Weekly Time-Waster: Connecting The Dots Is Harder Than You Think

This week we've got a little social experiment for you: Swarmation. We think it's best if you just dive right into it and then come back after you've given it a try, so go ahead and click that link right now.

Click it!

Alright, we give up. Here's the deal...

Swarmation is a very minimalist multiplayer game. Each player controls a dot that moves upon a large shared grid. In addition to moving, you can temporarily make your dot light up and become red (press spacebar). The game gives you no instruction as to how these actions are most effectively used, but the basics are easy to figure out (especially if there are already other people mid-game when you start out): various patterns show up in the right hand scoring column and it is up to you and your fellow dots to form them anywhere on the grid -- with some lucky breaks, you might even learn further tricks, such as finding it doesn't matter if you form the pattern upside-down. Turning your dot red, however, has no effect upon forming a correct pattern. This is merely your talk-box, your loudspeaker to communicate with the world at large. As soon as you start playing, you realize that those other damn dots on the screen have absolutely no clue as to your vision for solving the puzzle -- and, even worse, they're making you lose points.

If Swarmation laid out the instructions for you and everybody else, it wouldn't be worth wasting your time on it. But when it leaves you and your dot to your own devices, it becomes strangely fascinating to try and get along with this very opaque and aloof world. Your desire to communicate -- and your mostly failed attempts to do so -- vest an uncanny amount of meaning in this barren grid. When things click -- a difficult shape gets made, or another dot finally seems to "get you" and your methods, or everyone seems to reject that one dot that's blinking like a real asshole and intentionally position new shapes to alienate them -- it feels like an epiphany. And then someone will go and mess it all up.

The aesthetic of Swarmation is more or less that of Conway's Game of Life (some of the shape terminology as well), the cellular automata classic that is one of the simplest arguments for how rules and behavior can lead to complexity. The various strategies in Swarmation are not built on any set of rules, but complexity is the name of the game. Every possible strategy is a balance of action and communication. Movement mostly confuses other players but standing still might mean you're left out; trying to be a leader and command with your red dot can sometimes only be effective at making other dots turn red and fight you to be a leader. And there are always players coming and going, with completely different levels of experience and strategic sensibility.

Consistency with adaptability? Teambuilding? Effective communication in limited circumstances? Coping with erratic behavior? Training newcomers? Take a break from work and tell your boss you're attending a management seminar. Maybe when you're done, you'll look at your fellow employees in a new light, thankful that, unlike in the dot world, in real life you can really let someone have it if they don't do what you want.

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