Game-making, playtesting, calibrating: Systems Gaming with David

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Our Associate-in-Residence and game-creator extraordinaire David Finnigan has been working away on a new line of work exploring systems, how we fit into them and how we change them. If you’ve seen our call-out for playtesters and were curious about what we’ve been up to, look no further – here’s more from David himself:

I’ve been working at Coney for the last few months on what we’re calling a ‘Systems Consultancy’ – as in, a line of systems games about the world.

‘Systems Game’ is a term we’re using to refer to games which highlight and focus on certain qualities from systems thinking. In a sense, all games are systems – or are built on systems, at least – but these games do their best to surface some of the features of these systems and provide a platform to hash out some of the challenges involved in decision-making in a complex world. 

Tassos describes this as ‘game-making for how you learn to change the world’, which I think is a nice way of putting it. Another way to describe it is to say that thinking about the world in this way helps surface some of the underlying systems that we’re embedded in, and allows us to make more active choices about how we engage with them.

For example: some of these games are designed to go into schools, to help young people (and teachers) think about their schools as systems, and to map some of the social, economic and physical systems that they navigate through every day. There’s a value there for both students and teachers, to think more explicitly about which features of their daily experience are fixed properties of the very nature of a school, and which are more contingent, and can possibly be changed by thoughtful action.

‘Thoughtful action’ is a key idea for this line of work. We’re also building games to take into a business setting, to help organisations solve business problems, and to become more aware of the systems within which they are embedded. These might be particularly useful for businesses that are seeking ways to behave more sustainably, or to address emerging challenges in the medium to long-term.

The format for these games is a continuation of Boho‘s work in this area – which, in turn, was heavily influenced by Coney when we were first developing Best Festival Ever in London in 2012. This cycle of influence is nicely captured in Stewart Pringle’s article on Coney / Boho in New Scientist last year.

In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve developed three different games that all use roughly the same format/structure, but take place in different settings:

  • Managing a chain of Health & Beauty stores
  • Running a Secondary School
  • Managing a small bank in the context of a changing climate

Each game takes place around a table, for an audience of 5-20 people. They’re all intended as flexible works that can go into an office, a school or any other workplace, and function as a team-building / training activity.

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Last month we ran a playtest of the third of these games, about managing a bank in the aftermath of a major climate-driven catastrophe. There has been a huge flood, which has taken out the Asian office of the bank, and the consequences of this disaster impact every aspect of the bank’s runnning.

The game uses a combination of what we call ‘decision-makers’ and ‘skilltesters’. These are terms we’ve adopted in Boho to describe two different kinds of games. A decision-making game is one where the players make choices, assign resources, apply some sort of strategic thinking or negotiation. A skilltester is a game with a simple win/lose function, where the objective is to win, and there’s no real debate about how to do that or why.

(These definitions are fuzzy at the edges, but they’ve been a useful shorthand for us in building games.)

The core setpiece of the game, and the main challenge (from a game development perspective) in the making of it, is a sequence where players take on a cluster of small games simultaneously. In the space of ~5 minutes, players must complete a series of tasks – a jigsaw puzzle, building a tower out of post-it notes, plus a series of micro-activities. They can buy themselves more time if they want, but that exposes them to needing to complete more micro-tasks. How they complete the challenges is up to them, but the limited timeframe is brutal.

This is a development of a game that Boho developed in October last year as part of our Democratic Nature project in Sweden, a series of linked micro-challenges that illustrated the Swedish bureaucratic system. And that was a development of the Site Building game from Best Festival Ever, which in turn took some of its inspiration from Escape, which is still one of my favourite boardgame experiences ever.

The challenge with something like this is that it’s a nightmare to calibrate. Trying to balance the difficulty of each of the individual games is hard enough, but trying to assess them in concert with each other is extremely fiddly – and then there’s the fact that the number of players is always going to vary. What’s impossibly hard for five people might be easy and banal for ten, and not even work for fifteen. So I can see this game being a total struggle to get right as I go forward.

But, at moments during last month’s playtest, I got a glimpse of it working. When it clicks, it provides a certain kind of chaotic energy, people with their heads down taking care of their own patch, trying where possible to keep an eye on the bigger picture. It yields lots of success/fail results, which can be plugged back into the narrative and the bigger game system. It’s the right mood and aesthetic for the activity.

But tricky, so tricky to get right.

One lovely thing about doing these scratches with the Coney Network though is how game literate the participants are. At last month’s playtest I got some of the best, most articulate and sophisticated feedback I’ve ever gotten from a scratch, a whole set of really intelligent and constructive advice and suggestions. So now, we keep making, we keep making. On to the next one.

If you’re up for being part of the next playtest, give us a knock or click here to join the Network of Coney :)

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