Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Not just bits and pieces: Culture, praxis, and aesthetic in game design


My boxes of gaming bits and pieces.

Like more than a few PAXsims readers, I have a large supply of markers, pawns, chips, meeples, and various other miscellaneous things that might be useful when designing a game. Recently I’ve been giving some thought to the ways in which the tactile and visual aspects of a game interact with player expectations and game mechanics to produce a ludic experience. Some of this, of course, is quite obvious: a map or board needs to be laid out in a clear and functional way. Game pieces need to be practical. Attractive components can enhance player immersion and engagement.

Some of it is more complicated, however—especially when it relates not to clarity or ergonomics but rather to player preconceptions. That issue has come up in several ways at McGill in recent months, as we have worked on games ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to refugees, the Syrian civil war, and the Arab Spring.

origOne aspect of this is the treatment of probability and chance. As Nicholas Edwards (King’s College London) noted in his excellent MA thesis on the topic, not all audiences and players are equally comfortable with the various different ways of incorporating this into a game. Hobby gamers are perfectly willing to accept dice as a mechanism for determining probabilistic outcomes. Military officers, however, are often notoriously hostile to their appearance in serious games since they tend to associate dice with much more juvenile pastimes. Ironically, those same officers are perfectly willing to accept random number generation tied to such things as a Pk (probability of kill) when buried unseen in the software of a digital simulator. In AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game we decided to use random event cards and other card-draw mechanisms to introduce uncertainty into game play because we were also concerned that some audiences (for example, professionals in the military, humanitarian assistance, or development communities) would see dice as too “random” or “childish.” Cards, on the other hand, have a deep cultural resonance in the West, and some other cultures as well, as bearers of fate and fortune. Players thus treat a shuffled deck of cards as a hidden-future-yet-to-be-revealed, while a series of functionally-similar dice rolls might be seen as little more than snakes-and-ladders.

9619ab0234d7068480971f964bfe252798c3abfdAnother way this came up in recent months was in the design of Alex Langer’s Syrian civil war game Road to Damascus. The student playtesters—all of whom enjoy hobby games, but none of whom are traditional hex-and-counter wargamers—were adamant that they did not want cardboard chits in the game. These, they argued, were fiddly and difficult to manipulate, even if they are cheap and easy to produce, and can easily be marked with unit types and attributes. Instead, wooden disks and avatars were used to depict units and warlords respectively. This had the advantage that it was quick and easy to see the contents of a stack. Moreover—and equally important—wooden game pieces are firmly established in both conflict simulation and eurogaming traditions as a frequent component of many quality games. They are, after all, so woody.

The stacks, however, did have a tendency to tip over if incautiously manipulated. There were two obvious solutions to this problem.

95ccfcee07d20f0bca065e4fb57315a3306a328bOne was to use poker chips instead of wooden disks. The colour of these can still be “read” from the side, yet their grooves allow them to stack much better.

A second possibility was to use either stackable plastic peg-pawns or a joystick pawn-and-rings system. From a technical point of view these too would have very nicely fitted with the game mechanics.

b3d9be56f8a3c8e88741ec6d1808fbd38879cab1Everyone, however, rejected these out of hand—myself included. Poker chips looked, well, too “poker-y.” They would have taken away from the conflict simulation gravitas of the game, and would have reminded everyone of gambling. The plastic peg-pawn or pawn-and-ring systems looked too childish. Once again, they were not anything anyone associated with serious conflict simulation.

In other words, what worked in the game was not solely a function of practicality, but culturally-embedded aesthetics and the associations that objects create in the minds of players. (Conversely, everyone agreed that little plastic planes were great as airstrike indicators.)

90bf9c1c3f0b7657516927fba4ecbe16690f1eafAnother issue that came up in the design of Road to Damascus was how to track resources. The obvious way—frequently used in many commercial wargame designs—was to use a resource track, with a marker to indicate current values.

One day, however, we forgot the display sheet where resources were tracked, and I suggested that we use instead some of the fictional currency that I had in my office for another game. I thought that players holding bundles of fake cash would work nicely—after all, this is a conflict where various countries and intelligence services really do transfer briefcases full of cash to opposition commanders and weapons smugglers, so it recreated something characteristic of the real world. Almost everyone else felt that this was too akin to “Monopoly money,” and would be too game-y. In this case, the two options—track and currency—function equally well in a practical sense. Indeed, I think currency is a little easier to play with, especially in a game where players are allowed to transfer it to others. However, associated memories of currency as a component of “less serious” games won out.

80373e1fe5b81080b58827f9e6d27a60c2f55fedConversely, in our recent simulation of the refugee dimension of that very same conflict, there was no question that currency notes were the way to go. Using them allowed us to recreate experience of refugees carefully managing their scarce financial resources, as well as the necessary but sometimes degrading experience of lining up for cash handouts from aid agencies. A record card or something similar might have allowed us to more carefully track who spent what where for the debrief, but it just wouldn’t have contributed to the ambiance of the game in the same way.


The design of serious games is both art and science. As Peter Perla and Ed McGrady argue, wargaming in particular works in part by virtue of “its ability to enable individual participants to transform themselves by making them more open to internalizing their experiences in a game.” A element of that, they suggest, are the “kinesthetic cues” that players derive from moving through and playing with the game and its tangible elements. My observation here is that such cues are shaped to a significant degree by the prior experiences and preconceptions that players bring to the table. For some, dice are tools for adjudicating probabilistic outcomes, for others they are children’s toys that substitute blind luck for serious skill. Poker chip may be carefully engineered to stay stacked when manipulated, but players may imbue them with other meanings. When a player’s perception of game components differs from their perception of the game’s purpose and subject matter, it may jar them away from the intended immersive experience.

In short, game components aren’t simply mechanistic components of play, the value of which is solely determined by how well they enable game mechanics to be played. Rather, they can also deeply shape the ludic experience itself.

4 responses to “Not just bits and pieces: Culture, praxis, and aesthetic in game design

  1. dave 18/04/2017 at 2:44 pm

    “Recently I’ve been giving some thought to the ways in which the tactile and visual aspects of a game interact with player expectations and game mechanics to produce a ludic experience.”

    How about using a reasonably sized font on your website? I had to zoom 150% just to make it readable.

  2. brtrain 28/02/2015 at 9:24 pm

    Another extension of the “it has wooden bits, so it can’t be a wargame” non-argument was applied to the GMT COIN system. If we’d given them little cardboard chits with brigade and division ID numbers and pictures on them, and NATO box symbols, but rated everything “1” and changed nothing else, some people would have gone away happy!

    (In fact, some guy did just that for the US pieces in his Fire in the Lake set: he assumed each US cube was a brigade and made up little stickers of division insignia for people to apply to theirs.)

    But I agree with you and Nick; the right kind of tactile, tangible components can help a lot in a game’s acceptance. Another reason for my fundamental disconnect with computer games: not only can I not redesign them, I can’t even touch them.

  3. Rex Brynen 28/02/2015 at 1:05 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Nick! You’ve probably also seen the studies done comparing the different play experience of digital and boardgame versions of Pandemic:

  4. nicklalone 28/02/2015 at 11:37 am

    Thank you for these links and this post! My own dissertation is related to this concept albiet at a more….I guess meta level.

    There is an interesting article on the impact of pieces called, “To Virtualize or Not? The Importance of Physical and Virtual Components in Augmented Reality Board Games.” from Ip and Cooperstock. They approach virtualizing gameplay though their pursuit of the impact of tangible components is very much related to this.

    Click to access 2011-ICEC.pdf

    Whereas traditional games have employed entirely physical interfaces, computer games provide a generally virtual alternative. Motivated by interest in supporting conventional gameplay in the computer environment, we investigate the benefits of game interaction techniques based on gestures applied to tangible objects, comparing the user experience with that resulting from more virtualized interaction. Our study is applied in the context of a basic roll-and-move game and German-style board game, Settlers of Catan. User preferences and quality of player interaction, revealed through our experiments, suggest a number of important design factors relevant to the decision of digitization for game interface components. Significant findings indicate a preference for tangible components for complex interaction tasks.

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