Secret Lab hackathons make interesting games

Secret Lab: It's OK to abandon your project

Posted 15 Feb 2016 by 

Ruth Suehle (Red Hat)
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Secret Lab, or more specifically, Paris Buttfield-Addison and Jon Manning, introduced themselves at 2016 during their talk Open Data + Video Games = Win: "We write books and have made games for iconic Australia brands." [Watch a video of the talk] Which is accurate. They also sometimes do things like make Pokemon-style games based on the Energy Star data for washing machines. 

But let's back up for a minute and talk about why they'd do such a thing.

Hackathons have become a fashionable way to generate a lot of code. (Code that, in many cases, nobody ever looks at again.) Companies like to run them as an inexpensive method of R&D (research and design). Entire consultancies are built around running them for this purpose.

"The problem," Buttfield-Addison said, "is hackathons are often oriented around product-like results. They encourage you to come up with an app or such to solve whatever product the organizers have in mind."

Secret Lab participates in hackathons to subtly subvert that mission by making interesting games based on data. They don't even care if anyone ever plays the game again. But they've won quite a few national awards along the way.

In particular, they've done so through participation in several GovHack events, which are Australia/New Zealand hackathons built around government data sources.

Or, as Buttfield-Addison summarized it, "Lots of nerds stew in rooms doing cool stuff with data, visualizing it in unique and interesting ways."

But then, as with many hackathons, the projects are the center of everyone's focus for those few days. And then, despite everyone's best intentions, they're not followed up on. They languish on their servers until somebody forgets to pay the bill. Then they're gone forever.

Game jams, the alternative that Secret Lab supports, recognize and embrace this eventual abandonment. Their concept of a game jam, really just a hackathon built around creating a video game, has two underlying tenets:

  • Never create products as an outcome. Just make something. Specifically, a finished something.
  • Show something cool at the end.

And once you've made something interesting and shown it off, it doesn't matter if anyone ever plays the game again. Abandonment is assumed. You can play a game only once, derive all its meaning, and move on.

The two note that sometimes products do emerge. TowerFall is a quite succesful game that grew out of the 2012 Vancouver Full Indie Game Jam. But that's an unusual result. The true purpose of a game jam is practice and honing your skills. The Global Game Jam embraces that by basing its competitions on extremely broad/vague themes, many of which are simply odd. For example, 2009's theme was: "As long as we have each other, we will never run out of problems." In 2012, it was simply an image of Ouroboros. The next year, it was: "The sound of a heartbeat." For 2015, they went with: "What do we do now?" Not to discuss the theme. That was the theme.

"I wish hackathons could embrace this absurdity," Buttfield-Addison said.

So, Secret Lab does. They strive to get back to GovHack and turning a more traditional hackathon into their own personal game jam.

"Games matter. Even in serious environments," Buttfield-Addison said. You could spend all day reading studies about how games improve learning in multiple ways. Retention is improved. Understanding is improved. Speed of learning is improved. And generally speaking, a lot of that is because the learner is engaged much more than they would be by dry data alone.

The Secret Lab team recognized that there's no reason the data GovHack is built around—things like taxes, census data, or energy efficieny ratings—couldn't be turned into games. That last one was the basis of their first such game: Marvellous Ultimate Appliance.

Here's the gist: Appliances all have statistics, specifically an Energy Rating, and the related data for costs and energy usage. In Australia, the Department of Industry, Innovation, and Science collects such data for every device sold in Australia and publishes them online. In the face of such statistics—reminiscent of CCGs—they wondered, why don't we make them battle? Yes, battle the washing machines, Pokemon-style, using the statistics of in divdual appliances, normalizing the statistics into things like "goodness" and "defense strength." The result is a simple card game where each player buys appliances (the cards) and makes them fight. You win by reducing your opponent's money to zero.

"After playtesting, we all had an intimate understanding of which washing machine we should buy next," they said. They described the game as "kind of stupid." Which is fair. Even if you adore CCGs, you've probably never thought: Gosh, this would be way cooler if the monsters were appliances. Nevertheless, what they struck on was an interesting way to present otherwise incredibly dry data.

For the next GovHack, they made a game called What Is Gov (Baby Don't Hurt Me). (If nothing else, you have to give them credit for their naming skills.) In this one, players yell at each other—not through the game, but literally yell at each other across the table. The Australian government publishes a list of agencies and functions, which breaks down every government department into roles and functions. If you're a gamer, you'll see the parallel that Secret Lab did to RPG characters and skills. They took this data and matched roles (characters) and responsibilities (skills), then developed scenarios using those repsonsibilities/skills.

Gov's popular-game analog is the app Spaceteam. It's a networked multiplayer game that assigns problems to roles. A player may not have the roles to solve the problem they've been assigned and thus they have to reach out to other players.

"We found that actual politicians are really good at this game!" Manning said.

Another politically based game, Question Time, is a good example from GovHack 2015. The Australian Parliament publishes transcripts, called the Hansard. But they're not precisely transcripts, as in word-for-word records. The Hansard today uses a sort of voice shorthand, with keywords triggering the system (much of which runs on Linux). It is then published online, semantically broken up and downloadable from the website as XML. It's practically ready-made for Secret Lab's purpose.

In addition to the Hansard data, the Secret Lab team used They Vote For You, which tracks how members of Parliament vote on issues. Using those two data sources, they created a competitive quiz game, in which players are given quizzes about how a politician feels about an issue. Despite how the results look, their goal doesn't revolve around preserving the meaning of the data. These games are really about raising engagement in the topics they tackle.

As far as Secret Lab is concerned, taking liberties is fine, as long as the result is fun.

The sweet spot between truth and play is a game that's just realistic enough to help people understand the concepts without losing sight of the theme. If you're interested in seeing more of these projects—including all of the music, sound, code, and art—it is openly available on GitHub: Marvellous Appliance Question Time.

Learn more about their work at

Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and