Can New Super Mario Bros. Wii teach a group of coworkers to cooperate? Instructional technologist and games-based learning specialist Jason Drysdale puts it to the test in an office environment.
No one likes group work. Okay, maybe a few people -- freeloaders -- but most people would rather spend a bit of extra time to ensure quality work, rather than cobble together a complete picture with pieces from four different puzzles.
Sometimes, the people are the problem -- but not usually. I blame our process of establishing and training groups. You've been there: Some manager has a project, takes a look at who is busy and who is qualified on paper, and voila! Group. It's no wonder most people hate group work; we don't build functional, intentional groups.
Cooperative video games may be the answer. Co-op video games don't just teach us about how to build a well-functioning group; they can facilitate the process.
Reframing Game-Based Learning
Video games in eLearning aren't really new anymore -- many businesses and educational institutions for adults have designed and implemented games in eLearning modules for a variety of instructional purposes. However, these games tend to be game-skinned quizzes, not really games at all, such as matching games or multiple-choice games.
Most corporate games-based learning focuses on either demonstrating competencies through the application of knowledge acquired in a game, or by assessing knowledge acquired outside of a game. This implementation of games-based training is counter-intuitive for the medium: Games act as a mode of experiential learning -- constructivism, to the education lingo savvy -- wherein the activity itself is both learning and assessment.
Developing these games in-house can be costly -- not everyone who could benefit from using games for training has the resources necessary to make it happen. So, rather than spending the resources to build a game, why not use commercial games with collaborative dynamics?
I thought this constructivist implementation of games-based learning might solve the problem of poorly functioning groups for businesses of small and large budgets alike. The low cost and wide exposure made it a pretty enticing prospect. So -- with the help of Mario and Luigi (and a fair amount of planning) -- I put it to the test with a group of business professionals.
Exploring Game Types and Collaboration
First some groundwork: what makes a game collaborative? Jane McGonigal describes it best in Reality Is Broken, when she distinguishes between cooperation, coordination, and collaboration. The key component of collaboration, according to McGonigal, is cocreation: working together to produce something.
Additionally, James Gee describes the game design process as collaborative in his work Learning by Design: Games as Learning Machines, since without a player to interact with the designed world, the world doesn't exist. Tyria, Azeroth, and Pulse don't exist without players to bring it to life. By playing a game, then, we are actively producing something -- in solo games, with just the game designer, and in multiplayer games, with our fellow gamers. So games -- by their nature -- are collaborative.
However, we're seeking for collaboration between gamers, not just with the designers. Just being a multiplayer game isn't enough. Take Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer as an example. There are several different multiplayer modes, such as deathmatch, kill confirmed, and team defender. In each of these modes, players earn boons based on performance: get three or more kills in a row, and you get a leg up on your opposition. Capture the flag and keep it to get double points on your kills.
These bonuses don't always benefit the entire team, other than improving the overall team score (by way of individual advancement). So, MW3's multiplayer focus is on individual performance: improve yourself and your team benefits. Even in team deathmatch rounds, the game is designed to focus on individual outcomes: gaining levels, earning achievements, and so on. There is collaboration with the game designers, yes, but not with fellow players. We play MW3 together in order to advance individually. As such, the result is collaborative, but the goal isn't. The instructional value of games hinges on this distinction: is the goal collaborative, or just the result?
This doesn't necessarily mean that collaborative games can't also be competitive. Take, for example, Worms 2: Armageddon. Up to four players are pitted against each other in mortal, wormy combat. Whoever still has a worm left at the end of the game wins. At first glance, the goal of Worms is to win. But get four people in a room, and the real goal quickly becomes apparent: having fun. Worms has some of the most ostentatious weapons this side of the Ratchet & Clank series. Exploding sheep and giant concrete donkeys wreak havoc on the map and, even when your own worms go the way of the buffalo, you have fun. Winning is the non-collaborative result; fun is the collaborative goal.
For an example of a collaborative goal, take a look at Guild Wars 2. Events occur throughout each zone of Tyria in which multiple players engage at any given time. If a co-player is downed during the battle, you can revive them -- you don't get a reward for this beyond an arbitrary amount of experience points, but you are more likely to succeed in winning the event with more people helping out.
So, instead of being solely invested in your own success (e.g. "I won't help my teammate because I'll get more points on my own"), you are also invested in the success of your temporary teammates, because of your shared investment in the outcome: you work together to overcome an obstacle for the mutual benefit of each other. In this situation, the goal is collaborative (work together to defeat an enemy) as is the result (defeat the enemy). For the purposes of team building with collaborative games, the ideal games have both collaborative goals and collaborative results -- Guild Wars 2 is a useful and fun collaborative game.