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Eric Hardman, Blogger

September 17, 2009

6 Min Read

Today is Constitution Day here in the States, when we annually memorialize the signing of the US Constitution in 1787, and the birth date of one of my favorite game design documents.

The US Constitution is interesting as a game design document, but certain disclaimers are warranted before heading too far down that path: governance is serious business, where games are mostly entertainment; the structures of the document deal with real life and death matters, basic issues of human dignity, and the social contract while games only try to simulate life and death dramatically. Not to say that there aren't serious games and silly governments, too, but that is not our focus here.

There have been many comparisons made between the business of politics and the playing of games. In fact, some pretty good games have been made incorporating politics directly, like the Civilization series and Total War series. A real-life example would include the fierce interactions of agents and diplomats during the years leading up to the First World War, referred to then as The Great Game.

So, even real politicians and practitioners may look at their profession as a game, or competition. Conversely, who can deny that personalities and agendas form a major part of the interactions of guilds in MMOs and clans in competitive games? Politics begin with any community of 3 or more.

If there's one thing the framers of the constitution understood, it was organizing communities. If there's a second thing, it was game balancing. Overall, there are some interesting ideas that game designers might learn and resonate with in both the process of the Constitutional Convention, and the actual product they signed on this day in 1787.

The Process 

In looking at the group of people assembled, and their methods of working together, it is surprisingly similar to the game development process itself. A wide variety of ages, professions, education, wealth and even intelligence were represented - this was a multidisciplinary team. They self-organized around a high level set of goals set by mostly quiet leadership in the form of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.  

One brilliant young producer, I mean political philosopher, James Madison, kick started the convention with a well thought-out creative brief. Erm, draft constitution. This was absorbed by the attendees and compared to other constitutions, counter proposed, and thoroughly disparaged. However, a working prototype soon emerged and they settled on the core mechanic almost immediately: power from the people, democracy. In short, they found their fun!

From that point there were many iterations, breakout committees, heartbreaking compromises, stands of principle, and hours of grueling detail work. Not surprisingly, there were sometimes bitter differences, walk outs, new arrivals, and genuine philosophical disagreements. Sounds like every project, right?

In the end they had a product they could live with, and were willing to sign. Now all they had to do was go sell it. But that's another story, maybe best saved for the anniversary of the Federalist Papers, if that even exists.

Ultimately, however, the process of the Constitutional Convention only confirms the way developers work, it doesn't necessarily bring new insights. Happily, the product itself does.

The Product 

The Constitution itself is the shortest and oldest written constitution in the world. That it still enjoys an active player base is a testament to it's core design, and the fact that it has spawned an entire genre of similarly structured documents suggests it is, or has been, widely admired. How can something so brief, just 4 pages long, inspire such longevity and malleability?

One reason is that it is well balanced, and designed to be multiplayer from the get-go. The framers wisely set up factions that would counterbalance each other, not with simple rock-paper-scissors mechanics, but with deeply structural power separations that not only counter, but rely on each other. 

For instance, the legislature creates laws, the legal interprets them, and the executive enforces them. The twist is that the executive also appoints the leadership of the courts! The legislature can impeach the executive! The courts can overturn the legislature! The lawmakers approve the court nominees! In short, the factions have more than simple countermeasures, but can also affect the powers, in the form of personalities, their adversaries are entitled to. 

Did I say adversaries? Aren't we all on the same team, here?! Well, yes and no. On a very high level, this is a competitive game to serve the interests of one nation over others. So it's meta-team based PVP. But, that is accomplished through an elaborate co-op system with it's own internal PVP, the balance of powers, as mentioned above. This is something I've seen barely hinted at in most games.

One example would be guilds in MMOs. Some of them offer a primitive kind of political mechanic, the voting of officers in Star Wars Galaxies comes easily to mind. But this is the most basic kind of competition, could the structures of guilds be more competitive, while remaining essentially co-op? What types of mechanics could be developed to encourage more robust interactions? 

Beyond the complex nested competitive/co-op/competitive structure, the Constitution has also been very successful at allowing emergent gameplay. On that level, it's a sandbox. For instance, it originally included no Bill of Rights, though that was quickly amended. But, you'll find no reference to political parties or the press -- two major factions we'd have a hard time imagining the country without today. Not only did certain types of new "play" emerge, but the document provides for it's own inevitible evolution; the players can change the rules! 

Imagine that, giving the players structures to allow them to actually change the rules of the game while they are playing? To the framers, this was known as "the genius of the people." How many game developers believe in the genius of their players?  Can I get a Hell Ya? Anyone? Rrriiiight....

The Purpose

My purpose here is not to suggest that game development rises to the level of government development, nor to pretend to be an expert on the Constitution or law, nor to espouse any political views.

While I have done some humble research for this, please take it as an interesting (hopefully) launching point for expanded thinking about communities and their interactions in games. This is a topic that will only grow in importance to our business, and maybe there is some small good that can come of looking at how the real pros have gone about it in the past. 

Happy Birthday, Constitution! Love ya... 

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