Friday, June 3, 2011

Of Forsight and Fourth Graders

Recently I was linked to a video where a teacher describes his efforts to teach world politics to fourth graders. He does this by means of a complex "World Peace Game". I came away from the video with two distinct impressions:

That game can't be nearly as effective at generating solutions as he claims


Nevertheless, I would so love to play it.

The problem with that game, or any game really, is that it's always an imperfect simulation of reality. While I give plenty of credence to the genius of fourth graders, there has been quite a lot of World to go around for quite a long time, if the solutions were that easy someone would have implemented them already. So I suspect that the way he models his world in the game makes it deceptively easy to come up with solutions.

When you make a game, you're making a simulation of how the world works. Or how the world works if you've got spaceships flying around, and wizards casting fireballs, and if you were the head of a major bank. Or some such. But necessarily your model of reality falls short of reality in some ways. At times this is inevitable, at times it is necessary for good gameplay. I've seen dozens and dozens of comics asking how a murloc with just a wet loincloth can be hiding Svuthos, the Bulwark of the Damned. And why you can then shove a tower shield that spiky into your belt pouch and be not at all encumbered for your next fight. I've written a bit about that sort of sacrifice of realism in pursuit of good gameplay already. But sometimes it's inevitable.

How exactly does magic work? You say some strange words, you make a mystic pass with your wand, and presto bango someone's a newt. Which strange words? What exactly is a mystic pass? Will any old bit of lumber work as a wand? Since we don't have magic in our modern world, these are things that people make up as part of their world building. More subtly, just what it takes to kill a charging bear is subject to your worldbuilding; maybe the player's machete is enough, maybe a howitzer would be more appropriate. (Scratch that, a howitzer is always more appropriate. Bears.) This only becomes an issue if you're going to construct real world solutions from your model.

A while back I was really impressed by Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Specifically, the game did very will with confusion of war, people shouting, smoke and guns firing and so forth. And playing the game, I got very proficient at picking people's silhouettes out of rubble and cover. So I wonder, will the game make it easier to transform your mouse jockey into an actual soldier? To an extent; that's a useful skill and all, but your mouse tells you nothing about the recoil of a rifle, and sprinting across a virtual field doesn't prepare you for sprinting yourself, and trying to stay alert at the edge of exhaustion. While you can get useful results from your model, you always have to keep an eye on where your inputs and outputs don't match the real world.

So back to the video; he mentions that his fourth graders solved global warming in ten minutes. How? He doesn't say, probably because his topic is on the game and the fourth graders, not specific world problems. But the solution the fourth graders came up with is necessarily dependent on what the teacher thinks is an acceptable solution. In the real world, would Cap and Trade solve the problem? Having seen the numbers, I'd say no, but the professor might disagree with me. Therefore a class of fourth graders might use that solution, and be credited with solving the problem, even if it wouldn't solve the problem in real life.

Take as the clinching example his description of the last second game victory. Full of drama, unanticipated solution and all. It makes a good story, but it illustrates the problem with the model. The game could only be won if all countries were better off than they were at the start. Why? Because that's the sort of solution we hope for, not the sort of solution that necessarily happens. Carthage had salt sown into it's fields. Rome stayed a prosperous nation for what, a millenium after that? I'll grant the sense that we all lose in war, but in the more classic sense, Rome won, Carthage lost. The world peace game was won in that situation by a donation, and in that sense I admire a clever use of resources, but it clearly doesn't demonstrate a real world solution, since the real world doesn't have a 'game over' point.

With all that said, there's much that's awesome about this game. I'm still fascinated by the idea of persistent, long lasting and complicated games. As you can no doubt tell from the Terrible Secret of Space. I'd love to play it, to set my hand against the problems of the world, and show all you miserable cretins that you don't truly know problems yet... Sorry, letting my megalomaniacal tendencies get the best of me again.

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