Exploration games, gardening games, and foolish games

Chat transcript between Kevin McGillivray and Buster Benson.

Buster: For my new year’s resolution, I’m starting a low-quality, short-lived blog with musings on a question that might not have an answer:

Kevin: This reminds me of this post on “gardening games”:

Exploration game: player fights / loots their way through the game, and when they leave the environment is left less interesting from them being there.

Gardening game: the more time a player spends in an area, the more interesting that area becomes. The game is infinite play, ambiguous, and the environment isn’t 100% controllable, only influencable.

I’m thinking exploration games are a byproduct of the hero’s journey, and gardening games might represent this alternative you’re questioning for.

Buster: That’s a great article and I like the point about how exploration games are about depleting the environment and gardening games are about enriching it. But the gardening game is different from the foolish game I’m thinking of in several ways. They describe a gardening game as evolving over time, bounded in space, and lacking a failure state. A foolish game with multiple wicked problems is evolving over time, unbounded in space, and ambiguous about failure/success state. As far as we can tell, we lack a success state, and everything we do could make things better or worse. Are there any games like that?

Could we design a gardening game that simulated the interrelated wicked problems of climate change, peak oil, overpopulation, health care, immigration, disenfranchisement, and environmental depletion?

Kevin: I think that touches on a nagging question I had about gardening games. It’s one thing to not have a failure state and to have a bounded space, to remove simple win/lose “combat” mechanics, but there seems to be a missing middle ground, maybe this foolish game, that does in fact have real problems and unbounded space, but the problems act more like large, unpredictable, ambiguous gardens.

Buster: Yes! I think this is very helpful framing for us to thing about the problems.

When we remove the hero we tend to also remove the problems.

Kevin: Gardening games feels like an opposite pendulum swing from the history of video games, right.

Most games have been combat/hero oriented.

So the opposite is a protected non-problem focused game.

Without failure.

Buster: Exactly.

Kevin: Which can be fun, but also feels incomplete in some ways.

Buster: It’s again modeling an unhelpful approach to problem solving.

Or even problem facing.

Kevin: This may be recency bias since I’ve been playing a lot of D&D lately, but I think a game of D&D could be turned into a foolish game simply because it’s so flexible. It’s a classic hero-focused game, but it’s also completely open ended as far as how the game is played. I could imagine setting up a game where there is no villain or simple problem solution.

Buster: Yes!

And could you then make it impossible to leave the game once it is started?

D&D will fail if the wicked problem becomes too unpleasant.

Kevin: Also you mention Game of Thrones — I think the plot of Game of Thrones could be considered a Wicked Problem up until the end. The constantly shifting characters and situations seem to be a never ending wheel of unsolvable problems, and maybe the fact that it eventually ended is the real problem some people have with it 😅.

Buster: Yeah, I think it was framed as a wicked problem then solved as a hero’s journey.

Kevin: Exactly.

Buster: Battlestar Galactica (the most recent series) is one story that feels like it stuck to the foolish journey.

Watchmen is another.

Kevin: Ooo definitely watchmen could fit.

I’ll keep an eye out for wicked problem games.

Written by

Author of Why Are We Yelling? — a book about the art of productive disagreement. I run 750words.com. Previously product at Patreon, Slack, Twitter, and Amazon.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store