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Scores and Gaming

Thoughts on game scoring systems, which help make a game a game.

I recently played Cortex Command, a 2D game similar in some respects to Terraria except rather than being built with blocks, it is built with pixels. You are a brain in a vat, and you can control soldiers and robots to assault against another brain in a vat (also in control over forces).

It took a bit to get into the game, to get a feel for it. It does have a tutorial, but the initial experience is rather clunky until you get a feel for it. The tutorial only gives a sense of what the game is. It’s a game about digging (you can mine gold to buy more forces) and assault in a pixel-destruction environment.

The tutorial has a small pile of dirt you dig, with gold in it, but in my first attempt it wasn’t clear how much digging I would be doing in the game. They should have buried an object to dig for, just to make the point clear.

It’s a fun enough game, once you learn the ropes and begin trying the combat challenges (called scenarios). But it doesn’t quite gamify itself enough.

I’m currently playing AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome, which is another simple enough game. You jump off a starting point and fall down. You get points for falling close to buildings, among other things. But A for the Awesome has something going for it that Cortex Command lacks: a point system. That’s really all it took to make something that would seem about the same (a fun mechanic without a lot beyond it) into a game that has more depth. Counting up the scores at the end, and seeing what points are needed to get five stars really gives the game a different element that it needs. A challenge, something to dig for.

In many games, there is a narrative structure that provides that challenge. And there may be upgrades that the player can seek out along the way. But these goals, these challenges, are what makes it a game. It’s not just a simulation, but it’s a mountain to climb.

That’s what Cortex Command seemed to lack. It didn’t track points. How did I do last time? Can I do better this time? The past didn’t exist. It was a blank slate every time. That lack of continuity, of any kind of goal, made it less of a game, less likely to draw you back to try again.

It was still a fun enough experience, once you got into it. Same with The Long Dark‘s survival mode in some ways (though they have a story mode that’s really great). Surviving can go on for ages, but every time you start it’s a blank slate again.

Maybe The Long Dark‘s survival mode could add a version more like what A for the Awesome does. I believe they are working on more challenges, which are separate from both survival and the story. Anyway, fun games. Time to go jump some more.

Gamify Poverty

We can work to treat social problems more effectively by creating games that are designed to drive patients toward the goals.

How it would work isn’t clear, but it’s an intriguing idea: handle complex social problems by turning them into games, with the stakeholders as players and the remote goals left alone in favor of incremental achievement. It could work for many different social and political problems, but today I will focus on poverty as an example.

When someone is impoverished, they might sign up for foodstamps and other forms of welfare like Medicaid and housing assistance. The Republicans want to add more and more work requirements, strings attached to try to help them escape poverty in order to receive assistance. As though the problem of poverty is as simple as “get a job.” And then, of course, you have to balance assistance against wages earned to try to keep people from being better off staying poor than working a dead-end job, and it’s quite a messy problem.

One of the key features of gamifying is to offer both group achievement opportunities and individual achievement opportunities. Some respond better to one than the other, so having both is important. Thus, a person in need of assistance would either be assigned or would choose and join a group of others (likely at a mixture of stages along the route away from poverty) and would work with them on certain tasks.

They would also have individual tasks, with the possibility of individual achievement (and thus reinforcement). Because part of the problem with the current model of poverty-assistance is the fact that people can do the right thing and go wholly unrewarded, heightening the chance they will fail (i.e., an unreinforced positive behavior tends to be extinguished).

Bootstrapping the current welfare model, for instance, a person receiving $1 of assistance by default should receive $1.10 if they look for job opportunities, $1.20 if they research particular opportunities, $1.30 if they fill out an application, $1.40 if they go to an interview, etc. Instead of work-fare, it should be game-fare.

Similarly, for public housing, there should be some amount of discretionary spending allocated, which residents can use in their group (either a floor or a building or whatever pod-size makes sense) for improvements. The data from these events can be used to evaluate the sorts of improvements that will benefit other public housing areas, as well as provide the residents with experience in making improvements for when they have their own homes.

All of this can go atop some sort of score-keeping system, so that the assisted can track their progress, finding ways to improve their scores that also help them escape poverty. By formalizing it into a game, you get a ton of data that can further improve the game and you get a plethora of reinforcement opportunities where the assisted can see their actions resulting in some tangible gain, even if only in game points.

This same model could be used in many other areas, such as Veteran reintegration, prison reform, helping people with medical problems (“the diabetes control game”), and so on.

The biggest obstacles to this sort of reform are probably:

  1. Calling something a game may be misperceived to be making light of a serious situation.
  2. Politicians are preternaturally opposed to good ideas.

Inline Grading Politicians

Some thoughts about the use of inline-grading of politicians on partisan sites.

In my effort to diversify my political news reading, I’ve been occasionally seeing articles from conservative sites. Some of them have a pretty neat feature: they tell you right after an elected politician’s name whether you should like or hate them via a site called “Conservative Review” with the feature being called the “Liberty Score.”

Now, political reporting has long included a tag of loyalty (“Jon Smith (R-America)”), but this new-fangled tag shows just how committed to everything conservative an individual is, in the form of a percentage. So you can see, reading an article on a site using this that, for example, Ted Cruz is 97% conservative. They don’t say what he’s 3%, but we’ll just assume it’s bad. Or, you can see that Bernie Sanders, at 17%… wait, 16% (did it just change while I was typing this?) is practically an unperson by conservative standards.

They give the letter grade, too, if you hover over it. Sanders gets an F, which is basically a participation trophy. Liberty-lovers are supposed to hate participation trophies, though. But there it is: Sanders <(Participation Trophy Recipient) right there by his name, when you hover.

All of this is a sophisticated method for avoiding phrasing like, “Bernie Sanders (pinko) said…” or “Hillary Clinton (infidel) …” That sort of stuff, outright saying what your side thinks of the other, happens, but there is a risk that people will have to read what you write. With the little fancy number tags, which will probably be replaced with signal-strength-style bars soon, they just have to look at that bit. Maybe happy-face, frowny-face. I’m sure they’re focus-grouping it.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: is this the forehead (or back-of-the-hand) stamp that we were warned about by that fancy book with the talk of dragons and God? The mark of the beast? Don’t worry! I am sure there’s some eschatological site that is currently using similar technology to markup their texts and the Liberty Score probably only rates about 10% as a sign of the end of days (they get a participation trophy for their participation trophies).

Point is, this is great for journalism. You’ll soon be able to log on, click a donkey or an elephant, and have all your news done with emoticons. You’ll be given either a rifle mouse cursor (for the conservatives) to shoot the enemy, or a picket mouse cursor (for the liberals) to protest the enemy long enough that they flee.

Maybe they could give the Clinton and Sanders supporters some validation-failed stamps for their latest circling on who isn’t qualified to be president.

On a more honest note, though, boiling the totality of a person down to a number is best left to the financial industry. It has no place in political reporting. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see it being done.