At the start of a new project, the most pressing question for me as a game designer is ‘what is this game going to be about?’ and after a two-day mini-conference with my project group in lovely Växjö I’m looking forward to getting to grips with this question. In this post I will deal with what I heard people express during the meeting and what this has led me to think the game is going to be about – the next step in the process will be to create what I refer to as a ‘concept outline’, which I will present to my project group to give them something to base their discussions and research on as the project moves forward.
The brief answer to the question what I think the game is going to be about is ‘how the resources of an area is used to meet the demands/needs of both the world outside of it and of the people living in the area’. In the discussions I took part in, it was assumed that the scene for this megagame would be located in a region in Sweden (likely because we have done so in other games, most notably Switching the Current), and in connection to this three contexts or spheres were mentioned: the city, the countryside, and nature. The conflicts of interest that were mentioned – forest management, placement of wind power plants, food supply, meat production/consumption, transportation, demography, growth, biodiversity, the existence of wolf packs in the area – were all considered in the context of different groups within spheres having different views on the importance and role of these in the greater whole (a sustainable future, presumably).
The first thing I try to figure out when beginning a new megagame about societal change is whether the megagame will be played on the global scale (players play the world powers, i.e. at the top of the food chain and thus have the power to decide what local and regional actors do to prevent and handle the effects of events such as climate change and loss of biodiversity) or the local scale (players play local or regional actors that implement instructions from above and react to and mitigate events as best they can, but are not assumed to be affect anything outside of the region). The difference may seem to be very small, but affects the role e.g. the climate scenario plays in the game – in the local scale, events are filtered through the actions of fictional governments and supernational organisations such as the EU, which adds a layer of complexity both in the game design and the players’ interpretation of what level of agency they have in the game, i.e. are they free to do as they please or do they need to make sure their actions will not conflict with the agenda of e.g. a fictional, Control-governed national assembly?
In this case, I’m assuming that we’re going to play on the local scale, meaning that we will create a fictional region in which players take on the role of local groups such as city dwellers, farmers, local companies (and local branches of multinational companies), and various aspects of nature, e.g. a river or a forest. The latter is an interesting concept that was tried out by students of the megagame-making course held at Linköping University in Spring 2023, which made for an interesting game experience – instead of representing the effects of e.g. cutting down trees using game mechanics such as ominous red tokens or cards with menacing names such as ‘Death of a forest’, the forest-cutting player would be faced with a member of the Nature team asking them whether they would rather suffer a severe drought or a forest fire, with the added threat of something far worse happening should they not be amenable to the demands of the Nature team (e.g. no more forest cut down east of a particular river).
It may well be that my assumption is wrong and that the game will have a hierarchical structure akin to that in Urban Nightmare – State of Chaos, where players play the chain of command from Governor all the way down to police officers on the zombie-ridden streets. The design decision here is whether to aim for width or height – trying to do both, i.e. both play many different actors in a region and also the chain of command all the way up to the EU level may result in a game that’s uncontrollably large and impossibly difficult to scale to two-figure player numbers. This remains to be seem, however, and it is one thing I’m expecting to receive feedback on when I present my concept outline to the project team in two weeks time.