As we enter an era in which algorithmic technology is woven into the fabric of almost all our social experiences,1 these computational systems have come to exercise a subtle but problematically pervasive power in society.2 As algorithms are generally invisible, “often referred to as ‘black box’ constructs, as they are not evident in user interfaces”, most people who engage with them daily are unaware of how they work or how they can be socially harmful.3 Consequently, academics, media critics, and civic organizations have called for initiatives that can foster public algorithmic literacy.4 This would allow the public to become more aware of, critical towards, and knowledgeable about how, when, and to what ends these automated systems impact their lives. As a response to this call we set out to develop the critical board game Unveiling Interfaces as an MA Media Arts Cultures thesis project at Aalborg University, Denmark.
Unveiling Interfaces (2018) is a Euro-style board game in which players build and publish social media apps while competing for revenue in a simulated mobile app marketplace. To publish an app, players need to black box the algorithms underlying their software with user-friendly flat-icon interfaces and commodifiable functionalities. Yet as play progresses, these hidden algorithms start having certain problematic social, political, and even personal consequences in the play world, prompting players to take a look inside the actual black boxes of social media software.
Practice-led Research and Critical Game Design
We approached the design of this board game through a practice-led research methodology.5 This implied working between the concerns of academic research and creative practice, thus allowing us to move beyond the confines and concerns of academia and evaluate if and how theoretical knowledge can be applied creatively for socially transformative outcomes. Mary Flanagan’s critical play6 was our game design method. This approach emphasizes the use of games “for artistic, political, and social critique or intervention, in order to propose ways of understanding larger cultural issues.”7 According to Flanagan, to create a critical play scenario, designers need to define not only affirmative design goals, such as creating a balance between luck & strategy, but also value goals that necessitate a constant reflection on humanistic themes during design.8 In this critical game design offered a unique creative space for our practice-led research. As Flanagan writes: “Games and play environments are particularly useful frameworks for structuring systemic and conceptual concerns due to their multifaceted and dynamic, rule-based nature.”9
Although our design goals entailed creating a gateway game with a low barrier of entry for inexperienced players, our critical play value goals were informed by criteria for algorithmic literacy that we set out in our thesis literature review. We thus determined that the board game should aim to allow players to develop awareness of algorithms in their daily lives, foster a critical stance towards algorithms in the contexts in which they are encountered, and instill a technical appreciation of algorithmic technologies without relying on prior technical knowledge of players.
Codifying Theory into Game Mechanics
We created our critical play scenario through a process of codifying theoretical insights from the field of software studies into Unveiling Interfaces. Software studies, through its digital materialist approach, argues that it is in the materiality of software, in the execution of code, the processing of data, and the production of outputs, that algorithms have an effect on the world. It is thus through software, as scholars of this field hold, that “algorithms bear a crucial, if problematic, relationship to material reality.”10 Moreover, software studies operate between the concerns of computer science and cultural studies, emphasizing the technical and socio-cultural dimensions of digital technology. Algorithmic literacy is a necessarily critical engagement with algorithms in the social contexts where users engage with them. Users can always benefit from a software studies perspective, as software studies brings “software back into visibility so that we can pay attention to both what it is (ontology), where it has come from […] but also what it is doing.”11
Designing Unveiling Interfaces
For the purpose of developing a ‘play world’ for the game that could convey our value goals, we followed a software studies digital materialism that emphasizes moving from abstract notions of ‘software’ as a macro-phenomenon to its specific instantiations. In Unveiling Interfaces we thus decided that player will play as software developers who have to publish social media apps to an AppMarket playing board. This would be done through collecting Software Tiles and using them to complete Developer Briefs.
Figure 1. Illustration of Unveiling Interfaces set up for two players.
Designing the gameplay, we developed two phases that structure each player’s turn during each round of play until the game concludes:
The first phase of each player’s turn consists of completing one of three actions: (1) Collect Software Tiles; (2) Draw a new Developer Brief; and (3) Publish an app. In terms of game design this phase constitutes the choices players enact during the game. Throughout the three actions of this phase there is an interplay between two primary game elements: Software Tiles and Developer Briefs.
In the front of each Brief there are four slots into which four Tiles can be placed. These slots are filled through following one of the pre-set combinations of Tiles set out on the back of the Brief, consisting of different color combinations relating to the colors of the nine different types of Software Tiles. Depending on the specific Tiles played, each of these combinations have a different ‘revenue value’ (i.e. amount of game points) a player earns for completing it. The purpose of Action 1 is to allow players to collect Tiles in each round so that they can complete the Briefs, whereas the purpose in Action 2 is to provide players with more Briefs. Finally, Action 3 allows the players to publish apps into the AppMarket once they have completed collecting the Tiles needed for their desired color combination.
Given the digital materialist frame of the game, the front of the Developer Brief contains the name and logo of a specific fictional social software applications inspired by real applications that players might have on their own phones (such as Twitter), whereas the Board of the game graphically represents a smartphone with an app market application open. The development of the game mechanics draws however on David Berry’s work Critical Theory and the Digital,12 where he proposes the concept of “compactants” (computational actants) that mediates the engagement between the users and the software mechanisms. The author argues that software as compactants comprises of “two faces”: the “commodity face” of software, “accessible via the interface/surface” which provides the stable commodity, service, or functional value of the software as consumer product; and inversely, the “mechanism face” of software that is found in its source-code and “contains the mechanisms and functions ‘hidden’ in the software.”13 This analytical model for thinking of software as a dual composition has informed the attributes of the Software Tiles in the game, as they are also composed of a surface (user interface or UI) and a codal layer (algorithm). Moreover, it has also informed the core mechanics of the game which involves the code-side (mechanism) of the Software Tile being concealed by the UI-side (commodity) in publishing an app during Action 3.
The back, or code-side, of the Software Tiles are composed of an algorithm. Working with 3.5 x 3.5 cm tiles placed a particular constraint on us in terms of size and consequent surface space for content. While conscious of the dangers of reductive oversimplification, we did not intend to go into the technical minutiae of the software we drew on. Especially since we aimed to make the language in the game accessible to non-expert players. Following, we turned to the four categories of algorithmic systems offered by Diakopolous:14 prioritization, classification, association, and filtering. Following these criteria, we identified three different software features found in social software per each of the first three categories (since the last is proposed as a transversal category). Within these, we designed two algorithmic variables of each software feature by reverse-engineering examples of biased, misbehaving, or socially problematic algorithms reported in examples of what Diakopolous calls “algorithmic accountability reporting” or “computational journalism.” For facilitating critical play, the Software Tiles consequently become crucial for understanding the critique of algorithms as materialized in software. Responding to our value goals, it is the Software Tiles that are meant to foster an “algorithmic awareness” in players.
Figure 2. ‘Trending Topics’ Software Tiles containing different encoded algorithms.
The front of the Tiles correspond to one of nine software features that a social software application might have, such as ‘Newsfeed’, ‘Recommendations’, or ‘Trending Topics’. These features are labelled and graphically represented by flat-icons mimicking social software UI conventions, thus offer a familiar aesthetic to the players. Berry writes that by being “extremely visually pleasing”, this type of UI design “enable[s] the machinery level of the codal object to be hidden away more successfully.”15 In other words, Berry refers to the blackboxing of the code through the UI design (the commodity face) of software. Correspondingly, in the game, the UI-side of the Tiles must be displayed on the board once a player has published an app, making only the ‘commodity face’ of their app visible to other players. Thus, the purpose of the UI-side of the Tile is to veil the ‘mechanism face’ of the software, i.e. its encoded algorithm set out on the Tile’s code-side. It is in this, following Zimmerman’s writing,16 that we identified Action 3 as the game’s core mechanic, bringing Action 1 and 2 to fruition within the game. This is due to the fact that through Action 3, players physically enact the blackboxing of software through UIs, which is represented by the front-side of the Tile.
Figure 3. This illustration from the rule book demonstrates how to complete a color combination from the back of the Developer Brief by placing the corresponding Software Tiles, UI-side up, on the front and thus hiding the underlying code-side.
Similar to the attributes of the code-side, each feature on the front side of the Tile has two colors. However, unlike in the ‘mechanism face’, where the code undergoes constant changes, the feature icon remains identical. Thereby, the UI-side as a stable icon hides both responsible code as well as the problematic code. The double-faced Tile mechanism in the game thus responds to our value goals, as it conveys the technical aspect of a compactant, which can contribute to an understanding of algorithms that is not contingent on any computer scientific expertise. This approach is central to our game as an understanding of software as constituting of hidden algorithms is inhibited by the blackboxing of software through its commodifying interfaces. We argue that a critical stance towards software can thus be achieved by ‘unveiling the interface’ and bringing the underlying mechanism—the algorithm—into view for players. Hence the chosen name of the board game: Unveiling Interfaces.
The second phase of each player’s turn starts with moving the Week Marker on the Calendar. If the Marker lands on a week with a Pay-Day icon, then players collect revenue for all their published apps and add it to their scores. However, if the Week Marker lands on an Event Notification icon (constituting the first three ‘weeks’ of each in-game ‘month’), then players have to draw an Event Card.
While players are tasked with pursuing a profit driven model of software production, when an Event Card is played they might be informed that some of the algorithms materialized in their apps have been acting in the world with certain agentic consequence. As Kitchin and Dodge write: “although code in general is hidden, invisible inside the machine, it produces visible and tangible effects in the world.”17 As an Event Card is read, players need to ‘check the code’ of all possibly implicated Software Tiles. This entails flipping over the implicated Tiles and seeing if the algorithm on their code-sides correspond to the code mentioned in the content of the Event Card. If this is the case, players are fined and their Software Tiles are left exposed. Event Cards consequently enact the central theme of the game: unveiling the stable UIs of software and reflecting on the blackboxed algorithms as they contextually do work in the world. Importantly, Event Cards contain certain unforeseen social, political, economic, and personal events that occur within the ‘play world’ of the game as a result of specific Software Tiles having been played. As these Cards correlate to specific Software Tiles, they are based on the same case studies we used to design the algorithms in the Tiles.
Figure 4. An Event Card that applies to apps containing Software Tiles with a ‘Trending Topics’ feature with a specific correlated algorithm on its code-side.
Set within the frame of the game, the mechanic of Phase 2 is designed so that more profitable apps might have more adverse social consequences. Players that are publishing the highest-grossing Software Tile combinations might thus realize that they are being excessively punished for trying to win the game by following the system of rules we have created. Lindsay Grace calls this kind of disjunction ‘discomfort design’, which forces players “to reflect on their understanding of a specific scenario” as the game mechanics create a “moment when player expectations are broken.”18 This space is created through the excessive punishments Event Cards contains, through which we aimed to provoke a change in the approach players have to the game’s initial goal. This change is subtly prompted in the rule book when we ask: “at what cost are you willing to win?”. The player’s journey from which we aimed to generate critical play departs from an intuitive game strategy focused on gathering as much revenue as possible, towards a mindful selection of Software Tiles that will not have adverse social consequences. It is then as players read the code-side of the Tiles in relation to Event Cards that the game is intended to prompt reflection on the algorithms of social media software players might encounter in the real world. Players are thus meant to reflect on one of the central criticisms that prompted the Pew Research’s call for algorithmic literacy, namely that “algorithms are primarily written to optimize efficiency and profitability without much thought about the possible societal impacts.”19 As Berry writes: “Any study of computer code has to acknowledge that the performativity of software is in some way linked to its location in a capitalist economy.”20
Internal Design Review and Playtest
The game mechanics and elements described above were not only designed through a theoretical investigation, but also through iterative prototypes played between ourselves as part of internal design reviews. These were especially insightful in terms of refining the constitutive rules, as well as improving communicational prompts within the game elements. Yet to gain valuable feedback for further development, as well as to verify whether our value goals emerge through play, we conducted a series of playtests with real players after arriving at a presentable prototype.
During these playtest sessions we concluded that our prototype provisionally achieved our game design goal of creating an engaging gateway game. The rules were quickly understood by players and they seemed engaged with and demonstrated enjoyment during the progress of play. However, the emergence of critical play did not seem to occur naturally players struggled to understand the Event Cards’ relation to their choices of Software Tile selection. There was thus a perception that punishments were meted out according to chance, and players didn’t seem to make the necessary correlation between their profit-driven actions and the outcomes of those actions framed by the Event Cards. We perceived that this was due to a number of design and communicational flaws, which we aim to amend through, for example: reducing the over-abundant information on the Software Tiles for easier conceptual engagement; framing the socio-technical critique of the game more explicitly within the theme and narrative elements to make it clear why certain punishments are applied to player’s software; as well as simplifying the technical language used to describe game elements, as this seemed to add to the lack of clear correlation for players with little technical knowledge.
Figure 5. Our second playtest session in Aarhus, Denmark. July 12, 2018.
Regardless, there were moments during play that we could clearly see the space for critical play manifest. This occurred with certain Event Cards prompting shock and surprise, especially when players were told that the Event Card were based on real case studies. We thus conclude that while in its current iteration there are some flaws in Unveiling Interfaces, the game could be considered as a prototype still in the development process. We aim to implement various insights from the playtest session, including the ones briefly mentioned above, in a successive iteration that would hopefully result in a publishable critical board game for algorithmic literacy.
Why Board Games for Algorithmic Literacy
Looking at the pedagogical potential of board games, Mayer & Harris argue that Euro-style board games offer an immersive space for players and can potentially become a “powerful tool for learning.”21 By drawing on Flanagan’s critical play, board game design not only creates a social space where skills can be learned, but that such a social space can afford a critical pedagogical approach that focuses on the societal reflection instead of imparting mere technical competencies. Francesco Crocco argues that “the rich interactivity offered by games naturally reroutes learning away from the traditional ‘banking model’ of education that reduces students to passive recipients of institutionalized, rote knowledge.”22 As such, Crocco’s critical gaming pedagogy naturally aligns with Flanagan’s conception of critical play, as critical play games “also explore notions of agency and education” through making particular social or political issues relevant to players.23
Grace writes that games can engender social critique as they might “remind us that our daily lives may be better understood as games […] or that some political systems are in themselves absurdist games with no winners” through inverting “the relationship of games to life.”24 We consider that board games, in having explicitly written rules, can indeed contribute to the call for algorithmic literacy as their ‘game system’ are transparently lain out in the rule book. Through working analog, we could thus stay outside of the digital systems we aimed to reflect on, as digital game development could easily have resulted in the creation of a game critical of black boxed algorithms, while itself being an inscrutable black box. The access to the game system can as well provide the players information to access to the logic behind the game and to decodify the content of the game and engage with the value goals purported by Unveiling Interfaces. This characteristic we consider is unique to analog games, since even if we were to make the source code of a digital version of the game available, it would still need technical expertise from players to understand the source code.
On the same note, we believe the strategy of designing with an analog medium to address abstract entities such as algorithms offers an interesting and useful contribution to the call for algorithmic. Since algorithms are themselves often considered abstract theoretical models, the materiality of a board game aligns with the digital materialist approach of software studies. Thus algorithms can, through the game, be better understood through visible and tangible interface to interact with. Hence, we argue that a physical game can help players make sense of something abstract and hidden and that is consequently excluded from public discussion, such as algorithms.
Designing a board game moreover offered an ideal format for us as academic researchers with professional background in communication and design to conduct practice-led research. This allowed us to use game design as a space for practical application of theoretical research, while liberating us from a disproportionate reliance and prioritization of technical skills and labor that digital game development would have require. With this in mind, we argue that board game design represents an exciting opportunity to foster a material engagement with abstract concepts as well as providing a social space wherein to discuss issues surrounding the effects of algorithms on society. In this we not only hope to contribute towards the call for algorithmic literacy with the further development of Unveiling Interfaces, but also demonstrate the value of board game design for addressing issues arising from contemporary techno-culture. There is assuredly a need for more such approaches towards public empowerment as more complex and inscrutable machine learning and other algorithms continue to be developed and deployed into our daily digitally mediated lives.
Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.
Adriaan Odendaal comes from an academic background in sociology and visual studies. He has over three years professional experience in digital marketing, copywriting, and multimedia design. Currently, he is completing his MA in Media Arts Cultures, working with Karla Zavala on a joint-thesis on the topic of algorithmic literacy. During this program, he has done academic work in software studies, media arts, and game studies, as well as having presented a speculative-design project at the 2017 NIME conference in Copenhagen and the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz together with Karla Zavala.
Karla Zavala is a social communicator with specialization in communication for social development, and digital marketing. She has six years of work experience digital platforms, social media and UX design experience. Currently, she is following an MA in Media Arts Cultures, completing her joint-thesis on algorithmic literacy and software studies with Adriaan Odendaal. She has presented papers in the topics of post-digital aesthetics, game studies, and creative industries in Europe and Latin America, as well as an speculative-design project in Ars Electronica (2017) and NIME Copenhagen (2017).