Hive Mechanic

Article proposal: Hybrid cards to simplify game design

One of the neat things we are trying with Hive Mechanic is pairing paper with digital cards to make games. (Hive Mechanic is our game authoring tool for non-programmers and city leaders.)

Why is this cool? Because everyone knows cards — and some cutting edge game designers use them as a creativity boost. Our inspirations include: Flanagan’s Grow a Game cards, Wetzel’s Mixed Realty Game Cards, Watson’s Reality Ends Here brainstorming deck, IDEO’s deck.

For cities to democratize game design, cards may be especially useful — including to overcome technology barriers. Recently, we wrote about this in an article proposal for an HCI journal…

Title: “A City in the Cards: Sharing Power in Game Design by Extending the Card Metaphor

The potential benefits of city-specific games are considerable, and include: shifting local purchasing and regional economics (Murphy, 2011), play that gathers local data for city decisions (as in Mexico City, Sandoval-Almazan et al., 2017), and play that builds social ties between neighbors for community resilience (Stokes, 2020). But without care, wealthier neighborhoods and richer countries will see disproportionate gains from play. Research on ethical HCI is needed to provide frameworks for more equitable participation in game design for public space. How can game design be made more participatory – especially given the technical literacies needed for interactivity with smart cities?

Card and puzzle metaphors have previously increased participation in game design, such as the millions of worldwide installations of the Scratch visual programming language. Such visual metaphors are largely absent in smart city interfaces, which are often top-down creations for government. Research on game design is promising for smart city engagement more broadly, since games are optimized to pace engagement more than nearly any other form of media.

This study proposes a framework for improved access to game design in smart cities, using a nine-month case study of Hive Mechanic. Hive Mechanic is an experimental open-source game engine for community leaders with no programming skills. Rather than graphical immersion, the game engine encourages low-tech access to smart city data with SMS, audio, cellphone photography, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

To create a game with Hive Mechanic, a web interface is used to arrange a series of “interaction cards” that determine feedback to the player, coordinate with other players, and exchange data with smart city systems. For example, one card might be used to represent “sending a text message,” while another might convey conditional logic (e.g., “wait until a nearby bus is running behind schedule”).

This study specifically investigates the design and installation of three games and smart city activities, using methods of participatory design. In each case, the cost of development was low (often under $500 USD), a working prototype was available within days, and the system allowed city leaders and artists to directly edit the games. The three designs were selected for their contrasts.

The first launched with a 50-foot sculpture, and involved “texting with public art,” making use of QR triggers and a group mechanic to sequence clues across players. Meanwhile, a second activity challenged city residents to “map your alley” and featured a conversational agent and live printing of photographs in a prominent architecture center. A third featured physical game “buttons” in public space for IoT triggers, controlling large embedded screens to display city data alongside narrative storytelling.

The analysis in this paper examines how a “card metaphor” can scaffold participation in the design process by the non-technical users. Playing cards have nearly universal legibility, and can convey ideas similar to the blocks in visual programming languages. In workshops, print versions of the cards were used before pivoting to the online interface. For game design, paper prototyping is a fundamental technique that is useful for engineers and non-technical designers alike.

This study draws on more than a dozen interviews with non-expert designers using Think Aloud and Most Significant Change (MSC) methods. Conceptually, it builds on prior research done on personalization and end-user interfaces in the context of IoT (Clark et al., 2017; Ur, McManus, Pak Yong Ho, & Littman, 2014).

Findings in this study address how game principles can be made more accessible, including to structure participation in smart cities. Specific principles for games are drawn from the literature on Game Studies, and include crafting: (a) playful challenges; (b) paced uncertainty; (c) meaningful choices with continuous feedback.

Update/see also: paper card prototypes.