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An Overview of The Source (Week 4) or, On Taking a Lusory Attitude to Design: Peter McDonald

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To conclude the third week of The Source, Peter McDonald (Game Changer Chicago Design Lab fellow and PhD student in English) reflects on the activities and learning goals of the fourth phase of this alternate reality game.

Pull back the curtain a little way on The Source design team and you would find us preoccupied with the things that constrain and limit our design. When we sit down to brainstorm for a game there is no lack of ideas, but each one has to be tested against a battery of goals to make the cut. First, the ideas have to be logistically feasible, a topic that Angela Heimburger described in detail yesterday, but they also have to meet our STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) learning objectives and our lab’s commitment to social justice. We have to make the games fit into the overall Source narrative, engage groups of eight to twelve people (an odd size range for most games), and adapt to what is working for our players based on the ongoing observation of earlier weeks. Abstracting a little further, as an academic lab we are also challenging and changing some common assumptions of educational games, and trying to make sure that the game provides useful research results. Though I’ve worked in a number of design fields, including video game design, nothing has come close to the complexity of demands in The Source.

At the close of the fourth week of The Source, this matrix of design considerations is impossible to ignore as we try to reconcile all the decisions from previous weeks. However, from my perspective as a game designer constraints are not something to bemoan or work against, instead they are like the rules of a good game or a masterful poem that make new and creative solutions possible. Games make you take the long route: the goal of golf is to get a small ball into a cup, but what makes it fun is the seemingly insane idea of doing it by hitting it into the air with a club. One running joke among the members of our team is that we’re never sure if we’re designing an alternate reality game or playing one. Each design challenge becomes a puzzle, and just like a puzzle when someone finds the perfect solution it suddenly seems obvious. It’s an odd feeling of apophenia, or creative paranoia, that brings some order to the chaos.

Our plans for the preceding week’s “technology” theme are a good demonstration of this design process. In the early planning, we wanted the week to focus on computer code, social media, and issues of cyber-bullying, and we wanted to have the players be hands-on with computers throughout the week. As more details were finalized, however, we realized that the building didn’t provide Internet access, and that we couldn’t get even a fraction of the computers we would need. With these new constraints, we were able to solve yet another problem I didn’t realize was lurking in hands-on work with computers: that the strict syntax of computer code does not forgive even small errors, and often leads to a kind of rote learning. Without access to computers we designed games that taught the principles of computing, such as algorithms, symbolic thinking, and if → then statements in a flexible way. In one of these games the players enacted something like a reverse version of Alan Turing’s famous test to discriminate between artificial and human intelligence. Half the players were ‘robots’ that created algorithms for how they would move and interact with the world, while the ‘humans’ had to learn by watching them and try to blend into the crowd.

Another example of the same process took place within the game’s narrative. In an earlier version of our game design document, the game’s website was going to be hacked by one of the main characters, but when we altered the technological games we lost most of the background for this plot twist. The video for the week had already been filmed, however, and there was no way to abandon the reference to a ‘hacked site.’ As a solution we created an artificial intelligence created by Adia’s father named hAIti (hexadecimal artificial intelligence technological interface), which led to a series of games about AI. This science fiction element sparked the idea of re-creating The War of the Worlds on social media, and has since led to some interesting interactions between hAIti and the players on our forums and an ongoing Internet Relay Chat. Other games that we created fused science fiction and science fact, including a board game called SAVE (Stop All Viruses .Exe) and a utopian tabletop roleplaying game called Technotopia. The result was a much more coherent and engaging week, even if there were a few hiccups because it had to be done in short order. What I hoped to capture and present in this post was some of the ephemeral strategy and play that goes into the process.