Mechanics of Civic Games

After another great weekend of gaming, this time at PAX East, I, of course, have been thinking about what would go into a good civic game.

And just what is a civic game? Others might have different definitions, but I’d be inclined define that broadly as any game that increases a player’s civic skills, knowledge, or values.

And just how does any game increase someone’s skills, knowledge, or values around any topic?

Well, I suppose there are two broad elements which sets a game’s tone and thereby has the potential to impact a player: content and mechanics.

Content is what the game is actually about: are you in space? In the desert? Trying to survive the zombie apocalypse?

Mechanics is how the game actually works: Does the game rely on luck or strategy? Do you play with dice, cards, or other items? How do you interact with other players?

There is as much variety in styles of game mechanics as there is in types of game content.

It seems to me that a common failing of many education games is that they focus on content rather than mechanics – I have this information I want you to learn, and I “gamify” it with some set of game mechanics in the hopes of making learning more fun.

That’s actually kind of a backwards approach. The content of the game is interesting as a one-sentence overview: you are Little Red Riding Hood fighting zombie werewolves with a 9mm – but the mechanics of the game are what you really want to know:

How do I play?

And the mechanics of the game are absolutely critical in setting the tone and feeling of a game. The mechanics are what truly give a game its unique personality.

It’s not uncommon to hear people say, “I love that game, it’s got this really interesting mechanic…”

The mechanics are not an add-on that bring the content to life, the mechanics are the heart of the game itself.

And good mechanics, I think, are where civic games could really excel.

There is, of course, a whole genre of cooperative games – where players work together and either collectively win or collectively loose. There are semi-cooperative games, where players work in teams or form temporary alliances. These games may be inherently civic – forcing players to interact, work together, or perhaps to find mutual ground.

But, I suspect there are many more mechanics which could impart a civic lesson.

Take, for example, Penny Press. The content is simple: each player is a newspaper assigning reporters to stories and periodically going to press.

But the mechanics are great: there are different types of stories, and the public has different interest levels in those stories. If the public’s not interested in political stories, then the wise player won’t cover political stories – they’re not worth as many points.

Furthermore, public interest in a type of story is boosted by how many reporters are covering that type of story. If everybody’s writing about crime, public interest in crime will increase.

Finally, there are the mechanics of going to press itself. Stories are physically different sizes and you have to successfully lay them out within your newspaper. And you lose points if there are holes.

As a player, you find yourself thinking, “well, I don’t really want to cover sports, but…I need that story to make my layout work.” Even in this digital age, it’s not a bad approximation for the real impact of needing to manage resources.

“Newspapers” may be civic content itself, but it’s the game mechanics which really make it work.

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