The time has come to get my project underway. I’m developing an ecosystem-modeling game to entertain and to facilitate learning. I don’t want to make a game to teach, exactly. Too often, “educational” games tend to be dreary ordeals with a thin but shiny coat of classroom-style learning content, designed by people who a)don’t seem to play games and b)think games are primarily for children. All games teach. I’ve discussed this sort of thing before, as have numerous others before me.

There are, of course, many examples of great games designed with learning in mind. Last year, my wife spent over a week playing the original version of The Oregon Trail under a slew of self-imposed restrictions just to see how she could leverage the mechanics in her favor–like an experienced D&D player who opts to forego armor just to add challenge and complexity.

The task I have chosen to undertake (perhaps recklessly) is to create a game that stands on its own in terms of game mechanics, but mirrors reality enough to allow players to explore and broadly recreate ecosystem dynamics.

To do this, the game must be modifiable and include thorough documentation. It should allow players to, well, play with it. It should also be freely hackable for anyone who may want to build, for example, an approximation of species interactions within a specific Malaysian cloud forest (people have differing ideas of fun).

It won’t be easy, and I will need lots of help along the way. I want the game to serve as a means of entry into scientific discourse. To that end, I’d like to see a growing library of user mods ranging from challenging fictional scenarios to user-created ecosystem models based on published data. If optimal strategy in the game one day helps to reveal something about real-world animal behavior (as Fold-It aids the discovery of protein structures), I will have achieved my ultimate, maybe-I-shouldn’t-even-consider-it-possible goal.

If I don’t shoot for that goal, I’ll never know how close I can get. At this stage, I’m drawing inspiration from the concepts and mechanics of games such as Wolf Quest, Venture Arctic, Cultivation and Subspace/Continuum (the latter for its simple energy-management system and elegant-but-deep multiplayer experience).

Any and all feedback is welcome. What would you folks like to play?

3 thoughts on “The game’s afoot!

  1. Harrison, brilliant idea. Not familiar with the games you mentioned – will check out. But, based on your game objectives, why not throw Mindcraft into the model-mix.

    Assuming I understand correctly, based on the affordances and constraints that you are setting for yourself in terms of game mechanics (code) and flexibility (ability of others to collaborate via mods/hacking), the resulting game will teach ecological concepts intuitively. From what I understand, the rules-of-the-code will be based on ecological principals. I am finding that in ecology it is more informative to ask “how” something works the way it does than “why” it works the way it does. “Why” implies conscious intention that can sometime lead us astray when trying to understand a dynamic system. Often the “why” is a function of the “what” and the “how”. The “how” questions focus on the nuts and bolts mechanics of the system that can lead to understanding why a system functions they way it does. How questions are free from value judgement. (it works the way it works because that’s the way it works or in other words “we exist the way we exist because that is the way we exist”) I think if you focus on creating a simulation game that as much as possible mirrors the “how’s” in nature, though play, users will learn the “why’s”. Then it’s not preachy – it is fun – and very informative.

    • I believe you’re referring to Minecraft. That’s a sandbox game if ever a sandbox game there was. I definitely want my game’s mechanics to mirror the mechanics of a real ecosystem. I’ll have to balance that with the ability to modify the game to create new models, and I expect it’ll take a little time to find the proper fulcrum. With too many rules, you have no play. With too few rules, you have no game.

      I want people to be able to tweak the game with little or no experience. One example of this would be setting up a local server in Teeworlds–it takes a few minutes to learn how, but it ends up being sort of a fun exercise in itself, like setting up pieces in a board game. Minecraft is a little heavy for those purposes. It hosts an active modder community, but I’m shooting more for the average user.

      With the exception of Venture Arctic, all the games I cited are free. SubSpace/Continuum is not open-source like the others, but Virgin officially disowned it years ago and then abandoned the video game business. Cultivation is an “art game” (isn’t that redundant?), and I think you’d like playing around with it.

  2. Yes, Minecraft. Funny I keep making that mistake. My son explained the name: “mine” because you dig your way around. That said, I keep slipping and writing “mind” because I think of it as a tool for creating an imaginary world that is in your Mind. Or in the case of playing the game with multipul users, the resulting virtual world is a collaborative imaginary world that exists in the “mind” of the Ethernet.