The Long Game: An Approach to Game Design
By Veronica Brown
In an episode of Orange is the New Black (season 2, #7), Vee (the mentor) and Suzanne (the protégé) are playing chess. Vee baits Suzanne into capturing a pawn. Vee says, “You keep taking out all the targets in front of you, but you’ve got to think ahead, Suzanne. If you move there, what’ll I do?” Vee captures Suzanne’s knight. “It’s called the long game.”
That scene brought to mind what makes games intriguing to me. In a game of any complexity, there is always a short game and a long game. The short game is defined by the stated rules and objectives: capture the opponent’s king, move the ball past the goal line, score the most points.
But how, given the constraints of the game, does a player win the short game? What’s the strategy? What does the player have to observe and leverage? When should he strike, and when should he hold back? How should she think ahead? That’s the long game.
Where the Learning Is
In my favorite games, I get enjoyment – and usually an advantage – from discovering and refining the long game on my own. Whatever skill it takes to play the long game, that’s the skill I’m developing when I play: looking for my opponent’s tells in poker; finding patterns in Candy Crush.
As a game designer with an educational objective, I want to pay careful attention to the long game, because that’s where the learning is.
The long game was essential in a simulation game I developed for industrial managers. My specific assignment was to turn the case study of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster into a dynamic learning activity. The learning objective was that the players experience the presence, or the lack, of a safety culture and discuss what causes an organization to value safety.
In the Upper Big Branch disaster, 29 coal miners perished due to the negligence of the Performance Coal Company (PCC) in creating a safety culture. The leaders of PCC, in their obsession for profits, allocated most of their resources to mining coal and too few to keeping the mine’s safety systems operational.
Our game had to present participants with a dilemma: to allocate limited resources to either safety or production. In real life, the leaders of PCC were blinded to this dilemma. Therefore, to be effective in our learning objective, the game had to give players the opportunity to discover the dilemma, but allow them to be blinded to it as well. This was our long game.
Designing the Long Game
Designing the long game begins with finding the right metaphor for the learning objective. In our game, we could use familiar game mechanics from resource management games to re-create the safety dilemma. In the game, the Chief Operating Officer of the mine (a facilitator) puts pressure on the coal miners to dig as much coal as possible, and sets up a competitive culture that pays lip service to safety. But the miners (the players) encounter dangers that the COO doesn’t see. It is up to them to discover and prevent these dangers to avoid a game-ending catastrophe – or to conform to profit pressure, at their peril.
The idea of the long game opens up opportunities for game designers to tackle complex problems such as social issues and leadership development. For example, say we’re developing a game to help new leaders control the impulse to micromanage. To find a meaningful long game, we can look for what we want the learners to discover, which is, “If I give all my people confidence that they can solve their own problems, then my entire team will accomplish more than we would if they have to come to me for everything.”
We can devise a game in which the short game appears to call for a team leader to micromanage, but the constraints of the game give that leader an advantage if others are enabled to work independently. (The actual mechanics of such a game will have to be the subject of another article.) When players discover the long game on their own, the game is more engaging and the ultimate lesson is more meaningful. Plus, in the debriefing, players can compare the results they get from different approaches as they discuss the effects of micromanaging.
Designing the long game is like drawing a treasure map for future game players. Without being obvious, preachy, pedantic, or resorting to cliché, it sets others up to make their own discoveries.
Our 21st-century world demands that more people understand complex issues, seek out other points of view, and approach problems with maturity and grace. These are not easy practices to teach. By allowing learners to discover and practice complex skills through the long game, we can create profound and much needed learning.