PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Imaginetic Announces the Imaginetic Diversity in Gaming Bursary

Imaginetic and I, its founder Thomas Fisher, proudly endorse the Derby House Principles of diversity and inclusion in professional, serious games.

Imaginetic is determined and focused on inclusivity, while cultivating the best talent across the spectrum of humankind. As such, beyond thoroughly endorsing the Derby House Principles, we would like to put our money where our mouth is:

Imaginetic is announcing the $1000CAD Imaginetic Diversity in Gaming (IDIG) Bursary, in the spirit of the Derby House Principles, to encourage a more diverse gamescape in the field of serious games and wargames. Focused on the development of serious games talent, the bursary will be awarded to a student drawn from historically underrepresented groups in serious gaming: women, sexual and gender minorities, disabled persons, and persons of colour, who is pursuing post-secondary studies pertaining to serious games, their design, facilitation, and research.

We at Imaginetic are proud to play whatever part we can in broadening the spectrum of opportunities, viewpoints, and experiences in the current and future serious gamescape.

Deadlines for applications is September 30, with the Bursary to be awarded to one candidate in January 2021.

As an applicant, you should be a student from a historically underrepresented group in serious games, enrolled in a recognized (accredited) post-secondary educational institution, pursuing an educational path that includes the development, design or research or serious games (tabletop or digital).

Apply here: http://www.imaginetic.net/idig/

https://paxsims.wordpress.com/derby-house-principles/

Serious games – Humanitarian User Research

 

In December, PaxSims’ own Tom Fisher (Imaginetic), and Matthew Stevens (LLST) were contracted by Save the Children UK to develop a research project on the potential use of serious games in humanitarian aid training.

With the help of their team: Johanna Reynolds (LLST), Bianna Proceviat (Imaginetic), Catherine Benedict (Imaginetic), Sterling Perkins (Imaginetic) and Alejandra Espinosa (Imaginetic), the research delved into existing academic literature on the subject and held several workshops in Amman, Jordan; Nairobi, Kenya; and Montreal, Canada.

The workshops in Amman and Nairobi focused on humanitarian aid workers, from various backgrounds with direct experience in humanitarian aid. Montreal’s workshop served to provide contrast with a population of students, with comparatively little to no direct humanitarian aid experience.

The workshops consisted exclusively of game playing sessions with debrief, both digital and analog formats, without specific course materials or lessons. Simply the lessons learned from the gameplay and short debrief were used to impart knowledge.

Participants from 11 countries participated in the live workshops and from 21 countries in online surveys. 68% of the participants identified as female, while 32% identified as male. Most participants (90%) had at least a Bachelor’s degree, and education played no significant role in the perception of the learning experience or the tools used.

The culmination of the project was a report and webinar delivered on April 24 to Save the Children UK staff.

Some Key Findings

  • 96% of participants demonstrated an ability to learn from games in the humanitarian context
  • Participants were able to retain many lessons learned even up to 45 days post workshop (with no repeat play)
  • Participants were significantly more able to clearly identify lessons learned from analog games than digital games
  • Participants significantly more likely to retain information learned from analog games than digital games
  • Good debrief was identified as an important part of the learning process
  • Neither gender nor culture played little to no role in participants’ ability to learn from games
  • 85% of participants identified games as being more effective than powerpoint presentations or lectures*
  • Language ability is, however, a driver in the ability to identify and retain lessons
  • Technological challenges are an impediment to distribution and implementation of digital games-based learning in the field

Conclusions

In the context of Save the Children UK’s needs, and this project, we came to a number of conclusions regarding the use of serious games in the humanitarian context. Feedback from participants, as well as observed data was absolutely fundamental in pinpointing focus moving forward.

  • Serious games are an educational tool, not the only tool:
    • Games are not necessarily better than other educational tools used to impart knowledge*, despite participants’ evaluations of games as being more effective
  • In order to be most effective learning game must identify and promote specific learning outcomes
  • In most circumstances, specific learning outcomes should be unlocked or revealed as quickly as possible
    • In the case of digital games, unsupported by debrief, this is fundamental, lest the player abandon the game without achieving the desired purpose
  • Proper implementation of the User eXperience (UX) through good User Interface (UI) design is fundamental to the game experience
  • Learning games are more effective when they are smaller in scope, clear in intent, and aim to teach a limited number of learning outcomes
    • The new KISSS principle: Keep it Simple in Scope and Small
  • Humanitarian learning games must be built around sound data and real-life realities, rather than convenient assumptions
    • It is important to explore mistakes
    • It is important to confront difficult issues
  • Reflecting the point above: learning games should provide a safe-to-fail environment, both in the game context (ability to learn and try again) and an organizational one (failure is an opportunity to teach, not scold)
  • In the novel context of serious humanitarian games, a crawl ⇒ walk ⇒ run approach must be used:
    • start small, and work up to larger initiatives
    • shinier is not always better (but can be devastatingly expensive)

*No credible research exists that identifies games-based learning as being a uniquely better conveyor of information than other, well-delivered, learning methods. 

Further detail can be found in the webinar, and report.

Tom Fisher of Imaginetic (tfisher@imaginetic), and Matthew Stevens of Lessons Learned Simulations and Training (mstevens@llst.ca) can be contacted for any additional information.

Webinar and Q&A link: webinar video

PowerPoint: SHARE COPY Serious Games Webiner Consolidated

Serious Games – Humanitarian User Research report (Screen PDF): Save the Children UK Serious Games Humanitarian User Research_Interactive Screen Display

Pandemic response game icons

In order to assist the designers of pandemic response serious games, I have compiled and prepared a set of 68 COVID-19 themed game icons. These are available in zipped folders in three graphic formats: jpgs, pngs, and transparent pngs.

We typically use these in conjunction with 25mm or 37mm disks, the latter being the size included in the Matrix Game Construction Kit. These can be formatted for 3/4″ and 1″ Avery labels respectively using Avery’s excellent online design application and label templates. However, you can use them in any way you wish for the purposes of education and scenario analysis relating to the Covid-19 pandemic.

For further resources, see PAXsim’s COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.

Design Matters: Tiny Epic Zombies…and Glasses

Design Matters: A series on matters relating to design, and why design thinking matters.

Rex Brynen and I recently play tested Rex’s brand new copy of Tiny Epic Zombies. Our ensuing after-play discussion got us thinking about the game and certain common, irksome points we thought were design pitfalls to be avoided in any games, whether destined for the entertainment market, or geared toward the serious gaming and educational spheres. Thus the idea of Design Matters was born.

Tiny Epic Zombies – A Game of Brutal Survival
www.gamelyngames.com
www.gamelyngames.com/tiny-epic/tiny-epic-zombies-deluxe

Watch it Played
https://youtu.be/O9u8VXz8u80

I LOVE Gamelyn Games. I do. I own every single one of their games, love the concepts, adore the themes, am awed by the artwork, thrilled with the simple —yet engaging— rulesets: all in small inexpensive packages.

I say this, because, while I do enjoy the theme, concept, and art, Tiny Epic Zombies presents a few significant —avoidable— problems that should come as a lesson to all game designers.

Size matters.

Tiny Epic Games are not small, by any means, in their effect or entertainment value. Where Tiny Epic Zombies’ (TE:Z) size is lacking is in its small font.

Graphic design is about much more that making something pretty. The fundamentals of graphic design deal with visual communication; the key word being communication. If information is not being clearly, and effectively, communicated it can severely impede gameplay. If this is an intended effect, to frustrate or slow players down, it can be an effective tool. Unfortunately, in the case of TE:Z it is not. Sometimes icons, or text are impossible to read at any reasonable distance.

From a graphic design perspective: parts of the rulebook, certain objective cards, some mall map cards, TE:Z comes up short. This author and Rex Brynen both had difficulty discerning the text on certain cards without picking up the card and playing with the distance, necessitating glasses, adjusting glasses, removing glasses, or resorting to using the magnifier function of my iPhone to read some text. In one particular case it was absolutely impossible to discern what icon was being used on an objective card. Not difficult, not challenging, but impossible. The font size used on the Investigate the Source Objective Card —for example— was simply too small. The print resolution would not allow for the icon in the text to be seen as anything other than a circle with a blob. This inexcusable error in graphic design was immensely frustrating, and forced us to work backwards, trying to figure out what the icon could possible be. The design decision to go with such an impossibly small icon is confounding and frustrating.

It is always important to remember that —particularly— in game design, form should follow function. Games enjoyment, and engagement depend so much on a suspension of disbelief that any shock to the system that brings us out of the game experience will have an associated detraction from said game experience. Stopping the action to peer over a card, squinting to read text is anathema to a positive game experience.

Contrast this user experience (UX) with the thoroughly adorable and fun ITEMeeples Gamelyn produces for TE:Z. ITEMeeples, are iconic, specialized, plastic avatars with holes in them to place “reminder” items on a player’s character piece, representing weapons. While fundamentally unnecessary to gameplay, they add so much enjoyment and fun to the UX, and suspension of disbelief (“no, I really am carrying a chainsaw!”) they become an intrinsic piece of the game experience and enjoyment. They are so intrinsic to the positive game experience, their creation and inclusion in a number of the Tiny Epic Games makes one wonder how we ever gamed without them.

This fabulous attention to detail in this particular aspect of the game experience, while ignoring the game experience in another should serve as a cautionary tale to game designers: everything matters.

Location, location, location

The Echo Ridge Mall is the nexus of this little slice of this apocalyptic zombie outbreak. It is beautiful, with a richness of art that I admire tremendously.

However, in our play test this richness in detail sometimes became problematic. Each of the separate “stores” has any or all of: its own written rules box, objective placement icons, room numbers, or secret passages. These elements get lost in the richness of the art at tabletop distances. If our two player test had troubles, I can only imagine the difficulty five players, huddled around a large table in a semi-lit room would have discerning what they were supposed to do o a given card. Certainly, after one has played through a few rounds, the card-store effects become second nature, but having to pick up a piece of the map in order to read what you’re supposed to do, displacing items, meeples, and tokens is problematic.

1528240027632Further, unlike other Tiny Epic Games I’ve played through, the precise placement of the cards can be quite important. Each of these store location cards is divided into three rooms, which are bordered by thick walls. Each card, in turn, is bordered by this same thickness of wall, creating a discrete, modular store. Eight (8) of these stores surround a central courtyard in a layout as pictured below. Gamelyn produces a TE:Z Gamemat and online visual aid to lay this out.

Where other Tiny Epic Games’ card-location is only important insofar as where they are placed relative to each other (adjacent or not), TE:Z’s location-cards are placed and played directly against one another. This impacts movement, shooting, and card legibility.

The problems with this scheme are many fold:

Some cards will be placed upside-down. This would not matter except for the fact that many rules are written on the location-cards themselves resulting in a situation where many cards’ rules will be upside-down relative to the player. Add to this the font-size problem discussed above and early play grinds to a halt as players jockey for position to read a card, or have to pick up said location in order to proceed.

This, in turn leads to another —fiddly— problem: position matters. Each location card has one main “opening” or entrance, otherwise it is bounded by a solid-line wall. Players may move through walls, as they are presumed to find or make gaps through (strangely weak?) mall walls. If players pick-up and replace location-cards, jostle location-cards during gameplay or accidentally shift their position in any way, this can dramatically affect movement, shooting, tactics, and approach to gameplay. The Gamelyn-produced TE:Z Gamemat-for-purchase addresses this somewhat, but this particularly fiddly scheme could have been more easily solved with a simple graphic element — an alignment arrow in the middle of each card edge.

As walls are so fundamentally important to the gameplay, it struck us as very strange that all walls were clear, and of uniform width except for the central courtyard walls. Where all location-cards’ rooms are very clearly delineated by thick walls or uniform width, the central courtyard is divided into five (5) sections by markedly thinner walls. These walls are so different, we didn’t even consider them walls when playing through the game in our play test. Only upon careful review of the rules did we realize, thanks to a simple qualifying statement (p.8 “*Note: the Courtyard has 5 rooms*”), that these were meant to be walls, and the courtyard was not simply one large room. This would have substantially altered our game outcome. The lack of consistency in the application of this design element is inexplicable to me.

The decision to go this particular route with location-cards (stores), has another side-effect: The playmap neither looks nor feel like a mall. Referring back to the suspension of disbelief and user experience (UX) design discussed above: a decision was made to create this particular schema that took Rex and myself out of the game. When something doesn’t feel like what it is expected to be, there is a cognitive disconnect that occurs that informs gameplay. This can be a powerful tool when implemented properly, or a distracting nuisance when accidental. The result was —for us— a persistent feeling that something didn’t quite feel right.

Dissociative Personality Disorder (AKA I can do what?)

On that same front, we questioned the abilities of a number of the Player Cards. Not so much the abilities themselves, but the abilities associated with the names of the Player Cards.

User experience (UX) is a tricky and very particular aspect of any game design to master, largely because it relies on fickle and finicky human emotion, response, behaviour, and expectation. Designers can use psychology, the senses, and numerous devices to shape this experience. Gotten right, a game’s UX can overcome many a shortcoming. Gotten wrong it can detract from the pleasure of play.

There are specific instances where the player has a reasonable expectation of what a particular Player Card should allow the player to do:

Athlete Card: enables greater movement
Burglar Card: expanded item acquisition powers
Mechanic Card: better at repairs

When this expectation (Based purely on Name) meshes with the effect of a particular card, the result is pleasing and harmonious: a triumph of UX design.

When this does not:

Fry Cook Card: somehow make less noise?
Photographer Card: ending your turn in a store with 2 zombies results in finding ammunition?
Scientist Card: if any other player kills three or more zombies gain ammunition?

a disconnect results while questioning the meaning/source of these effects. While not insurmountable, the unintended consequence of a naming convention and the resultant cognitive dissonance when an effect does not match one’s expectation is entirely avoidable.

If these Character cards were named for persons instead of a specific role —Mary instead of Photographer— there would be no (reasonable) expectation of effect: why can’t she, instead, see things better with her zoom lens —improving search— for example. While this won’t break a game, it will distract, and distractions of this type will almost always lead to lessening enjoyment. Anytime a player begins questioning what the designer was thinking, the player is out-of-the-game.

What Went Right

The above should serve as cautionary reminders to PAXSims’ community of game designers and enthusiasts: every aspect of a game needs to be considered. A solid theme/idea/ruleset is not enough, a designer needs to communicate clearly and shape gameplay with intention or the game experience can suffer.

However, when you do get things right —as Gamelyn often does— you can create great experiences.

Excepting the above, TE:Z remains an enjoyable game because what it gets right it gets really right.

Some design shortcomings aside, the game art is —simply— fantastic. The clear theme carries throughout the game and spectacular card and box art. The game’s art direction truly sets the stage for the coming zombie apocalypse. Before the players even open the box, the stage has been set, then reinforced. Gamelyn, in my view, always gets this right. This is the campy, fun, zombie game experience you want with the pièce d’art of the contemporary gaming world: ITEMeeples.

ITEMeeples add so much fun and thrill to the game that no tiny pieces of plastic have any business doing —they are near magical. The excitement of attaching a chainsaw or assault rifle to your character meeple is reminiscent of opening a surprise gift. Completely unnecessary to the rules, this component-based element of UX is beyond spectacularly fun. Add a police car or motorcycle into which you can literally place your ITEMeeple, and you’ll be making engine noises while moving your pawn like you did when you were pretend driving in the back of your parents’ car as a child. This level of engagement clearly demonstrates how well-chosen and designed components can directly impact the game experience. (A phenomenon we harnessed in developing MaGCK, using iconic images as aides-memoire for matrix gaming)

Objectives (excepting some of their card design problems) are largely fun affairs where the ongoing challenge of risk-reward balanced against time constraints and a little bit of greed (but I really want to pick up that bazooka in the other store) played out —for us— down to the wire. The game seems to achieve a great balance of ramping up danger, while keeping you on the edge of your seat with interesting choices. Developing appropriate challenges and choices shape the game experience and flow, great care was taken in creating and testing these objectives, I am certain.

Once you get into the groove of the gameplay (one or two full turns to get up to speed), the game progresses quickly, satisfyingly ramping up intensity. If not for the distractions discussed above, the play is near seamless, with decision points to test each player’s resolve. Ease of access, understanding, and a gradual learning curve benefit this (and many) game greatly.

The card-based AI work very well. We played cooperatively without a Zombie-player, and the anticipation of each end-of-turn search-card’s resolution kept us in some suspense. I look forward to playing a larger, competitive game with the full complement of 5 players to note the differing experience. (clearly knowing each location-card’s ability will be fundamental to this, I believe) Scalability is a great aspect of the game: playable by one to a full complement of five players.

Overall, while not my favourite Gamelyn gameplay experience, Tiny epic Zombies remains a game I would replay. For PAXSims’ readers’ purposes, the game does illustrate a number of avoidable design pitfalls that should be considered by game designers and producers:

Design matters:

We can see, in the example of TE:Z, it is not enough for a game to be pretty (but sometimes, it certainly helps!). While great visuals can immediately engage players, clarity and legibility are fundamental in rules layout, design, and ability descriptions. Form must follow function. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to read a rule, card, ability, or effect.

Consistency is key. A lack of consistent application of design elements can —and often will— lead to misunderstanding and misplay, affecting the overall game experience. Design must be purposeful and mindful in order to lead the player to the game experience the designer wants. Any lapse in this regard will have unintended consequences.

Expectations must be mindfully considered and managed as they will form an immediate opinion and impression. If something looks out-of-place it creates an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, which —if purposeful— can be a powerful tool —if accidental— will detract from a game and risk running it off the rails.

Components and visuals can have tremendous positive impact, when properly implemented, or detract from gameplay when applied carelessly. The purposeful use of media will have an important impact on a game. (As discussed at Connections North in the presentation Grand Designs – Design Thinking in Games)

An accessible learning curve, geared toward the target player creates ease and comfort, allowing players to engage in the game quickly. The faster a player can integrate the rules into their experience, and simply engage in the theme of the game, the more effective the game will be.

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