Enjoyable Cores, Aesthetics, and Narrative

This is part 6 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu. Tomer discussed the ideas presented in this blog series at a Stanford MediaX event.

For this final post of the series, I saved the best for last. And by ‘best’ I mean prettiest.

Kemet: a pretty game set in ancient Egypt.

Kemet is a great game but it has very little educational value. Although set in ancient Egypt and incorporating some Egyptian mythology, the game itself has nothing to do with Egypt but weirdly pits players against each other on a sandy board. Yet Kemet teaches an important lesson because it is absolutely beautiful. Like many of the most successful crowdsourced games, players of Kemet use gorgeous miniatures to move around the board. The pyramids players build while playing Kemet are actually 4-sided dice that are rotated to show each pyramid’s ‘rank’. Continue reading

Choice Points, Outcomes and Chance

This is part 5 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

This post is dedicated to what could be the most important game mechanic: decision-making. One of the main challenges in teaching ethics is connecting moral theories to the kinds of decisions that students are likely to face once they graduate. The issue is not merely pedagogical but also substantial: it’s not always clear, or a matter of consensus, what a given theory would instruct us to do in a specific context. Some theorists think that ethical decision-making is not at all a matter of applying the right theory in the right way but a matter of exercising judgement or exhibiting virtue – you can’t know the right thing to do until you’re actually in the situation to make a decision.

Caverna: a family of dwarves specializing in growing wheat and sheep.

If you’re struggling with these issues, game design can help because games are all about making interesting decisions. Games are basically structures for play and what they structure is usually decision-making; the restrictions posed by well-designed games don’t stand in the way of meaningful decision-making but instead facilitate it. You may be inclined to ask your students a lot of open-ended questions, but if the goal of a class is to force students to confront a difficult trade-off in moral values, you are better off with a restricted set of options. This is exactly why so many philosophers construct bizarre and unrealistic thought-experiments to make their arguments, and it is also why students often try to substitute an easier question for the one that forces the difficult trade-off. Game designers recommend thinking about the choice points you give your students. Instead of leaving it up to students to choose whether to exercise moral judgement, create situations that force it. Continue reading

Confidence and simulations: a rising tide?

Yeah, pretty much like this

I’m in Antwerp today, as I’ve just joined the supervisory panel for Dorothy, who’s working on measuring the effectiveness of simulation games, something that we’ve repeatedly questioned here on the blog.

Reading up on this once again reminds me that one of the biggest difficulties understanding what happens in a simulation is that very much of it appears to be profoundly subjective.

Sims are vehicles for developing not only improved substantive knowledge and a range of skills, but also for creating safe spaces (yeah, I know: not that kind) for participants to explore other roles and personas than their own. Put differently, they can be moments for building confidence.

Now I don’t’ see confidence as a skill, because it strikes as more of an emotional state. Yes, you can train people to develop strategies that can make them feel more confident – preparation routines, reframing, distraction techniques – but ultimately one needs to feel confident to be confident.

Sims can be helpful in this by taking individuals out of themselves, and giving them licence to act differently. At some point, you are acting ‘out of character’, but the character you’re acting out of is your own. Continue reading

Written and Unwritten Rules

This is part 4 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

I have defined games as systems in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in measurable outcomes. Previously I discussed the artificiality, thinking about drawing students into the magic circle, and the different types of conflict we can build our activities around. Next  we have rules and outcomes will be covered in a future post.

Terra Mystica

Teachers know that it’s very important to give clear instructions for their assignments, though we don’t always spend a lot of time thinking about the best to make sure our students understand the assignments. Board game designers have thought a lot about this. As Rob Daviau, one of the most innovative designers out there, has noted: board games are probably the only form of entertainment that requires you to take a reading comprehension test followed by an oral defense in order to get to the fun. So board game designers are very interested in making sure people don’t tune out before they finish reading the rules. Here’s what they say is important about rules: Continue reading

Cooperative and Semi-Cooperative Games

This is part 3 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

Salen and Zimmerman define the term ‘game’ as follows:

A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a measureable outcome.

There is a lot that can be unpacked here but for now let’s focus on the idea of artificial conflict. First, conflict in games is artificial. This doesn’t mean that the conflict in games isn’t real – indeed, they are half-real. Winning a game is a real experience but the conflict between players takes place in a fictional world whose boundaries are clearly separated from reality (using ‘magic circle’ techniques).

Pandemic: save the world or lose (together) trying.

Conflict in games does not mean violence. In games, and specifically in board games, conflict actually requires a great deal of cooperation: players have to agree on the rules, or accept a way to adjudicate them in cases of disagreement or ambiguity.

When we’re thinking of conflict in games, we often think of the individuals competing against each other, as in Chess or Risk. That model can sometimes be useful if you’re trying to simulate a situation where every person is out for themselves, but often I find the model of group vs. system to be more relevant for a classroom environment. The recent renaissance of board games is driven to a great extent by cooperative games, where people play collectively against the game, winning or losing together. For example, in Pandemic, players take roles such as medic, scientist and dispatcher in a heroic attempt to save the world from four contagious diseases. Continue reading

The Golden Rule and the Magic Circle

This is part 2 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

To skirt theoretical controversies and avoid convoluted technicalities, I define game mechanics broadly to cover any game elements that designers use to shape gameplay. Mechanics are ‘tricks of the trade’ – concepts, ideas, principles – ways to organize a game’s rules and players’ interactions to achieve a compelling, engaging and fun experience.

Lancaster: bigger knights can take smaller knights.

The first and most important concept in designing games and learning activities – the golden rule of game design – is that you want to match the theme with the mechanics. Whatever you have students do as part of their assignment must make sense in terms of the world the assignment is supposed to emulate. The general idea is that actions students make in the classroom have to make sense in the fictional world your exercise creates. For example, in the board game Lancaster players take turns placing cubes on the board to gain resources. This is typical of a certain genre of games, called worker placement, a famous example of which is a game about farming called Agricola. There is a difference between the two games. In Agricola, when a player places a cube on the spot that produces wheat, no one else can get wheat that turn. This rule makes sense for farming – if someone bought all the wheat in the market, you don’t get any wheat for a while. But in Lancaster, the cubes are knights, and they come in different sizes (marked by numbers) – a knight of size 3 can push over any knight of smaller size, taking their spot at the castle. This simple rule change makes sense because we know knights will push each other while farmers won’t. The rules (‘you can/can’t push people out of spots on the board’) match the story superimposed by the game. Continue reading