CL003 - Human Resource Machine
Human Resource Machine is fun if you're the kind of person that thinks games like Human Resource Machine are fun.
Can video games be both fun and educational? This question is surface-level brash, posed in the same breath by the same people who wonder “are video games art?”. When gamers have to defend their hobby to the wider world (something we don’t need to do nearly as often anymore, though it still happens), these questions come up and they have done so for a long time. When someone sits down to play a video game, they might be willing to invest real energy and sweat into its demands for execution, its puzzle elements, or even its narrative, but these pursuits aren’t seen as noble from the outside. If only we could convince the disapproving public that video games harbor unique opportunities for artistic expression or (even more appealing in our STEM-obsessed economy) instruction, they’d finally leave us alone so we can go back to having fun.
In pursuit of the education excuse, no topic has been whacked by more developers than trying to teach kids how to code. This makes a lot of proximate sense because devs already know how to code. By making a game about what they already do, devs are simply adding the role of teacher to their laundry list of other responsibilities during production.
The problem with this model is that developers also already *like* to code. If you’ve got a knack for the way computers interpret commands and enjoy tinkering, a game about that subject barely has to do anything to entice you. By contrast, if you find programming either impenetrable or tedious, the people who make a game about it do not (possibly cannot) understand your frame of mind. They are literally speaking another language, and dressing this up in “approachable” vernacular does not bridge the gap.
Human Resource Machine’s specific flavor in this pursuit is to personify an assembly-level program in the form of a mail runner. The runner takes things from an inbox and places them in an outbox to satisfy various requirements (flipping the order, sorting sets, counting, etc.) by strictly following instructions you give them. The mail runner is presented with more complex tasks and instruction sets in each level, and every step of the way the game challenges you to reduce the number of commands and steps you use to complete them. This gives HRM the “easy to learn, hard to master” slow-boil that conceptually complex puzzle games tend to favor, and it works pretty well…
For people like me.
To someone who already understands how to code, this looks like a fun and intuitive way to present what a program does. The coat of paint over the game’s mechanics makes it look more real than the purely abstract design of an IDE, and thus more appealing to a wider audience.
Having tested this impression, however, it is an illusion.
My mom doesn’t play video games, so when I asked her to give Human Resource Machine a shot, I expected her to have some trouble navigating the interface (it’s a constant reality check to remember that controlling things on a screen is second, not first, nature). She did have some trouble understanding what the game required of her initially, but once she got the hang of clicking and dragging the “Inbox” and “Outbox” commands around, things actually got worse.
Human Resource Machine puts the mail runner plus office space on the left side of the screen and the list of commands plus final script on the right. This was far less intuitive to her than the designers probably assumed. She understood that the stuff in the inbox needed to go the outbox, but her comprehension of time and space did not align with the methods of the game. Her reflex was to interact with the mail runner, not the script on the side. The first thing she did was click on the mail runner, which did nothing. She then found the commands on the side and, in a perfectly understandable act, dragged “Inbox” over to the mail runner, which did nothing. When I finally decided to intervene after a dozen false starts and showed her where to place the commands, she put “Inbox” and “Outbox” in the script, pressed the “Play” button, watched the mail runner move only one item from the inbox to the outbox, and was utterly confused about what went wrong. She immediately regressed to dragging commands onto the mail runner again, which did nothing. I showed her the actual solution to the puzzle (“In” “Out” “In” “Out” “In” “Out”), asked her if she understood what I did and could tell immediately that she was not having any of it.
My mom’s not stupid. The problem is she’s not a coder. Her situational processing is present rather than abstract. She wanted to tell the mail runner what to do in real time, not give them a list of instructions to be followed when she pressed “Play”. I don’t know if there is a way to teach my mom how code works, but Human Resource Machine is not the tool.
With that in mind, is Human Resource Machine still worth playing if you fall into the coder camp? For as long as it lasts, I would say yes. It really does amount to a colorful “Learning to Code” book at the end of the day but, if you like doing that, it’s got that therapeutic puzzle game quality of providing you with solvable problems to tackle. The game’s probably too easy on balance to just roll through, but the par challenges for commands and steps kept me with it for a while after the credits. If nothing else, liking this game tells you something about yourself; probably that you’re a nerd.
Is my mom a fringe case? Can we teach every child how to code using software like this? I’m not hopeful, and frankly I’m skeptical of the mission. There are people who are and aren’t inclined toward this kind of thing, and we waste their time (and goodwill) trying to sneak it into their entertainment. I do, however, think that video games can teach us a lot about what we enjoy, which is itself valuable (in conjunction with more standard educational tools). Games don’t need to save the world; they do plenty just keeping us engaged.