Screenshot of The Museum Game sliding scale of interestingness. A convict love token is connected to Mary Gilmore's typewriter with the resemblance 'anti-establishment: he's a highway robber; she's a radical socialist poet

Cultivating conceptual propinquity

Dialogic thinking doesn’t only mean taking into account two different perspectives; it also means recognising the common ground between entities – what it is that makes them one. This post is a note about game mechanics to cultivate conceptual propinquity.

In Sembl games, players form associations between pairs of objects or concepts. Evaluating others’ moves according to a sliding scale of interestingness provides for a great gamey dynamic. It’s fun, and about as open and social a contest as you could imagine.

Screenshot of The Museum Game sliding scale of interestingness. A convict love token is connected to Mary Gilmore's typewriter with the resemblance 'anti-establishment: he's a highway robber; she's a radical socialist poet

Screenshot from the Museum form of Sembl showing the sliding scale of interestingness.

More importantly, the mission to associate, and the challenge to be interesting – both invoke and honour dialogical play, sparking all manner of logical and analogical associations between nodes. In aggregate, those associations form a new big picture of the networks we inhabit, which in turn can help us to communicate better via machines.

But to operate optimally, Sembl needs an additional filter.

Sembl’s true power lies in its capacity to surface similitude – links that are mutually applicable, or bi-directional. Such links do not make a comparison; they unite.

Having now observed dozens of games played at the Museum, I notice that players often deviate from my purist approach, and create links in the form of this-whereas-that, associating the pair by way of an opposition or a third element. Such moves can be highly humorous and thereby interesting, but asymmetrical links do not serve the purpose of drawing disparate objects and concepts together, so their interest is more fleeting. Asymmetrical linked data is also, as I have ranted earlier, subjective, sometimes objectionable – even authoritarian.

The act of perceiving a resemblance between things conceptually distant elicits understanding of important hidden-in-plain-sight patterns. A sense of connectedness – or the overview effect – is insightful and can fill us with wonder at the beauty and fragility of the Earth. Such a perspective can also yield understanding of the structures that divide us.

Beyond its liberatingly loose notion of interestingness, Sembl needs to surface higher-value, propinquitous links – those with a centripetal force – those that specify the nature of a similitude. I’m therefore thinking that… Players should be able to mark down links that don’t work both ways.

Torus and lotus

Last year I posted about the gameboard designs we’re using in the Museum form of Sembl.

On those boards, each team starts with their own seed node – so on the hex board there are a whopping six nodes not created by players. I wanted less space to be taken up on the board by the seed content, to leave more space for the player-generated content. Conceptually and logistically, it also simplifies entry to the game if everyone focuses at first on a single node.

So I made two new boards, for four and six teams, where each team begins from the same node. In Round 1, the game expands, in Round 2 it contracts, and then in Round 3 there’s only one or two nodes left to claim. Because of this opening out and then closing in, I call these the Torus boards.

Having built a fancy Graffle-gameboard converter, the trusty lads over at Secret Lab were able to easily provide new gameboards for us to play in the iPad game. The two Torus boards fast became our favourites. Here’s what the Torus 4 looks like in The Museum Game:

Screenshot of a game showing timer, leaderboard and gameboard of connected nodes, two of which have images in them.

But last night I realised I’m still disappointed in those designs, because they’re not really, truly, toroidal – because you don’t actually end up where you started. I realised that the Round 3 node/s should link back to the seed item, like this:

Because how could I not, I call these latest boards the Lotus series and I can’t wait to put them through the Graffle gameboard-o-matic. I sure hope it can handle curves and crossovers.

[edited 15 July to add the following…]

Turns out crossovers are fine but curves demand engineering we can’t prioritise. So… here again with straight lines: