Theory: Environment-Influencing Games

When we previously talked about games with an environmental element, the discussion focused on how the great outdoors could affect play. The game would change based on the weather or the season, with the components taking account of the ambient temperature. However, feedback doesn’t need to be one-way, with the state of the world driving the game. It’s possible for the influence to run in both directions, with the world altering the game—and the game encouraging players to influence the world.

Imagine as an example a civilization-building game. New technologies in this hypothetical game would be based on the actual progress of human knowledge. Traveling to other worlds might be a victory condition, just like it is in the Civilization series—but the technology to accomplish that wouldn’t be available just by spending a certain number of turns researching jet propulsion. It would need to be achieved by actual scientists.

The incentives that would create are, I think, really neat. It’s a game where success involves both good play and finding ways to contribute to NASA’s Journey to Mars program. Winning the game requires getting involved in an amazing real-world feat.

Now, I’m not a rocket scientist and I’m not sure how much of a contribution I could really make to space exploration. However, a game like this needn’t be quite so lofty. In the spirit of thinking globally and acting locally, it could be designed to look for things the player could more readily impact.

Envision something like Batman: Arkham City, except based on the player’s home town. (Or perhaps some other town—a pre-set map of New York City or Paris, or some such.) The overall conditions in the video game version of the city are based on conditions in that city. If the real-world city doesn’t have enough homeless shelters, the video game city doesn’t have enough either, and player won’t be able to cure poverty; a poor EMT dispatching system will limit the help the player can receive in-game. Building a virtual utopia demands building the necessary infrastructure in one’s own community.

Maybe that’s still too big, too hard to see the impact. What about a space-trading game where the amount of space debris is based on the condition of a local park? Less litter in the park means fewer pieces of debris. Getting good at dodging through space is valuable, but to really make money and move up the leaderboards you have to keep your park clean so that you can have lots of ships flying safely on autopilot. Or spread to a new system by taking on a new park. The rarest minerals and most exotic trade goods are in the hardest-to-reach places, so you’ll want to choose one with a lot of litter to be cleaned . . . .

Going down this path involves lots of design problems. From a technical point of view, how would that last game know how much litter is in a park? Coming at it from a design perspective, what fun in-game activity is the player engaged in, so that the whole exercise isn’t just a transparent effort to get people to clean up a public space? (Not that transparent efforts to get people to clean public spaces are bad, but we’re trying to make a game here.)

Nevertheless, I’m really excited to explore this avenue of design. Games are so often viewed as a centripetal force, pulling players into fictional spaces and drawing them away from the greater realm of human accomplishment. I have to think that there’s potential in games that could serve in the opposite role, flinging players out into the world with the goal of making it better.