Just Like the Simulations (2024)

“Quandary”

As I continue to explore the space of educational and transformational games, it increasingly becomes bothersome how grey such a distinction is. In my previous post, I started ranting semi-coherently about how much more insignificant the difference between the categories of transformation and education really are.1 I think Nicky Case’s transformational games are a pretty great example of that, but if I jump into that I’d like to make a more coherent analysis across the games. That’ll require more work, so keep an eye out for that. In the meantime, I found a little browser game that, although educational, teaches skills that are more interpersonal and bleed into behavior change or training simulations. This game, “Quandary”, was developed by the Learning Games Network as a “teaching tool designed to engage students 8+ to develop critical thinking and perspective-taking, practice empathy, and learn to make ethical decisions through fun and engaging game-play”.2

Kind of a Card Game?

Quandary markets itself as a digital card game, which in some sense is true; the core mechanics of the game rely on cards representing colonists on the planet Braxos, who are all subordinated to you as their captain.

Just Like the Simulations (1)

The game begins with a comic book style introduction to the game, allowing you to choose the appearance of your player character, the captain of the Braxos colony, before explaining that at a time this early in the colony’s existence, conflicts and trouble force you to make touch choices. The rest of the game is organized into four episodes, where the player is prompted with some kind of problem, and goes through a series of interactions with the colonist cards in order to collect information and decide a course of action. Each episode is a new problem, but they all follow the same format.

First is “Get Your Facts Right”, where you read the colonist cards and the details the character is telling you, organizing them as either Fact, Solution to the problem at hand, or some Other Opinion. Next is “Narrow It Down”, where the player simply reads the Solution colonist cards that they correctly categorized as such in the prior stage, selecting which two Solutions to explore. Next is the most robust section: “Investigate Viewpoints”. In this stage, the player has the option to show any of the two Solutions to each colonist by placing the corresponding token onto the colonist card. Otherwise, the Facts that the players correctly categorized in the first stage are now presented as tokens, which the player can also show to the colonist cards. However, if the player does not think through whether showing this fact is relevant to that particular colonist, the player may end up losing points.

Speaking of points, all this time, a score is kept for correctly categorizing cards, or for showing information relevant to a colonist. This score is thus effectively a measure of how thoughtful, empathetic, or just completionist the player was while going through the episodes. Scores are listed when they’re the latest and highest for a given episode, and the highest scores of each episode are summed together for a total score.

Back to the episode progression, you reach the climax by selecting your desired solution, and having it made more specific by talking to the colony’s council. You select the colonist cards that agree with your choice and don’t agree with your choice in “Arguments For” and “Arguments Against”, with the colony council agreeing with you, and adding some greater details related to who you had argue in the prior stages. The narrative ends by another sorting game which mirrors the first stage, “What Will They Think”, where you sort the colonist cards based on whether they agree or disagree with the council’s and your decision. A brief comic then explains the consequences of your choice.

The nice thing about this experience, and how much it can change based on your actions and just how centralized the points are in the “Investigate Viewpoints” section, is that it becomes quite replayable. There are four solutions for each episode, and you have to narrow it down to two right before “Investigate Viewpoints”, and each combination implies colonists will react differently. And given the relevance (or lack thereof) of the facts, you can replay each episode a handful of times before you get a particularly high score. Although the other sections which are simpler sorting tasks can start to feel dull and repetitive. As a result, after episode 1 or 2, the core gameplay loop is really sitting and thinking about how to strategically share the facts with the colonists; in the stages prior, I found myself thinking about which facts were relevant to which solutions to optimally narrow, and then studying what each colonist said and who would be the best bet to show any fact to. After that, it was mostly spamming my way through the end because accumulating points in those last parts were relatively quicker and easier.

Transferring Transformation

The interesting thing about replaying the episodes is getting a good feel for the characters. Perhaps in your first playthrough of the episodes, you’re reading very intently and trying to figure things out, but by the end you have a feel for who the characters are and their motivations. And this is evidence of the development of some kind of expertise. As one plays through the levels, and then works on replays, he becomes aware of what he doesn't know, and slowly internalizes these things as he learns. At first, I was clicking on each person and rereading what the colonist thought and the responses to strategize what to show to who, but as I progressed, I got a better feeling for who they all were and what information would influence them. I became unconsciously skilled with regards to empathy towards these characters.

But learning about these characters isn’t very useful outside of the game, at least at first. What’s happening in this process of learning the characters, is the player engaging in empathy as an act. And this is all contextualized in a process of gaining information and making an informed decision: Gather information about the situation, field peoples’ thoughts and input, and make an informed decision. There’s the final bit about getting feedback from the characters, but this is more as a quiz based mechanism within the game to help the player get immediate feedback from your decision.3 Even in this simple way, younger players such as the intended demographic can practice a generic formula of making informed decisions. The narrative structure and comic book starts and end to each episode are good way to help players remember and effectively transfer this methodology: prior work shows that stories are more memorable than abstract principles, and that grounding learning in real world problems is better than in abstract problems.4 Now I'm not trying to say the whole narrative structure of interstellar colonists is a real world problem, but that each of the episodes is leveraging some pretty mundane issues of people living together, and are inspired by real world disagreements.

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In “Episode 1: Lost Sheep”, the colony is having a disagreement over what to do when a species of wild cat are raiding the sheep. This maps quite well in many ways to the modern issues over environmentalism, and the foundational issue of the episode is quite clearly based on a very common problem of predators hunting domesticated livestock.

In “Episode 2: Water Wars”, the public water well has gotten dirty, and the colony debates what to do in the short to mid term, especially considering one of the colonists owns a private well for which he is charging for its use. Water access is a pretty big issue in the developing world, and as the episode progresses, there are some interesting arguments made about private and public property that touch on things as intense as Emminent Domain but is approachable enough for the age group.

In “Episode 3: Fashion Faction”, the colony gets divided when the tailor makes modifications for his friends’ (usually drab and boring) colony uniforms. School uniforms, especially in American parochial and other private schools, is still a pretty common debate that even the young players might be familiar with. Especially for students in this context, this would be a memorable episode and even help them sort through their own opinions on the issue. There’s also a good theme of equality present in the solutions and opinions of the characters which could extend into modern political discourse.

Finally, in “Episode 4: Mixed Messages”, the colony message board gets spammed with comments about the engineers, who feel offended. The underlying controversy is about free speech and civility, and even actively touches on (in a very simple and understandable way for the age group) potential legal issues with different solutions.

All of these are well organized stories the players can grasp, but also have an underlying issue that is even debated in broader society. So the potential for transfer seems to be quite good. Not only are they learning a mechanism for making informed decisions and exercising it in the game, but they learn in some way to interact with others and through replays become more empathetic, and gain some exposure to modern discourse that they’ll grow into.

I was really excited about the prospect of this game, because seeing the narrative structure, the simplicity of the game such that it could minimize cognitive load, and interestingly broad educational-transformational goals, I couldn’t help myself from checking it out. All things considered, I’m quite pleased with the game beyond a few issues with unnecessary background noises and a dated premise of ‘expansion colonists’ being a neutral or good thing. Overall, I think this is a solid example of a transformational game that succeeds in many of its goals - from teaching good decision making practices, to experiencing empathy, to dipping one’s toes in the water of contentious issues, and more. I recommend you give Quandary a shot, and let me know what you think!

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1

Wow. Referencing myself. That’s kind of egotistical

2

From their website

3

Oh boy! Another Instructional Complexity Principle from “Instructional Complexity and the Science to Constrain It” by Koedinger et al.

4

Leaning on Arthur Graesser’s “Inaugural Editorial for Journal of Educational Psychology” and the ‘anchored learning’ Instructional Complexity Principle

Just Like the Simulations (2024)
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