Saturday, January 26, 2008

Week #1: Card Game Analysis and Comparison

As you can see from my syllabus, the main activity for our first class session was to analyze and compare two card games, using Google Docs to generate a collaborative document recording those thoughts (on the model of Chapter 2 in our textbook, Game Design Workshop). My Card Game Analysis activity guide provided the basic "rules." Students played Blink, Uno, Loot, Rat-a-tat Cat, Slamwich, Ziggity, Chomp, Duck Duck Bruce, Quiddler, and Apples to Apples for Kids. You can see one group's final document (completed during the first class session) online.

To help students analyze the games, we spent some time discussing Roger Caillois's four fundamental categories of play (as described in his book Man, Play, and Games): Agon (or competition), Alea (luck), Mimicry (make believe characters), and Ilinx (vertigo). He also used the terms Ludus (rule bound play) and Paidia (improvization), setting forth a second category that can map over the other terms (since you can have games of mimicry that are rule bound, like charades, or improvizational, like playfully imitating a co-worker), but I chose to focus for now on the four fundamentals.

I encouraged students to broaden the definitions of these four categories rather freely to help capture different play elements and to help think about how each category can add another channel of engagement to a game. Consider games that engage only one of these four fundamental elements. For example, chess engages a structurally narrow channel because it is, essentially, a game of pure Agon where the player with superior understanding of its complexity will inevitably win unless he or she is matched with an equally strong opponent. That doesn't mean chess is not endlessly fascinating for those who get immersed in it, just that it is really only providing one channel of engagement (though I suppose we could argue that the feudal story suggested by the pieces might add an element of Mimicry to the proceedings). Craps, meanwhile, is a game of pure Alea, where everything depends on the chance careenings of the dice. It is definitely a fun game to play at the casinos, but it really only has one channel of engagement (though betting strategies can make it very complex).

A game like backgammon, by contrast to chess and craps, provides two channels of engagement because it combines fundamental categories of strategy and chance. Though you might be a very good backgammon player and know all of the strategies (including when and how to play a "back game" for long-term advantage), you can still lose to somebody who keeps rolling double sixes. The same is true of poker, which may explain some of its enormous appeal. While there is a lot of strategy in playing poker well, the game comes down to who gets the better cards, which is determined essentially by the luck of the draw. And we all have heard of "beginner's luck." When poker neophyte Chris Moneymaker went overnight from amateur internet gambler to professional poker player and world champion, he practically poured gasoline on the growing flame of the game's appeal. His name, and the multi-million dollar prize that he won, certainly didn't hurt.

The element that Caillois calls Mimicry can also add an interesting channel of engagement to a game by getting us to participate in a fantasy world for a while. Depending on the complexity of the game's mimetic universe, it might be possible to get completely immersed in the story, as happens with players of games like Magic, The Gathering, for example, which is practically like playing Dungeons & Dragons with cards. Even card games as simple as "War," "Go Fish!" and "Old Maid" suggest narratives by their very names. Several of the games that I gave students had clear narrative elements, encouraging players to see themselves as pirates (Loot), as cats chasing mice (Rat-a-tat Cat), or as fish fighting for food chain supremacy (Chomp!). The stories and graphics make these games attractive and more fun to play. More importantly, a good mimetic element provides a "cover story," if you will, for inevitable feelings of mutual aggression created by the competition. After all, I might feel bad "Looting" cards from my opponents in a normal social situation; but if I am acting like a pirate, then it's ok to steal!

Ilinx may be a little more difficult to apply to most board or card games. But if we think of it simply as the element of physical activity and bodily engagement with a game, I think there are a number of ways it can be incorporated to add another channel of engagement even with cards. For example, simply by adding rules that encourage speedy play, by disposing of turns as in Blink, can turn a card game into a physical challenge. And I remember a game of cards people used to play at the schoolyard in my youth that involved getting rapped on the knuckles if you lost!

These four elements were useful for thinking generally about the channels of engagement that a game can create. But how do games actually keep us engaged? A lot depends on the players involved. I had asked students to evaluate the "audience" for each game, trying to judge the type of player who might most enjoy it (including age level, obviously, but other elements as well). In this regard I introduced the concept of "Flow" based on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "chicks-send-me-high" I'm told), which provides a very good and easy to grasp model for how games (and many other activities) keep our interest and even can allow us to enter a state of optimal experience or "flow." The following diagram helped guide our discussion.

This simplified version of Csikszentmihalyi's "flow" diagram is from Bernie DeKoven's excellent online essay "Fun and Flow." It is a very useful image for explaining how games connect with some people and not others by providing just the right level of challenge and skill. Games that allow you to connect with them at even a low skill level are going to be very broadly appealing. But if a game is too simple or repetitive for you, or if it is too difficult or anxiety producing, you are not going to be able to enter a state of flow and so are not likely to enjoy it or do well at it.

Several students commented that the games they were given to analyze were not ones that they enjoyed playing or even fully understood. It may not have been that they were poorly designed, just that those students just were not the best audience for these games.

For next class, the assignment is to develop the concept (in about one or two pages) for a board or card game based on "Sibling Rivalry" as a narrative theme, providing an element of what Caillois calls "Mimicry" to whatever game they think up. I will divide them into groups and they will choose one concept (or some combination of two or more) to develop into a group project. I gave them the description of Richard Garfield's commissioned game of that title from Salen and Zimmerman's Rules of Play, but I encouraged them to go off in their own directions with only the "Sibling Rivalry" theme as their guide.

I will assign their groups when they come next time. I decided early on that I would assign groups for the first two projects and only allow them to choose their groups for the final project. This way, they get to know each other by working together in various contexts. And I get to play the game of social engineering. To help me do that, I had them fill out a Questionnaire, which gave me insight into their skills, interests, and abilities so that I could make up well balanced teams.

Among the readings I handed out for next time were two New York Times articles on game-related issues: Clive Thompson's "The Play's the Thing" (November 28, 2004) and Brooks Barnes's "Web Playgrounds of the Very Young" (December 31, 2007). Thompson's article discusses the the company Cranium (developers of Apples to Apples and Ziggity) and contrasts their "everyone wins" style of game design with the more standard "winner takes all the glory" standard of American games. I wanted students to read this just to expand their conceptual paradigms for designing fun and playable games. The Barnes piece talks about the work being done to create online play spaces for kids, which is clearly going to be an important and growing field for anyone interested in getting a job designing games or play spaces. I was interested in the article because one of my interns this past semester worked for Nickelodeon helping to develop web content for young people, including for Nick Games. Our discussions made me realize that sites like Nick Games and Webkinz (the focus of Barnes's piece) are going to be an increasingly important growth area for jobs related to game development and design. While I doubt many (or even any) of the students in the class will go into this field, I wanted to make them aware of how important games are becoming as a part of the entertainment industry -- very likely taking the place of reading and even television viewing in people's lives.

This detailed summary of our class may help students who join our class next week to catch up more quickly than they would otherwise. But I also hope it eventually helps teachers who want to try out the topic of game design.

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