Thursday, July 23, 2009

Exploring Culture through Games

I've always had a fascination with teaching games (or learning games, or educational games, whatever you want to call them). Mostly I'm fascinated by them because they are terrible, and it's very interesting to think about how to design a better one.

Over the years I've come up with a lot of techniques that may or may not help, but one thing that's been more and more clear is that simply teaching science (or math, or whatever) isn't really a viable goal. Not only does it have to be anchored in some way to something that the player cares about, but it should also be taught in a context that makes it clear what the ramifications are.

For example, simply teaching about electrical current is possible. You could even make it a fairly fun puzzle game. But half of the amazingness of electric current is that we wired the planet with it. The whole planet, pretty much. The changes electricity have wrought on society are at least as important and probably more interesting than the way electricity actually works.

So lately I've been thinking about teaching games that teach something while being deeply rooted in some kind of cultural or social context. I like the idea of teaching science and technology, so that's naturally where my thoughts go. There's a lot to be learned by the cultures and contexts as well as just by the explanatory bits.

In fact, culture is largely driven by the available technology, and it's not hard to imagine games which not only educate about a technology, but also about its effect on a culture.

Here's a fun example: cell phones. Imagine a game set in a somewhat idealized Africa. (All games are set in idealized settings, although often ideal for violence.) Your "special power" is not that you are a wizard or a superhero or a car thief, but in that you have a cell phone.

Sound boring? Now, now, imagine for a second.

The primary power of a cell phone is to let you communicate with someone who is far away. This is a superpower to a destitute villager who doesn't have access to a cell phone. Instead of carting their goods to the nearest city and trying to sell them just to whomever is standing around, you can arrange for a buyer to be there, waiting, ready to pay an exact amount of cash.

If there is family far away, you can keep up with them and mitigate risks by supporting those who fall on harder times. If there is a disease or injury, you can call a doctor. If someone is lost, you can organize a search team. And, if you have web access, you can even do ridiculously insane things like get micro-loans from America or learn how to build a windmill generator.

The power difference between you and a random villager without access to a phone is roughly equivalent to the difference between a random fantasy villager and the legendary heroes you play. However, there is one very important difference: in the cell phone game, your power is proportional to the number of people who share it. You can only call people who have access to phones, after all.

The focus of the game becomes on integrating into your society. Both integrating yourself and integrating this new technology.

I think that sounds like an interesting game. And you'd certainly learn how cell phones work.


It's also possible to make games which span generations of technology rather than being about introducing a single paradigm-changing technology. For example, we could make a game about audio recordings, taking it from marks-on-paper to records to tapes to CDs to files to file sharing...

If each stage is as much about the culture arising around these developments as it is about the development itself, the game can be made much deeper and more interesting. For example, you could play a musician and his children/reincarnations/whatever. Struggling to succeed in each era, using what technology is available.

Moreover, it's possible to use this same idea to push into the future and show reasonable reflections of what technologies may cause to happen to culture. The nature of integrating players into the culture means you'll have to at least think about a plausible result, which is more than most people bother doing. Even if your cultural predictions are incorrect, it's still better than not predicting anything.

For example, you could make a game about the culture arising from widely available chemical fabricators, or AR gear, or rising sea water, or whatever you want.

Most people who do something similar use it as an excuse to revert culture. World War III destroys civilization and mankind reverts to tribal barbarism... that's hardly the sort of thing I'm talking about. The idea here is to be educational both about how whatever it is works and about the effects whatever it is have.

A smarmy global warming game where you try to deal with the aftereffects of rising sea water accomplishes nothing. You might as well make a game of pong in which your enemy's paddle is the height of the whole screen. The gameplay must also involve (in this example) play involving the same dynamics that cause the rise in sea water. IE, play will have to allow players to adjust the Earth's weather patterns.

Otherwise you're just being preachy and boring.

What do you think?


Ellipsis said...

I really like these ideas.

Don't have anything much more articulate to offer right now, but maybe that'll change.

Claes Mogren said...

Good ideas! A realistic global warming game would be awesome!

Personally I learned more about history from the Civ-games than I ever did in social science class.

Craig Perko said...

Welcome to the blog, Claes.

I think there's a big difference between learning what DID happen and what MIGHT have happened if things were a bit different. Games are much better about teaching the second type of thing.

I think it's way more important, personally. Learning that the Nazis did X and Y, maybe even because they thought A and B, is much less important than learning that maybe it could have been mitigated or avoided if the situation had been approached differently by one of the major actors.

It's the difference between pointing out a problem and pointing out a solution, I guess.

Ellipsis said...

My favorite example of a game that that teaches about "why" things happen is Crusader Kings. Before playing it, I knew how feudal systems worked, but in an abstract way. Playing the game, I immediately felt the force of "Wah, people will try to steal my land! I need a leige who can help protect me against claims on my land!" You also care about things like succession, strategically marrying off your daughters, etc.

Medieval culture just made sense after playing that game.

Craig Perko said...

Yeah, that's exactly what I mean!