Tag Archives: games

The Long Game: Civilization II and Sim City’s Magnasanti

After ten years of playing the same Civilization II campaign (my favourite game ever), Reddit user Lycerius has ended up creating a dystopian semi-self-sustaining world, where the three remaining “super-nations” are in a constant state of espionage and nuclear war.

The details of Lycerius’ “hellish nightmare” world are absolutely fascinating: the military stalemate; the 1700-year war; and the global warming epidemic that led to melting ice caps, famine, and the end of cities. This is the political situation:

The only governments left are two theocracies and myself, a communist state. I wanted to stay a democracy, but the Senate would always over-rule me when I wanted to declare war before the Vikings did. This would delay my attack and render my turn and often my plans useless. And of course the Vikings would then break the cease fire like clockwork the very next turn. […] I was forced to do away with democracy roughly a thousand years ago because it was endangering my empire. But of course the people hate me now and every few years since then, there are massive guerrilla […] uprisings in the heart of my empire that I have to deal with which saps resources from the war effort.

This reminds me of Magnasanti: the totalitarian city created in Sim City 3000 that sustains the maximum population (six million) for 50,000 years. The interview with it’s ‘maker’, architecture student Vincent Ocasla, is worth a read.

Keep these people away from town planning departments, please.

Magnasanti via Kottke

Defining a Game

In a talk lambasting what has become the most popular video game in America–Zynga‘s Facebook-based FarmVille*–we are shown how it fails to meet a single one of late sociologist Roger Caillois’ six criteria for defining games (as laid-out in in his 1961 book, Man, Play and Games):

  • Free from obligation, routine and responsibility.
  • Separate from ‘real life’.
  • Uncertain in outcome (involving chance and/or skill).
  • An unproductive activity.
  • Governed by rules.
  • Make-believe (requiring either immersion or the suspension of disbelief).

*”Over seventy-three million people play FarmVille. Twenty-six million people play FarmVille every day. More people play FarmVille than World of Warcraft, and FarmVille users outnumber those who own a Nintendo Wii.”

via @cojadate

The Economically-(Im)Perfect World of Online Games

Kristian Segerstrale–owner of online games company Playfish (acquired by Electronic Arts for $400m in November 2009)–discusses why online game environments are exciting places for economics research (and specifically: “how social factors influence economic decision making”):

When economists try to model behavior in the real world, they’re always dealing with imperfect information. “The data is always limited, and once you get hold of it there are tons of reasons to mistrust it,” Segerstrale says. In virtual worlds, on the other hand, “the data set is perfect. You know every data point with absolute certainty. In social networks you even know who the people are. You can slice and dice by gender, by age, by anything.”

Instead of dealing only with historical data, in virtual worlds “you have the power to experiment in real time,” Segerstrale says. What happens to demand if you add a 5 percent tax to a product? What if you apply a 5 percent tax to one half of a group and a 7 percent tax to the other half? “You can conduct any experiment you want,” he says. “You might discover that women over 35 have a higher tolerance to a tax than males aged 15 to 20—stuff that’s just not possible to discover in the real world.”

Of course, there’s a fairly obvious caveat:

One possible flaw in this economic model is that the kind of people who spend hours online taking care of imaginary pets may not be representative of the rest of the population. The data might be “perfect” and “complete,” but the world from which it’s gathered is anything but that.

Behavioural Game Design and the Manipulation of Fun

Over the last twenty or thirty years gaming has changed almost beyond recognition. With the simultaneous growth in behavioural psychology the two fields have collided, as summarised by Microsoft games researcher John Hopson in his look at behavioural game design.

Cracked summarises the article well (if not a tad sensationalised) as Five ways video games are trying to get you addicted (part two). It’s worth noting that this is taken from the theories of B. F. Skinner and his operant conditioning chambers (or, Skinner boxes).

“Each contingency is an arrangement of time, activity, and reward, and there are an infinite number of ways these elements can be combined to produce the pattern of activity you want from your players.”

Notice his article does not contain the words “fun” or “enjoyment.” That’s not his field. Instead it’s “the pattern of activity you want.”

His theories are based around the work of BF Skinner, who discovered you could control behavior by training subjects with simple stimulus and reward. He invented the “Skinner Box,” a cage containing a small animal that, for instance, presses a lever to get food pellets. Now, I’m not saying this guy at Microsoft sees gamers as a bunch of rats in a Skinner box. I’m just saying that he illustrates his theory of game design using pictures of rats in a Skinner box.

This sort of thing caused games researcher Nick Yee to once call Everquest a “Virtual Skinner Box.”

So What’s The Problem?

Gaming has changed. It used to be that once they sold us a $50 game, they didn’t particularly care how long we played. The big thing was making sure we liked it enough to buy the next one. But the industry is moving toward subscription-based games like MMO’s that need the subject to keep playing–and paying–until the sun goes supernova.

Now, there’s no way they can create enough exploration or story to keep you playing for thousands of hours, so they had to change the mechanics of the game, so players would instead keep doing the same actions over and over and over, whether they liked it or not. So game developers turned to Skinner’s techniques.

This look at how manipulating contingencies in systems and games can obtain desired results/behaviours opens a number of questions. Expect more on this.

Update: I’ve posted a comprehensive summary of the article in question on micro.Lone Gunman.

How to Win at Monopoly

It appears that a couple of high-profile blogs linked to this a few years back, but it’s new to me: how to win at monopoly.

Monopoly is a game of luck, strategy, and people skills. No strategy will guarantee you a win; that’s one of the reasons Monopoly is so interesting. In any given game, a newcomer can beat a lifetime champion. Still, there are a few strategic tips that came out of the computer simulations that will help you best play the odds: you may not win any given game, but in the long run, you’ll come out ahead. The “people skills” element isn’t captured here. But as a general rule, think about what your opponents want and see if you can engineer a trade with them that’s a win/win for you both. That type of negotiating is as vital in Monopoly as it is in real life.