Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Model is the Game

You only need to take a look at some of the FAQs on to see that people go to heroic efforts to understand the games they love to play. There is a tendency to ascribe to these efforts the pal of mental illness of some kind (autism, Asperger's, obsessive compulsive disorder) but I'd like to take the opposite position: it is entirely natural for a person to wish to understand a system with which they interact, and which gives them pleasure or some other utility. It is true that few people go to the lengths that "aerostar," the author of the above linked exhaustively researched Final Fantasy Tactics Battle Mechanics Guide, has gone (though it is clear from his acknowledgments that it wasn't a solo effort), but tons of people have read his guide, and use it to play the game. That is the main point: the impulse to understand things in detail, to "know" them, is not the soul province of a nerdy few. It is a natural behavior of any healthy human interacting with a system.

Edmutatement is a blog about games which educate, but saying so presupposes that there could be some other type of game. There are lots of ways to think about what a game is, of course, but anything complex enough to be recognizably a game must teach something to the player, namely the rules of the game. That we associate games principally with entertainment is, arguably, the oddity. Play is universally understood as an act of learning in human children, so much so that to deny a child the ability to engage in play is to permanently damage it. That humans continue to play well into and beyond adulthood is widely understood to be a positive and deeply human characteristic. Even the negative press coverage that video games often get accuses them of training children to kill: an acknowledgment, however backhanded and (in any case) misinformed, that games do teach something.

Minecraft, a remarkable and amazing indie sandbox game, is a great example of games teaching without resorting to cheap tricks. The game simulates an effectively infinite natural landscape and allows the player, either alone or in an (incomplete, but still enjoyable) multiplayer setting, to explore and build whatever structures they desire out of the limited, but rich, in-game resources. The game provides some context and danger in the form of monsters, which require that the player at least build some kind of shelter to survive at night, but otherwise encourages no specific kind of play. Some players focus on exploration, building a series of small houses, while others focus on truly massive and dynamic constructs.

Minecraft is a technical challenge for its creator, Notch, in that it has to provide simulations of the dynamics of water flow, plant growth, fire, decay, and (no kidding) electrical circuitry that are complex enough to be interesting, believable and functional but simple enough to be simulated in real time on a truly massive scale. The tool Notch reached for is Cellular Automata, which are simple rule based systems in which the state of a particular element in the game is updated based on the states of its neighbors. These systems match the requirements exactly, because they are famous for being simple to specify and execute, but nevertheless capable of producing extremely rich and complex simulations.

Conway's Game of Life

Minecraft is still alpha software, and has essentially zero documentation, so the community of players has created the Minepedia to share information on how the game's many cellular automata (CA) function. Understand how water, one of the systems governed by a CA, is critical to building many impressive structures, and understanding Redstone, the in-game surrogate for electrical circuitry, is necessary for building automatic structures. To build anything of consequence with Redstone will quickly teach the player about the basics of digital circuity, of which it provides a complete model. Intrepid Minecrafters have even build simulations of the Ur-Cellular Automaton, Conway's Game of Life, using Redstone Circuitry.

Where am I going with all this? Well, I am going right to my one sentence summary of my educational game design philosophy: The Model is the Game. If you create a game which embeds the model you wish to teach a player into the game as (part of) the rules of the game, people will naturally learn that model, so long as the game provides some compelling reason for doing so. If you want to teach people the basic idea of evolution, a current Edmutatement Project, then just make the game itself evolution. Provide the right incentives (here is the rub, of course) and you will teach people the theory of evolution without them ever once reading a snippet of text or cracking open a textbook. In a very meaningful way, every piece of scientific knowledge constitutes a model, perhaps simplified, of how physical objects interact and behave. Find a way to make these models fun, and people will go to great lengths to learn them.

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