Thursday, 27 February 2014

Collaborative Gaming: The Ultimate Case Study

One of the most common ways in which games can be used in an educational environment is for collaborative gaming.  An entire class focusing on one game is far easier to manage or control than many small groups or everyone at a different computer and it also promotes skills such as teamwork or communication.  We have looked at some of the benefits or difficulties involved with this previously but recently an extremely interesting example of collaborative gaming has emerged and, although it isn’t in an educational environment, there are a lot of interesting phenomena that have arisen and we can learn a lot from it in terms of the dynamic of a large group working towards a goal.

A screenshot from TwitchPlaysPokémon - courtesy of http://imgur.com/V9D2Tfi

TwitchPlaysPokémon, whose creator has expressed his desire to stay anonymous, is hosted on twitch.tv, a website more usually used for streaming a game live as you play it, but it has one vital difference: the controls are not entered by one player; they are entered in a chat box to the side of the live video stream of the game.  This means that multiple people from anywhere in the world are in control of the game at any one time and, since it has entered the consciousness of the general public, there are often ten commands being entered in a second and sometimes many more. The game of Pokémon Red (1996) lends itself well to this format; as a strategy game it can be played in an infinite number of ways and it rarely punishes missteps seriously, ensuring a level of unpredictability in progress while also guarding against heavy, demoralising setbacks which would potentially scare off people interested in contributing.  Despite this, it was still expected that some challenges in the game would prove too much for the community at large and it was certainly not expected that they would ever actually finish the game.  However, the combined efforts of the globe’s nostalgia-fuelled gamers have overcome all of the game’s gym battles (the major challenges in the Pokémon series), leaving only the final section of the game and the final boss battles to go.  During the past two weeks or so, there have been moments at which approximately 150,000 people have watched simultaneously, as well as landmark moments showcasing the power that a shared goal and a fun interface can have over a group of people working together.  Of course, there have also been low points and some sections which require a specific sequence of buttons to be pressed can take hours (or in very rare cases, days) to overcome.

How the Group Tackles Issues

Of course, this is the most extreme example possible of a collaborative game; there is probably never going to be another situation where 150,000 people could press the same button on the same game at the same time and it is even more unlikely in an educational environment.  As such, there are some quite major issues with gameplay, but the ways in which the community has reacted to them is enlightening and encouraging.

The first and most obvious of these is that with so many people inputting commands, any section that needs extended precision is almost impossible (such as the dreaded Ledges, which earned their capital ‘L’s).  One of these, a room involving floor tiles that can send you back to the entrance of the room had taken up to 26 hours without any progress.  This motivated the creator to introduce a ‘democracy’ mode, which takes the most popular command over twenty seconds and enacts it, creating precision but it is excruciatingly slow.  This has sparked a backlash from some sections of the community, who believe that democracy mode defeats the point and the game should be completed entirely in the original ‘anarchy’ mode.  The majority of gamers are not particularly concerned about the purity of the experience and so it creates a fascinating phenomenon.  After an obstacle has been impeding their progress for a large period of time, usually several hours, the votes will flood in for democracy mode and they will complete their task before immediately sliding back into anarchy mode so that they can continue the game ‘properly’.

Another problem with the format is that due to the scale, there is a thirty-second lag, rendering many commands obsolete at best and a hindrance at worst by the time there are actually registered.  Again, the hivemind arguably exceeds expectations in dealing with this, often only overshooting targets once or twice before arriving at the destination.  Sometimes, when preparing for big events, the community organises itself via the forums and chat facilities and is capable of entirely pre-empting the lag.  This shows an impressive level of communication, given that hundreds, potentially thousands, of people are entering commands for something they won’t see for another thirty seconds.

Both of these demonstrate an innate desire to progress and to achieve.  The gut reactions of most contributors is to do what is best for the communal goal and it is heartening to see people automatically working together without instruction, although since this is accessible to anyone on the Internet, there are of course a small number of trolls whose sole purpose is to disrupt the game, an extremely easy task when a single disruptive command can halt progress.  However, even more impressive heights have been reached.  Pokémon is a strategy game and as more progress has been made, some members of the community have considered and developed their strategies to deal with both the actual game and the control system.  They show independent research (e.g. finding and distributing this map), critical thinking and even presentation skills as they develop methods to beat certain parts of the game (taking into account the unusual challenges presented by the format), before presenting their findings to the community at large via chats and forums, often in the form of an annotated document or map.  The input format is effectively a vote: if enough people approve of the suggestion they will attempt to enact it and will eventually overpower the others.  There have been suggested strategies which have been considered, rebutted and then ignored and there have been strategies which on the face of it seem counter-intuitive but have been enacted, showing that the majority of the community has a high level of communication.  Astonishingly, there has even been what must be a rare example of organised trolling, when a group of trolls worked together in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to render the game unwinnable at one of very few points where this is possible.

Community

When watching the stream and following the chat, it is possible to get a sense of a cross-section of the players’ mentalities and the way they play.  There are a few clear types of regular players, some of which mirror player types we have discussed before on the topic of MMO games.  Using this article as a guide, we can clearly identify Socialisers and Philanthropists.  There are many people who are playing for social reasons, and in fact the meme culture which has rapidly sprung up around this game is impressively diverse and being added to with playful faux-religious fervour.  It is arguably the star of the show and almost certainly the main reason people have not lost interest is due to the narratives and binding references being constructed as they go along.

In fact, it is extremely difficult to identify anyone playing solely for achievement’s sake, like the Player type in the cited article.  There are some players whose main goal is progression but they still have in mind the social aspect and also the chaos with which this game began, as shown by the immediate regression to anarchy once democracy has served its purpose.  I would add a couple of new types: Purists, who are devotees to the anarchy system and believe that it should be adhered to at the cost of progress; and of course, Trolls, whose main goal is the disruption of the game.  It seems as though all players have purity in mind but as frustration over a specific obstacle grows, we often see them drift towards democracy to facilitate progression.  Purists are the players who staunchly vote anarchy even at this point and could be considered similar to the Free Spirit as they put their personal journey ahead of the collective desire.  However, they are not necessarily hugely creative either so I consider them different.

Fan-made art inspired by the game - courtesy of http://imgur.com/F5NA7RK

Lessons for Educational Games


While this specific format has major problems blocking it from use in education, it could be used with tweaks and editing.  Without being actually used, it still has lessons to be learned with regard to group dynamics.  We can see that when left to their own devices with a goal to achieve, a group of people will work towards a common goal, strategise to overcome more difficult obstacles, and implement rudimentary democracy to make contested decisions.  Ultimately, it may not even be necessary for a game to have any educational content; children (and some adults) could learn those valuable lessons from this exact game.  On top of this, the fictional world and characters facilitate the creation of the culture and memes that surround the game, which glues the community together and promotes discussion and sharing ideas.  Oftentimes, games where learning is spontaneous can be more powerful than when learning is explicit and can feel forced.  For a game to be used educationally, it doesn’t have to be designed with education in mind.  Any game can be an educational game, it just depends what you want to teach.


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