game concept: addiction to information

July 1, 2009 by nicolas, tagged videogames and hedonism, filed under works

Learning vs Creating. A delicate balance.

Supergame Bakedown 2008

As 2008 started, I decided to participate in a month-long game creation competition. While it was not a high-profile competition with promises of prizes and fame, I saw it as an opportunity to commit myself to make a game.

Making a game.

It came to me as I wondered how to develop one of those ideas I can’t quite express with precision.

In particular, one which has obsessed me a great deal these past two years is our relationship with the acquisition of new information (knowledge) and especially its conflict with the act of creation.

A demo did not appear to be the best medium for it. Interactivity would help to convey the emotions I was familiar with. Or so I hoped!

The idea of the game very shortly put is to tell the story of the relationship between mankind and information.

It’s about translating the pleasure of learning new facts, new beliefs. These could be truthful or not, important or trivial. The matter is not about truth but about the emotion of learning.

Another idea I wanted to convey is the addiction we sometimes develop towards this acquisition of knowledge, especially as civilization evolves and let us grasp an ever expanding world of information.

And finally, central to the concept was the idea that creation serves as a counterpart to the acquisition of knowledge. The painful, yet necessary behaviour of translating knowledge into new forms.

When things are difficult, use the simplest path

The draft logic of the game was written in a darkened room, in a bar more exactly, to the sound of the weirdest combination of flamenco and traditional japanese music.

Despite my attempts, one month proved too short of a timeperiod to complete the game. This did not stop me to release its last working prototype (2.8Mb)

The control scheme is the standard computer mouse. Only the first button is exploited, and represents an extension of the player over a two dimensional world.

This world is populated with two different types of objects: tokens and portals. Tokens are of differenting polarities, and can be grabbed around and attracted by the invisible hand. Portals are immobile objects that can be fed with tokens.

The player’s performance is recorded in the form of a numerical score, whose formula attempts to make them:

  • feed as many tokens as they can to the portal
  • feed as many tokens of the same polarity in a short time period

Tokens represent facts to be learnt. Polarities represent the compatibility of those facts. Learn two many incompatible facts (paradoxes) and they cancel out.

And that’s about it. The prototype did not touch on the creation aspect of the idea, nor did it represent the relationship of facts together, nor the different models of knowledge acquisition.

An economic model of learning and creation

The full unrealized concept was like so:

The goal is to represent two human traits that I regularly notice in myself and others. The (diminishing) pleasure of learning, the (rewarding) pain of creation, and how they balance each others out.

The first trait is the pleasure we derive from the acquisition of knowledge. That pleasure does not seem linked to the truthful nature of the information we acquire, rather it seems derived from a certain degree of novelty. We appear to derive this pleasure with very quick sequences of new experiences. For example, beaming randomly a sequence of pictures every 200-500ms.

Although we crave novelty and would quickly call the experience boring if it does not entertain us enough, we also crave for a certain similarity.

Knowledge is represented in the game as tokens that the player acquire and select, seek and gather.

Score would at first appear to increase with the acquisition of knowledge, and the experience of gathering tokens should be pleasurable and full of little details. However the score would be influenced by the quality of tokens we acquire. For example, acquiring couple of paradoxical tokens (one fact and its inverse taken as true) should impact score in some negative way.

Also a too high rate of acquisition of token would have progressively diminishing returns on the score, as information gets understood more and more superficially as it is acquired massively.

Another important factor to consider is information that cannot be processed at all. Often, a piece of knowledge can only be learned when the learner is already very close to understanding it. This would lend itself pretty well to a videogame mechanic.

Another trait I would like to cover is the human experience of creation. The creative act which transforms our environment.

Knowledge enables us to act on the environment, to create. This creation reflects itself into a modification of the outlook of the game’s playground: the originally flat display would start taking twisted forms; the outlook would get more sophisticated and detailed; new elements of knowledge (tokens) would be introduced into
the environment as combination of previously acquired tokens, ready to be eaten back; new special objects would get introduced such as wormholes, walls to constraint the flow of knowledge.

Chosing to act/create would first appear to come at a cost, slightly decreasing the score.

However doing it is necessary for a player to restore the possibility of score being increased by the acquisition of knowledge: it would reset the negative diminishing returns of acquiring new knowledge.

Using those two main traits, the player would be confronted with various playgrounds, each representing different stages of civilization.

At first knowledge is difficult to obtain, and can only be acquired through an active search of the environment.

Then as levels and civilization progress, knowledge is stored and obtained from increasingly large knowledge stores (churches, libraries) able to release tokens with a certain speed. The player, however may not always have the right to access the most truthful or consistent stores of knowledge.

In the early stages, those knowledge stores can only slowly produce tokens: slowly enough not to negatively impact the score too much on their own.

The final stages would represent our current state of information-sea, with a constant flood of tokens which would have to be avoided in some way to avoid negative impact of the player’s performance. This, as a manifestation of our current civilization where each person is submitted to an endless stream of factoids, in such amounts that he may have to make an effort not to encounter them.