Social Dynamics and the Value of Analog Simulations and Games

Are analog simulations or games a more cost-effective option than digital ones? It partly depends on what you’re trying to emphasize in your experience.

At Enspire, we take particular interest in the social dynamics that arise from gameplay since they can provide rich opportunities for learning. Specifically, when we’re designing a simulation or a game we often ask ourselves: What is the quality of the interactions that players demonstrate both in and out of the sim? How do players organize and distribute power and leadership responsibilities when working cooperatively or within teams? What lines of communication do they naturally establish? Often, dynamics such as these are as important, if not more important, to the audience’s acquisition of learning objectives than the mechanics – or basic rules and procedures – that are “baked into” the game itself.

Consider Texas Hold ‘Em. In this game, mastering the basic mechanics – the ranking of hands, the procedural jargon, the order of betting and dealing, etc. – is no sure path to mastering actual game play. Instead, the real action in Texas Hold ‘Em occurs in how well a player masters the game’s social dynamics – the inferences he or she makes about other players’ hands based on their betting, the ways that he or she increases winnings over other players by employing betting and bluffing tactics, etc.

And what material game assets are required to play it? A 52-card poker deck and a set of chips. If we were tasked with designing a game or simulation with the intent of teaching resource management (of chips) in variable and changing circumstances, inference (of other players’ hands and intentions), and successful strategies for dissembling and bluffing other people, we probably couldn’t do better than to gather a group of players in a room to play an analog card game like Texas Hold ‘Em. The point here is that there are many cases where social dynamics are the key expected outcomes of a game or simulation, and old school analog experiences frequently offer the cheapest and most efficient means of realizing these aims.

Obviously, Texas Hold ‘Em thrives online, as do many other social gaming experiences. But the online poker experience – or most digital adaptations of card games, board games, or any other form of game for that matter – is often derived from a successful and enduring analog design.

With respect to social games that are designed first and foremost as digital experiences, including massively multiplayer online (MMO) games and the tide of social network games – well, I won’t argue against their undeniable popularity and appeal. The only thing I’ll say is that I cannot think of any examples of social digital games that contradict my general view that their dynamics can largely be achieved in analog experiences. For example, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) are digital descendents of old school analog role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, which are appealing largely because of their rich social interactions and dynamics.

That said, MMORPGs and other online social games do offer something their analog counterparts cannot. They can present a vivid, immersive world for players to explore, rich with complex logic and multifaceted feedback to player actions. There are many instances in which these features are needed for a game or simulation to be effective in a learning context and, in these instances, analog games will not suffice. Yet, teasing out the unique benefits of digital games and the various reasons why one would choose to develop a digital game over an analog game is a topic that deserves to be explored at length in a future post.

Robert Bell is a Senior Instructional Designer and Enspire Studio’s Minister of Games