Mission Zhobia: Validating a Narrative Game for Complexity

2020-2022 :: Empirical study
In collaboration with Dr. Christian Roth (Delta IL) and &ranj Serious Games
Supported by:

What is this research project?

This project proposes to validate a serious game concept through a psychological user study.

"Mission: Zhobia" is an existing serious online game developed by &Ranj for PeaceNexus, an NGO that trains peace builders in conflict-ridden countries. Specifically, it trains players to deal with the complexities of setting up a justice system, using an interactive narrative approach. The story of the game is set in the fictional African country of Zhobia. Players begin their mission with no prior knowledge as they fly to Zhobia to replace a predecessor who has already failed the task. They need to draw up the optimal plan on where to set which type of justice system. To reach a decision, they need to engage local power brokers and informants without making enemies of them, gain their respect and cooperation to get their perspectives, and then draw up a plan from a matrix of possible options that they unveil through their conversations.

Click to play Mission Zhobia - Winning the Peace!

Serious games - video games with an explicit learning goal - have been proposed before as a medium to represent complex dynamics and to help people recognise that certain issues are more complex than they had anticipated (cf. Rajeski et al. 2015 for an overview). However, simulation without narrative still lacks more specific explanatory power (Hayles 1995). Narrative has the power to organise knowledge into patterns that are more meaningful. Interactive Digital Narrative, more particularly, has the potential to couple such knowledge patterns with a player's experience, when it is the player who acts within the narrative (Knoller 2019), increasing the experiential qualities of narrative immersion and engagement. However, this particular potential of Interactive Digital Narratives (IDN) to address complexity, in which our research partners specialise, has not yet been evaluated at all.

This may appear as a bold claim. After all, the potential of games for learning in general has been widely discussed, maybe most prominently by James Paul Gee (Gee 2003). Many serious games have been created. However, even their effectiveness in achieving learning goals has rarely been evaluated, as a recent article points out (Van 't Riet et al. 2018). Having scoured the scientific literature in this field, we must conclude that claims - plausible as they may be - about the potential of serious games to address complex topics, beyond the mere recognition that a topic is indeed complex (Rajeski et al. 2015), are not based on empirical evidence. This lack of an evidence base blocks the practice of Interactive Narrative Design (IND) from attaining wider recognition and resources for further artistic and business development.

Overcoming such a gap requires a collaboration between the creative industry and researchers with a passion for this emerging art form. By establishing this partnership between serious games studio &ranj serious games and two world-class practice-oriented researchers in the field of Interactive Digital Narrative, we address this gap. We expect to help bring the narrative arts to their next level and to contribute to building the technologies that will support new practices of complex storytelling for a complex world. What's more - as we explain below - we believe this task is urgent.

Why is this important?

Our world is becoming much more complex. It's interconnected like never before and relies on networks of networks of logistic, ICT, legal, economic, cultural and other infrastructures that were built by humans but that no single human can ever hope to comprehend. The material, ecological basis supporting all this complexity is under severe strain and the feedback loops between human civilisation and the planet it inhabits are out of balance. At the time of writing, a global pandemic is exposing the many vulnerabilities of this complexity, bringing down stock markets and economies and destabilising social institutions.

21st century human civilisation is characterised by a fragile hypercomplexity - the entanglement of multiple complex systems (Hansen 2009). This is a challenge to peace and to the very survival of civilisation itself. As complexity scientists such as Niklas Luhman (Luhman 1986) have taught us, complex systems can resolve instability in one of two ways: they can either reorganise and improve the communication between their elements, or they can collapse into a simpler state.

What does that mean for the future of human civilisation? Collapsing into a simpler state will entail the violent destruction of human and animal life, of property, of values and cultural achievements. It may well be our future, if we do not reorganise, if we do not improve how we communicate as a civilisation. But how do we do that?

The transition from the current unstable condition into a stable and sustainable future state that preserves our most cherished human values is a generational challenge to our imagination. In order to make this transition, we must turn to our storytellers to help us understand where we are, where we ought to go and how we might get there. Our ability, as humans, to collaborate in large numbers has always depended on our ability to imagine and share common stories, common fictions, whether fears or hopes, that bind us together, that place our individual experiences of the natural, social, cultural or technological environment into a meaningful shared context.

But can we still collectively imagine a shared future that sustains our hypercomplex civilisation, a future that isn't dystopian? Or are our narrative powers of imagination exhausted in the face of an environment that has become too complex to sustain and must therefore collapse? Looking at some of the political and thought leaders of our world it may seem so. Some dismiss complexity altogether, ignoring scientific evidence, scoffing at experts and peddling simplistic slogans and viral memes - indeed the narrative equivalents of viruses and potentially just as deadly. Others openly advocate a return to old certainties and simplicities, to old stories that can no longer produce fresh meanings and deal with future challenges.

This is then the artistic mission of our age: can we develop a form of storytelling that respects hypercomplexity but, also, still helps us make common sense of it and guides our imagination as we transition, without destroying ourselves and our environment in the process?

It makes sense that in order to tell complex stories about a complex world, we would need an equally complex narrative medium, in order to achieve, at least, a temporary cognitive reduction of complexity' (Knoller 2019, following Hansen 2009). Our best candidate for that is the digital medium, with its unique and specific abilities: it can store vast amounts of (narrative) data, it can disseminate narratives instantaneously around the world, it can allow audiences to participate in the narrative experience as interactors and to try out different options. It may very well be the best medium we have to represent, communicate, experience and grasp complex systems, dynamics and processes.

We believe that narrative serious games, interactive documentaries or digitally immersive theatre, as forms of interactive digital narrative, can develop to become the way humans make common sense of the world through narrative understanding and can be used in art, journalism, and education. This, however, will require investments - for instance in authoring support technology to create such complex stories, and in training and education to train storytellers, journalists or teachers to use such technologies. Such investments cannot be made without some basis in evidence.

This evidentiary basis is, sadly, still missing. This is what we aim to address with this research project. We wish to examine:

  • whether a serious narrative game is more effective than a non-interactive narrative in training players to act and make optimal decisions with little prior knowledge in a complex fictionalised environment,
  • if one of the two narrative forms should prove more effective, whether this can be correlated with dimensions of experience that are medium-specific, and
  • whether specific design features contribute or not to the effectiveness of the learning or training experience.

References and further reading

  • Gee, James Paul. 2003. What video games have to teach us about literacy and learning. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Hansen, Mark B. N. 2009. "System-Environment Hybrids." In Emergence and Embodiment: New Essays on Second-Order Systems Theory, edited by Bruce Clarke and Mark B. N. Hansen, 113-142. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
  • Hayles, N. Kathrine. 1995. Making the Cut: The Interplay of Narrative and System, or What Systems Theory Can't See. In Cultural Critique, 30: The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part 1 (spring 1995). University of Minnesota Press, 71-100.
  • Knoller, Noam. 2019. Complexity and the Userly Text. In Narrative complexity: Cognition, Embodiment, Evolution, edited by Marina Grishakova and Maria Poulaki, 98-120. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Luhmann, Niklas. 2008 (1986). The autopoiesis of social systems. Journal of Sociocyberntics 6: 84-95.
  • Lund, Kristine., Knoller, Noam., Roth, Christian, and Koenitz, Harmut. (Submitted) 2021. Multi-linear Scripting of Emotion in a Narrativised Space of Debate. Journal of Learning, Culture and Social Interaction.
  • Rajeski, David, Heather Chaplin, and Robert Olson. 2015. Addressing Complexity with Playable Models. Paper, Science and Technology Innovation Program. Washington DC: Wilson Center.
  • van 't Riet, J., Meeuwes, A. C., van der Voorden, L., & Jansz, J. 2018. Investigating the Effects of a Persuasive Digital Game on Immersion, Identification, and Willingness to Help. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 40(4), 180-194.
  • Roth, Christian. 2016. Experiencing Interactive Storytelling. Dissertation at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
  • Roth, Christian, and Koenitz, Hartmut. 2016. Evaluating the user experience of interactive digital narrative. In: Proceedings of the 1st International Workshop on Multimedia Alternate Realities, pp. 31-36. ACM.