Making a Game About A Real System Is Real Difficult

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One of the most exciting, and also daunting, parts of this process is that for the first time we’re applying the skills we’ve been developing over the last few years to a real-world socio ecological system. We’ve done a few mapping processes now, for a fictional beach town, a newsagents stands (that we realized afterwards didn’t actually exist), our friend’s theatre show and a music festival. But mapping the Flaten area, and translating that into a game, has brought a whole new set of challenges.

To start with, we don’t decide the rules. There are a lot of relationships in the Best Festival Ever system that exist because it’s useful to explain an idea. Or because it fits the story. Or because it’s easier. We decide how our festival works and why it works. We decide how many people attend, their behavior, what’s in the festival and what’s not in the festival. And we can be very open about that in the show for two reasons.

One, because it’s a silly music festival theatre game and for the most part everyone is happy to go along with driving trucks around picking up rubbish, because driving trucks around picking up rubbish is incredibly fun. There’s a contract between us and an audience that it’s okay for our festival to be a bit cartoonish, because that’s going to help the show.

Eliot knows how much fun it is

Eliot knows how much fun it is

And secondly, because BFE is a show about modeling complex systems. We talk about the choices we made in creating our show’s model to help explain the modeling process. “Our model isn’t very accurate,” we say. “For our model we decided to simplify this relationship.” “Our model is far too simple to demonstrate this, so instead we’re going to,” and so on. By talking about our decisions we can offer clear examples of a modeling procedure.

For this process though, there’s limited value in talking about modeling. It’s appropriate to acknowledge the decisions we‘ve made, but the goal of this show is not really to teach people about how scientists model. We need to find a balance between making the rules we need to for a game to be playable, and listening to the real-world rules of the area.

Another difficulty is that the pieces of the Flaten system don’t always fit together perfectly. It’s hard to find metrics common to multiple areas that operate on a similar scale. In BFE we were able to simplify our system so that nearly every game spat out values to two scores – happy audiences and garbage bags. This was made easier because most things in a music festival are working towards a common goal. But it’s tricky to find the common feedout from the decades-long natural processes of an oak forest and people disagreeing about BBQ techniques on a Summer afternoon. So this week particularly we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how different formats for our game can help it operate on multiple scales and have elements of the Flaten system interact with each other in a meaningful, satisfying way.

Real world systems differ from our fun, fictional systems in another way – they can get uncomfortable. There’s history in the Flaten region, specifically looking at the Romani’s relationship to the area, that has a gravitas we’re not used to working with. In the past we’ve found lighthearted ways to portray complex, serious ecological problems, but this is quite different. The way forward seems to be finding a way to acknowledge such groups within the game, but keeping that away from interactive and emotional moments.

And finally, a key difficulty with translating a real-world system into a theatre-game is that the Flaten area has no closed narrative, and no clear win scenario. Our music festival was an easy thing to make a show about because it happened over the course of a few days, and we grouped the audience on the festival’s side so there was a clear goal – the operational and commercial success of the festival. A music festival even has a clear climax – the headliner’s concert – that we paired with a disturbance to give the show a solid narrative shape.

Flaten, on the other hand, doesn’t have a real beginning (and hopefully won’t have a definite end). Other than Flaten continuing to be Flaten it’s hard to think of a pure ‘win’ scenario. This week we’ve discussed the value of building the show around a disturbance, such as a need to build new housing in Flaten, so that the audience have something to play around and react to – it’s easy to think of maintaining resilience as a common goal in such a scenario. We even talked about the idea of a mustache-twirling villain who wants to rip out the land and build an oil well. It’s silly, but it instantly gives a game clear shape, tropes to play off, something to rally against, and win/lose scenarios. But it is also silly.

I think this has serious potential

I think this has serious potential

These are just some of the challenges that come with working on a real life system. It’s difficult, but it’s also very rewarding to apply the process we’ve built to this new test.

How is our process developing as we learn to apply it to a real-world system?

– Nathan

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