Persuasive Games

Over at Institute for the Future, Mathias Crawford recently published a thoughtful essay on how games persuade us to change our behavior:

Ends vs. Means and Persuasive Games

Institute for the Future LogoAs (Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse) Schell points out (in a videotaped speech making the rounds this week), persuasive technologies like the Ford Fusion dashboard, are already being designed with game-like feedback in mind. To him these technologies fall short, however, because they are being engineered by people who are not game designers. If game designers would start to design reward systems that aimed to improve behaviors, we’d have feedback mechanisms that are much more enjoyable, and as a corollary that are much more effective.

Though I agree with his conclusion – that there is a clear need for people with game design expertise to design things that can help people improve behaviors – by focusing on creating technologies that aim to achieving measurable ends, Schell misses a much more important use of persuasive technologies: namely, technology that aims to influence means.

Mathias Crawford @ Institute for the Future

Via Boing Boing.

Ford Fusion dashboard: “Efficiency Leaves — Indicates short term efficiency. The more leaves and vines that are displayed, the more efficiently you’re driving.”

Ford Fusion Dashboard

Maryland Budget Game

I have a longstanding interest in games with practical real-world applications. For example, this budget balancer game, where you try to put the State of Maryland’s financial house in order:

Maryland Budget GameTravel to different locations on the main map. Each location represents a policy area (like higher education, revenues, or general government) where you can choose different budget options. Click on an option to select it. Click on it again if you change your mind.

… You need to pay attention to this year’s budget balance. Making the “current year balance” a positive number is what you are required to do under the constitution.

… Each choice you make will not only affect the budget totals, it will also affect your popularity with ten different interest groups. If you make too many of these groups too unhappy, it might affect your and your party’s political future badly.

~ Maryland Budget Map Game @ University of Baltimore

Via The Washington Examiner.

I’m reminded of Budget Hero from American Public Radio, where you try to balance the Federal budget.

Virtual Humans to Teach Emotion Recognition and Programming Logic

This looks interesting — !

Digiplay InitiativecMotion: A New Game Design to Teach Emotion Recognition and Programming Logic to Children using Virtual Humans

Publication Type: Journal Article
Year of Publication: 2009

Finkelstein, S. L.
A. Nickel
L. Harrison
E. A. Suma
T. Barnes

Journal IEEE Virtual Reality 2009, Proceedings


This paper presents the design of the final stage of a new game currently in development, entitled cMotion, which will use virtual humans to teach emotion recognition and programming concepts to children. Having multiple facets, cMotion is designed to teach the intended users how to recognize facial expressions and manipulate an interactive virtual character using a visual drag-and-drop programming interface. By creating a game which contextualizes emotions, we hope to foster learning of both emotions in a cultural context and computer programming concepts in children. The game will be completed in three stages which will each be tested separately: a playable introduction which focuses on social skills and emotion recognition, an interactive interface which focuses on computer programming, and a full game which combines the first two stages into one activity.

Digiplay Initiative

Philip K. Dick: android headHow very Phildickian: machines to teach children how to recognize human emotions. Martian Time-Slip comes to mind, with its teaching simulacra based on historical figures, e.g. the Abe Lincoln sim teaches self-reliance and related moral values. See also Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, where androids — living secretly among us — are more human than real humans. And don’t forget: We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Then again: We Can Build You. And, inevitably: The Simulacra.

In the gaming field, Valve deserves special recognition for pioneering the memorable virtual humans of Half-Life, Half-Life 2, and subsequent games. From elaborate models and scripted sequences to persuasive non-player AI to facial animation and voice sequencing, Valve has advanced game technology like no other company.

Halflife scientist administers CPR

The Great Game Designer

Paul Spinrad has posted some interesting thoughts about game design and real-world applications:
God reaches out to role playing gamers

I’m fascinated at how complexity emerges from certain initial conditions, and independent actors competing within those conditions — i.e. from a game’s rules and its players. It’s a magic meta-formula that underlies a zillion things.

Some day we may discover a formal test for playability– whether a setup will go nowhere or explode into interestingness. (Which is probably also a function of mental capacity– a greater intelligence might find chess as boring as we find Tic-Tac-Toe.) If and when these meta-rules are understood, and we can do things like simulate evolution to levels of real-life complexity, it should convince at least a few more evolution deniers. In Darwin’s day, when timekeeping was a leading geek-magnet, theologists described God as the Great Watchmaker. If there is a God, I think “The Great Game Designer” would be more accurate.

I’m mainly talking about paper games here. In the same way that mathematical formulas distill and express universal laws of nature, simple board/card games capture essential social phenomena — this is a major avenue of research in Economics right? Is there a game like “Monopoly” that distills the phenomenon of an investment bubble growing and bursting? Or a game in which competition between players creates an ever-expanding complex that grows to require all available resources, and constantly presses to extract more? If so, the rules of this game should inform legislation that might increase the efficiency of medical insurers, military contractors, and the like (which is what competition is supposed to do, but in these cases, there seems to be a rule or two missing that takes the systems into another direction).

There are many phenomena I would love to see or come up with essentializing games for, and most of them seem to fall under the categories of consensus, hierarchy, group affiliation, and mating. For different aspects of these, I have numerous half-baked notions about what a group of players in a room could do. For example, draw a new Tarot card every round, and then have to agree on a single narrative that includes all of them in order. Or build the most accurate model of what other teams know and don’t know about a selectively concealed array of random numbers, communicating only through severely limited bandwidth.

Paul Spinrad @ Boing Boing

Bacterial Prisoner’s Dilemma and Game Theory

This might be useful as a game design paradigm:
Bacterial prisoner's dilemma

Scientists studying how bacteria under stress collectively weigh and initiate different survival strategies say they have gained new insights into how humans make strategic decisions that affect their health, wealth and the fate of others in society. The authors of the new study are theoretical physicists and chemists at the University of California, San Diego’s Center for Theoretical Biological Physics. In nature, bacteria live in large colonies whose numbers may reach up to 100 times the number of people on earth. Many bacteria respond to extreme stress — such as starvation, poisoning and irradiation — by creating spores. Alternately the bacteria may ‘choose’ to enter a state called competence where they are able to absorb the nutrients from their newly deceased comrades. ‘Each bacterium in the colony communicates via chemical messages and performs a sophisticated decision making process using a specialized network of genes and proteins. Modeling this complex interplay of genes and proteins by the bacteria enabled the scientists to assess the pros and cons of different choices in game theory. It pays for the individual cell to take the risk and escape into competence only if it notices that the majority of the cells decide to sporulate,’ explained Onuchic. ‘But if this is the case, it should not take this chance because most of the other cells might reach the same conclusion and escape from sporulation.’


See also:

Prisoner’s Dilemma


Space Garbace Scow (should be a game!)

This isn’t game related. Space garbage is a serious problem, a life-and-death problem. Bob Cringely has given the matter some serious thought:

We have to gather the stuff and bring it back to Earth. But how?

I propose a space garbage scow.Space Garbage Scow

My garbage scow would use a very fine net to capture the debris and hold it. The net could be built from kevlar, but this week I’m making everything from carbon nanotubes, thanks, so that’s what we’ll use. Nanotubes have the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any material and would allow us to make a very large, very light weight net. Our point here is to make the net light rather than strong, since our capture speeds will be low and the lack of gravity ought to make it easy to keep the junk tethered together. The point of making it strong, then, is so it can be light enough to be big enough to maybe gather all the junk — all 18,000 pieces — into a single scow.

I imagine a seine purse-style net, if you know your commercial fishing. Launch the net into an inclined polar orbit generally higher than the space junk to be harvested. The polar orbit will ensure that eventually the scow will go over every spot on the Earth as the planet rotates below, but it also means the scow will eventually cross the path of every piece of space junk.

Here’s where we need an algorithm and a honking big computer, because this is a 3-D geometry problem with more than 18,000 variables. Our algorithm determines the most efficient path to use for gathering all 18,000 pieces of space junk.

I haven’t yet derived this algorithm, but I have some idea what it would look like. We’d start in a high orbit, above the space junk, because we could trade that altitude for speed as needed, simply by flying lower, trading potential energy for kinetic.

Dragging the net behind a little unmanned spacecraft my idea would be to go past each piece of junk in such a way that it not only lodges permanently in the net, but that doing so adds kinetic energy (hitting at shallow angles to essentially tack like a sailboat off the debris). But wait, there’s more! You not only have to try to get energy from each encounter, it helps if — like in a game of billiards or pool — each encounter results in an effective ricochet sending the net in the proper trajectory for its next encounter. Rinse and repeat 18,000 times.

It won’t always be possible, of course, to gain energy from each encounter, but that’s why we start in a higher orbit, so as energy is inevitably lost it can be replenished by moving to a lower orbit.

By the same token I think we would logically start with smaller bits of space junk so the net would gain mass steadily over time, then do the same again at each lower altitude. Eventually the net would have corralled hundreds of tons of debris, carrying it down into the atmosphere where atmospheric friction would eventually burn it all up in a spectacular visual display that would create a thin ring of fire all around the Earth.

It’s a crazy idea, sure, but it could work.

— Robert X. Cringely: Tossed in Space
— Via Slashdot

Then again, it should be a game. This is exactly the kind of situation where a game programmer could step forward and contribute to the solution of a real-world problem.

Somebody should make a flight simulator for the world’s first virtual Space Garbage Scow, the S.S. Cringely.

I’ll award the Handy Vandal’s Honorary Certificate of Merit to anyone who makes such a game!

I grew up on Asteroids … driving a garbage scow through a well-mapped volume of near-Earth space should be child’s play, compared to the random hazards and hostile UFOs of Asteroids.