Questioning processes through games
Monday, June 6, 2011 at 11:50
martian77 in DPhil, educational games, game design

As a part of my DPhil, we are creating an educational game. We are aiming to build on a tradition of board games that have been made to provide policy makers some simplified insight into the daily lives of those that will be affected by their policies. In our case, we are looking at African farming communities. 

A while ago I came across the work of Ian Bogost on persuasive games. Bogost suggests that games are in a unique position to explore processes because by their very nature they are procedural. They can therefore be used to investigate the procedures that surround a particular situation, either by parodying this situation (for example, there are games written that try to expose the burger industry by forcing you to bribe officials into deforesting in order to produce more grazing for cattle etc.) or by making explicit some of the hidden items (e.g. a game written for Howard Dean's campaign for Iowa which exposed the mechanism of political campaigning - unfortunately while not really supporting Howard Dean's message!). 

My feeling was that there were some good examples in the book - the two I use above I think show where games can make things apparent that would be difficult to demonstrate in other ways. However, I felt that in places some of the examples that Bogost uses were very stretched. I had some doubts that the players would notice the things he was talking about in the game, let alone question the underlying social issues they were supposed to illustrate. 

Reading Lawrence Lessig's Code v2.0 started with a reminder that in the online world, code is law. Everything that you can and can't do online is defined by code, and all of that code was written by someone, somewhere. Someone made a conscious (or unconscious) decision to make it that way, and that code can be changed. However, Lessig points out numerous predictions and statements that suggest the online world is immutable and the way it is is a natural thing. People don't question the underlying structure, or wonder how it could be changed to do things that it currently isn't possible to do.

This lack of question of the structure for me exposes a problem with Bogost's argument. In order to use a game to make a system transparent and open for questioning, people have to be aware that the structure of the game is manufactured. They have to ask why the game was built in that way in order to then go on to think about the structure it represents. In fact, in some ways it could serve to reinforce the system represented. Players may just go 'oh, that's how it works', rather than really thinking about it.

Adam Greenfield in Everyware raises that point exactly in Thesis 23 (pg 84-87) when he discusses the JAPELAS system for teaching the Japanese language. He points out that the Japanese language has a system of hierarchy built into it, and worries about designing technology that reinforces this without question. Granted he is talking about a ubiquitous system, and suggests that PC-based learning systems may have less of that effect given how tied they are to the PC. But these systems do still have an authority, and we need to be wary of that. 

I still think that Bogost is right and that games do present us with a unique opportunity to explore processes. However, I think the other reading I'm doing suggests that a game on its own still requires reflection in order to really internalise the message (as with all learning). How to induce that reflection? The most obvious answer is to let a teacher point out the areas for discussion with the group. In fact, all of the board games we have looked at have a component of debrief after the event.

I guess I'm concluding that we have to be extremely careful with our game. We need to be very conscious of any figures we use about how different tactics (e.g. if we implement inter-cropping options or even certain types of fertiliser) are valid, so as not to suggest certain tactics 'always work'. And we also need to keep the teachers who will make the system most useful in mind when we are designing. 

Article originally appeared on Life on Mars (
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