Francisco Souki

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Hello, my name is Francisco Souki and this is my design journal for the Values@Play class.


Class 1:

Class of January 25th, 2010.

What was the experience of using the Grow-a-game! cards like? Was it difficult to brainstorm values in the game that you selected with the cards? How so?

The Grow-a-game! cards are very easy to use - or shall I say they are very easy to learn how to use. In my personal experience, however, I found myself forgetting what each card was supposed to represent and ended up mostly brainstorming game designs based on the base ideas (or gestalts as I heard Doris Rusch refer to them once) of the words written on the cards. For example I would forget about the fact that verbs were supposed to be driving the main mechanics while still including that action in the design. Of course, verbs being verbs, the main mechanic would more often than not end up being related to that verb, but that was not part of the constraints that I personally imposed.

Did this help or hurt the games? Did it help or hurt the ideas? I can't really say, but my intuition tells me that in my particular case it helped. I would still focus on the value card being the driving force behind the design and centered the brainstorming around the value.

Using the cards, how was it to try to use the mechanic to represent the value?

It was very exciting. In my eyes it is an exciting challenge to search for mechanics behind every concept. I firmly believe that almost everything can be translated into mechanics and I find it very engaging to break complicated concepts down to their primal elements in order to represent them using mechanics. The fact that additional cards introduce additional constraints makes it even more exciting since the constraints make it easier to find a suitable solution and to streamline the brainstorming process.

What was it like to explore values in games with group members? Did any emotions come up (for you or anyone else) as you spoke about games and values?

No emotions came up, but at the same time it was evident that most of us were not willing to take the conversation to a deeply emotional level. The fact that we were doing quick brainstorming sessions prevented us from truly evaluating our position toward different values and I am sure that as the course progresses we will start peeling off layer after layer of emotional perception while finally reaching a point where we are willing to openly discuss all the factors involved in the design of a game centered on a value. We will need to do so if we plan to design truly engaging games that deliver a message.

For the out-of-class video activity:

Having taken a random value card (Diversity/Tolerance in my case) find a moment of gameplay in a game that exemplifies or communicates said value.

How difficult was it for you to discover an example of this value in a game? Have you ever done anything like this before (analyze game elements for value content)?

I had very rarely analyzed games for their value content. I usually am on the lookout for game mechanics and game moments that affect me emotionally or that are especially good at transmitting a feeling or a message, but rarely is that message connected to a value.

At first I started thinking about Diversity as a value and I looked for games that communicate the fact that we are all different and that our differences are an asset as opposed to a problem. I quickly realized that it is very common for a game to promote a sort of "diversity" in the sense that they will present the player with different identity choices.

Take, for example, the Civilization games, where the player must choose from among a number of different nations the one that they will embody, or belong to, for the duration of the game. The representation of diversity here is very literal, with the player choosing from different cultures the one that they identify with the most. The problem is that the value gets watered down because the player will usually make his choice based on what game advantages a particular civilization will grant him. However, Civilization does make a point of attempting to translate a nation's cultural characteristics to game mechanics, thus making the player's choice be based on game data but reflected in a cultural choice. If I choose the Aztec nation because they build better temples, I am embracing the Aztec's respect and devotion towards religion.

However, at the core of the mechanic, how is this different from choosing a particular character to use in a match of Street Fighter IV? The decision ends up being more strategic than anything else and I believe that in the player's mind it translates as a mechanic that reinforces game balance, not diversity. Even though the spirit of diversity is embodied in such games, the weight of the mechanic seems to fall more on the side of game balancing than on the side of communicating the value.

Games like Puerto Rico and Citadels (the former a board game, the latter a card game) make players choose a character to play as, or role to take every turn. A player's turn will be different (and he will have different benefits for the turn) depending on what character he or she chooses, and on any given turn most characters must be chosen by any one player. The result of this is something very similar to the previous examples, where diversity is bound to balancing, but it also makes players more aware of the choices the other players are making and the characters they will represent for the turn. The interactions between the different characters tend to be of great importance in these games and so players see how their actions affect the shared areas of gameplay as well as other players directly. At the end, this model approaches a little bit more that of a diverse interaction that also explores the surface of tolerance, since players must coexist, their interactions determined by their roles that turn.

Finally it is another board game, Settlers of Catan, which does a good job of expressing Tolerance. In Settlers players must race to be the most successful colonizers of an island (Catan). While players are racing towards greatness, there is not much that they can do to directly affect each other. They can block resource production in some sectors of the board, expand aggressively or try to take economic advantage of their fellow settlers, but the truth is that there is not much in the way of direct interference that they can do to each other. In other words, they are stuck on this island and they must coexist geographically with their 3 opponents, hoping that their expansion plans don't get in the way of anyone else's. In the end it is an exercise in tolerance in the sense that coexistence is inevitable. Players must learn to balance their own needs and goals in an environment where other players are trying to do exactly the same - and chances are they will get in each other's way. Even though it doesn't necessarily promote tolerance, it does place the player in a position where they must reconsider where their boundaries end and where the other players' begin.

Do you think that others might see this value represented in the game?

When it comes to the Civilization-Diversity example, I do believe that it is a literal enough representation to be appreciated even by the players who might not be looking for it. In the case of Settlers of Catan-Tolerance I do not believe that the regular player is too aware of whether the game communicates tolerance or not.

Do you think that the game’s designer(s) thought consciously about the value being reflected in the game?

When it comes to Civilization I would say that yes, they thought deliberately about how to communicate diversity. Again, this is a very literal example and so it is evident that the designers studied the different civilizations and tried to accurately represent them within the frame of the game and the systems it offered. When the player is presented with the choice of which civilization to represent, they are aligning their game goals to the different cultural characteristics offered by the different available civilizations, thus embracing the fact that all civilizations are different and that none of them is better or worse than the other, they are just different.

As far as Settlers of Catan goes, I truly believe that either the value of tolerance or something very similar was taken as inspiration for several of the game mechanics. As I mentioned before, negative interactions between players are very rare in this game where all settlers are forced to coexist and attempt expansion in a small island. The nature of the game will make it inevitable for players to clash geographically and economically, but these conflicts cannot be settled with violence since the players will always remain neighbors. The only choice left for players is to attempt to adapt faster to the workings of the island in terms to become the most prominent colonizer on it.

How did you make the connection between game elements (narrative, rules, or mechanics) and the value?

In the case of Civilization the narrative is very explicit of the value. To promote cultural diversity they present different cultures: it is not a hard connection to make. For Settlers of Catan, I attempted to dissect Tolerance as a value and find what ideas lay at its core; I found that to me tolerance meant coexistence and respect and so I tried to remember a game situation in which I was forced to coexist with the other players.

Class 2:

How challenging was it to discover the value that you are using for your prototype? How did you settle upon the value? What makes this value important to you? To society?

The value that I selected randomly in class was Security/Safety. It was very challenging to discover this value because I have a lot of preconceptions and strong feelings tied to it that none of my fellow designers can probably identify with since they are closely tied to the place where I grew up, back in Venezuela.

With my hometown, Caracas, having become a nearly unlivable place due mainly to social and economic insecurity that reflects in an insanely high crime rate, I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the selection of this value. However, I attempted to break it down to its base elements and dissect it in order to extract elements that I could translate to game mechanics.

Values in games can arise from many sources: narrative, character representation and backgrounds, the game environment, mechanics (constraints and affordances), and underlying rules, to name a few. Which elements of your game design will represent the value that you have chosen? Why have you chosen these elements?

My game focuses on the day to day life of a regular family, in which security is mostly represented as the underlying constant of the family routine. Players represent different members of the same family who must manage their time in order to get all of the family chores accomplished in the day, including getting to and from work.

When the chores and tasks start piling up, the security of the family nucleus starts getting threatened by the inability to perform all of the tasks, thus upsetting the safety of the family relationship. In the game security and safety are represented by the soundness of the family relationships as well as the stability of the family routine.

How have stakeholder values been appraised and integrated into your design?

Class 3:

How has your value been operationalized?

Were there any disputes among group members while trying to determine how to represent your value in the game? How did the disputes arise? How were they resolved?

No disputes arose, though I did get very valuable feedback in terms of how effectively my value was being represented.

Initially, when I presented my first concepts, the feedback I received was that portraying the situation of insecurity in Caracas (which was my initial goal) would be very hard to pull off, especially in the short amount of time allotted to design the game. I then proceeded to strip down the design of the game and arrived, after several iterations, at a stable prototype.

After presenting that prototype to the class, I received very positive feedback, but also the consensus was that the game needed an extra risk and chance factor that gave the decision-making process more weight. I realized then that I had removed the game too much from the insecurity of the Caracas chaos, creating a stable and predictable game system. Thus, I added back some of the risk factors, re-introducing the "calamity cards" which players must draw when taking particularly risky decisions like going after dark to the more shanty parts of town.

Class 4:

How did your group handle conflicts around values representation in the game?

As I mentioned before, the main conflict I had was that I was making very little progress with the initial representation I chose for my value. I focused on trying to communicate the difference of life in the US when compared to life in Venezuela, focusing on (the lack of) security. It turned out that I was trying to make too many points at the same time, since I was trying first to convey the feeling of what a secure and safe family life could mean and then trying to modify the same conditions in order to communicate the difference in society.

When I decided to simplify the process and focus on only some of these problems, I finally struck a design that I was happy with.

How did your group respond to critiques from other groups? Did you need to reconsider and design elements for values representation?

I believe the group was smart about incorporating critique into the iterative process. The ETC philosophy is that of embracing both feedback and iteration, so critique and the consequent redesign is part of the process that we are used to working with. It is what makes the iterative process so valuable.

Write about your overall experience in this unit. What was it like to focus on embedding values as you designed a board game? What were the most challenging aspects of considering how to represent values? What were the most enjoyable aspects?

The bulk of the challenge came from the need to represent a value, an issue and an action in the same game. Inevitably one or two of these will get priority and so in terms of representation the game might end up a bit lopsided - which is not a bad thing.

Something that kept bugging me when designing the game was determining how much I was willing to sacrifice fun in order to make a "serious" game. Serious or not, fun is a core element of what makes a game a game and making decisions that deliberately strip the fun from your game in order to reinforce the message could mean that you end up with a statement rather than a game.

However, the fact of having a triple constraint driving the design of the game made the process highly enjoyable. One of the design philosophies that I agree with the most is that constraints foster creativity because they force us to find a creative solution. And the bigger the constraints, the more creative we must be in our problem-solving. In that sense, I feel that I could only have imagined the game I designed if I had to work with those constraints.

Have your thoughts or attitudes about the concept of values becoming embedded in games changed at all since the beginning of the unit? If so, how? If not, why not?

They certainly have. For example, I have watched and re-watched every bit of information available about Brenda Brathwaite's game, Train, and am still trying to figure out how I feel about it. Taking this game as an example, on one part it delivers an incredibly strong message but the other side it does not conform exactly to the conventions we have come to associate with the definition of what a game is. Thus, games become an inspiration for a medium to very strongly deliver a message but a game like train may very well just be an interactive experience posing as a game. We call it a game because it is what it resembles the most to us.

However, Train is a game that was clearly designed with the sole purpose of delivering a message and, as the designer states, the mechanics of the game ARE the message. It is possible, and we have proved it in the course, to find representations of values in several mainstream games out there. It is usually hard to determine whether these values are embedded intentionally or if we, eager to discover them, develop senses so keen that we discover values that go beyond the developers' intentions. However, the sole fact that they are there and we are able to spot them means that we can deliberately design our games with these values in mind.