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11. Rethinking experiences: an EU IV example

I love designed experiences. Computer games. Films. Larps. Festivals. Events and spaces that someone has designed for me to have a certain kind of experience. Of course, non-designed (or less designed) experiences can be great as well, but the designed kind deserve their own notice.

Taking a walk in the woods is of course also a designed experience, but considerably less so than going to a movie theatre and watching a film. The tricky thing, however, is remembering that you don’t have to abide by the design. You can’t always rethink the outer shell; unless you jump the fence at a zoo, for example, you’re pretty much limited to seeing the animals at a distance — and I wouldn’t advise fencejumping!)

You can, rethink framing, objectives, meaning and perspective, however.

One of my favourite computer games is called Europa Universalis IV. It’s a real-time strategy game, where you control the fate of a nation during the years 1444 to 1821. You can play the game in many ways and it has an absurdly high replayability value. Did you just take the Ottoman Empire from growing power to world dominator in 200 years? Changed a small Japanese province to a proud shogunate with inter-marriages to powerful neighbours? Start as the glorius medieval superpower France, and watch it all go down the drain due to your too-high ambitions?

You can play the game for the long term, play a short scenario (the Seven Years War from 1756–1763 for example) or do something completely different. The developers from Paradox even provide you with a bunch of interesting achievements you can unlock if you do things within the game. Annex Rome? Unite the Indian sub-continent? It’s there.

But even with all the huge variety and lovely options that EU IV gives you, at some point you’ll feel that you want to try something different. And that’s where rethinking comes in. Next up: the single ruler serial co-op game.

I’m part of a Paradox group on facebook. Here, we sometimes discuss Paradox games, post stories from our experiences and nerd out in a closed online space. We’re not that many, and it’s very casual, but it’s a space I’m glad to have access to.

One day not too long ago, Jeppe from our group made a suggestion. He’d thought up a new way to play the game and was looking for test pilots. The idea was simple. Instead of playing a nation from 1444 to 1821, we’d play a nation, and every time a ruler died (which they do in the game, just as in reality), a new player would take over the save game.

It didn’t take long before seven of us had jumped at the chance to help Jeppe try out his idea. After a short discussion, we settled on playing the European kingdom of Bohemia. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, it’s located in central Europe, and most of it is part of the modern day Czech Republic.

All of us were veteran players of the game, so we didn’t need any introduction to it as such, and since the game mode we were testing was very simple (you play until your ruler dies, and then send the save game on), there was no complication there either.

So we started.

It was amazing. After each player had finished his run (yeah, we were all guys, but that isn’t relevant to the article), he’d write a story about the years played. Tales of diplomacy, war, love and peace — sometimes with a few random comments and thoughts thrown in to give it the sense of “being real”. It was wonderful to read, and gave you the feeling of reading a short text in a history book.

I was number four in line, and took over the game in 1556. The previous three kings of Bohemia had been impressively long-lived, so when “my” ruler ascended the throne, he was 43. I was a bit dismayed, since monarchs in Europa Universalis don’t tend to reach their 70’s and 80’s often. Kind of like historical monarchs in that sense. But on the other hand, it just meant that I would have to act decisively if I wanted to make my mark.

I had a ton of fun playing. King Karel VII von Wettin expanded the borders of the realm, crushed the Dutch rebels in the western provinces, built a strong navy and got his nation involved in a huge war between Catholics and Protestants that split Europe in two in the early 1570's. I loved every moment, and found myself playing the game in a different way than usual. Take a huge loan? Sure! My descendants can pay it back. Overreach? Of course. You only live once, after all.

And when my part of the Bohemian story came to an end in 1576, I didn’t mind at all. I’d had my fun and played the game for what it was — a short, highly entertaining tale of the rule of a king of Bohemia in the middle of the 16th century. That was my game. I didn’t worry about the 17th century at all, even though that’s normally also part of EU IV. It just wasn’t relevant here, since there was no way King Karel VII would get to be 87 years old.

As I passed on the save game to Rasmus, who was the next in line, I wrote about “my” years as King of Bohemia. I wrote a historical-biographical sort of entry that would have fit a high school history book, and ended it with a fictional quote from King Karel’s son, the future King Karel VIII von Wettin.

It got a little lyrical at times, but was very fun to write. Apparently, it was also fun to read for the other players. But what’s more important is that after I’d played, I started reading the reports that the other players posted after their games. I now had an attachment to Bohemia, and was pleased to read of the exploits of (my!) son and grandson. I felt pride when reading of how my son expanded the kingdom even further, and felt the pain of my great-grandson, who — as was written in the report of “his” player —

“…never started a war, but had a reign that will be remembered for being very bloody”.

In short, I not only connected emotionally with my own game, but also with the games of the others. And when I take over the nation again (as we enter our second “round” of play), I’ll be taking over a nation whose history I have followed for hundreds of years. In my play, I’ll be feeling the weight of my ancestors, knowing their triumphs and failures, and think of that when I make decisions. I already know how my Bohemia has fought to hold on to the Dutch provinces. I know of the long alliance with the Russian state of Muscovy and of the fierce rivalry with France.

And I’ve now even started reading a little bit about real Bohemian history in the period, since it suddenly seems more interesting. Of course, any game of Europa Universalis can bring a new level of historical interest with it (indeed, that’s one of the great strengths of the game), but this time it’s stronger. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the other seven felt the same way.

Here are three reasons I can point to, that I find interesting.

  1. The Bohemian adventure isn’t a thing that I’m doing alone. It’s a social thing now — something we share.
  2. A normal EU IV game can easily stretch for hundreds of years. By focusing on “my” 20 years on the throne, those 20 years seem so much more vivid.
  3. It didn’t take that long. Instead of playing for hundreds of hours, I played for two evenings. That’s a lot easier to fit into my schedule than the massive time investment required for a full 1444–1821 game.

And all of it because Jeppe thought “Hmmm… how about we change how the game is played?”

The EU IV story from above is just an example. You can do this with more or less any kind of designed (or even non-designed) experience. Going to the forest and counting squirrels is different from just going to the forest. Riding a train and focusing on the passengers instead of the landscape provides a different experience.

And just so it’s said — I know that this can sound a little bit freaky-hippie-weird and “Just reimagine your universe”. It is a little of that, but it’s mainly an attempt at sharing the idea of reframing and rethinking. It’s not a guarantee of success, or a golden solution. But it is a way to get some extra mileage out of things you love, and where the passion has cooled a bit.

Neither rocket science, nor revelation, but maybe useful all the same.

Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.

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