Photo with all the project pieces: tokens, iPad and iPhone app, VR headset

Can serious games help us understand the algorithms we encounter everyday?

Algorithmic Matter

Every day we let algorithms take decisions on our behalf. Back in 2015, I wanted to explain how some of these algorithms work. So I created Alma, short for Algorithmic matter.

Alma is a kit of 3 serious games designed to help us understand Facebook Newsfeed, Google PageRank and Siri's algorithms. Alma lets us play with and as the algorithms using physical tokens and digital interfaces. Alma is about learning by playing.

Self-initiated project

Project type
Science communication
UX/UI design

The project started by a deep dive in some of the most common algorithms: how do they work, what data do they use, how do we understand them. I decided to focus on 3 very different algorithms and design new ways of explaining them.

I realized that the algorithms I choose were sharing basic building blocks that needed to be explained first. That’s what the games are focusing on: explaining then assembling different building blocks.

Schematics of the process

Once the building blocks explained, layers of complexity are added, one by one, until the user can assemble all the pieces together and get an overview of how each algorithm works. Through each game, users learn by playing.

There are dedicated times for experimentation and for explanation. Each game follows a simple narrative:  first, an introduction through a simple narrative, then, the experimentation and explanation phase, and finally, an ending that solves the narrative and opens new questions.

Schematics of the process

Tangible objects can help understand complex and abstract ideas as they can be handled, manipulated and moved around. Alma let users manipulate algorithm with paper, cardboard, wood and 3D printed tokens, in interaction with an iPhone and an iPad.

Card test with conductive inkUser testing session with an advanced prototypeApp design mockupsNotebook with drawings and smartphone appLow resolution prototype combining paper with an iPadToken 3D modeling 3D printing with conductive plastic powderUser testing session with an early prototype
Facebook's app and tokens

Facebook's Newsfeed

The first game explains Facebook Newsfeed. It is divided in two parts: first, understanding publication's relevance score, then, understanding how a sorting algorithm works. The first part is about playing with fake Facebook content—using the 3D printed conductive tokens on an iPad—in order to generate different ratings: the relevance score. This score depends of who is posting, what is being posted, and when.

In the second part, the user has to sort the publication's ratings as an algorithm would do. Mimicking the algorithm is a great way to understand how it works.

Google PageRank

The second game is about Google PageRank. Its algorithm measures websites' popularity using the links connecting each of them. The goal of this game is to put a webpage (here represented as a dot) on top of Google Search first page. To do so, the user has to create links between its page and others.

There are multiple ways and various obstacles to reach the ultimate goal: the top of Google first page. The game increases in difficulty at every level, adding each time one layer of understanding of the PageRank's algorithm.

Google's app and tokens
Siri's app and tokens

Siri's algorithm

The third game is about Siri. To be able to provide answers, voice assistants like Siri have to understand us first. This game explains how an algorithm can understand what we say.

Siri's understanding is based on syllables: it associates a mathematical models to each syllable we pronounce. Here, the mathematical model is taking the shape of 3D printed sound wave tokens and each syllables is symbolized by its sound wave. The game is about finding the right composition of syllables for a given sentence.

Alma received the Label Observeur du Design in 2017, and was exhibited at L’Institut Français, in Milan, during the Triennale « Broken Nature » in 2019.
Alma apps were developed by Maxime Alexandre.