Simulation As A Way of Knowing: First Reflections on Will Wright's Keynote at the 5th Annual Innovations in e-Learning Conference.

It’s not everyday that one gets to swoon as a big time fan boy. Will Wright spoke at the Innovations and e-Learning Symposium and I had the chance to stake out a spot right in the center of the room and soak up a bit of Wright’s visionary gamer visions. Beyond making some of the biggest games of all time (SimCity, The Sims, and Spore to name a few), Wright is also one of the most thoughtful game thinkers around. Below are a few of the pieces in his approach to his sort of games that I think are the most interesting/ innovative/ and crucial.

picture-20

1. Simulation itself is a powerful, and constant way in which everyone understands the world. We are always creating models of what will happen, how people will react, based on our schema’s and our experiences which ultimately inform our actions.

2. The games he builds create possibility spaces. You make your own stories, you have the ability to restart and take a different branch. On a very basic level this like the branching narrative you get in those old chose your own adventure novels. The bigger sandbox worlds we see in things like Civilization, The Sims, and GTA offer much more sophisticated multidimensional trees, but the concept is the same.

3. For Will when gamers play games they are actually reverse engineering the game as they play it. While a parent watching their child play Wolfenstein might be taken back by the violence Wright suggests that Kids see the higher level of abstraction the power-ups, a door to the next level. In their minds its more like playing chess.  They are abstracting the grammar of these game worlds. Inside the mind of the player they are honing in on the elements, the design decisions, the mechanics that make the game work and testing their theories, making choices and taking the feedback the game provides to refine and improve those theories. In his opinion the “Best games are the games you keep playing after you walk away from your computer. The games you keep playing through in your own imagination.”

I have a lot of mental digestion to do on this talk, but I have one first thought. If we need to think seriously about the role of the reader when studying a text that need is at least ten times greater when studying the relationship between the gamer and the game. The possibilities afforded by the game are just so much larger. I have some more thoughts on this but I will pick them up later.

5 thoughts on “Simulation As A Way of Knowing: First Reflections on Will Wright's Keynote at the 5th Annual Innovations in e-Learning Conference.

  1. Frank Bennett

    Color me skeptical on the question of whether the imaginative possibilities afforded by gaming environments are larger than those of common or garden written discourse. It would seem to me that, viewed strictly as literature, games are likely to tap on a smaller field of the more intensely held values. The reasoning behind that thought is that, because success in the field is measured by mass-market appeal on an international scale, that would necessarily push authors toward scenarios and symbols with a least-common-denominator quality. National and local literatures of the traditional type are not subject to the same constraints, and can tap a vein of shared experience that runs deeper, with a sparser set of signals.

    In other words, the more significant factor in evaluating the role of the audience in the creation of the work may not be the mechanics of the two media, but the economics of their creation.

    Reply
  2. Rob MacD

    Jealous!

    "For Will when gamers play games they are actually reverse engineering the game as they play it. While a parent watching their child play Wolfenstein might be taken back by the violence Wright suggests that Kids see the higher level of abstraction the power-ups, a door to the next level. In their minds its more like playing chess. They are abstracting the grammar of these game worlds."

    Yes, absolutely. This is what I (stealing from Ted Friedman and Andrew Galloway) was trying to articulate in the second half of this old post.

    In a more contentious vein: "simulation is a powerful way in which to understand the world." Yes indeedy, but is it a good way? The simulating impulse can often be distorting if not destructive.

    Reply
  3. Trevor

    Great point Frank!

    the more significant factor in evaluating the role of the audience in the creation of the work may not be the mechanics of the two media, but the economics of their creation."

    While I would be willing to concede this point I think there is still much to be explored in the openended nature of the sort of sandboxes that these possibility space games offer. For example, a game like Civilization that provides the ability to mod the game with a bit of XML chops gives the entire world of players a wide range of opportunities to actually change the game experience. There are actually a lot of folks that are trying to rewrite the structure of these games to offer very different frames for viewing the world.

    Rob: I think your dead on on the distorting nature of simulation, but I'm not sure that it is that much stronger than the distorting influences that come through other modes. For example, written texts impose a level of linearity and order to stories that isn't necessarily there. At the same time one of the other points that Will hit home was that "Simulation is a great tool for spotlighting our ignorance of a system." The act of modeling, of representing, of simulating offers a very concrete, tactile means to test our ideas about the factors in a system. The end product, the simulation, often offers users a very visceral gut reaction to the assumptions behind the model which articulated in another format would not force the same reaction.

    Reply
  4. Shawn

    Trevor, Rob – simulation can be considered a kind of toy building. So when you build a simulation, what you end up doing is creating a model of your own understanding. Do it in an environment like Netlogo, and everyone else can look inside the black box too. And thus you get another articulation that crucial allows you to explore the feedback loops in your understanding, in a rigorous way.

    Reply
    1. Trevor

      Shawn, "when you build a simulation, what you end up doing is creating a model of your own understanding" this is a good point, but I don't think we know enough about how transparent those models are. There is some good evidence that there is something seductive about simulations.

      At this point, I think this actually speaks to a need for a new kind of literacy. What I would call simulation literacy. As more and more knowledge is being synthesized through simulation we need to make sure that people are doing the metacognitive work to distance themselves from the simulations, understand them as model's of our current understanding, limited by the mechanics of the simulation platform. The more transparent they are as tools for thought the better off we are.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *