Great ideas

Games to increase understanding about emergent social systems

This proposal is to create one or more games to help people, particularly students, recognize and understand emergent, interdependent social systems. Such systems are an integral part of the creation and growth of human communities from families to cities and states. The games will enable multiple people with disparate, often conflicting goals work to build a community together. This will involve balancing their goals against resolving shared difficulties and keeping the community alive.


The benefit of playing these games will be an increased understanding in how to work with others within emergent social systems. Those who master these games will be better equipped to grapple with the interplay between the multitude of issues facing us as a country and a planet, and to do so without falling prey to narrow, linear thinking.


The games contemplated as part of this proposal are already in prototype form. The final form as proposed is a set of both physical (board/card) games and online, multiplayer worlds where players learn to balance working toward their own goals with working for the overall good of a nascent community.


Additional Details

One of the most important and yet poorly understood skills for this century is systems thinking: the ability to understand how diverse parts fit together to form larger wholes, and how these systems behave in non-linear ways based on their inputs and constituent parts. Examples of systems include those from everyday experience like traffic jams and flocks of birds, to larger-scale ones such as those behind global climate change, the financial collapse of 2008, and even political ideology and gridlock.


Unfortunately, most of us find it difficult to recognize and understand systems-level effects happening around us. We tend to assume that a small input or action will have a correspondingly small effect. We tend not to understand how systems behave, how a small change in one area can have a large effect in another, or how patterns can emerge from unrelated parts within a system. In our increasingly interconnected global society this is a recipe for disaster, as recent events have shown.


Games are themselves interactive systems; part of what makes a game enjoyable is the emergence of unexpected relationships between different parts and different players’ actions. Games are unique in this regard, as no other form of entertainment has the ability to interactively create emergent systems in a way that encourages exploration and learning.


As such, games offer a unique approach for increasing recognition and comprehension of systems and emergent behavior in both physical and social systems. This is exemplified in games such as SimCity, long recognized as a valuable educational tool while still being a fun experience. However, games such as this remain limited in significant ways: they tend to be single-player and single-viewpoint (e.g., in SimCity you are always the Mayor), and they tend to sacrifice systemic effects for simplicity of simulation. As a result, existing games provide only limited opportunities for players to explore and build a mental model of complex, emergent systems.


The games to be built as part of this proposal are fully multi-viewpoint, where no one person has a preferred frame of reference (i.e., no pre-defined Mayor). All players will have to work with the underlying game-world systems and with the other players to achieve their goals, balanced against maintaining and growing their community. The balance learned between pushing for one’s own goals to the detriment of the community, or conversely suppressing one’s own goals for the good of the community (and necessarily other individual players) is a key component to understanding the dynamic nature of working with physical and especially social systems.


22 votes
Idea No. 26