Games are a potent way of looking at the world. We use the language of teams, scoring, plays, and counter-plays to describe warfare, politics, the law, and more. Dutch sociologist Johan Huizinga went so far as to say that games are the defining human activity in his 1938 classic, Homo Ludens.
But outside academia, games are rarely used as tools for understanding society. Berlin-based independent studio Klang aims to change that with its upcoming massively multiplayer simulation, Seed, which is early in development.
The whole idea is that we want the game to spin out of what the players decide to do and create
To add weight to Seed‘s intellectual ambitions, Klang brought on one heck of a ringer. Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig is a world-renowned scholar of constitutional law, a liberal political activist, and onetime presidential candidate. He’s spent a career studying governance in the abstract, and helping to shape it in the real world. Now he’s applying that experience to developing the in-game political framework for Seed.
We spoke to Lessig and Klang co-founder Mundi Vondi earlier this summer about Seed and the team’s ambitious goals for pushing the boundaries on what games can do and be.
Putting the “simulation” back in The Sims
Describe any game as “massively multiplayer,” and most gamers will likely make a few assumptions. You run around killing things for experience points, gathering loot, and cooperate with teammates to kill a big enemy at the end. That’s weirdly specific description for a term that really only describes how many people can play, but that’s how dramatically World of Warcraft’s success has reshaped the industry.
Seed will look nothing like the MMORPGs you’re used to. In the game, You control several characters living in an upstart community as part of an effort to populate a new planet in a new solar system. You are responsible for your characters’ health and happiness. You have to make sure they have a roof over their head and food in their belly, such that they and their community can continue to grow and thrive.
Unlike conventional online games, Seed will keep running with all of its denizens 24/7, whether you’re actively playing or not. “This was essential to us,” Vondi explained, “because online communities tend to turn into ghost towns when players are offline — for more than 90 percent of their daily lives they’re not actually in the game.” For Seed to really work as a simulation, it can’t have only a fraction of its population present at any given moment. This is because absolutely everything in Seed, from the environment to every item bought and sold, is driven by players.
In practice it’s like a massively multiplayer take on The Sims.
In practice, it’s a massively multiplayer take on The Sims. You only control the characters indirectly, however, setting tasks and schedules for when they should work, sleep, and enjoy free time (similar to systems in management sim games like RimWorld). Artificial intelligence, taking into account any number of mood-affecting factors, will determine what the characters actually do from moment to moment, which is why the player isn’t necessary for their continued existence.
“What we’re going for basically is that there’s a lot of Butterfly Effects that we’re building up,” Vondi said. “So you can imagine for instance a character that doesn’t sleep in a bed because the player didn’t give him one, so he doesn’t show up to his job the next day, and the restaurant where he works gets in trouble because they’re short-staffed, which might affect another person who’s eating there, and so on — it has a trickling effect.”
Other online games, such as EVE Online and Albion Online, have experimented with managing player-driven virtual societies before, allowing players to shape the in-game world through economics — production, supply, and demand. This allows for dynamic in-game systems, but within prescribed boundaries. What separates Seed is the extent of the control players will have over all the systems of governance and economics. Players within communities will collectively decide how they want to govern themselves, ranging from major decisions like whether to be a democracy or a monarchy, to more fine-grained policy-making like open carry laws and income taxation rates.
As a world-renowned scholar of political science, this is where Lessig’s expertise comes to bear. He helped design the systems for how communities in Seed will make these collective decisions, mapped out a conceptual paper of these options and trade-offs earlier in the year, and spent the month of July embedded with the studio in Berlin to help flesh it out in practice.
More than just an interesting opportunity for experimentation, Lessig sees this a way to give players a direct hand in shaping their play experience into what they want:
“Obviously people don’t come to a game like this to practice model U.N., they come to play and build communities and I really think about the governance as a kind of utility that we offer them to make it so that their gaming experience will be more rewarding and more fruitful.”
Lessig and Vondi both said part of the impetus behind Seed is the tenuous state of many democracies around the world. Lessig recalled their first real meeting about the game the morning after President Trump’s election.
The whole idea is that we want the game to spin out of what the players decide to do and create
“I remember that morning feeling like things seemed so hopeless, and it was a wonderful escape to be at the Seed studios talking to developers about what we can do with it…
“We’ve got real challenges with democracy in the real world. At least in my country it’s not working well, if at all. So what was really intriguing to me was the idea that here we could create an environment where there could be many tens of thousands of experiments with different forms of governance. It might be that we can actually learn something about which forms work best in this context, and it might be that that helps us understand something about the same question in the real world.”
Using Seed as a tool to gain understanding about societies is built into the foundation of the project. Vondi explained how the game will launch with tools designed for collecting and modeling the huge amounts of data that Seed will produce.
“I would love to see people outside the game take all that data and build models to look at it more deeply than what we would think to do, and that’s the exciting part,” Vondi said. Social scientists and other researchers have already found ways to squeeze useful information out of existing online games, but Seed will be the first game built from the ground up with this in mind.
As a scholar, Lessig is particularly interested in building a game that “would help political scientists and constitutionalists think about what’s the relationship between these forms of governance and the kinds of activities it encourages.” Down the road, he road, he hopes data from the game could even be studied.
Blue sky thinking, big tent development
“Games aren’t anymore just these simple entertainments,” Vondi mused, “but they can be tools for understanding, which is an elevation from your average story- or action-driven experience.” He mentioned the famous Corrupted Blood Plague from World of Warcraft — when a boss’ contagious spell ended up accidentally escaping a dungeon and infecting the game in a way that epidemiologists found perfectly matched how real-world diseases spread — as an inspiration for Seed: “Obviously that was a mistake, but if that was to be the focus you could take it much further. It’s going to be a simulation, rather than a fully controlled game.”
Vondi hopes that bringing a high-profile intellectual like Lessig will set an example for others outside the field to come and add their voices.
Although Vondi’s co-founders came from EVE Online developer CCP, he himself has no professional gaming background. His background is in fine art, production, and filmmaking. He feels that bringing in more outside perspectives like his own and that of Lessig will be instrumental for helping games escape, “the stigma that they are all driven by nerds and male-oriented adventure-seekers.” While Vondi and Lessig are of course nerdy men themselves, their interests in Seed seem unrecognizable next to the power fantasies of typical, mainstream video games. Vondi hopes that bringing a high-profile intellectual like Lessig into gaming will set an example for others outside the field to come and add their voices.
For Lessig, the project extends beyond his professional interests and into the personal as well: “Frankly, my closest connection to games right now is the obsession of my sons. I’ve got a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old” – “Hello!” a young voice interjects into the call — “they’re here playing a game right now. Just watching the fascination and the way these games take over their whole perspective and their life has been both interesting and worrisome. I’m eager to get into a project that gives me a closer touch to that part of their life.”
Lessig is one of those rare academics willing to put his money where his mouth is, running for the Democratic nomination in the most recent primary on the platform of campaign finance reform he’d been developing through his scholarship. Seeing the powerful effect that games have on his children gives Seed compelling personal stakes for him, as he recognizes the immense potential for both growth and abuse in the flourishing, young medium.
Video games are at an exciting turning point as a medium. Seed is very early in development, but it presents a fascinating vision of gaming’s potential future, designed from the ground up as both entertainment and a tool for the social sciences. It will be available on PC in some form in 2018.