Learning about systems using games.

Maze cube
Image by fdecomite from Flickr with thanks

One of the main aspects of games that tends to be overlooked by most people when you approach them with the idea of utilising games as a teaching or training tool is the freedom to customise virtually everything found within them, from the visuals and sounds on the front end to the base functions and behaviours that occur under the bonnet. This makes them particular useful when it comes to the topic of systems learning, since games are highly customisable systems in and of themselves.

Hopefully this article should give you a cursory glance into what systems are and highlight what to consider should you look into utilising games as a tool for learning about systems of any kind.

What is a system?

It can be deceptively tricky to provide a straightforward answer to a definition of what a system is, but fear not; as described in the Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development, systems are an organised collection of parts (or subsystems) that are highly integrated to accomplish an overall goal. (Authenticity Consulting LLC, 2005)

The main components that are necessary in order to classify virtually every system you can find are:

  • Inputs, which are resources or facilities used by the processes to complete tasks and achieve goals of the system
  • Processes or Activities that utilise the inputs in order to create the tangible results or…
  • Outputs, which are the end goal of the system and can include the creation of specific products or
    complete specific tasks.
Image by Jon from Flickr with thanks

Basically, it is a bunch of things, people or subsystems, each with their own tasks, functions or processes which produce specific results that ultimately come together in order to accomplish or create things that would either take way too long to complete if carried out individually or would be impossible to complete without the extra assistance they would have access to whilst being part of a much larger system.

When laid out like this, you might notice that virtually anything that you do can be categorised as being part of a system and figuring out how these systems work and getting the individual parts to work together or combining them in a particular way in order to achieve the goal that you want is the basic idea of what systems learning is.

I feel that the best phrase to sum this up would be “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This is especially true if you think of tasks such as baking a cake or building an engine as individually, each of their ingredients or components don’t do much, but when you carry out tasks to combine them in a specific way, you end up with things far greater than when you first started (In this case, an edible cake or a working engine for a vehicle). (Lumen Learning, 2017)

Different types of systems

Now that the basics are covered, one of the more interesting things that I wanted to discuss about systems as a concept is that there are a variety of different types of systems which are comprised of different actions or tasks to achieve certain results. Whilst the list of the many different kinds of systems the we interact with throughout life is far too long to show in this article, I feel that it is important to touch upon a much smaller and easier to remember way of categorising systems.

Computer simulation of snowflake
Image by Michael Kanemoto from Flickr with thanks

This set includes; Simple systems where there is only one single path to a single result (e.g., pressing a button or riding a bicycle), Complicated systems where there are multiple paths to the same answer (e.g., Chopping wood or cooking a recipe) and Complex systems which feature multiple paths to multiple answers (e.g., Assembling a football team or examining human social hierarchies).(Feld, 2019)

It is important to figure out which of the aforementioned categories the system you’re working with belongs to as it will make the development process much easier for you in the long run, especially if you’re looking to develop a product that you intend to use to teach people. This is where games can offer a unique opportunity in teaching people how to think about systems learning.

Games as systems and how they can be used for systems learning.

So, what does thinking with a systems-oriented mindset have to do with creating games? Well, everything, if we’re being honest here. Games (especially video games) fall into a unique category of adaptive complex systems with the added benefit of the different components within the game’s system being entirely customisable, in regards to the content found within the game being developed, and how it behaves based upon its interaction with its userbase.

This includes everything from the surface level; sounds, art and animations, to the calculations, processes and behaviours that occur under the surface; which form the core experiences for the user. As such, you have the potential to create games that can simulate virtually any system you wish, provided you have the firm understanding of the system you want to simulate and have the capability and the resources to translate it into a game setting.

Because of this innate flexibility in how you can structure games as a system, it would be much easier to answer the question of ‘how do you use games to teach people about systems learning?’ by simply saying ‘Just make games…’.

red and yellow plastic cogs
Image by oatsy40 from Flickr with thanks

Whilst true on its own, based on games being customisable systems, it doesn’t really give a satisfying answer. It misses out on highlighting the true potential of being able to replicate any kind of system and displaying it in a way that gives the creator full control over the desired player experience.  It also offers  the chance to learn about specific systems through a more interactive, customisable, potentially safer (depending on the system you’re simulating) and playful way.

I feel I have some potential for punditry on the topic of games as a learning tool as I’ve had the opportunity to work as a designer within a serious games company, helping to develop a testing tool for doctors specialising in Neonatal resuscitation, with scenarios featuring different parameters such as patient conditions, time limit and equipment available to the user. In addition to testing the capabilities of the users taking the tests, the product also gathered analytics on their performance so that their supervisors could figure out what they are doing well and which areas they needed to improve. (Here’s the product in question: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aDzjJTWUsc)

Things to keep in mind

Some of the things that you should try asking yourself or your team when looking to create a game that simulates a particular system include but are not limited to:

  • What system do you wish to simulate?
  • What type of system do you want to replicate or portray in your game? (Simple, Complex or
  • Do you want to simulate the whole system or only part of it? (Being a manager or a team
    member of a sports team)
  • What type of product are you looking to create? (A testing tool, a teaching tool or a game
    with educational and/or entertaining aspects.)
  • Who is your target audience? (Children, teenagers, adults, novices or experts of a particular
    field etc.)
  • What type of game do you want to create to best represent your system? (Not just genre,
    I’m also referring to creating tabletop or card games as well, depending on your budget,
    audience and goals)

These questions should be taken simply as things to consider, should you not be too sure on how to
proceed or if you’re on the right track. Finally, don’t worry too much about getting your product
right in the first draft, that’s what testing is for and by far the most important thing to remember
whilst making a game is to have fun with it.

Hopefully this wall of text proves useful for you and your system oriented endeavours. Thanks for
reading, hope you’re all staying safe and well and here’s to a new year of interesting things to do!

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Games Designer at Thomas Ackland Games
Thomas Ackland is a budding games designer with a background in serious games, who is always looking to get involved with interesting games projects, serious or otherwise.
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