"Out of the box": play and research

Sciart project on game developing
© Marisa Scarpulla

Everyone has played a game before. Most likely in a group too. Making games about collective behaviour makes sense, doesn't it? For this reason, the Cluster of Excellence Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour (CASCB) is conducting a project in collaboration with the Merz Akademie, University of Applied Arts, Design and Media, Stuttgart, in the 2023 summer semester that focuses on the development of collective games.

“Collective behaviour, the subject of our current research, is fascinating as well as extremely important in today's age for the understanding of groups and societies and can help make sense of the world,” the researchers Nico Gradwohl und Vishwanath Varma say. Both postdoctoral researchers from the CASCB had in mind to introduce people (including pupils) to the principles of collective behaviour.

Principles of Collective Behaviour
1. Simple rules such as following or avoiding neighbours can result in complex, coordinated patterns of group behaviour.
2. Diverse abilities and tendencies of individuals can make a group greater than the sum of its parts.
3. Feedback loops facilitate rapid amplification or stabilization of group behaviours.
4. Structures of networks and rules of transmission determine how information spreads through a group.

© Prasetia Putra

The students from the Merz Akademie came to Konstanz for three days to gain an insight into the research topics and to learn the basic rules of collective behaviour at the CASCB. Here they are in the lab where Prasetia Putra conducts his study.

From the first idea to the implementation
The reserachers had been interested in the utility of games for engaging learners and had previously experimented with simple interactive formats for teaching complex ideas. "I felt that using games to illustrate collective behaviour in action may be an effective way to communicate the principles behind collective movements of locust swarms to contagion of ideas through networks," biologist Vishwanath Varma says.

“We soon noticed that with limited expertise and resources our games may be nice prototypes but won't look nice without a huge time investment besides our research projects,” psychologist Nico Gradwohl says. “Thus, collaborating with people with an eye for design and aesthetics seemed like an amazing opportunity to further our goal, also dividing labor.” That is why they were interested in collaborating with the arts students from the Merz Akademie – an ongoing collaboration between the University of Applied Arts, Design and Media and the Cluster of Excellence CASCB.

Together with Mario Doulis, Professor for New Media at the Merz Akademie, they put the idea into practice: „At a previous exhibition Vishwanath Varma talked about his wish to work on a set of games that would explain basic principles of collective behavior in a playful way,”Doulis says. He was in favour of starting a game project because: “Most people I know like playing games. Developing a game offers to designers the opportunity to mix fun with work. But there are a lot of different games, and it is a very challenging and complex task to design one. And a lot of games already exist. Best starting conditions for a semester project!”

The ground rules of collective behaviour form the basis of all games that the 12 students at the Merz Akademie are working on. The spectrum ranges from classic board games and computer games to digital escape rooms. Ants, bees, ravens, and fireflies are the animal heroes on the game board.

About the collaboration
The students came to Konstanz for three days to gain an insight into the research topics and to learn the basic rules of collective behaviour at the CASCB. "Talking to the artists also helped me clarify concepts in my head, develop my own ability to simplify and clearly communicate my research, and identify important questions that I may want to work on in the future," Vishwanath Varma says. A joint game night was also not to be missed. With the versatile ideas, the students travelled back to Stuttgart and worked on the projects - not without challenges, as Mario Doulis describes: “The challenge for students is to align their widespread ideas to the project’s purpose, to explain the basic principles of Collective Behaviour. To do so sometimes means to give up your favorite idea and to work on another one. An important learning process for design students.”

Game event at the CASCB on 5 July
“I am truly amazed by the variety of ideas that the students came up with and I am really looking forward to seeing them come to fruition,” Nico Gradwohl says. All involved researchers love the visuals of the projects that already moved beyond a mere concept-stage. “I think, that this may truly help to illustrate some core principles of collective behaviour to educate people about the mechanisms we hold so dearly.”
On 5 July, the results will be presented at CASCB and of course will be played together!

  • Opening event: 1.30 pm, ZT 702
  • Game exhibition: ZT 9

Elisabeth Böker

By Elisabeth Böker - 27.06.2023