Designing games to understand complex systems with Matteo Menapace

On Friday we had the lovely Matteo Menapace (videogames designer in residence at the V&A) come in and give a talk all about designing games to understand complex systems. This was a lunch time event that provoked discussion about game concepts, hacking the foundations of old designs, yet also testing the thought process of new ideas.


 We all have our favouriteplayful past-times. These range from the old classic board games across to the other end of the technological spectrum in the form of video games. Graphic advancements have come on leaps and bounds in recent years, and it’s easy to want to jump straight in and build the next masterpiece straight away. Matteo had a great analogy of comparing it to playing with Lego. It’s the endless possibilities, and vast ability of building or taking things apart that is so stimulating.

Although Matteo is a video games specialist, in this session he concentrated more on the how games can be used to facilitate structured playful conversations around difficult topics. Not everyone knows of the true history of every household’s favourite family divider - Monopoly – and its political roots. An American, Elizabeth Magie came up with theboard game to reflect her progressive political views. At the turn of the 20thcentury she was spending her evenings after work teaching classes about her political beliefs. However, her classes were small, and she wanted to broaden her audience. During this time in history, board games were becoming increasingly popular with middle-income families. It wasn’t just the aspect of bringing individuals together that captured the inventor’s attention. It was the platform in terms of communication of current societal issues that carried the true objective. 

To expand on these controversies Matteo encouraged us all to partner up with someone we hadn’t already met for a number of tasks. This was all to provide those discussion points on how we would hack our favourite games into something new. How would we decide to improve things, and ultimately would they provide more dispute between individuals? He also asked us to think about rock, paper, scissors. So many new variations came out, one group converted it into a card game. Where the goal was to get rid of all your cards. Only the losers of each round had to pick up a card. So, they had more strategic power over those with less. This made me think of unions, and when we all come together, we have the choice to create change. 


 Matteo went on to discuss how other games such as chess can be adapted. Would that change human behaviour. If the pieces were laid out differently, or the pawns had two opportunities to move compared to the royalties one. Another example given, were if the pawns were stationed down the middle of the board to keep the peace between the two sets of royalty, each trying to conquer the other.  

Ultimately Matteo believes that every game if it were to be successful, should work in prototype form before hard coding. He concludes that every game should be made up of three elements. Mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics. 

I have recently spent a couple of years working and travelling abroad. The easiest way I can describe this (as it was a bit of a game at the time) was how I packed my big rucksack. My mechanics were determined by the size, shape and weight limit of my bag. It had to maintain a weight of under 20kg so that I could fly on most flights and be able to carry it comfortably to my accommodation. If it didn’t fit in the bag, it didn’t come with me. The dynamics can be explained by the manner in which I packed my bag. This I will proudly admit I had down to a fine art after a while! For anyone interested the whole rolling technique along with packing cubes completely rejuvenated the whole experience. Lastly the aesthetics were that I wanted to be able to pack my bag as quickly and quietly as possible, without disturbing or awakening anyone else in the room. Easier said than done at 5am in the dark when you have a bus to catch! 

It shouldn’t matter if you initially focus on the mechanics of potential issues or limitations, or on aesthetics of how you would like to make others feel. It all helps to bring a complete idea together and how to execute your final goal. 


Finally, I would recommend checking out Matteo’s work. He has recently created a game on capitalism. How each player is the CEO of a hive of bees (a metaphor of a group of workers). How will you decide to grow your “beesness”? Will you concentrate on wealth, relations or the environment? All whilst trying to maximise your profits and beat your competitors. The last question is always, will you all still be friends at the end?