"But what if Barack Obama spawned infinite ghosts?" I wondered, musing over Game-o-matic 's design-it-yourself interface. It's a quick and easy game creation tool made by Dr. Ian Bogost, Dr. Michael Mateas and a student army from the Georgia Institute of Technology and UC Santa Cruz. It's designed to let you create games by defining objects and their relationships in a simple diagram format - no programming required.
These diagrams are easy to build. You create nouns, draw arrows between them and then attach verbs to create behaviours. OBAMA -> SPAWNS -> ALL OF THE GHOSTS, for example. With the core logic in place, the system generates a ruleset and you can attach images to the objects you've defined. There's a strong political theme to the available assets gathered in Game-o-matic's online vault. That's because it's supposed to be a tool for creating " newsgames " - interactive sketches that encourage journalists "to think of news events as systems rather than as stories." Does it work? I'm going to test it by making the president fight Sarah Palin's dinosaur army for control of the United States of America.
Say hello to version 1.0. A couple of minutes of dragging and clicking is all it takes to sketch out the hunter/hunted logic that will drive Obama and Palin's armies. Obama is programmed to flee Palin's lizards and plop out poltergeists every few seconds to defend himself. In turn, Sarah Palin will obey the natural urge to flee pursuing ghosts and periodically deploy a lizardy chaff screen to stop attackers.
Now it's up to Game-o-matic to impose some rules on the system. After a split second of thinking a screen pops up with a big dinosaur and some instructions. Playing as the dinosaur, I must "remove all of Obama from the screen." I think that a nice way of saying I have to eat him. At the same time I must protect Sarah Palin from the ghosts. "It's over if Ghosts get Palin." I have no idea how this will end, but the dinosaur looks happy to be involved . I press play.
BREAKING: PALIN SUCCUMBS TO SPIRIT ARMY AS SECRET SERVICE SAURUS LOOKS ON
The first thing I notice is that Barack Obama is ten thousand feet tall. He lies comatose across North Dakota, Minnesota and Michigan and spams ghosts the size of states at Palin. She tries to hide in Texas, but where is her dinosaur protector? Oh, over there, standing uselessly to one side. I mash some buttons in panic as the ghosts close in. My lizard rotates as Palin is consumed. Ominous.
I try again. The ghosts swarm across the central states. This time I lunge and block one, but it's too late, the others encircle my protectee and shrink her into nothingness. Obama is OP.
My game is rubbish. Worse, it lacks the scope for serious political comment. I head back into the diagram to add some more elements. I create The Working Class. There don't seem to be any assets in the library that can represent an entire socio-political strata so I pick randomly. The Working Classes shall henceforth be represented by a snowman, and the Middle Classes by an enormous shed.
It'd be no fun if they got along, so I fasten them into a logic circuit of despair and have the two demoralise each other forever with no reprieve. That should spice things up.
BREAKING: PALIN RESCUES WORKING CLASS VIRGINIANS, GIANT SHED SNUBBED
Time to let Game-o-matic generate some new rules. Its description of my game is starting to read like election coverage written by a five year old, albeit one who knows the word "demoralises." Palin must "grab The Working Classes and bring it to the goal" before "time runs out" in "a game where Obama flees Dinosaur, Obama spawns Ghosts, Palin flees Ghosts, Palin Spawns Dinosaur, Dinosaur attacks Obama, Ghosts attacks Palin, The Working Classes demoralises the Middle Classes and the Middle Classes demoralises The Working Classes." Time to playtest this monster.
Palin is tiny again. The working classes are floating over Virginia, protected by Obama's ghost. The ghost spams deadly snowballs at me but I flank through Indiana and Ohio. The working classes stick to Palin's tiny form and I run as fast as I can toward the stars. Tiny Palin is lithe. Tiny Palin is brave. She leaves Obama's ghost behind. The middle classes loiter sadly near Texas. Obama glares icily from the sidelines. I WIN.
It's clear by now that the instructions I outlined in the diagram aren't influencing my characters' behaviour in an very predictable manner, and the lack of an [if X then Y] command limits the complexity of the interactions I can build. I want to say: "Dinosaur chases Obama. If dinosaur touches Obama then Obama is eaten right up." I spend some time tweaking to try and get the chase behaviours to work, but to no avail.
A flick through Game-o-matic's sample scenarios gives me a better impression of how it's supposed to be used (examples here and here ). The aim of the project are interesting. Interactive news formats could sidestep the inevitable bias issues that crop up in traditional news stories. A written report might seek to discard extraneous information, inflate points of perceived importance and relegate others to lower paragraphs present a readable but skewed slice of information pie. The Game-o-matic approach takes the bare bones of a story and splays it out like a dissected animal. It's clinical, but too simplistic to be useful, and the randomised rulesets distort the core diagram into something too chaotic to make a sensible point.
It's a fun toy, though. I went in assuming that I'd set out my own rules, but the clash between the diagram and the resulting Flash game creates unpredictable little mutants. It's like having an argument with an algorithm. It's frustrating and entertaining. Game-o-matic was created with loftier aims in mind, but I'm more interested in whether or not it can make something fun. I crank the lever one more time.
BREAKING: PALIN SURFS DIPLODOCUS WAVE TO VICTORY AS OBAMA EXPLODES
Okay, now we're talking.
The Game-o-matic beta is free to use if you're willing to slot your email address into the official site .