Last week, we were honored with an Honorable Mention in the first Knight News Game Award competition, for our (pretty excellent) budget maze. The honor was made sweeter with the knowledge that our little maze — we estimate the budget at $65,000 — was up against a massively multi-player multi-issue networked news game project with a budget just over tenfold ours. With competition like that, an Honorable Mention is honor a-plenty.
All the finalists in the contest were invited to share their games at the Games for Change Expo where I watched a handful of people play our game for the first time, an edifying experience to say the least. The Budget Maze, for those of you who have forgotten since you played it last May and told all your friends about it, asks players to navigate a dreary maze of a dungeon that is the city budget process, in search of the key to the youth program they want funded. In keeping with Knight’s preference for free and open source software under the hood (all our games are available as free and open source software, but some are built on non-free tools) the game uses exclusively PHP, AJAX and jQuery to provide interactivity.
When we were designing the game, we were committed to keeping it “game-y” — a response to complaints about earlier games. Watching people navigate the maze for the first time, and chatting with the experts in game design as well as in pedagogy who stopped by our table, I realized that we had gotten perhaps too caught up in our ideas about what a “game” should be, maybe at the expense of making a good learning experience.
One thing I saw while watching people play is that the maze is far too hard to navigate. We wanted the maze component to make the game more challenging and more fun, but watching people play it I could see that, while it might be challenging, it was taking too much of the fun out of our game to have to puzzle through the maze.
Another realization I came to while chatting with the young intern who’d come with me to the expo, and who had a very tough time getting all the way through the game, was that we were sacrificing pedagogy to game-y-ness, as well. We designed the scoring to ensure that at each level it gets harder and harder to get to the end. Too many missteps along the way and you’ll run out of time: the city will pass a budget without your input.
That is nice enough in theory, and it sure is the way the world works, but the very people we wanted to reach with the game — New Yorkers who are genuinely interested in understanding the budget process but don’t know it by heart yet — are the ones who’ll have the hardest time getting the answers right. So they’re the ones that get kicked back to start over and over as they screw up. The experts have no trouble getting through the game, but they’re experts. They don’t need us to show them how government works!
It was good timing, the expo was, because we’re actively developing our next game, which will follow the same format as our last maze but with some notable improvements. We’d already agreed we want to make it easier to snake through the maze towards the good stuff. We realized at Games for Change that we should re-think the idea of “losing” and let everyone get to the end of the game.