18/06/2013 07:03 BST | Updated 17/08/2013 06:12 BST

Games for Change: Play as a Routemap to Understanding

I've left my normal base of operations in Bristol, UK to head over to New York for the 10th anniversary special of the Games for Change Festival. The event is the world's main forum exploring games as a tool of social change or in their words, "catalyzing social impact through digital games". For three days some of the leading minds in the use of play as a tool of social change will meet to talk, debate, present and of course; play.

There seems to be a theme emerging on day one of this event around simplicity. All of the issues that the games at this event champion are complex, messy and difficult - from gender inequality to preparing for a hurricane. Nature is like that and so are human relations, mix the two and things become complexity squared. However I've seen several speakers pull-out this idea of 'simplicity' as what games can offer to help in the real-world. James Vaughan made this point during his talk on his smash-hit biomedical-themed strategy game, Plague Inc. The game, which encourages the player to create a disease and destroy the world, engages with a host of complex issues as it gamifys microbiological pandemics into the environment of the modern globalized world. James remarked his game can be seen as akin to a Tube Map in that it is not 'true' in the pure sense of the word, but carries truth nonetheless. The Tube Map is not a geographical representation of the real underground rail-network but a simplified approximation of it. As such it contains enough truth to have real-world value (and so impact) not in spite of that process of abstraction, but because of it. James's clear approach of simplicity first and to make the complexity opt-in for those who want to get deeper has resulted in an accidental explosion of education within the games subject areas as 10 million plus players grapple with it.


Games have this tendency to simplicity built within them. This is because when you write a game design you have to boil things down to an implementable set of rules that can be interacted with by the players and encoded with the game's system. As such you need to make a whole host of short-cuts, assumptions and abstractions. If you can perform thus boiling-down process while keeping enough reality into the mix then the players stay engaged and you can then gently layer in the complexity. These were very much the ideas behind newsgames we've created such as Endgame:Syria and NarcoGuerra.

Picking up on this theme the team of Mathan Ratinam, Lien Tran and Benjamin Norskov talked about the boardgame they'd created to explore disaster response. Their mixed team of game designers and academics worked to 'gamify' the process and so create a tool to facilitate the problems and issues of disaster management in the real world. They noted that in the process of making this complex subject into a game they needed to focus on the 'verbs' of the issues and not the 'nouns'; keep it real but simple. One of their emergent properties of this process of designed simplification; that a player who asks questions as a result of playing is more valuable than one who just learns what you tell them.

In this respect games become the stepping stone to more complex ideas. The simplicity that games bring becomes a routemap to understanding not because they tell you what to think but because they help to ask questions.