Welcome to the Algorithms of Late-Capitalism Board Game Co-creating Workshop
by Karla Zavala & Adriaan Odendaal
Self-driving cars that don’t recognize non-white pedestrians, fitness apps secretly used for FBI surveillance, misogynistic AI-generated revenge porn. This is not the technological future we want as citizens. Can a board game design workshop help us create new visions for more just and inclusive futures instead?
Throughout this year, we are working on Algorithms of Late-Capitalism: The Board Game. More than a board game, however, it is a series of workshops in which participants come together in online sessions and help co-design a game that promotes perspectives on technology that can serve as alternatives to the mainstream Silicon Valley ideology.
The (ongoing) workshop series
During the course of this project, we plan to conduct 5 to 6 workshops structured like a relay race. Each workshop in this series corresponds to a specific phase of the board game design process and builds on the knowledge generated by previous participants.
These workshops are conducted online using Miro as a digital whiteboard to brainstorm critical play ideas, game content, rules and mechanics, and more.
Using play to imagine alternative technological futures
The idea behind our overarching Algorithms of Late-Capitalism project comes from theories of digital materiality which argue against seeing digital technology as purely technical, and therefore essentially neutral. Just ones and zeros, lines of code, microchips and switches, electric currents and lighted-up pixels.
Rather, we follow the argument that technology consists of a socio-technical assemblage — which means that each piece of digital technology in the world contains in its algorithmic logic, interface design, and running code certain cultural values, ideologies, political commitments, and worldviews. Software cannot be divorced from the conditions under which it is produced, distributed, and used.
“Software is often regarded as possessing secondary agency — that is, it supports or extends the agency of others such as programmers, individual users, corporations, and governments; it enables the desires and designs of absent actors for the benefit of other parties. It does more than that though, in that software, like many other technologies, engenders direct effects in the world in ways never envisaged or expected by their creators and in ways beyond their control or intervention.” — Kitchin & Dodge, Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life
By creating spaces and opportunities for other perspectives to engage in discussions about digital technologies, we aim to slowly move towards promoting the creation of more inclusive futures. Non-experts or non-technicians can also have an important impact on how our technological futures are imagined, and therefore designed.
The more communities engaged in technological discourses and practices, the more we can drive towards a conception of a technological pluriverse.
All these ideas are combined and transmitted using board game design as a medium. Activists and artists have long since used games to investigate and intervene in real-world issues (One example we cite during the workshop is Brenda Romero’s Train). As Mary Flannagan writes in Critical Play:
“Too often social challenges are presented in overwhelming or depressing ways. Most players are not attracted to overly didactic communications. After all, play occurs only when players feel comfortable. Play is, by definition, a safe space. If a designer or artist can make safe spaces that allow the negotiation of real-world concepts, issues and ideas, then a game can be successful in facilitating the exploration of innovative solutions for apparently intractable problems” — Mary Flanagan, Critical Play
A board game co-creation method
These workshops, and the board game co-creation process it entails, are a methodological experiment for us. It is a method we have developed throughout our Algorithms of Late-Capitalism zine co-creation workshops, and are now taking a step further.
In creating this project, we looked at existing board game co-creation or co-design methods. In most cases, such as PlayDecide and Changing the Game — Neighbourhood, the framework of the game would already be established with groups of participants merely co-creating select game elements or content. This top-down approach, for us, is not really co-design in the true sense. Other examples were more in line with the game-jam method where one group of participants collaborated on a single game over a fixed period of time.
However, we wanted to bring different people with different perspectives together to participate in the full game design cycle.
Each workshop comprises a different facet of the game design process, with that specific cohort of participants working in three groups to create game dynamics, content, or elements. For example, in workshop #1 we worked on the fictional play-world, with the 3 groups working on ‘player role’, ‘setting’, and ‘game goal’. We as facilitators gave structure to the design process through open-ended design activities and prompts such as “what are the relationships between different players within the game?”.
Through the series of workshops groups of participants create the ideas, concepts, and content, while we as facilitators ‘weave’ the exquisite corpse together through synthesizing and workshop outcomes and structuring outcomes into activities for the next workshop. For example: taking the game fiction created in workshop #1 and structuring it into activities for creating core game mechanics during workshop #2.
The co-design method aligns conceptually with the overarching purpose of the project. Because as with software, games also imprint the motives and values of their designers on culture. This line of thought is inspired by Flanagan’s ideas:
“[A] critical design methodology requires the shifting of authority and power relations more towards a nonhierarchical, participatory exchange. While the games made might disrupt the existing social realities offered by most popular games, they also disrupt the design process itself. Instead of compliance to a pattern whereby the usual designers develop the usual ideas through the usual stages for the usual players, what is needed now is a model that will augment these practical but limited stages of the design process in a way that addresses intervention, disruption, and social issues and goals alongside of, or even as, design goals embedded into the mechanic and game elements” — Mary Flanagan, Critical Play
The design process as the primary output
The main objective of the workshop, despite everything written above, is actually not to produce a board game. Rather, the workshops are designed that through the co-design process participants engage more critically with software systems in their daily lives and help develop their algorithmic literacy, allowing them to become more aware of, critical towards, and knowledgeable about how, when, and to what ends ubiquitous data collection practices and algorithmic systems impact our lives.
As with our zine co-creation workshops, the creative exercises are designed in a way that prompts participants to engage with technical, theoretical and cultural ideas around digital technologies through the creative or design exercise.
When working with the idea of ‘data’ as a fictional element within the game’s techno-dystopian play-world, we prompt participants to think of how possible game mechanics can reflect the notion that data structures are always simplifications that abstract and flatten real-world experiences into machine-readable taxonomies.
In a sense, the workshops themselves are like games — creating a playful space to interrogate, reflect on, and discuss real world systems.
This project is made possible through the New New Fellowship supported by SuperrrLab, Bertelsmann Stiftung, and Allianz Kulturstiftung.