29 1 / 2013

Ehrmagerd! Berks!

Ehrmagerd! Berks!

25 1 / 2013

Microscope session - 23 Jan 2013

On Wednesday evening I had a good Microscope session with Stuart Candy, Julian Waters-Lynch and David Hood.

It was the first time for Julian and Stuart, and the second time for David. Stuart had the advantage having read the rules, and also being familiar with scenario-based planning and experiential futures practice.

The premise was to “play the game on its own terms”, and avoid thinking too hard about real world applications.

Interestingly, the group still wanted to play a fairly realistic game, with possibilities limited to what seemed plausible on our planet and in our universe. The time frame was starting “roughly now” and ending within 100s or 1000s of years (though time might have expanded). The basic story components were (from memory):

  • Overarching story: Humanity achieves equilibrium with nature
  • Start: World War III
  • End: Humanity rewakens to a re-wilded world after a period of stasis
  • First focus: Dolphins

A big takeaway for me is that the game is simply hard to learn to play. There’s a lot of feeling your way into it. We didn’t get very far into the game; just one trip around with me as the focus. The collaborative negotiation during the setup was somewhat challenging.

At the end, we fudged it a bit, and took a crack at stringing all the pieces together in a way that felt like it made sense. Basically, after WWIII scorched the earth, humans moved into underwater colonies. The underwater time in the underwater colonies was the “stasis”. The dolphins were actually intelligent aliens (sound familiar) who played a role in shepherding humanity through this.

Stuart reflected that there many existing scenario planning tools that were simpler to use, and perhaps more effective at getting to useful scenarios. Microscope might be more useful as a “practitioner tool”. I think that’s right. I just wonder if maybe there’s something else I’m looking for in all of this.

Overall it was fun, with lots of laughs, but I don’t feel like I have any clear learnings yet. We’ve all agreed that we are keen to play again, which is good. I’m struggling to formulate a clear hypothesis, but I think that playing again will help with that.

I’ll be awarding some points to the players, and they have the chance to win even more points if they comment with their reflections and share photos here.

21 1 / 2013

Anonymous said: Hey Matt - Twitter rounded me back here, which is a nice thing. Great to see you randomly throwing a little RPG into some strategic meetings when they are going a little slow. The discussion about Microscope got me thinkign a bit about game systems. Have you explored much how game systems and decision making systems align? I refer mainly to my experience across a range of roleplaying systems that i think all serve different types of play/decision-making: ran out opf char. but we iust talk more.

Hi anonymous, how can I get in touch with you to learn more? In response to your question, this is an area I’m just starting to get my head around. Most of my experience with decision-making is in the context of policy and strategy. In a sense, any time an organisation initiates a policy cycle, they are starting a new game, the object of which is to create shared value. It’s up to the players (the citizens, industry bodies, politicians, etc.) to use the tools they have available, within the rules (or outside them) to “win”. My sense is that RPG systems can help in the way a simulation might: if I make these moves, then I’m likely to see these outcomes.

05 1 / 2013


One of the most exciting discoveries in my research so far has been the game Microscope, by Ben Robbins. It’s tagline is: “a fractal role-playing game of epic histories”. That’s already really gripping. Here’s more flavor text from Robbins’s site:

What is Microscope?

Humanity spreads to the stars and forges a galactic civilization…

Fledgling nations arise from the ruins of the empire…

An ancient line of dragon-kings dies out as magic fades from the realm…

These are all examples of Microscope games. Want to explore an epic history of your own creation, hundreds or thousands of years long, all in an afternoon? That’s Microscope.

You won’t play the game in chronological order. You can defy the limits of time and space, jumping backward or forward to explore the parts of the history that interest you. Want to leap a thousand years into the future and see how an institution shaped society? Want to jump back to the childhood of the king you just saw assassinated and find out what made him such a hated ruler? That’s normal in Microscope.

You have vast power to create… and to destroy. Build beautiful, tranquil jewels of civilization and then consume them with nuclear fire. Zoom out to watch the majestic tide of history wash across empires, then zoom in and explore the lives of the people who endured it.

Mock chronological order.

Defy time and space.

Build worlds and destroy them.

A role-playing game for two to four players. No GM. No prep. Microscope was playtested for two years by over 150 awesome gamers.

I’ve only played the game according to its proper rules once, and it was definitely fun. It’s got a bit of a learning curve, so for a good experience, ask your players to read the rules before arriving (unless they are story-gaming regulars). There are about 80 pages of rules, but they are clearly written with great examples.

I also dived right into attempting to apply the game to real-world scenarios. I’ve done this twice.

I’ll give a very quick overview of the game, and then say a bit about those.

About the game

This picture shows a well-underway game of microscope. 


Gameplay starts with a collaborative process of deciding the basic overarching story to be told, e.g. “Doom of the Gods”.  This step includes the ‘palette’, which lists the things that are encourged and prohibited in the universe of the story (e.g. magic is encouraged, but aliens from other planets are not allowed).

Following the initial setup, the mode of play shifts to turn-taking. This is the exciting part, because each player on her turn has ultimate power over what happens next. They can make anything happen in the story, as long as it does not contradict something previously established.

Using index cards and a marker, players take turns creating ‘periods’ (large spans of time, covering lifetimes), ‘events’ (self-contained location-specific occurences, but still fairly large scale, like a battle) or ‘scenes’ (discrete interactions between characters). Scenes are always nested within events, and events within periods.

As explained in the descriptive text above, storytelling is non-linear. Players can jump back and forth in time, inserting new periods, events or scenes. It’s always possible to drill down further into a particular part of the history.

There are lot more game mechanics that ensure the game is fun and robust. If you’re intrigued at all, it’s well worth the $9.95 to download a PDF from Robbins’s site, even just to read the rules.

My adaptation

My immediate intuition was that this simple framework could easily be adapted for collaborative planning purposes in the real world. The system has the potential to be scalable, and serve as the basis for crowdsourcing knowledge about various contexts and scenarios. A couple of tests I ran were revealing.

1st attempt

The first attempt was fairly informal, with a couple of friends on a Saturday night. We tried playing the proper games rules, but with a reality-based palette (i.e. “scientifically plausible” only). This led to an exploration of how humanity might “transcend individualism” over a 10,000 year timespan, starting from “more or less now”.

The idea of a “scientific plausibility” is hugely problematic, and the focus on the real world creates an uncomfortable tension between simply playing the game and worrying about actually solving real problems and being accurate.

Overall, it didn’t work very well, but it was clear that there were some possibilities there using the basic game mechanics to facilitate a group process. 

2nd attempt

The second attempt occurred in a strategic planning session with some fairly senior executive types, and my boss. I did it off the cuff, at a point when I felt the meeting was stagnating due to a lack of shared mental models and shared vision for the future. I was fast and loose with the rules, but leveraged the turn-taking mechanics and basic game framework (periods/events/scenes) to make the exercise move ahead quickly.  

It brought a lot of energy back into the session, and helped us outline a lot of common ground. The game’s historical framework provided a space in which each participant’s “pet issues” could be integrated and addressed within the context of the others, instead of the usual group dynamic in which each person is using up the oxygen to foreground the things they see as most important. After about 40 minutes, we all had much deeper agreement about what needed to happen next.

This exercise benefitted from a much more a limited timespan and slightly narrower focus, as well as the fact that we were already fairly committed to working together on a large-scale change project. Also, after an initial turn-taking period, the session devolved into a more informal period in which we all rearranged the order of the cards and explored different sequences. This helped clarify the relationship between the many components of the future story we created.

Next steps

I’m now trying to organise a game with some local folks who have their heads in the Play to Decide headspace. We’ll play the game in its intended form, and use that to imagine how it could be adapted (and then, if there’s time, have a go at an adapted form).

From this, I’m hoping to formulate a more concrete hypothesis about how the game could be adapted. I’ve already chatted with a few folks about the possibility of playing the game using a wiki, and adding a step in which players upload evidence (case studies, data, reports, etc.) to support the scenarios they are introducing.

Interestingly, the pointer to Microscope came indirectly. Play to Decide commenter Mike Sugarbaker suggested that Ben Robbin’s upcoming game “Kingdom” would be interesting to me. If it’s even half as relevant as Microscope, it will be epic. I suspect, though, that it might be even closer to my focus, as the title suggests that it is more relevant to large organisations. I’ve also enjoyed reading Robbins’s game design blog, Ars Ludi.

More updates to come on this part of my explorations…

04 1 / 2013

Applied Gaming, Natron Baxter

A few months ago, I was invited by friend and co-conspirator Stuart Candy to a talk by Matthew Jensen of Natron Baxter, a consultancy that designs games to solve real problems. In his funny and fast-moving talk, Jensen served up a mixture of concepts, frameworks and case studies that have helped me get a better sense of the state-of-the-art in the space I’m exploring.

There’s lots to take away, but I’ll mainly share some notes I found most relevant to Play to Decide.

  • Applied Gaming: Natron Baxter prefer this term to the popular “gamification” as a description of their field. 
  • Jensen likened the idea of gamification to “chocolate-covered broccoli”. It attempts to mask the problem rather than address a situation holistically through systems design
  • Young people today have already gamed for thousands of hours by the time they enter the workforce, and there is a deep shared understanding of gaming concepts
  • Life is a game. We are already playing: optimising, trying to win, just trying to have fun, etc
  • Games are a great way to put people into a ‘flow’ experience. They are immersive
  • Contextual Inquiry is an important part of the applied gaming design process, in the early stages
  • Rethinking “Alternate Reality Games” as “Emergent Reality Games”, emphasising the co-creative aspect
  • There is a tension between applicability and accessibility (i.e. the more realistic or scientific the game, the less fun it is likely to be)

  • Many of the games are related to behaviour change. There raises an ethical dimension. It’s less about rewarding good behaviour (skinner box) and more about creating a space for players to construct their own new reality.
  • Natron Baxter clients, who host the games, are asked to sign a “Declaration of Player Stewardship” to avoid an exploitive relationship
  • Applied gaming always involves a participatory design proces with the players
  • Easy wins include reputation, recognition, “thank you boards”, etc. Also, simply asking players to complain for a while leads to a lot of insight
  • Clients that want specific outcomes need to develop a tolerance for failure. This is an early part of the design process
There was a lot more good stuff in the talk, and I would recommend anyone organisation interested in this space to contact Natron Baxter. Seems like they’re setting the pace here. Their site also has lots of good ruminations, and links to case studies.
Perhaps the most applicable case study for Play to Decide purposes was an early example that Stuart and Matthew worked on together in Hawaii. Coral Cross was an Alternate Reality Game simulating a global pandemic, focused on its effect on Hawaii. It was essentially a consultation tool to garner input from citizens to help decision-makers formulate policy and strategy.
Some informative posts on this:
Probably a lot more to dig into here, and into the work of Natron Baxter generally.
  • This is a huge and promising field, and there will be a growing market for large-scale games hosted by large organisations, where those games serve some strategic agenda.
  • At the same time, there is a broader emerging capability for applied gaming, with an emerging set of pattern languages and frameworks. This will lead to a democratisation of this capability.
  • The necessity of deeply involving players in the design of the game was reinforced. However, the focus on scalable and reusable games and products reduces the emphasis on building broader capability on applied gaming. I believe that moving to authentic capability-building is usually the next step in any for-benefit context, but is a step that requires deep trust and shared vision on the part of client and consultant.

04 1 / 2013


After a very busy quarter, and a restful break, I’m resuming this project. I’ll start with a few catchup posts that I’ve been meaning to make, and then will focus on defining the project more clearly. I also hope to spend more time playing games and even prototyping games this year.

19 9 / 2012

Anonymous said: Why don't you add an "about" link/page? As a newcomer to the blog, it's hard to understand what the core idea is.

Great suggestion, and I’ll do that in the next few days.

Meanwhile, this early post is the best representation of the core idea:


18 9 / 2012

Anonymous said: Something like the "adulthood" game, only with dice and paper? Might be worth turning maturity into a fun RPG. I will have to give this some thought and research, because similar games have probably been produced. Real life possible scenarios and skills development could be a possible element. -K

Sorry, is there an existing “adulthood” game out there? I’m not sure I follow…

18 9 / 2012

Notes on RAND’s “Enhancing Strategic Planning with Massive Scenario Generation”

Earlier I posted a research paper by the RAND Corporation entitled:

Enhancing Strategic Planning with Massive Scenario Generation
Theory and Experiments

by Paul K. Davis, Steven C. Bankes, Michael Egner

Overall, I found the piece very helpful for my thinking around Play to Decide. This is in large part because the piece lightly outlines a general framework for large scale strategic planning, as practiced by nations and corporations. It does this in service of explaining RAND’s novel experiments in “massive scenario generation”.

This post just pulls out some of the highlights, and explains how they relate to Play to Decide.

First, strategic planning

Strategic planning serves many functions. These include conceiving broad strategic options creatively, evaluating and choosing among them, defining in some detail strategies to deal with coordination and integration, implementing those strategies in complicated organizations, and preparing leadership at multiple levels of organization both for as-planned developments and for dealing with potential contingencies. 

But it’s in their theory and techniques that I see the interesting overlaps with Play to Decide ideas:

this report presents a theory of how to use models and computational experiments to help understand the full diversity of possible futures and to draw implications for planning. That is, the intent is to confront uncertainty and suggest strategies to deal with it. The techniques used are what we call massive scenario generation (MSG) and exploratory analysis (EA).

I can see that the same techniques employed by RAND could be used to generate gaming scenarios, allowing larger numbers of participants to potentially engage in the process of strategic planning.

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13 9 / 2012

Alternate Reality Games and Authentic Learning Activities

A couple of people pointed me to Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). According to Wikipedia:

An alternate reality game (ARG) is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform and uses transmedia storytelling to deliver a story that may be altered by participants’ ideas or actions.

The form is defined by intense player involvement with a story that takes place in real-time and evolves according to participants’ responses. Subsequently, it is shaped by characters that are actively controlled by the game’s designers, as opposed to being controlled by artificial intelligence as in a computer or console video game. Players interact directly with characters in the game, solve plot-based challenges and puzzles, and collaborate as a community to analyze the story and coordinate real-life and online activities. ARGs generally use multimedia, such as telephones, email and mail but rely on the Internet as the central binding medium.

The format is used primarily to promote blockbuster movies and video games. The Dark Knight recently used this with great success, as documented in this YouTube video.

The Wikipedia article also references some Serious ARGs, such World Without Oil:

World Without Oil is an alternate reality game funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and ITVS. It’s an online game, with the premise that we have reached peak-oil. The site features a ‘reality dashboard’, which shows fictional gas prices, fuel shortages, and other metrics for chaos, suffering and economic impact for different parts of the country, updated every day. The aim is to investigate the many possible socio-economic outcomes of running out of oil, and to entertain at the same time.If you want to get involved, then you are invited to write blog posts, create videos, take photos and use any other means necessary to document what life is like in this fictional post-oil world. The idea is half-fiction, half investigative process - the game’s motto is, ‘Play it, before you live it’. 

The idea of a ‘reality dashboard’ fits with the system modelling approach laid out in the RAND article on Massive Scenario Generation posted previously.

Perhaps the most interesting case so far was Alternate Reality Games for Enterprise Education. Simon Brookes (@pompeysie) is a Senior Lecturer at Portsmouth Centre for Enterprise at the University of Portsmouth. He runs a 12 week educational alternate reality for business students. There is an excellent webinar, or you can check out the slideshare if you haven’t got 90 minutes to spare.

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