The Great Game Designer

Allow me to dive in over my head here– countless BB readers know way more about games than I do, and I want to learn from them/you. I'm fascinated at how complexity emerges from certain initial conditions, and independent actors competing within those conditions– i.e. from a game's rules and its players. It's a magic meta-formula that underlies a zillion things.

Some day we may discover a formal test for playability– whether a setup will go nowhere or explode into interestingness. (Which is probably also a function of mental capacity– a greater intelligence might find chess as boring as we find Tic-Tac-Toe.) If and when these meta-rules are understood, and we can do things like simulate evolution to levels of real-life complexity, it should convince at least a few more evolution deniers. In Darwin's day, when timekeeping was a leading geek-magnet, theologists described God as the Great Watchmaker. If there is a God, I think "The Great Game Designer" would be more accurate.

I'm mainly talking about paper games here. In the same way that mathematical formulas distill and express universal laws of nature, simple board/card games capture essential social phenomena– this is a major avenue of research in Economics right? Is there a game like "Monopoly" that distills the phenomenon of an investment bubble growing and bursting? Or a game in which competition between players creates an ever-expanding complex that grows to require all available resources, and constantly presses to extract more? If so, the rules of this game should inform legislation that might increase the efficiency of medical insurers, military contractors, and the like (which is what competition is supposed to do, but in these cases, there seems to be a rule or two missing that takes the systems into another direction).

There are many phenomena I would love to see or come up with essentializing games for, and most of them seem to fall under the categories of consensus, hierarchy, group affiliation, and mating. For different aspects of these, I have numerous half-baked notions about what a group of players in a room could do. For example, draw a new Tarot card every round, and then have to agree on a single narrative that includes all of them in order. Or build the most accurate model of what other teams know and don't know about a selectively concealed array of random numbers, communicating only through severely limited bandwidth.

Hopefully I'll get serious and actually create and try some such games, and although much can be done with things like cards, dice, and paper, I've also been dreaming up a simple platform that would enable more party games and related experiments. My current notion is a small microprocessor-controlled, programmable device that has one knob, an internal clock, a physical contact detector (just a 9V battery clip for clicking into someone else's), a visible LED and a hidden/secret LED. Zigbee for the wireless and Arduino for the control. The contact detector and clock could automatically measure things like "face time" in games where that's a valuable resource, for example, and the hidden and visible LED status indicators could be just that– status indicators. Or anything else. You could also use the platforms for other things. Like, you could run "dial groups" the way political consultants get focus-group feedback on campaign ads. Or you could run some fun interactive theater experiments. Does anyone know if something like this already exists?