Sunday, February 26, 2012

Games and Collaboration

We're looking at Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, starting here.

We still have an image of gamers as solitary loners. But that is no longer true, she says.

It may have once been true that computer games encouraged us to interact more with machines than with each other. But if you still think of gamers as loners, then you’re not playing games.

Take for example the huge success of Rock Band, she says. There is an important point to realize:

You can play Rock Band alone—practicing any of the four instruments by yourself—but gamer surveys indicate that hardly anyone does.


People perform together for family and friends. It is actually an intensely social game.

And it is not unusual, either. Indeed, even the standard Dungeon and Dragons or shoot-em-up type games rely on multiplayer environments.

That’s why it’s not surprising that surveys and polls repeatedly have shown that, on average, three out of four gamers prefer co-op mode to competitive multiplayer.Game developers aren’t just designing more co-op play; they’re also creating new real-time coordination tools to help us find the right people at the right time to cooperate with.

And it turns out that much of the satisfaction that many get from playing comes from the satisfaction of teaching others to play.

In a recent major study of more than one thousand gamers, a little-known prosocial emotion called “naches” ranked number eight on the top ten list of emotions that gamers say they want to feel while playing their favorite games. Naches, a Yiddish word for the bursting pride we feel when someone we’ve taught or mentored succeeds, ranked just below surprise and fiero.

She talks at length about how many millions of players can cooperate in small ways in racking up alien kills in Halo, the huge Xbox multiplayer game. It may not be politically correct cooperation, but it is very large scale.

And simply cooperating within video games or building emotional skills is not the whole story, either.

By supporting our four essential human cravings, and by providing a reliable source of flow and fiero, the gaming industry has gone a long way toward making us happier and more emotionally resilient—but only up to a point. We haven’t learned how to enjoy our real lives more thoroughly. Instead, we’ve spent the last thirty-five years learning to enjoy our game lives more thoroughly. Instead of fixing reality, we’ve simply created more and more attractive alternatives to the boredom, anxiety, alienation, and meaninglessness we run up against so often in everyday life. It’s high time we start applying the lessons of games to the design of our everyday lives. We need to engineer alternate realities: new, more gameful ways of interacting with the real world and living our real lives.

So she spends several chapters discussing "alternate reality games" or collaborative games, ranging from doing chores at home to inventing a "lost Olympic Game" for the IOC and ways to make social participation more attractive by "gamifying" it.

We increasingly are overwhelmed by social media or online sharing, she says. Most wikis never achieve critical mass. Most crowd-sourcing communities fail.


We have to face facts. It’s very difficult to motivate large numbers of people to come together at the same time and to contribute any significant amount of energy—let alone their very best effort—to a collaborative project. Most big crowd projects today fail: they fail to attract a crowd, or they fail to give the crowd the right kind of work, or they fail to reward the crowd well enough to keep it participating over the long haul. But it’s not hopeless. As both Wikipedia and Investigate Your MP’s Expenses show, there are significant crowdsourcing projects succeeding. And they all have one important thing in common: they’re structured like a good multiplayer game.

And so the features we see in multiplayer games, which have evolved to be attractive and successful, also have potential to aid collaboration and participation more generally. The games give us insight into optimizing collaboration. Gamers cooperate to play games, to develop new content, to optimize and enforce rules.

Collaboration is a special way of working together. It requires three distinct kinds of concerted effort: cooperating (acting purposefully toward a common goal), coordinating (synchronizing efforts and sharing resources), and cocreating (producing a novel outcome together). This third element, cocreation, is what sets collaboration apart from other collective efforts: it is a fundamentally generative act. Collaboration isn’t just about achieving a goal or joining forces; it’s about creating something together that it would be impossible to create alone.

I found this fascinating. Many of her real world games are simply pen and paper sets of rules - but they have obvious benefits. It is simply a way to motivate and give people purpose which has more general lessons.

Perhaps this kind of thinking is not entirely new, if we think about team sports. The British Empire was allegedly won on the playing fields of Eton. That would be one major side-effect of game playing.

Even Hogwarts has its character-building quidditch games. Education has often revolved around team sports to encourage social skills. Computer games may not offer the same health benefits - but they can evolve far faster and involve far more people as actual participants instead of spectators.

So perhaps it is not entirely crazy to imagine the new possibilities of computer games and multiplayer cooperation could have at least some real-world significance.

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