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.