Metaphors and Mad Science

Today’s blog is a guest post, presented by a friend from my critique group. 

Guest blog by Jeff Shaevel

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Writers are constantly working with metaphors. Sometimes they’re direct, as in the phrase ”a tsunami of information.” Sometimes they’re indirect, as in Harry Potter, when J. K. Rowling uses the character Buckbeak as a metaphor for another character (Sirius Black) because both were persecuted for crimes they didn’t commit. Metaphors are powerful tools for improving readers’ experience by comparing to the known (the force of a tidal wave) or to something easier to relate to (the mistreatment of a beloved animal).

There’s another place where metaphors are important: game design. There are many abstract games—such as checkers, Go or most card games—that have no metaphor. The pieces are pieces. The rules are actions to be performed. No effort is made to relate the activity to anything in our world.

Many games, however, are enhanced with metaphors that give context, and sometimes they help make better sense of arbitrary rules. Chess, for example, has a military metaphor, the battle between two armies tearing each other apart and attacking the enemy king. Furthermore, the knight is usually represented by a horse (or figure on horseback) to help remind the players that, like the animal from which the metaphor is drawn, the piece can jump over other pieces.

In designing a game, picking the right metaphors can make all the difference in how much fun players have or how engaged they are in the action. “Chutes and Ladders”—a Milton Bradly game adapted from an ancient Indian game of “Snakes and Ladders”—depicts images of children performing good deeds, which result in a reward of climbing a ladder to further progress, and images of bad deeds, which result in falling down a chute to lose progress. A trivial exercise in shifting tokens becomes a series of stories about the consequences of good and bad actions, and much more fun.

My other half recently created a dice game and it took some effort to find the right metaphors to make the game both entertaining and educational. The game is “Mad Science!” and uses dice with scientific symbols (like atoms, beakers, and test tubes). The objective is to roll the dice to make sets of matching symbols. The more items that match, the higher the score. You can keep rolling, but dice that don’t match go into a “waste pile” and if, over time, more symbols end up matching there than you’ve scored, your lab explodes and you lose points paying to clean it up!

The game could have been about regular numbered dice and matching numbers, but the metaphor of the “waste pile” both makes it easier to remember the rules and gives people the opportunity to talk about science, experiments and the risks of explosions.

There is a campaign to get the game published, by the way. Please check it out on Kickstarter and let us know what you think.

What metaphors have increased your reading (or gaming) enjoyment?

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