If I Ran the Z/o/o/ Con

Tabletop Tuesdays: Choose-Your-Own-Ending Books as an Educational Medium?

Leslie Turek et al

The New England Science Fiction Association is one of the oldest and best-organized groups of science fiction fans; among other things, they run the annual Boskone convention, and often bid for (and run) the World Science Fiction Convention. Their publishing arm, NESFA Press, exists mainly to keep in print classic works of science fiction and fantasy that commercial presses no longer see any profit in providing.

They don't publish games.

Except for this one.

The World Science Fiction Convention is the largest amateur-run convention in the United States (and quite likely the world). By the charter of the World Science Fiction Society, the body that governs it, North America is divided into three zones (western, central, and eastern), and the convention moves from one zone to another in rotation. Any group that wishes to may offer a bid to hold the convention, naming the city where it will be held--and a bid outside North America can bid in any year, and will win if it receives a plurality of votes. This year's WorldCon will in Montreal; next year, it will be in Melbourne.

In other words, spontaneously organized fan groups put together bids; try to persuade fans to vote for their city; and, if they win, wind up putting on the convention. Since WorldCon usually gets about 7000 members, this is no small task, for unpaid volunteers.

Science fiction fans are proud of the process, and of the fact that WorldCon has remained relentlessly uncommercial for seven decades. But the process is obviously fraught with difficulty; so much can go wrong, and many of the people involved have scant experience with, say, persuading hotels to waive corkage fees, or dealing with guests of honor who want only the blue M&Ms.

Why all this backstory? Because you need it to understand what If I Ran the Zoo Con is, and why it's an interesting, maybe even important, game.

If I Ran the Zoo Con is a choose-your-own-ending book, basically. You read a paragraph in the book; at the end of the paragraph, you're asked to make a decision. Depending on your decision and, sometimes, a die-roll, you are then directed to another numbered paragraph in the book. (The cards add some random events during play.)

All very typical, and very jejune. Precisely the same system is used in hundreds, probably thousands of deservedly out-of-print 'which-way' books from the 80s, which is the last time the genre was popular. Which-way books basically suck; they suffer from the problems of all branching-narrative game styles, but because they're set in text, they're even less interactive than, say, graphic adventures. Bo-ring.

Why then is this game interesting?

The fantasy behind If I Ran the Zoo Con is that you are leading a group of fans who are putting together a bid to host the World Science Fiction Convention. The problems you face as you move through the process are drawn from the actual history of WorldCons--with the names changed so that, say, the highly popular but incredibly cranky and potentially violent guest of honor (one of several you can select) is not actually named "Harlan Ellison," for the obvious reason that he is highly cranky, and quite litigious.

Depending on your choices (and a little luck), you can end up with a very successful WorldCon, everyone happy, and a profit made into the bargain--or a huge pit of despair, madness, and red ink.

The game, in other words, serves a didactic purpose: It is intended to help wannabe WorldCon bidders at least understand some of the problems people have faced before, and (hopefully) get them to avoid making the most obvious mistakes. It serves that purpose admirably--and even if you don't plan on making a WorldCon bid, it's pretty fun to play, at least if you have an interest in science fiction and the field's personalities. It's rather amazing what can go wrong.

Since the digital games revolution began, starry-eyed twits have been going on and on about how games will change education and lead us all down a future glorious path in which everyone learns everything because it's fun to do so. This is, of course, nonsense, and always will be, since creating something interactive =and fun= is bloody hard enough, and insisting that the result should also cram some facts into people's heads is enough to turn "bloody hard" into "well nigh impossible." (And.... Have you noticed that every school computer lab in the country has Oregon Trail and SimCity installed--and few if any other games--and that this has been true for twenty years?)

If I Ran the Zoo Con doesn't have to be a one-off, either. The same technique is usable for other subjects. If there's a body of knowledge that can be encapsulated in anecdotes, and a process that moves through time, you could do a game along the same lines to teach that body of knowledge. I could see it being used, say, to teach new hires at a brokerage about the sales and clearance process. Or mid-rank Army officers how to deal with a recalcitrant population in a counterinsurgency situation.

Creating didactic games is hard. Creating fun didactic games is harder. Creating a fun didactic game out of a game style that is itself intellectually bankrupt is--pretty amazing, when you think about it.