Category Archives: games for change

The Transparency of Mechanics

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In Ian’s prior post on transparency and games he mentions three types of transparency: transparency of influence, transparency of construction, and transparency of reference. Cutting across these facets of transparency I’d like to add the transparency of mechanics which is particularly applicable to any consumer-facing journalistic software, of which games are one instance. To get a better understanding of (1) what the transparency of mechanics involves in journalistic software and (2) how mechanics are currently communication in software I analyzed a number of examples of serious games and info graphics including: SimCity 4, Democracy 2, Oil God, The Garbage Game, Energyville, Stop Disasters Game, The Chevron Energy Generator, Better to Buy or Rent, and’s 2008 what ifs. In this post I will mainly address the definitions and in future posts I will consider how the model of the transparency of mechanics presented here has been and can be reified in interfaces.

What I mean when I say “mechanics” is essentially the internal and external state of elements and relationships between elements of a computer program, including the values or attributes and categorizations of elements in the software with respect to their circumstances (e.g. time, place, etc.). A state within a game is the instantaneous value of all elements and relationships between elements. For example, in Sim City the state of the game at any one time slice is the set of all values (e.g. low, med, high) of all attributes (e.g. pollution, education, fire protection etc.) for all games objects (e.g. power plants, residential areas etc.) including how those objects are interacting and influencing each other at that moment.

Transparency of mechanics can be broken out into different facets including:

  • State. What are the attributes and relationships of game elements?
    • The specific WHY of state: a precise explanation for an element’s attribute.
      • This gets at the notion of what the relationships are between elements and what their valence and effect on each other is. For instance, what attributes at the current time-slice contributed to the attribute of the object of interest?
    • The general WHY of state: a generic explanation for an element’s attribute
      • What are the general attributes which affect a given attribute of interest, i.e. what are the relationships and weights to other entities? How do you know the strength and directionality of those relationships?
  • Computation of State (How). How are changes of state computed? How does probability factor into the computation? What is the method of inference or equation governing state change?
  • Explanation for State Change (Why). What was the trigger, event, or decision that affected a state change?
  • Assumptions and Limitations of the Model. How is the model grounded and where does it fail to accurately portray the phenomenon of interest?

Being fully transparent about all mechanics in a game may turn out to be a daunting and in fact unproductive enterprise. This is because of the granularity of transparency that would need to be supported to show the attributes and relationships between all game elements at all time-slices. Do users really need to know about every little state change? The answer is clearly no, but the job is then up to the journalist / programmer to make decisions about which aspects of the model should be most saliently transparent in the final presentation. Another question to ponder here is whether too much transparency in games can ruin the fun of it? And if perhaps by explicating too much you undermine the medium’s abilities to get people to comprehend models via interaction?

Badge of Honor?

I played The Gotham Gazette Garbage Game and sent 1,897,872 tons of refuse across 698,093 miles.

Games for Change in NYC

Today and tomorrow I’m in New York City at the yearly Games for Change Festival, which is all about how to design (video) games that also have a purpose or socially meaningful message.

So far I have been underwhelmed by the overemphasis on things like Second Life. There were several sessions today which either focussed on or mentioned how Second life could be used to support things like non-profits or social activism in the real world. I can’t help but be extremely skeptical of such claims, which seem more driven by technolust than any concrete reason that a 3D interactive platform would be better for these tasks (i.e. community building, information dissemination) than say a simple 2D webpage. Why do non-profits need space in Second Life? If anything it’s for marketing / awareness but ultimately it’s only reaching out to the geeks who self select into Second Life anyway. Seems like the non-profits should be using their grant money for real activism.

Later in the afternoon I was more impressed with the engaging lectures by both Eric Zimmerman and Clive Thompson. They were a good balance for each other with Eric (a seasoned game designer and theorist) stressing the theory of systems and game design as important for serious games and Clive (a journalist for the NYTimes and Wired) running through a laundry list of very simplistic “serious” games which challenged the need for the arduous design and construction of games. Perhaps the quick and dirty games which are apropos to current events and which make their message clearly and simply are a better approach toward poking at serious issues? Both speakers stressed the need to consider games as a unique medium with unique qualities and abilities to show / teach process through interaction. While I do think that games are a unique medium, I think that in the real-world, considering the theme of this particular conference it’s important to take a trans-media perspective to get your message across. If by putting “data” into games as well as process you might get a hybrid game using other content. But as long as it’s still engaging and fun, how can that be bad?