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Humanities-Based Game Design

Prom Week is about to be released and Expressive Processing is about to come out in paperback — a confluence that has me thinking about humanities-based game design, something I’ve been more actively mulling since an NSF workshop on the Future of Research in Computer Games and Virtual Worlds that UCI hosted in 2010.

Obviously I’m not the first person on this scent — on some level people have been discussing humanities-based game design at least since Brenda Laurel’s dissertation. But working on Prom Week helped me realize that I think we need to go beyond “operationalizing” models from the humanities or applying humanities ideas gleaned from studying other media as design heuristics (though these are also important approaches).

To start from the beginning, one of my motivations for working on Prom Week was, in part, to begin to answer the question I pose on page 317 of Expressive Processing. Given how The Sims succeeds through the SimCity effect, “Can we find similar success with characters more complex than eight mood meters, and fictions more well formed than The Sims‘s implied progression through possessions and careers?”

While we developed Prom Week and its underlying AI system we regularly had meetings during which we stepped back and tried to ask two questions: First, is the design of the system expressing the ideas we have for Prom Week? Second, what are we building into the system to communicate its design to players, so they can see their opportunities for creativity and play, getting appropriate feedback?

Obviously, these two questions are deeply connected, especially for a system, like a game, that only comes to mean through play. For example, much of the Prom Week system is designed to make the world function like the fictional world of a piece of high school media when everything is “happening normally.” The shy people don’t get up the nerve to tell people how they really feel. Mean, popular people hold sway in the hallways. No one breaks out of their stereotypes.

In non-playable media we see the world working this way and then someone (the main character, usually) decides not to play along. We see the world change. In Prom Week the player gets to not just see how the world operates through depiction, but experiment with it and gain a sense of its rules, and then decide which characters to give a nudge (or even use “social influence points” to nudge harder) to push them out of their comfort zones, to make things happen that wouldn’t otherwise.

This is tricky, because what a lot of the system does, a lot of what its rules seem to express, is only part of what we want a play session to look like. We use the system’s rules and initial scenario to not just express the way the world works but show the way the world doesn’t have to be and help the player learn how to make it a different kind of world. It is that experience of making the world change, and of coming to understand some of the many ways the world could change, that (hopefully) is the core experience of Prom Week.

To me, this kind of thinking about systems, interpretations, interpretability, and play seems like an unusual type of humanities, but a conceptual approach very much grounded in humanities traditions. And I think it offers a way in to deep issues for games and other types of playable media that I don’t think we can get through computer science or social science approaches. As I’m going to discuss soon in a different context, I think it’s an example of one type of digital humanities — a strand connecting Laurel’s work with more recent approaches such as Mary Flanagan’s “critical play” — that I wouldn’t want to see get lost in the rush to embrace (or decry) big data.

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