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Games: conveying complexity, simply

Recently I was listening to one of those meta-media shows (you know, where the media talk about the media) and how scientists are finally learning to tell the story of global warming in a way that makes sense to the public. It struck me that mainstream media just can’t handle complex, multivariate stories that involve probability and uncertainty. And that’s a serious problem in this increasingly multivariate world.

Where traditional story-driven media fail, games offer a new way to convey the complexity of reality without dumbing down. For example, telling the “story” of global climate change has generally taken the form of “It’s getting hot in here!” and “Watch out for hurricanes!” Such stories don’t really convey the idea of probability and chance well — global warming refusniks seize on probability as proof of non-proof. Worse, they mask the very real, and difficult, fact that fighting climate change involves disruptive changes to our economies.

Contrast the typical gamer’s understanding of, for example, a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game. RTS fans deeply internalize the concepts of opportunity cost, leverage, and investment. Put too many resources into your “town,” and your opponent will rush you with a cheap military. Put too much into your military, and you stunt your economic growth. Such games convey not merely complexity, but the concept of a system.

The rcent NY Times article, Why Work is Looking More Like a Video Game, uses “game” in a variety of ways but ultimately describes this capacity to convey complex systems in an approachable manner. Flat text is a terrible way to describe, discuss, and make decisions about the complex issues we face in the modern work world. Games have emerged as the most viable medium for understanding an increasingly multivariate, probabilistic world.

More on this in my next post…

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