Monday, December 19, 2005

Video Games and Emergent Social Reality

On December 12th I attended a presentation focusing upon the educational aspects of video games, titled:

Retooling Libraries for the Digital Age: What Gamers Can Teach Us About Knowledge Production and Consumption
by Dr. Kurt Squire and Dr. Constance Steinkuehler.

Massively Multiplayer Online Games

The first type of video games discussed were Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG). MMOG’s are persistent real-time game worlds where individuals create characters and develop complex interactive worlds. These worlds are typically a fantasy or science fiction setting.

The game discussed most was Lineage II, which is a fantasy game, similar to the Lord of Rings world.

While these games are largely escapist fantasy, they exhibit elements of emergent social reality, which is to say that players exhibit many of the characteristics that we associate with real life. Characters in the game world get married and divorced, save money to buy houses, join social clubs, have meetings, etc.

These game worlds are richly textured and are populated by real people controlling a single character (or avatar). There are a few computer-controlled characters, but most interactions are between real people acting through their avatars.

Due to the complexity of these games players develop cognitive models of the world and use collective intelligence and to discover how to beat the game.

Players band together in groups (called guilds) and develop databases of topics ranging from military tactics to virtual manufacturing (which require balancing raw materials, labor, and capital).

Expert players assume leadership positions in these guilds and become executives in this virtual world responsible for the training and organization of 100’s of individuals in order to make their guild a success in the competitive world of gameplay where battles and hostile takeovers are commonplace.

Thus players exhibit managerial skills and an implicit understanding of cross-functional teams that have real-world applications.

These virtual communities typically initiate newcomers into the etiquette and customs of the virtual worlds through apprenticeship and information sharing. Each Guild hosts its own website with extensive proprietary game documentation.

Players also exhibit nascent scientific reasoning by developing hypotheses about how the game operates and then testing these hypotheses through experiments. This is especially significant because the educational literature indicates that this method of scientific inquiry is difficult to cultivate through classroom learning.

Gamers develop a functional language (or gamespeak) that allows them to communicate very quickly and efficiently in a fast-moving setting with 10-20 other players while multi-tasking game actions.

While gamespeak is a pidgin of English (and other languages), Gamers also create “fan fiction” that exhibits creative writing skills and a proficiency with grammar and dialogue.

There is a significant community of MMOG players. World of Warcraft currently has approximately 5 million players (at the time of this writing) and Lineage 2 has around 2 million players. The presenter analogized it to the populations of the cities of Los Angeles and Chicago playing these two games.

Typically the time investment is 20 hours per week for gamers and a subscription fee of $15 per month. While addiction is an issue for some players, most players are well-adjusted.

Studies indicate that gameplay time replaces television viewing for most individuals.

The Ethos of Games

The presenter asked why is it that people find these fantasy worlds so much engaging than the real world?

She outlined an ethos of MMOG’s as meritocratic and a participatory culture which encourages collaborative problem-solving and empowers people as needed individuals and not as cogs in a faceless bureaucracy.

Historical Simulation Games

The second type of game discussed was Civilization 3 which is a turn-based game where players lead a civilization from the Stone Age to the Space Age. There are a variety of victory conditions and multiple paths players can take to achieve victory.

For instance, players can achieve a cultural victory through trade and commerce or a diplomatic victory through global democracy. Players can win the game by building a colony on another planet. Finally, players can achieve a military victory by conquering or dominating all of the other civilizations.

The game has a built-in encyclopedia function called the Civilopedia that allows students to learn about the game, but also to learn about how societies function. The civilopedia covers civics, religions, technologies and other game features.

Players learn about the relations between politics, economics, and geography in the course of playing the game.

However, the researchers were interested in a site created by game fans called Apolyton University through players could increase their understanding of the game.

The players became so sophisticated that the game’s production company asked them to beta-test the newest iteration of the game, Civilization 4.

The Apolyton player community submitted an edited, comprehensive set of suggested changes that was longer than the Old Testament.

This is interesting for many reasons. First, this University is a self-organized educational venture. Second, it asks players to move to the next level and think about the game not as users, but as designers.

The presenters at one point described these video games as being a gateway drug to higher technology and a significant number of these expert players go on to write computer code to alter (or mod) the behavior of the games.

Games like Civilization 3 are essentially simulations of the world. By changing the code of the game, these expert gamers can see how the simulations react. This implies that as citizens these individuals will have a more sophisticated understanding of computer modeling and its inherent limitations.

It also suggests that these games are a design space for creating a better society and many of the gamers see analogies between gameplay and political contexts, such as the War in Iraq.

The gamers actually set up different historical scenarios and try to re-play history and see how different variables affect the outcome.

Why Libraries Matter

The presenters are both in the department of education at University of Wisconsin at Madison.

However, due to the strict statutory construction of school curriculums, schools have very little room to innovate and bring the insights gained from gaming into education.

The current elementary and high school pedagogical model is based upon a factory model that does not lend itself to individually driven educational plans and “out of the box” thinking. (The Montessori model is more amenable to self-driven and flexible instruction.)

Libraries therefore become better venues for pedagogical innovation. Libraries allow individuals to guide their own learning at their own pace and to make choices about what interests them.

The presenters suggest a new direction for libraries, along the lines of Wikipedia, in an article they wrote for Library Journal:

It is impossible to resist imagining a library built on gamer principles, where patrons decide which materials and services are offered and which are not. All discussions of the library's future direction would be open, with full transcripts digitized, searchable, and part of the permanent record. Mechanisms would be put in place so that patrons are welcomed as new users but encouraged to participate in decision-making and, eventually, contribute their own materials. Library users would be linked to their relevant social networks through a variety of tools. |Link to PDF|
It was a fascinating presentation. If you’d like to learn more, visit the presenter’s websites:

Dr. Kurt Squire and Dr. Constance Steinkuehler

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