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October 18, 2010 6:21 am

Hidden Agenda is a game that truly deserves to be a compulsory part of the curriculum for all students of history (and game design, for that matter). While not as well-known as educational mainstays such as The Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, Hidden Agenda is superior to these offerings in many ways. From a design perspective, it is notable for providing a complex and nuanced political simulation that expertly leverages the inherent strengths of interactive systems to engage players in a deep exploration of its subject matter.

Of course, that subject matter is really what sets Hidden Agenda apart. The scenario puts players at the helm of a tiny, fictional nation in Central America immediately following the forceful expulsion of a corrupt despot, and charges them with restoring stability while simultaneously working to enact positive reforms. Jim Gasperini, the game's creator, based many of the circumstances on real historical events, and the result is a highly authentic portrayal of the myriad problems that arise in the wake of even a seemingly triumphant liberation.

The task that players must undertake in Hidden Agenda is a tall order to say the least, and the game doesn't pull any punches with its difficulty; the margin of error is extremely slim, and the consequences of poor judgment are dire. Many have accused the game of being cynical, but (as with The Oregon Trail) the challenge is intentionally brutal. Gasperini's design communicates via difficulty, in much the same way that Nuclear War communicates via probability. For those who have fallen victim to a violent coup or looked on helplessly as death squads ran rampant through the countryside, the message rings clear: there are no easy solutions.

By forcing them to fly without a net, Hidden Agenda, demands intense deliberation from its players. Few games, educational or otherwise, can match Hidden Agenda's capacity for catalyzing discussion, as each agonizing decision requires careful scrutiny and often triggers fierce debate. As a result, the game really shines when played with a group, as spirited arguments inevitably result from players attempting to justify why a particular course of action is the best response to a given dilemma.

Case in point: the recent collective playthrough of the game that took place on the Something Awful "Let's Play" message board, presided over by forum user Covski. If you have ever wondered what a nation run by goons would look like, you needn't look any further than this thread.

More interesting than the specific results is how deftly this thread demonstrates the value of play as a learning exercise. When Covski professes to being a student of economics, the other users waste little time asking for any pointers that might prove relevant to their current situation. The fluidity with which the search for more beneficial game strategies leads the participants into seeking out knowledge of a subject they might otherwise avoid serves as a powerful testament to the ability of games to enliven a topic via contextualization. As any teacher who has ever integrated games into their curriculum can attest, the sheer act of play possesses a remarkable ability to instill a sense of immediacy within otherwise staid material.

As a supplement to the SA thread, I would also strongly encourage anyone interested in game design to check out the detailed analysis of Hidden Agenda's underlying systems provided by user Servant Corps on the Bay 12 Games Forum. Servant Corps approach is much more methodical, consisting of various attempts to stretch the limits of the game's systems in order to better comprehend the assumptions that comprise the foundation of its design.

The insights these experiments yield are a potent reminder of the flaws that plague all of our attempts at designing interactive systems. The lesson learned is an important one for all designers to keep in mind: even the most robust, even-handed simulation is inextricably built upon assumptions that ultimately reflect the subjective outlook of the system's creator. Try as we might, our designs are bound to fall short of true objectivity; bias will always creep in, whether through arbitrary scripted outcomes or the probability we associate with events outside the player's control. This bias can seem particularly onerous in political simulations which, at best, must rely on plausibility and strive to be honest with players. By that measure, and by any other, I believe that Hidden Agenda succeeds admirably.