Sunday, March 27, 2011

Art Reflects Life: Christakis & Fowler's 'Connected' as a Boardgame...

While reading the book Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, I had a lot of different ideas flashing around in my head. One that really stuck, as I looked at the social networking maps and read about how they can be applied to look at human activity from various angles as the activity of one vast superorganism, was that this sort of thing would make a great instructional game for teaching about the way our actions affect and are affected by others on a larger scale. The way irresponsible sexual behaviour led to the Rockdale County STD outbreak, the way herd instinct affected behavior in the U.K. Northern Rock Bank incident of 2007, or the way voting patterns develop and emerge as with the 2008 U.S. elections, would all make excellent subjects for a game.

There is, in fact, a precedent for this sort of game in Black Death, by Greg Porter (you can find an updated print and play version here). This game places you in the 'persona' of a virus trying to infect mid-14th century Europe, in the manner of the Black Plague. A quick look at the map-board will be instantly familiar to anyone who has read Connected or used Social Network Mapping software:

Black Death map-board (1993 Blacksburg Tactical Research Center)

There are several concepts from Connected reflected in the structure and game-play of Black Death...

The map represents Europe in the mid-14th century with the major cities (including, presumably their surrounding towns and villages) serving as Nodes and the main thoroughfares, be they overland trade route or sea lane, serving as our Ties. The whole of Europe and North Africa could be seen as a single Social Group amongst the massive Social Network that is the human race.

Some ties are actually weaker, in the example of the Black Death map-board, than others, and are marked with a negative number along the route, representing either a difficult and slow journey over mountains, sea or inhospitable terrain that might see plague carriers die before reaching their destination. On the other hand, large cities have 'sections' which give a bonus to infection, representing the poor and disease-ridden sections common in most major cities of the era.

Along with all the social connections within the group itself, we also have Weak Ties to other 'nation groups,' represented by the trade routes leading out from Moskva, Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, Tunis and Reykjavik, which lead to 'The Orient,' 'Darkest Africa' and 'The Americas.' Our contagions will be coming in along the eastern routes, representing the Asian origin of many of the plagues of that era.

The number of outgoing and incoming connections one has is described as their Transitivity, the ability for them to spread information (or in this case, viruses). The major, popular cities in Black Death, like Constantinople or Paris, have very high Transitivity, which makes it easier for viruses to spread to them. Reykjavik's isolated nature (a very unpopular destination with a very low Transitivity), on the other hand, makes it very difficult for viruses to spread to it and tends to protect it.

Major Cities are popular targets in the game as spreading from one section to another is easy due to high connectivity. You might think of the individual sections of the city as 'close friends' in this context, a very tight little social group within the larger group, possibly even one with intimate contact, where the '+1' section might represent a friend with high risk behavior.

These connections can be lost in a number of ways by the play of special cards, changing the dynamic of the social network and the way the viruses travel around it. Wars between cities can close off trade routes which also limits the movement of plague carriers along that route as can bad weather, which keeps people at home to die in their own beds. Traders on the other hand bring new and interesting diseases with them from the Orient and a Crusade can take distant and removed infections and drag them along to concentrate in and devastate the middle east, creating new vectors for viruses to spread.

Interestingly enough, the Viruses, themselves, are made up of two attributes that mirror the concepts found in Connected: Virulence and Mortality.

Virulence, the speed by which the virus spreads, reflects the Connected concepts of Connection and Contagion. In a manner, the Virus can bee seen as a 'sub-node' in the individual City Node which represents the individual infection vectors that pass it from person to person in the city. For example, a Virus with a high Virulence which infects humans through a common medium (like an airborne virus or one that clings to objects and spreads by touch) could be seen as a node with multiple ties/vectors to other nodes, while one with a very low Virulence (one that spreads only through sexual contact or contact with blood, for instance) would be an outlying node with only one tie that is limited by the Three Degrees rule to only infecting a few people at a time and relies on carriers moving about a lot.

Mortality represents the Connected concepts of Intrinsic Decay and Network Instability. In the game, a Virus can be very Virulent, very deadly or something in between. As killing off folks is the way to win the game (as evidenced by the scoring track which is based on 'millions served,' a grimly humorous way to represent the dead), it would seem that having the highest Mortality rate would be the way to win. But killing off your host prevents them from spreading you effectively, so high Mortality viruses can end up cutting Ties before they can travel along them to replicate themselves.

Appropriately enough, when I've played the game, high Mortality viruses tend to cluster around cities within three degrees of each other and rarely make it very far into the map as they wipe themselves out or destroy whole cities, cutting off their potential vectors of infection.

This sort of rules structure could easily be transplanted to other games with a focus on different types and sizes of social networks. Imagine a game that high school kids could play to show how sexual behavior has much larger ramifications than who they are sleeping with at the moment. Or perhaps political science students could benefit from seeing how 'getting out the vote' organizations really do mobilize voters in an election, with various special play cards to represent outside  influences and events (like a negative media blitz or war in the mid-east). Games typically make this sort of subject material clearer and much more interesting and are increasingly being used for teaching methods in this manner.

The lessons learned from the game structure itself can also be of use. In Black Death, some ties are harder to cross than others, something that is not represented in Connected but could add some three dimensionality to the Social Network structure. Obstructed ties would be represented in a ordinary social network by people who are well connected, but avoided (the rich but mean old miser that everyone knows in a small town and is a central influence on the monetary and political life of the town, but is avoided as much as is possible by the townsfolk).

In any case, the game is fun, educational and is also now Connected to you by Three Degrees of influence: from Greg Porter, to Me to You. So grab a copy, check it out and spread the 'love...'

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