Game Balancing, Baseball, and the Olympics

Baseball has been eliminated from the 2012 Olympics, making it the first sport to be voted out of the Olympics since polo in 1936. This is a crime. The only way I know to protest this move is to write a baseball-themed post on Enspire’s blog. Take that, IOC!

Here we go… Baseball and instructional design… what’s the connection?… I got it… Ahem…

An interview with Charles McDowell in Ken Burn’s Baseball sums up game balancing perfectly. He reflects on the distance between home plate and first base in baseball by saying:

“That’s so interesting that that would come out 90 feet. That somebody sat down, Mr. Cartwright [the father of baseball] or whoever said “Hey it oughta be 90 feet, it just sounds like a logical number.” The fact of the matter is, in retrospect if it was 88 feet the game would be very different. Think of the plays at first base. Think of the double plays that wouldn’t be completed on an 88 feet first base, and second base. If it were 94 feet we’d be throwing people out all over the place. Batting averages would drop remarkably.”

I imagine that the first games of baseball were not played with first base placed 90 feet from home plate. In fact, the players probably experimented with distances until they landed at 90 feet. It would be too difficult to arrive at that distance without playtesting. As McDowell said, “So if 90 feet was something somebody said, “Hey that’s a good number” that was a pick from heaven.”

Designing educational games is no different. Playtests are the key.

We recently designed an in-person game for a workshop on matrix management structures. The game involved throwing paper objects at a target, including airplanes and footballs, and negotiating with other teams for resources. During our playtests, we discovered that it was too easy for teams to negotiate themselves into a tie. That is, if they cooperated too much, they lost. That was not our goal.

So, we added an additional “bonus throw” that served to break the tie and increase the importance of players’ negotiations. Every subsequent playtest resulted in a close match that was determined by the final bonus throw at the end of the game.

The point is, whether you’re designing a national pastime or an educational game, you have to playtest. It’s impossible to design a game without playing it first.

Also, an Olympics without baseball ain’t right.