Algorithmic systems and their similarities to game design processes: Algorithms of Late Capitalism
Designing a critical card game which deals with the absurdities of our technological present has a lot in common with the development of an algorithmic system: Both need some rules for them to work — but in the end, they are human-made. Karla Zavala Barreda & Adriaan Odendaal talked with Jeannette Neustadt & Markus Overdiek about implications of this insight for their co-creational game design process within their project “Algorithms of Late Capitalism” — and shared some thoughts for a vision of a more inclusive digital future.
What was your motivation for starting Algorithms of Late Capitalism?
Adriaan: In 2017, we did our master thesis research together and we focused on the topic of algorithmic literacy. That was just after the Cambridge Analytica scandal which was like a big watershed moment when a lot of discussion started happening around the moderation of platforms and the politicization of social media and echo chambers. During that time, we started doing research about algorithmic literacy from a perspective which, apart from computer science, also included approaches from cultural studies. This is why we started with a concrete project in which we developed a board game for algorithmic literacy.
Considering your work on AI literacy: Is education about the functionalities and use of algorithmic systems sufficient?
Adriaan: I think this is a very interesting while rather complex topic. There is definitely need for more structured and perhaps not overly pedagogical ways to give critical inputs and information to discuss these issues. It’s difficult to do it as a public literacy because there’s such high technical threshold and it gets complicated in terms of where the threshold for algorithmic literacy is and how much technical knowledge you need. Take for example transparency, of which a lot of researchers talk about. Transparency of algorithmic systems is really not that useful if you don’t have a critical audience. Our approach is that the more reflectiveness there exist, the more people are empowered to question situations in which algorithmic systems are being used.
You co-design a critical card game through workshops. Could you tell us more about this process?
Karla: We have worked with several methodologies for designing games. But crucial for this project is its co-creational approach. This approach implies that while starting with a first workshop about aspects of our daily lives, every other workshop and their setups were largely influenced by their predecessors. The workshops all together are in turn very relevant to the development of our critical card game — and depends on the knowledge and perspectives from all the different individuals who take part in our workshops.
Adriaan: We wanted to open up the design process to create a more inclusive way of design. After all, a game is a system where you have to follow the set of rules of the game and play according to its mechanics and these things are informed by the implicit values and views of its creators. In some ways then, game design is quite comparable to the development of algorithmic systems where software users are forced to behave according to sets of computational rules designed by someone else. Designing a game about digital technologies in a collaborate way, with different perspectives included in the process, thus offers a meta-level response towards creating discussions and ideas about more inclusive technological futures.
Karla: Of course, we use the knowledge that we have about important aspects from the field of game design. For example, that you need to create balance between parts of the game which are based on strategy and parts that are based on luck, and that you need to connect the rules to the narrative of the game as a whole. Including different perspectives from diverse people during the co-creational process enabled us to reflect more on the process of designing and to be more aware that our main function in the game design process is to serve as technicians or facilitators.
Adriaan: What’s also important for us is that beneath the card game as a final outcome, participants in the workshops have a good experience and get some space to reflect on certain issues.
Could you tell us a little more about the diverse people who take part in the workshops and about their motivation in doing so?
Adriaan: I think what we are lucky that our entry points to reach out to people are really funny, sparks curiosity, and enable you to work creatively — and all that with a low barrier. But we indeed were still surprised by the amount of people who joined our workshops.
Karla: For sure, the pandemic was a driver to overcome boundaries and geographical constraints — we have had people from Latin America, from different parts of Europe, from South Africa, and from the US. Some people from Australia wrote to us so that they can participate in one of the workshops — and we are also thinking about a collaboration with some friends in Hong Kong. Moreover, the workshop groups have been quite diverse from a professional point of view: Some participants are interested in algorithms or computer science, others are experts in game design, and then there are people, who are just generally interested in the topic of each particular workshop.
When you think of a digital world that is really beneficiary to all people: How would it look like and what features should it apply to?
Karla: It is important to realise that the internet also affects the environment, starting from simple searches on Google and going beyond to other applications that are largely based on energy consumption. When thinking about it from scratch on, the environmental impact is an angle to think of for this ideal digital world, where it does not consume too much energy — in contrast to the large energy consumption that today’s server farms rely on. Another thing is that in this fictional digital world and in contrast to today’s dominant players such as Facebook, the internet should be an open place with applications that are truly interoperable
Adriaan: Today’s internet is often only about making money. It is all under this capitalist logic of generating more revenue and usage — no matter what environmental impact this entails. So that’s why we were thinking of a more community-based approach for a different internet which is not profit-driven.
Such a design for a new internet would probably be more diverse — Karla, you are from Peru and Adriaan, you are from South Africa — what say have these two countries and the Global South in general in the current debate on the use of artificial intelligence?
Adriaan: From my experience, South Africa has a large IT-industry and a lot of innovation comes from there, especially from Johannesburg. But an issue is that there exists the aspiration from many of the start-up entrepreneurs to emulate the Silicon Valley model. There are also some interesting art and cultural projects around algorithmic topics and digital media going on. However, the link between these two is often missing. It would be interesting to see if such a link could bring a greater spotlight to local knowledge and enable its translation to competitive, yet more conscientious, software products.
Karla: In Peru, there exists an agenda for artificial intelligence where the government and ministries think of it solely as a technical topic and take the opinions of only technical experts into account. The ideas that circle around there do not really consider cultural, sociological or ethical insights — which would be really important for the societies in which these technologies are eventually deployed.
You state on your website that you believe that design can be used in a socially transformative way: How important is it have a positive narrative regarding the use of artificial intelligence?
Adriaan: We want to underline the human element in software development and that it is not only about mathematical models and computational problem solving. We want to emphasize that humans contribute to it and can give the digital sphere human-like elements, such as humour.
Karla: An important part about technology, especially artificial intelligence, is to remember that it’s made by humans and that their biases are inherent to the use of technology. Only when we are aware of that and when we don’t pretend that problems in the use of technology are always technical, we can avoid technological determinism and be aware of its cultural implications, which then helps us to develop and use technology that is more inclusive.
Could you give us an idea about how you as fellows perceive The New New?
Adriaan: We really enjoy that The New New allows us to be experimental and to try things we were not sure that they would work: It gave us a bit more space and the opportunity to free ourselves up to try and create something of which we can really be proud of. Moreover, all the in-between opportunities such as meeting the other fellows have been great.
Karla: Indeed. As we as fellows are a very diverse and international group, it’s very interesting to hear from other fellows about their work with local communities. This is very inspiring to us.