Gaming: the future’s challenge

Commemorating the 40th anniversary of the publication of Richard Duke’s “Gaming the future’s language” by Sage Publications, inc. in 1974 ( *).

The games, the book and the impact

In 1974, Richard D. Duke published his “Gaming; the Future’s Language” (Duke, 1974). He was professor in Urban planning at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor at that time. The games he developed with colleagues and students were meant for communicating, training, research and policy development. These games were mainly board games and tabletop games. To process human decisions and to compute some outputs, the game facilitators, their assistants or even participants in a dedicate role, used calculators. Computers, i.e. time sharing systems with terminals, were not used for gaming that early on.

The UM gamers were a unique combination of experts in urban planning, gifted in the visualization of complex issues and interested in communicating with many stakeholders. They were able to link up with teachers keen on clarifying educational environments (Moore & Anderson, 1969). Their work together formed the base of research from which “Gaming: the Future’s Language” emerged. The book explained the concept of their type of gaming to a wider audience and generously described the development process of games in full detail.

The book was rather unique when it was first published. It introduced gaming to policy makers, human resource professionals, policy developers and social scientists. Early adopters travelled to Ann Arbor to drink from the source directly. Games for communicating, games for training, games for policy development were used more and more in all social economic sectors, up into the boardrooms and, ultimately, all over the world. The gaming/simulation tools are accepted for their added value and have found their place in the spectra of tools for communication, learning and training, and for complex multi-actor decision-making.

And of course the book was not the only one. New publications were coming from the initiators in the USA and even more from the early adopters who translated the “future’s language” in their own languages or wrote their own.

The cycles, the clockwork and the issues

“Gaming, the Future’s Language” states that game making starts with an analysis of the complexity of the real world problem to be communicated, trained or explored via the game. The complexity is reduced to what is essential for the game and documented / visualised as the conceptual map. This map then forms the starting point for the building of the game in terms of game board, rules and roles and game paraphernalia. The game board acts as the “memory” of the game. It displays the actual game status at any moment during the game play.

At the start of the game play, the game board is loaded with its initial state. The playing process itself consists of a so-called macro cycle and a series of micro cycles. The macro cycle is in fact a sequence of major steps that the game play passes through from start to finish, e.g. 1. Briefing (including role allocation), 2. Game kernel (the substantive content), 3. De-briefing (incl. role de-allocation). The game kernel consists of a micro cycle (a sequence of smaller steps) that will be repeated various times. For instance, in the HEX game (Duke, 1975), the micro cycle will be repeated 3-5 times. Each cycle passes the same steps-of-play: a. events, b. production, c. taxes, d. trading, e. regional requests and f. end-of-cycle.

Progress over time is reflected in a variety of roles assigned to participants who, guided by the predefined cycles, played their moves and change the state of the game (board). In fact the whole game was a well-defined and clever engineered clockwork. Unexpected events were possible, but predefined or at least selected and/or defined by the facilitator during the session, not emerging from the game nor defined by participants/roles themselves.

The approach was efficient, manageable, predictable and more. However, there were some issues that troubled:

  • One was the division of labour between game developers and game participants. The game developers built real world knowledge into the game, while the game participants often were the real world experts.
  • Another issue was the clockwork character of games. It is perfect to keep the facilitator in control of the process. It is less perfect as a model of a simulated micro-world. Or maybe you can say, the world does not work that way anymore.
  • And a third issue was the complexity of the games produced. It was questioned whether simpler games could result in higher learning outcomes.

Various authors have illustrated how they deal with such issues:

  • Thiagi (Thiagarajan, 2003) is a strong advocate of frame games. In fact such a game is a communication mechanism loaded with a case description. In many situations that is enough to fulfil the game’s mission. Most of the domain specific content comes from the participants.
  • Bjork and Holopainen (2004) used their broad experience with developing and using games, both board games and video games, to describe a growing set of what they call game design patterns. Games with a “clockwork” character now are part of a larger family of object-oriented games.
  • Schell ( 2008) describes about 100 different points of view for analysing, designing and assessing games. His focus is creating the required user experience.

The times, the tools and the challenges

The video entertainment games came up and led to an industry larger than the movie business so far. Game development has been split-up in many different disciplines. Numerous universities and other institutes for higher education offer all types of training programs and courses in gaming. When the market for entertainment games saturated, commercial game publishers identified “serious games” as their newest niche market, and entered the field of games for¬†communicating, training, research and policy development (Bergeron, 2006)

Recent developments in computers and technology (big data, data visualization, etc.) might challenge the application of policy games and related tools. However, the bottom line is that responsible policy makers and managers will not leave important decisions to the computer alone. So there will always be a “market” for collaborative multi-actor policy development in complex situations with sub-optimal information. The point is this: policy games alone will no longer fulfil this demand. For example, think about mindmapping; think about all kinds of visualization techniques; think about the immense popularity of video as learning tool; think about all kinds of combinations in modern didactic approaches for social constructivistic learning (computer supported or not).

Gaming is very powerful as it has the potential to create spatial structures (e.g. roles distributed in a room) that develop over time (the game process). However, there are now many more tools and systems that are supporting these spatial structures, the time dimension or both. These are tools for communicating, training and policy exploring as well as methods and tools for collaborative design and development. Although “serious games” usually steal the show today, the type of gaming as pioneered by Duke could withstand the test of time. It is effective and stable. In a well-filled toolkit containing decision rooms, game storms, social design, ex ante policy analysis, etc. gaming is widely accepted as one of the tools you can apply.

IMHO, a trend for the coming 25 years will be the growing interconnectedness of people on a global level combined with the diminishing loyalty to well established structures. Even a modern phenomenon like Facebook has no idea whether it is still young people’s favourite next year. A plethora of new communication, learning, training, research and policy-making needs will come-up which are just as many challenges for gaming. For gaming professionals, the future’s challenge is to be part!


  • Bergeron, B. (2006). Developing serious games (Game Development Series). Charles River Media Game Development.
  • Bjork, S., & Holopainen, J. (2004). Patterns in Game Design (Game Development Series). Charles River Media Game Development
  • Duke, R. (1974). Gaming, the future’s language. Sage Publications.
  • Duke, R. (1975), HEX. Ann Arbor: Multilogue Inc..
  • Moore, O. K., & Anderson, A. R. (1969). Some principles for the design of clarifying educational environments. In D. Goslin (Ed.) Handbook of socialization theory and research. New York: Rand McNally.
  • Schell, J. (2008). The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. CRC Press.
  • Thiagarajan, S. (2003). Design Your Own Games and Activities: Thiagi’s Templates for Performance Improvement. Pfeiffer.

*) Originally published in Richard D. Duke and Willy C. Kriz, 2014, “Back to the future of gaming” (WBV, Bielefeld) on occasion of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Richard D. Duke, 1974, “Gaming, the future’s language” (Sage Publications, inc.). The 1974 book was re-published in 2014 as well (WBV, Bielefeld).