talented people. Just like all other business processes.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Game Patterns: Why Every "Intro to Programming" Class Should Begin with a Children's Card Game

With my classes starting and me nerding it up with friends last week, I didn't have a lot of time for the blog. But I did think of a few ideas which I now have a chance to write down.

We have already discussed game mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics but we have not discussed how to use this knowledge to aid gameful design. Today we will start off by talking about dynamics. Paradoxically, I thought of this idea when I was watching a video on aesthetics. Below, Extra Credit talks about how we have been getting it all wrong when discussing game genres. It really gets interesting around the 2 minute mark.

The video is perfectly right; it is rather silly to use the mechanics and dynamics of a medium to define its genres but it can be useful. By describing a movie as a "wide angle shot" movie, I know that it will feature many panoramas and vistas. Therefore if someone were to tell me that an educational video on nature was a "wide angle shot" movie then I could guess that it might show some amazing panoramas of natural wonders.

This should be the same for video games. We know that video games can be educational but what types of video games are best for teaching a particular type of subject? And is it possible to determine the types of dynamics that are needed to effectively teach and train specific subjects? Before we can answer that question we first need to discuss a fundamental concept that I call game patterns.

A game pattern is a set of game dynamics that define a game. You can have two very different games that share a pattern. This is different from a genre since, as mentioned by Extra Credit, it makes more sense for genres to be focused on how the medium makes us feel rather than the dynamics that we play. However, understanding a game's dynamics can be used to understand what it can teach us. For instance, you can have two games, one with a challenge aesthetic and another with a discovery aesthetic; but both could have the same game pattern where the player must navigate a character in a 2D environment. In one game the player may have to defeat a number of challenging enemies and in the other game the player may just need to navigate through the world to discover new and crazy things. Both have vastly different aesthetics but have very similar dynamics.

But if Fez and Rogue Legacy share a game pattern then does that mean they are teaching players the same thing? Since both games involve navigation through the environment, they both test the player's navigational skills, as well as reflexes needed to correctly jump onto a platform. As long the games share the same 2D platformer game pattern then the player will learn these things. Of course since the games are different this may mean that the player may learn things in one game that they do not learn in the other.

Moving on to more cognitive skills, as I mentioned in the last post, there is evidence that playing Starcraft increases cognitive flexibility in players. Cognitive flexibility is defined as "the ability to coordinate attentional processes between two or more concurrent or alternating operations". With this definition, ANYONE who has played Starcraft could tell that it increases cognitive flexibility but the real question is whether other games that follow the same game pattern as Starcraft will provide the same results. How similar do the games need to be? You could say that Europa Universalis is also a real-time strategy game where the player must switch between different forms of information; but the player has the ability to pause the game in EU and not in Starcraft. Is this difference fundamental for  the game's effectiveness in teaching cognitive flexibility?

By analysing the dynamics and mechanics of a game can we begin to isolate the ways in which it can teach us skills that are useful outside of a game? For instance, I had a conversation with a friend about a bastion of nerdom: Magic: The Gathering (MtG). For those of you who do not know about Magic the Gathering, this video should give you an idea.

So it is very similar to Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh and other collectible card games. MtG can teach you about basic math since it involves keeping track of your life points, the life points of your creatures, effects on your creatures, and so on. But as Finn says in the video above, the game really teaches logic. A player can use a set of cards that has several "combos" that, when played together, have a devastating effect on their opponent. These combos can only be identified by studying how the cards affect other cards in the game. It is possible that the game creators did not even expect for the cards to be played together.

Most of these combos are a set of "if -then-else" statements that ensure that the player does well in the game. Now the beauty of using specific dynamics to teach a concept is that the designer is free to use whatever aesthetic they want for the game. If your audience likes to day dream then you can use a fantasy card game where the player pretends to be a powerful wizard. If your audience is competitive then you can create a dueling-card game where the player is trying to destroy their opponent (like Jake), or if your audience is inquisitive then you can design a game where the player tries to gain and learn about new and exciting creatures (like Pokemon). If the basic game pattern is the same then the player still needs to use logic to do well in the game. So the aesthetic is the "hook" (why people enjoy the game and their motivation for playing) and the pattern delivers the lesson. In the case of MtG, and other duel type games, it is the lure of domination that makes you learn the how to use logic to win the game.

For my research, I would love to setup a similar study as the Starcraft study to determine whether a collectible card game that has several combos is best for teaching a context that involves logic like computer programming. A card game where the player must use several complicated combos to win may provide a better chance for learning logic than a game where combos are not so important.

Just like the Starcraft study I could find 70 people who have never played collectible card games or know how to program and subjects would play in a week long Magic tournament, Pokemon tournament, or go outside or whatever non-gamers do. I could then teach programming to all of the subjects and ask them to code a simple program. It would be interesting to see whether those who competed in the Magic tournament learned significantly faster, or wrote better code, than those who did not. Of course I would have to get this past ethics review since there could be possible side effects.

Monday, August 26, 2013


As a long time Starcraft player, this news makes me very happy.

‘StarCraft’ Gameplay Boosts Mental Flexibility, Says Study

Playing StarCraft can boost problem solving and creative thinking, according to a new study by researchers at Queen Mary University of London and University College London. Researchers found that those who engaged in the real-time military strategy game improved their “cognitive flexibility,” or the ability to adjust their thinking to meet different situations.

A Unified Gaming Theory: Can We Turn Game Design Into Baking?

I am back from my Ghana vacation. It was inspiring, relaxing, and wonderful but it is time to get back to the real world (so to speak). I had planned to sleep in and then catch up on all of my work later in the day but I woke up early and found something interesting on the Internet. So here I am writing this post. This post has been brought to you by our sponsor, Jetlag. Use Jetlag for all your productivity needs!

What I found was this interesting article on Game Jar by Mr. Geoff Hankes. I suggest that you read it before moving ahead with the rest of the post. However here are the highlights.

"Mostly, it’s because I feel that the majority of stories in video games are just plain bad compared to other mediums. Characters are little more than arch-types and cliches to me. They’re generally flat, boring, underdeveloped shadows of actual characters that I cannot even begin to relate to in any way, shape, or form. Plots are often non-nonsensical roller coaster rides that move you from one set piece to the next, so you can shoot another army guy or alien in the face without any real consequence to the greater context of the world that you’re in.".

That’s why I’ve mostly consumed games as a set of mechanics, and how those mechanics are entertaining. In doing so, I’ve approached games as an academic critic. I’ve been reading my reviews lately and come to realize they’re written more as papers, and are often dry, technical. Which is what they should be if I’m only focusing on mechanics.

 For those of you that don’t know, Crusader Kings II is a game that puts you into the role of a medieval ruler – a simulation at its core, but has many “gamey” parts to it as well. As you play a character, you gain prestige and piety which contribute to your dynastic score when your current playable character dies. The only clear cut goal in the game is to have someone bearing your dynasty’s name by the year 1453. Other than that, players are on their own to create their own goals and achievements. It is one of the hardest games I’ve ever played. And its the only one in a long time to make me engage with it on an emotional level.

So why did Crusader Kings II touch me on such an emotional level? How did this game which is ostensibly a collection of menus and hidden background calculations get through to me in such a powerful way? It’s because through those systems that we can become exposed to those important aspects of characterization. I experienced [my character's] life during his triumphs, his losses, and his frustrations. Of course, there is an amount of role-playing going on here, but don’t we role-play in every game?

First off let me just say that Crusader Kings 2 is AMAZING!

Ahem. Well anyways, as i read through the article I thought about the research I have seen in the past year. The concepts in the research provided a perfect framework for understanding the feelings of the author; specifically the discussion of mechanics vs. aesthetics. Story-telling in certain games did not engage him because they lacked a particular aesthetic but Crusader Kings 2 filled that need because its mechanics were used in service to creating a player driven story rather than the story being an excuse for the game's mechanics. But the last sentence I highlighted is really intriguing to me. The author assumes that every other gamer will feel and play as he does ("don't we role-play in every game?"). Some people probably do not.

The discussion of aesthetics and mechanics does not focus on the player, only the reasons for the affinity that players have for particular games. However, several researchers have identified player profiles that have specific preferences based on their style. Here is an article that tries to merge all of this research. From the article, and based on the profile found in the link, I would say that Geoff is a Idealist/Socialiser who is interested in the interplay between people and characters. The shallowness of these relationships in most video games stories is what makes them so frustrating to him. Crusader Kings 2 allows him to "play" with complex relationships, but rather than just present them as a set of numbers, the game turns these interactions into a coherent story that the player can control. 

What is really exciting is what this all means for research. If we can determine the types of mechanics that create a specific aesthetic and the aesthetics that appeals to particular player profiles then we have created a Unified Gaming Theory. Even more excitingly, we can transform Game Design from a messy art-form into a more manageable process. This does not mean that game design becomes, "by the book", or uncreative but manageable. I would say that it is akin to baking.

In the 21st century we are very good at making a basic chocolate cake. We even have recipes that tell us how to do it. However, if all chocolate cakes tasted the same then it would be a sad, sad world. People take these recipes and change them for specific tastes. For instance, if we know that a person does not like sweet things we can make the cake with dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate. By understanding the interplay between mechanics (the difference between milk and dark chocolate), aesthetics (sweet vs. bitter taste), and player profiles (non sweet tooth), we will be able to tell that Geoff would have loved Crusader Kings 2 before he even played it. And we would be able to make a similar game for people who are more interested in rational management instead of relationships. Making everyone happy. Hmm, looks like this might be next year's project!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Replaying History: Europa Universalis as a European History Teacher

So we finally get to talk about the Europa Universalis series and how its mechanics relate to teaching the player about history.

Europa Universalis is a strategy game where you play as any country in the world from the 1400’s to the 1800’s. You control the nation’s economy, politics, and military with no real goals as what you are supposed to do. You can try to conquer the entire world or be content to simply survive through four hundred years of history. There are four games in the series; the game’s main focus has been Europe (hence the name) but as the series progressed they have made it more and more viable to play as any country in the world that existed in that time period.

However there is no such thing as balance. Playing as France in 1495 will be easier than playing as the Iroquois in 1790. This is one of the reasons why EU is much better game for teaching history than Civilization. It doesn’t mean that you are forced to play history though. If you want to play as the Xhosa in the South Africa in the 1400’s then so be it; just be prepared for the eventual colonisation. Or you can start a worldwide conquest as China in the 1490’s. You can do what you want but you are always constrained by the initial historical setup. Other than these constraints there are four game mechanics that force a player to gain a better understanding of history and geography when playing the game: cores, missions, events, and casus belli.

Everything I know about European geography, I learned from cores. The EU game designers split the world map into “provinces”; these are small portions of the map that have their own population, religion, and economic output. For instance Ile de France and Essex are provinces. As a country, you start with a set of provinces, however you may find that other countries hold provinces that you believe to be yours. These provinces will be your cores. However, a province may have multiple cores. For instance, France, Prussia and the non-existent country of Germany may all have Alsace as a core in 1530. If another country occupies your core provinces then you get a chance to fight for that province. Understanding which countries have what provinces as cores is also important for you as an invader. Yes, tiny Switzerland may have one province that you want to take over but if it also happens to be France’s core then you might not want to occupy it unless you can take on France. And it is always hard to take on France. Trust me.

Missions enforce history for nations and therefore teach the player about the history of the country. Each country has country specific missions that provide the player with an understanding of how that country historically developed. The player does not have to choose these missions but can get an understanding of how the country evolved in history by looking through the missions. For instance, playing as England, the player can choose the “Hail Brittania!” mission where she must create a certain number of ships and is then given the reward of a more effective navy. This strategy is similar to the historical combat strategy of England. The computer also follows these missions, which makes the game have a historical feel.

Events enforce history over the entire world and therefore teach the player about important historical circumstances. Events are country specific or region specific occurrences that radically change the game. In EU 2 many countries had deterministic events that always occurred. The most infamous being the Spanish gold event where in the 1500’s Spain would suffer massive inflation and economic hardships because of the importation of gold from the New World. Even when the player did not produce as much gold in Peru, or did not even colonise the New World, the event would occur. These events really teach history to the player since a good player would know when these events occurred and would prepare for them or take advantage of the situation. However many players felt that their agency was compromised by following a deterministic path. So, in EU 3 the designers created very few deterministic events. The big one that they never took out was the introduction of Protestantism in Europe. No matter what you do, this will always happen in the mid to late 1500’s. EU4 uses dynamic-historical events that occur based on the players actions. The reduction of events from EU2 to EU3 and the middle ground provided by EU4 is a good example of how gameplay and educational aspects of a purposeful game can be at odds.

Casus belli do not teach a particular part of history but like Civ provide a concept that is important for understanding history. Unlike other games where you can declare war at any time, in EU you have to have a reason. The reasons for going to war depend on what obligations you have (or made up) and can affect how the war progresses. Maybe you want to fight for another country’s independence, defeat the heretic, gain some colonies, or reclaim “your” lost territory. The casus belli mechanic ensures that the player learns that there are many different reasons for war and that these initial reasons shape the war and its consequences on the aggressor. It is much easier to wage and win a war for a colony than to change a nation's religion.

All in all the game is a good example of how mechanics can teach a player. In EU, a person must understand how the HRE electoral system works, if they want to survive as a country in Eastern Europe. Knowing that Spain is more likely to attack Protestant countries due to its history is important information for a player who is controlling the break-away country of Aragon and has to make a decision of which religion to follow.

Paradox the makers of EU, also have a series called Crusader Kings that focuses on Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa from 865 -1445 and Victoria, a game where you can play almost any country in the world from 1835 to 1935. Each game has special game mechanics that fit their specific time period and provide a chance for more learning. For instance, I know that Great Britain recently changed their succession laws from agnatic-cognatic primogeniture to absolute cognatic. Once learning is directly baked into a game’s mechanics there is no end to what you can teach.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Riding Slots and Crushing Candies: Game Design Aesthetics

I was planning on doing an in-depth analysis of Europa Universalis to show that any classroom using Civilization to teach history should uninstall it and load up EU instead. However a semi-spontaneous trip to Las Vegas changed my plans and I feel the need to talk about Candy Crush.

I have a few gaming prejudices. They include: thinking that everyone who competitively plays Counterstrike is a psychopath, that people who play Vampire: The Masquerade are weirdos, and that  people who play Candy Crush are idiots. I am working on this.
In Las Vegas though I saw something that put me back to square one with Candy Crush players. I saw a grown man put $900 into a slot machine. Nine-Hundred-DOLLARS. He was going to spend, at most, 3 hours at the thing before he lost all his money. This guy could have bought everything on the Steam Sale for $900 and he would be entertained until he died.

But no, he spent $900 on inferior entertainment. This then reminded me of Candy Crush and the fact that people could be spending their time (and MONEY!) on vastly superior games. It is so frustrating!

But it is not so much the causal nature of Candy Crush that annoys me. It is the fact that the game shifts away from being casual that makes the game so frustrating. And thankfully there is theory to explain my unease. Robin Hunicke and company put together a really interesting paper discussing the mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics of game design. In a previous post I defined game mechanics as the components of a game. Dynamics is what happens when these mechanics are put together in a game. For instance, a hail-mary pass in football is a dynamic of the rules, game elements and space of the game of football. Aesthetics though is the concept that helps us understand why Candy Crush is so deceptive. Aesthetics describe what the player gets out of the game; the experience that is created when the dynamics come together. In the paper, the authors list several aesthetics. Here is a brief overview.
  1. sensation (providing sights and sounds never seen before)
  2. fantasy (make-believe and wish fulfillment), 
  3. narrative (story and drama), 
  4. challenge (including competition), 
  5. fellowship (within social activities), 
  6. discovery (exploring uncharted territory and learning), 
  7. expression (self-discovery)
  8. submission (filling downtime)
The key for gamers to understand the appeal of Candy Crush is to realise that submission is a valid aesthetic. This is hard for gamers to accept and it is telling that it is the last on the list. "Filthy casual" is a shield we use to protect ourselves against troubling thoughts. "How can anyone play a game that only takes up 5 minutes of their time when I play for 2 hour sessions each day? Can I be so out of touch? No, it is the filthy casuals who are wrong."

Of course it is much easier to call someone names than to own up to the fact that many people feel perfectly comfortable getting their drama, challenge, fellowship and other psychological needs from somewhere other than games. However this doesn't let Candy Crush off the hook.

One of the reasons why I feel Candy Crush is exploitative is not that it is a "submission" game but that it switches to a challenge game and therefore takes fun as a hostage. What do I mean? Well the first couple of levels of Candy Crush are relatively easy. Easy enough that you can play the game as a pass-time. No need to put in a lot of time and effort. Then they crank up the difficulty and all of a sudden it is a challenge game. But the player didn't want a challenge game; they wanted a pass-time. So Candy Crush provides its players with an out. "Just pay me a little bit of money and I will make the game easier for you. It will be that fun pass-time again. And besides it is not like you spent money on the game before, right?"

Well this has been extremely successful for the company. Currently Candy Crush is making $633,000 a day. Of course this could go the other way, where the player vows to never spend a cent on the game. However since it is now a challenge game, the player must spend time and effort to continue playing. But they most likely started playing Candy Crush to get away from challenge games. In fact they may have thought it was stupid that people would spend hours playing a game. But now...

A friend of a friend literally has her iPad by her bed. She plays Candy Crush before she goes to bed and when she wakes up she rolls over, turns on the iPad, and starts playing. So what can you do to avoid situations like this? Understand what is the appeal of the game that you are playing and then determine whether the game is fulfilling that appeal. Why should I keep playing an RPG with a terrible story if I play those games for the narrative? Why should I play Candy Crush as a pass-time when it is frustrating or when there are better challenge games out there? This will lead you to have more fun with your casual gaming. 

Also even though Candy Crush is doing well now, it will not last. Years ago Farmville tried to do the same thing and Zynga, the company that made Farmville was the darling of the Wall Street tech funds. Now the company is not doing so well. People moved on. That's what you get when your customer base are filthy casuals. Ooops, silly me, there I go again. Those casuals are alright!

Thursday, July 18, 2013


I have been on a mini vacation and have had many experiences that will force me to post about a topic I was hoping to avoid. But for now we have a small public service announcement.

I would like to present the Association for Information Systems Special Interest Group on Games! If you are an AIS member please send an email and join the cause! Here is the official announcement:

Dear colleagues,

As the Fortune 500 companies flock toward gamification, video games overtake movies in profitability and scope, breakthroughs in wearable computing facilitate revolutionary pervasive games and research increasingly demonstrates the effectiveness of serious games for everything from DNA sequencing to teaching logistics, the IS community has the opportunity to take the lead in game design research. 

Consequently, we are exploring proposing an AIS SIG for game-related research and solicit your feedback. Please contact us at to express interest, make suggestions or get involved with the proposal. The main purpose of the SIG would be to organize workshops or tracks on game-related topics at ICIS and the regional AIS conferences.   

Topics of interest include:
 - Game Design Thinking
 - Video Game Development
 - Gamification
 - Gameful Design
 - Serious Games
 - Pervasive Games
 - Game Design Theory
 - Games in IS Education
 - Empirical and theoretical research
 - Philosophy of games
 - Impact of gaming on society

Again, please contact us at if interested,

Kafui Monu, University of British Columbia,
Paul Ralph - Lancaster University,
Patrick Stacey - Lancaster University,

Friday, July 12, 2013

No Fun Zone?

Very brief post. Just came across this article discussing the prejudice of talking about gaming at work. It feels strange to me that talking about any fun activity would hurt you act work. This will change in less than a decade. But for now, what sort of joyless world do we live in where people brag about how they are stressed and overworked and yet are filled with trepidations when discussing their pastimes? Sad really.

What Makes the Measure of a Game?

I mentioned in the last post that I would be talking about games that were inadvertently purposeful. Specifically, taking a look at geography and history. However it ended up being too long so instead I will lay the theoretical ground work for the analysis and talk about the games later.

First off, I mentioned in the last post that Civilization was not a purposeful game about history because it did not actually teach history, it just exposed players to history. A good purposeful game will be directly related to its purpose. But what are the things that make up the core of a game? It isn't back story or cut-scenes because if they were then Civ would be a good history game. To help us here is a little gedankenexperiment.

Imagine that there is a far-away planet called Rigel VII, where war has never occurred but has recently received transmissions from another planet, Tatooine, that details the nuclear destruction of their planet.  On Tatooine, there were two great nations that were fighting a 100 year war; a group of neutral scientists left the nations to conduct their own research. Unwittingly, they created a device known only as: The Bomb. Each nation fought to acquire The Bomb and learn how to use it. Finally, one of the nations captured the scientists and used the device to devastating effect. The other side then put all their resources into acquiring the scientists and built another bomb and used it.The message then cut out.

The aliens on Rigel VII, not understanding the tragic nature of the messages, think that the message is detailing a new game and simulate it on their planet. The game is called: The Bomb.  There are two sides that are trying to acquire the Bomb and use it on the other side. Each side as a team of "soldiers" that must acquire the "Bomb" and move it to the opposing team's side. To use the Bomb and score a victory, a soldier must drop the Bomb into the "base". But each base has a defender who can acquire the bomb and turn it against the other side. Soldiers must find a way to get past the defender and the opposing side's soldiers to score a victory. This goes on for approximately 100 minutes (to simulate the 100 years of war) and the side with the most victories wins. Sound familiar?

Or hockey. But either way, we understand that even with the convoluted backstory that it is essentially the same game. What is it about the games that make them similar? What do we intuitively analyse when we understand that The Bomb is essentially soccer? In short this is what makes up a game. These are called game mechanics, and luckily one book has identified the general mechanics of a game.

The first mechanic is Space. Games must exist in a particular space or area in the world. It can be a virtual area, like a computer, or in your head. It can be a physical area like a field, a table or a gym. Space can constrain and define your game. For instance, you can have a fantasy role-playing game that takes place at a coffee table or one that is played in a field. Each space has its strengths and weaknesses.

The second mechanic is Game Elements. This is my catch-all phrase for what Schell calls objects, attributes and states. This mechanic includes game pieces, the board, virtual weapons, non-playing characters (NPCs), etc. Each of these things have attributes like colour, game statistics, life points, and so on. And these attributes can change via an event and gain a different state. For instance, a NPC monster (object) in a video game has life points (attributes), which when at 0 means that the NPC monster is dead (state).

The third mechanic is Player Actions. All games must have actions that the player performs. These actions usually interact with the game elements. Actions are the way in which a player has a game experience. It is also what the player will remember the most about a game. So if a player's actions in a purposeful game are directly related to a skill the designer wants to teach or an action she wants performed then she has done her job as a designer. Designers must also remember that when they create their fancy system that there must be a place for the player. A game that plays itself is not really a game.

The fourth mechanic are rules. Rules identify the laws of the game and how the player, game elements and space can interact. In many ways rules are the most important part of a game since by learning and accepting the rules a player is sucked into the fiction of the game. Also since rules are integral to winning or losing a game, making them a common point of contention with players. 

The last mechanic is challenge. I derived this from Schell's mechanic called skill. He states that a good game will allow the skill of the player to be challenged. I changed the mechanic to "challenge" since I wanted all the of the mechanics to be related to the game. The types of challenges are discussed in this amazing Gamasutra article and are directly related to learning, since it posits that challenges force players to learn and use certain "intelligences" to overcome a problem. All games require a certain level of skill to beat a certain level of challenge.

Once we understand game mechanics, we can analyse how a game fits a particular purpose. As mentioned in the last post, there is no mechanic in Civ that is related to learning history. You manage a city, send out units for warfare and choose technologies to research. The events that occur in the game are set in a historical context but do not relate to specific points in history; and the challenges in the game can be overcome without understanding history.  On the other hand there is one game where the mechnics are directly tied to learning about the world. "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"

Carmen Sandiego is the greatest edutainment success story EVAR but it did not start out as an educational game. Instead it was just a project for two guys in a small company who wanted to make a cool game. For those of you who have never played the game, shame on you, but here is a great rundown of the game. As you can see, it is very basic. Crime. Chase. Catch. However, the challenges in the game are directly related to knowing (or memorizing from the game) information about specific countries. You also learn the valuable lesson that you need evidence before someone can be convicted.

Even though it was very educational, the game was fun because it never overtly tried to teach you about geography (or history in the case of Where in Time..). When I was 9, I swore to remember that the kroner was the currency of Denmark so that next time the clue came up I didn't waste time and let the thief get away.. again. If Carmen Sandiego's mechanics were not directly related to these learning goals than I probably never would commit these facts to memory.

What is interesting though is that all games are teaching us something. For instance, all players must remember the game rules to do well in a game. There is even evidence that some gamers are being trained to do system analysis on a daily basis. Therefore, it is always good to layout the mechanics of a game and ask: What is this teaching me? What am I learning? You might be surprised how much it is teaching you. Or how little.