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On Game Design for The Source: Peter McDonald

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago (GCC) Design Lab’s alternate reality game The Source continues with the perspective of a game designer, Peter McDonald, who writes about one of our energy-oriented board games and its learning objectives.


Adia’s father was an engineer, he believed that problems have solutions, and he had faith that Adia would solve those problems he left behind. During the first week of The Source players worked through puzzles and games that explored road infrastructure, public transportation, food distribution, and energy production, capped today by a tournament of the board game Power Play (created by the GCC Design Lab). In this final game, each player takes on the role of a power company that must choose between types of power, build their infrastructure, and extend their network through the city. With hundreds of hexagons, little black squares and circular ceramic tiles on top of a map of the fictional variant of the city of Chicago, “Hexacago,” the game looked daunting to some players. Luckily, games don’t require that you understand them beforehand, and quickly players had partnered up and decided on strategies: one team invested entirely in wind only to be thwarted by the weather, another used coal to expand their capacity quickly, and strangely no one built a nuclear plant.

Games don’t require you to be an expert, and as a designer this is the reason that I believe games can help us look at, learn about, and interrogate our most complex problems. The understanding that comes from play is not primarily about facts, but about relationships, strategies that depend on the actions of other people, and details that only become meaningful over time. Each power plant in Power Play costs a certain amount of money, generates a certain amount of energy and pollution, and takes a certain amount of room to build. Yet we’re not teaching players the statistics of coal’s CO2 production, nor the real amount of space that a hydro dam floods. These are important pieces which the players do receive through other media, and we have to have knowledgeable designers on the team, but we simplify that information in order to clarify the difference between coal and gas production, why it is difficult to power a city off green energy today, and how chance events can change the balance of power (pun intended). One of the difficulties of game design is balancing a wide range of possibilities to make the game not only realistic but playable.

This is why these games are most effective when they are embedded in the coherent world of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) and a space where game-based learning is a norm. While players are engaged in the game they may be trying to make the best move and pick the best strategy, but part of our design process is to include prompts for players and their mentors about how the game relates to the real world and how the game could be designed differently. Today one question was “how could you implement another aspect of power generation, such as employment or media representation?” Players begin to think like designers, and ask how to construct better systems.