Designing Chicago to provide a better video game experience

Making Chicago the setting of the new video game Watch Dogs includes changing the city to improve the gaming experience:

He described the basic creation of Chicago this way: “Essentially we started with a top view of Chicago, the actual Chicago map, which we put in our game editor, and from there we carved into it. It’s a big, empty space at first. So we start laying out roads by going with the real road and adjusting from there, making sure, for instance, that Wacker follows the river correctly, but adjusting a bit too. You also make sure roads connect properly, but we didn’t go with the Chicago grid because it was so straight, too many right angles. It’s better for the game play if you can’t see far ahead of yourself. So we curve things. Once the roads are laid down and the city reduced, you went street by street putting in neighborhoods, landmarks …”

Like many an open-world video game city, building the open-world Chicago of “Watch Dogs” became a dance between game play, accuracy and urban planning. In general, what Arriola described is the same process that created cities in “Saints Row” and “Grand Theft Auto”: Four-lane roads became six lanes to encourage driving (nobody likes digital gridlock, either), buildings were pressed together to encourage rooftop-to-rooftop leaping and only the most visually unique neighborhoods survived (albeit incongruously, mashed up against other neighborhoods).

“An open-world city in a good video game is a riff on a city, not a city,” said Brian Schrank, co-chairman of the game development program at DePaul University. “It’s a little exploitative, a little like a remix of familiar elements. You are seeing a suggestion of unending choices, but in reality a game developer is being subtle and laying out the breadcrumbs that pull you through their city.”

Hence, the isle of Chicago.

The Chicago River needed widening, and the Northwest Side needed geographic diversity, so, in the game, the north edge of the Gold Coast becomes actual coastline, the farthest northern point in this Chicago. A player can pilot a boat from the lake and around the downtown area without hitting a dead end.

See this earlier post about using Chicago in the new game.

This isn’t just the issue of creating a copy of the city of Chicago. That in itself could be interesting and/or jarring, seeing a faithful reproduction on the screen but being able to do things the average resident or visitor could not. But, this goes a step further to “improve” the city for the gamer. One way to think about it is that the city is not compelling enough as it is but needs to be tweaked to allow for features that gamers expect like easy yet unclear driving and using a boat. The isle of Chicago? A grid system of street that now curves? Urban sociologists and other urbanists are often drawn to big cities because of their dynamism – from social interactions to culture to architecture, to economic and political activity – that is plenty interesting without tweaks.

The gamification of the world continues, with the big city as yet another victim…

Measuring spirituality via smartphone app

A new app, SoulPulse, allows users to track their spirituality and researchers to get their hands on more real-time data:

It’s an “experiential” research survey inspired by pastor/author John Ortberg and conducted by a team led by Bradley Wright, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and author of “Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told.”

Twice a day for two weeks, participants receive questions asking about their experiences of spirituality, their emotions, activities and more at the moment the text messages arrive.

Were they feeling satisfied, loved, happy, hostile, sleepy or stressed? Were they more or less aware of God when they were commuting or computing or hanging out with family and friends?…

SoulPulse participants will receive an individual report, reflecting their different temperaments and temptations. Ortberg said his personalized report has already changed his life.

See the website for the app here.

At the least, this could help researchers with more data. Many studies of religiosity rely on asking people about past events through surveys or interviews. The information given here is not necessarily false but it can be hard to remember too far back (thus researchers tend to ask about a short, more defined time period like the last week or month) and there is potential for social desirability bias (people want to give the response they think they should – might happen some with church attendance). Additionally, time diaries require a lot of effort. Thus, utilizing a new technology that people check all the time could be a nice way to reduce the errors with other methods.

While the reports might be helpful for users, could they verge into the gamification of spirituality?

Website of the day:

Perhaps it is finals week that piqued my interest in this particular website: There is a lot of fascinating information on this site about college grading trends in recent decades. Yes, my own institution is represented on the site.

If this puts you in the grading spirit, you can try out The Grading Game app which one Wired reviewer liked:

I’m frankly surprised by how much I like The Grading Game. It is ultimately about grading papers and looking for spelling errors, but somehow the intense time limit, scoring mechanics and various modes wrapped around that seemingly bland premise make the game super addictive. And, as someone who does a great degree of text-editing, I suspect that this simple iPhone app is making me better at my job.

Not quite the same experience but it is an attempt to put grading through the gamification process.

Board games that teach about housing discrimination

Americans may like the real estate game Monopoly but it lacks one real-life phenomenon that a few games over the years have included: housing discrimination.

The Pop-Up City blog drew our attention last week to a great project from Toronto artist Flavio Trevisan, who has created a board-game-as-artwork enticingly titled The Game of Urban Renewal (OK, this is enticing to us, at least). The project reminded us that there is something of a history to board games dramatizing low-income and discriminatory housing policy. An earlier such game – one that looks like an antecedent to Trevisan’s, although he had not heard of it – makes a brief cameo in the House & Home exhibit currently showing at the National Building Museum.

That 1970 predecessor, called Blacks & Whites, was produced by the magazine Psychology Today, and was created to teach white players about what life was like for blacks in an era when all the housing rules were stacked against them. Not surprisingly, Blacks & Whites never went mass market (it doesn’t even appear to have gotten enough traction to have widely offended racists of the era)…

If you visit the exhibit, the game garners only a brief mention (and scanned image). But the most telling details are on the board itself and in the instructions. Blacks & Whites is organized like a Monopoly board, with properties increasing in value as you move around it. The property clusters have fantastically blunt names: the “inner ghetto,” the “outer ghetto,” “lower integrated” and “upper integrated” neighborhoods, “lesser suburbia,” “greater suburbia,” “newer estates” and, lastly, “older estates” (namely, Bethesda and Georgetown!). The board mimics the concentric housing rings of many cities as you move out toward the suburbs, from the all-black “inner ghetto” to the all-white “older estates.”

According to the instructions, the game tries to emphasize “the absurdities of living in different worlds while playing on the same board.” “White” players get a million dollars from the treasury to start the game; blacks get $10,000, and they’re restricted in where they can buy properties. Blacks and whites also draw from separate opportunity card decks.

You mean Americans don’t want to be reminded about social ills when playing their board games? At the same time, I bet it could be done if the game properly balanced between playability and concept. Pedagogically, games can be a great way to teach. By putting players into new situations and showing them what it takes to win and lose, certain values can be imparted. This reminds me of George Herbert Mead discussing how children learn about social interaction and adult life through playing and creating games and debating rules. These games also sound similar to social simulations that are occasionally used in classrooms or by some groups. Think of Monopoly: it is a game yet it also could be viewed as expressing some of the basic values of capitalism. In contrast, more recent Euro style games are built around different concepts. Perhaps some enterprising sociologist can properly achieve the gamification of an important social issue.

Now that I think about it, imagine what Simcity could be like if it had a more complex societal element. The biggest social issues that come up in Simcity are crime, education, traffic, and pollution yet there is little about social class (though one can build low, medium, and high rent residential, commercial, and industrial properties), race, immigration, discrimination, and religion/ideological differences. Similar to Monopoly, the game is geared toward accumulating higher levels of money and land values. Perhaps all of these real-life issues would be difficult to model but I bet it could be incorporated into the gameplay.

New York Times review of SimCity Social

Here is evidence that the world is a changed place: the New York Times has a short review of the new SimCity Social game for Facebook.

SimCity Social brings the original city-building video game to Facebook, though fans will be hard-pressed to find any of the depth and complexity of that popular PC series. Players place businesses, factories, houses and various attractions, as their expansionist ambitions are kept in check by an energy meter that slowly refills.

The game allows friends to establish sister cities or rival cities, which enables some entertaining cross-border acts of charity or benign sabotage. SimCity Social is a cute and capable social city builder. It’s also a shameless attempt to capitalize on the success of Zynga’s wildly popular CityVille, slapping a powerful name on a game that could never live up to SimCity’s legacy.

As a long-time SimCity fan, I’m tempted to try out this new version. However, several things will stop me:

1. I don’t want a watered down version. I’d rather use my computer and XBox 360 to play full, more stunning versions of games.

2. I’m not sure even a full-scale social version would add to the gameplay.

3. Does this app bug all of your friends like Farmville and the like? If so, I’m staying far away.

4. It sounds like this version may have become more “gamified” rather than being the free-flowing game I’m used to. Here is another review that explains some of the game:

So it’s technically Facebook, but when you’re playing it, it feels like a place (OR A CITY) of its own. I started playing it last Friday and I can’t stop. I am on Level 17, my population is at healthy 6,000, and is the website I aspire to be managing editor of. There’s something about the colorful utopia that I can not not stop thinking about.

Maybe it’s the constant yearning of completing tasks to get more energy bolts, thus being able build more houses and increase population and, in doing so, unlock the next level and new attractions.

Perhaps it’s the constant praise the game lauds on you for doing something so dumb and pointless, like planting a tree in a high-populated area. The the real world just doesn’t offer that,  unless you send a tree to Israel. (Then you get a fancy certificate back in return.)

And my friends are redeeming themselves there. You find an inner-circle of people that you can trust and rely on—not for moral support, but for land permits, teamwork badges, and Dunkin’ Donut energy bonuses: Jordanville runs on Dunkin’.

SimCity has always had some incentive to grow as you get to build different kinds of things. This often worked like it does for real cities: as a city grow, it can support monuments, cultural attractions, and more complicated transportation options. However, it sounds like this new version takes it to another level.


Getting drivers to change their commuting patterns by giving them chances to win money

Scientists have developed a new way to fight the congestion battle: if drivers change their commuting patterns, they would have a better chance of winning money.

Some urban areas, including London, Stockholm, and the capital of Singapore, have tried disincentives to discourage rush-hour driving. These congestion-pricing schemes have achieved some success, but problems persist. And implementing them is politically difficult; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg abandoned his early effort to pare traffic in the Big Apple through commuter charges. But a growing number of transportation experts believe the same technology that enables cities to track cars and charge a fee when they enter designated congestion areas can be used to implement schemes that people will accept more readily. Rather than punishing old commuting habits, they reward new ones. For participants, opting to avoid rush-hour traffic means both saving time, and boosting their odds of winning a prize.

Instead of buying lotto tickets, participants in the Singapore program shift their commutes to off-peak hours to earn credits, which can be traded for chances to win cash. Participants earn one credit per kilometer traveled by rail, and three credits per kilometer for rail trips made during the hour before or after morning rush hour (7:30 to 8:30 a.m.). They can pick one “boost day” per week, when each kilometer traveled by rail earns five credits.

At Stanford, where the project is supported by a $3 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant, drivers who live off-campus and shift their commutes up to one hour outside the morning and evening rush hours can earn 10 cents per off-peak trip. That’s the boring, sure-fire option. Alternatively, they can use credits to play a simple online social game that randomly doles out cash prizes from $2 to $50. Cars are tracked using a small radio-frequency identification tag mounted to the windshield.

More than 17,500 Singapore commuters have enrolled in the pilot program, while just over 1,825 have enrolled in the Stanford project. And it seems these efforts to change travel behavior using games, or carrots, rather than sticks (such as congestion pricing) are paying off. Balaji Prabhakar, a Stanford engineering professor who developed both projects, said during a recent talk at the university’s campus in Palo Alto, California, that 11-12 percent of users in Singapore have shifted off-peak. Men tend to shift later, he said, while women generally shift earlier.

Is this the “gamification” of driving? Providing positive incentives rather than “punishing” people seems like it would be more effective in the long run. This reminds me of the new programs some insurance companies are rolling out where you get rewarded for driving more safely by having your rates reduced. At the same time, who is paying for these prizes? I assume this is funded by grant money or something like that but is this sustainable in the long run?

I wonder if there would be some unintended consequences of programs like these: instead of having horrible peak driving periods, traffic will simply be congested at more hours. Is it better to compress bad traffic into a certain number of hours a day versus spreading out the more congested hours? What happens if there are too many drivers all the time and incentives (or disincentives) wouldn’t really change much? I suppose we are a ways from this in some places but techniques like this don’t get at larger issues of having too many cars altogether.

h/t Instapundit

New sociology course: sociology of games

A “new minor in Game Studies and Design” at the University of Montevallo includes the chance to take the elective course “sociology of games”:

Cartier and Tyler, both of whom hold doctorate degrees in math, were approached by university President William Stewart shortly after his arrival on campus last June about the possibility of offering such a course of study at the liberal arts school.

“The original idea was to focus on video games,” Cartier said. “Benton and I went to California to do research, and we found there was more to the design process than just the ability to code.”…

Students who minor in Game Studies and Design must take 24 hours in specific subjects. All students must take History of Games, Survey of Modern Games and a two-part Game Design Workshop.

The remaining 12 hours must come from a combination of: Creative Writing or Technical Writing for Games (English); Principals of Marketing (Marketing); Mathematics of Games (Math); Aesthetics of Games (Philosophy); or Sociology of Games (Sociology).

The pictures for the story show students playing Settlers of Catan, perhaps the most well-known game in a wave of newer games that have swept the market in recent years. Such games are supposed to provide a different experience than some classic American games, like Monopoly or Risk, that prompt players to crush their opponents, often leading to one happy winner and several bummed out opponents. In games like Settlers or Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride or Dominion, each player gets an opportunity to build and pursue their own goals, giving some sense of satisfaction even if they don’t win.

While some might question the need for students to pursue the academic study of games, this would seem to fit with a number of recent articles I have seen about the process of “gamification.” If society is moving toward taking more average/normal activities and making them into games, wouldn’t this minor prove useful? There could be a lot of potential for growth in this area, particularly in field like health.

I wonder exactly where the “sociology of games” might fit in the broader field of sociology. I’ve heard about the “sociology of leisure” but it isn’t a current ASA section.There is an international group for the sociology of leisure and the Wikipedia page suggests it is “fairly recent subfield of sociology.”