Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Game Design Challenge Brainstorming: The Crisis of Credit

Over at Game Career Guide, the biweekly Game Design Challenge is design a game that explains the global credit crisis in a fun way. I've been brainstorming this for a couple hours, and I can't think of a good way to approach it.

First off, there are so many variables involved, it seems difficult to pin the cause of the crisis down. The video they linked breaks it down, but even then there appear to be many causes: the low interest rates made T-bills unappealing and borrowing cheap, which caused lots of speculation and use of leverage. Then the demand for securitized mortgages caused investors to call for more mortgage backed securities, which caused mortgage brokers to offer mortgages to high-risk borrowers, who for the most part defaulted after being led into getting into mortgages they couldn't repay or lying about their income and getting a loan anyway. These defaults led to lots of houses being on the market, and this along with the housing bubble bust caused house values to plummet, which made the mortgage based securities basically worthless.

There's much more to it, but even this simplified version seems hard to turn into a game. I'm still thinking of it from a simulation perspective, and I'm not sure that would work, since it is such a complicated issue. It just seems if you're trying to teach about it, there should be some sort of lesson. And since it's a game, there should be some sort of meaningful choice, some decisions to be made by the player. And who should the player be? An investment banker? A person trying to buy a house? A mortgage broker? Each one of these in turn? Or maybe an omniscient view, where they can see where everything when wrong? What could the player have control over that would be interesting, what interesting decisions could they make from these viewpoints?

I was originally thinking of having the player follow the path of the mortgage, starting as the person buying a house, shopping for a mortgage, seeing their choices, then becoming a mortgage broker trying to sell the mortgages, so on and so forth until they zoomed out and saw the whole picture. But the decisions at each point are basically automatic - do I buy a mortgage based security or not - or really boring - who wants to have to shop for a mortgage in a game? And then what would each of the steps teach you?

Maybe the key is to break the crisis down to the root cause. This cause seems to be a lack of transparency - homeowners didn't know they wouldn't be able to pay back the mortgages, and investors didn't know this either. None of people involved seemed to see the crisis coming, or didn't care as long as they were getting money. So how lack of transparency be a game mechanic? Hiding information in a game is usually frowned upon - it's frustrating because the player doesn't know what's going on. Can that rule be broken for the sake of teaching? And was data really hidden from the actors involved, or did they willingly deceive themselves into thinking it would all be ok? And if that's the case, can a game replicate that same feeling - where you tell yourself everything will be ok, even though it's going to end in disaster?

I'll have to sleep on it. I know there's a solution, I'm just having a hard time brainstorming it. But the process so far has shown me that educational games can be hard - to be able to teach complex subjects through doing, not showing or telling. I can visulize the issue, I could tell someone else about it now, but I'm not sure how to make it into a game. Maybe some research into other educational games is in order.
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