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.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

In which I call "Sid Meier's Civilization" a bad game

First off I would like to say that I love Civilization. I used to play Civ regularly. Some of my best friends are Civ players. But as I was researching material for another post I came across many people claiming that students have learned about history by playing Civ. The article mentions that Civilization III was used to engage students to get them to learn more about social studies and history:
[Civ III is] introducing students to concepts such as monotheism or monarchy, but it may be an even better way of helping them tie together the disparate periods of history. A challenge of teaching world history is how to present students with thousands of years of developments across all civilizations without being Western-centric. Civilization III’s scope extends well beyond the Greco-Roman realm and thus invites us to take a global perspective on historical developments.
However, I believe that Civ is a bad purposeful game for learning history.

What is Civilization? Well this is a good start. But the shorter version is that Civ is a strategy game where you start as a small band of settlers of a Civilization. If you survive external and internal threats then you can progress through history to become the dominant civilization on the planet through violent or non-violent means. People think that Civ players must be learning about history  because Civ players play as civilizations like the Romans, the Mali, and the Incas,

This is the trap that Civilization sets for history buffs and educators. By wrapping itself in a historical aesthetic, Civ makes it seem like students learn from playing the game. Rather than teach historical concepts Civilization exposes players to these concepts. If I didn't know that there was such a thing as monarchy then  I would learn that there is such a concept because I need to research it in the game. However I can play the game forever without knowing what monarchy actually is in reality and instead just that it grants the civilization: Rate Cap: 10; Work Cap: 2; Assimilalation Rate: 2; Draft Limit: 2; Military Police Limit: 3; and Resistance Modifier VS Anarchy: -5

Proponents of Civ as an educational history game also state that students can engage in "Alternate History". 
these [minority] kids took great joy in studying hypothetical history, exploring the conditions under which colonial conquests might have played out differently.
However the mechanics of the game itself really do not afford the ability to give you an "alternate history". I can create games where I play as the Iroquois in their historically accurate geographical location but once I start the game what I am learning? That if the Iroquois tech-rushed gunpowder then the Europeans wouldn't have stood a chance? This seems like a rather shallow understanding of history.

 Don't get me wrong. There are mechanics in a Civ game that make it more than just a way to expose people to unfamiliar civilizations and leaders. You learn about the value of resources, project planning, and getting information out of data. In fact, Civ is a much better game for teaching project managers than it is for teaching history or historical concepts. Why? Because to be good at Civ you need to have excellent management skills; you do not need to understand the historical ramifications of your actions. Civ can only spark an interest that is then fueled by reading and study OUTSIDE of the Civ game.
 A good argument for what Civ is and isn't is the unofficial sequel to Civ II: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri or SMAC. SMAC is a great game that uses Civ game mechanics in a science fiction world. Therefore students cannot learn about history or geography since the action takes place on an alien planet. But they do learn the same management skills that they learn in Civ. Just like Civ though, it does not stop the game from exposing you to incredible ideas about philosophy, religion, and humanity's approach to technology. 

For a time, everyday I heard these quotes. I started reading books I never even heard of because of these quotes. But I could have ignored every single one of them as well because to play the game I didn't need to understand what they meant; just like how Civ players do not need to understand history to play the game.

However there are some games that inadvertently teach players about history and geography. My next post will be about how the mechanics of these games force players to understand historical and sociological concepts since they are core mechanics of the game.