hit counter

I'm currently working on a DPhil in HCT at the University of Sussex. This section of the website is for an on-going 'learning diary', for me to write my thoughts and notes on various courses and my thesis.

Entries in game design (3)


They played it!

The lab group. They played our game! For real!

Well, kind of. Actually, we only got through two seasons (well, and the intro). In about an hour and a bit. Clearly there are some issues there, as I seriously expected it would take a maximum of about 15 minutes per season. But we had 8 people logged on simultaneously, and it did not fall down in a big heap. 

I'm not claiming there weren't errors. Mostly they were fixed by either trying to do the thing again (I really need to check my hibernate stuff, there were unclosed transactions all over the shop and I really thought I'd caught all of them) or restarting the flash player. That's clearly not acceptable, but for the first time we've ever run it as a group I'll take that. 

There was a lot of feedback around the (lack of) feedback - which I was aware of, but not quite aware how pervasive it was. I know this game intimately, it's so hard for me to work out what a new player won't know. There was also a lot of clicking on things that aren't buttons, and mis-reading things that are (exit and home didn't actually mean what people thought they meant). I still don't have drop-downs working 100% well.

So much useful stuff to see and take on board, so much coding to do! But that is a really big step. I think we've been at this for 2.5 years now, from the very first paper sketches of the screens, to our PowerPoint prototype with the Flintstones as our family members, to a static flash prototype and now finally to people logging in and playing. Quite a long journey, and a lot of code. 

What I'm most pleased about was the buzz in the group. They wanted to get past the issues, they wanted to keep playing. I have had this nagging doubt in the back of my mind that even if we made this work we would actually be creating a game that noone wants to play. So if nothing else, I am hugely reassured that this is not the case. 

I guess the next big step will be throwing that in front of people we don't know, who don't know how much effort has gone in or have to talk to us next day. I think it would be nice to iterate and show the group again, and see if we can get that playing time down. I still think that 15 mintues per season is do-able. Just need to improve that interface! 


In plain English

The Sussex Library has a special area called the Research Hive for graduates and researchers. In theory it's supposed to be a collaborative space, but in practice it tends to be a very quiet area! They also put on different events and workshops for students. Currently they are 'inviting' (some might say challenging!) doctoral researchers to write about their research in plain English - or at least plain enough for someone outside their discipline to understand. And there's a slim chance of £15 of Amazon vouchers! Naturally I had to give it a go.

We all know that game play can be massively altered by the rules of the game. For example, deliberately kicking the ball off the pitch in rugby (where returning the ball to the field of play gives either team a chance of winning the ball back) is a much more acceptable practice than in football (where the team who last touched the ball is disadvantaged). Do the rules also change the way we feel about our fellow players?  
I am part of a project team that is trying to create an online multiplayer game based on two board games. These board games have very different rules around the way that players relate to each other. I am hoping to use aspects of social identity theory to analyse these rule differences and predict the effects on the game players. Social identity theory examines the effects different group situations have on the individual's commitment to that group. For example, if people cannot change their group membership they identify more strongly with that group even if the group is not doing well. In one of our games, players are able to change teams whilst in the other they can't. This suggests that players should bond together more strongly in the game where they can't.
I am aiming to test the two board games and also make two versions of the online game, which will hopefully allow me to compare the effects of these rule differences in both face-to-face and online situations. Ultimately this will allow us to choose the most appropriate set of rules for our game, as well as showing that we can use findings from other disciplines to shape social interactions in a game.
What do you think? Plain enough? English enough?! Too many commas is my normal problem! Actually, it took me longer than I thought it would to come up with that. Kind of sounds a bit too simple now. 
There are things afoot here, studies in the offing and things like the annual review on the horizon. Plenty to keep my little brain whirring, and hopefully more to post about very soon.




Questioning processes through games

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.