Friday, October 15, 2010

Cooperation in Games (and Elsewhere)

Last week on Friday I and a few fellow researchers were taking part in a cooperative game session. The purpose of that particular game is to improve communication inside teams. We tried it out for more research-oriented reasons. There is a lot we already know about playing together and cooperation but this doesn't prevent me from thinking it a bit. So here we go: another game-related blog topic. Just some general thoughts about cooperation.

Lately I have mostly cooperated with other players in board games. Recently cooperative board games have been on the rise. They are a good concept for a couple of reasons. First of all, in cooperative games it is less important for the players to be evenly matched. They are competing against the game after all, not each other (although some of them have one or two players as traitors trying to undermine the others!) This makes them more accessible to less than hardcore players. The other reason is just that thinking together is Fun (yes with a capital F). I also do believe these kinds of games are good for improving communication skills (there is most likely research done on this subject, something I'll have to dig up later).

Board games also integrate the benefit of bringing people together into the same physical space. However, cooperation in digital games over the internet is no less fun. One quite important difference worth notice is what skills each player brings to the game. In board games, players mostly bring just their brain. Manual dexterity, hand-eye coordination and so on are not really important because the games are not played in real time*. In digital games played on consoles or computers, players typically need to be familiar with appropriate input devices. Real-time games typically also require reflexes. First-person shooters require good hand-eye coordination. Put simply, they are somewhat less accessible for non-experienced players.

Digital games do have a benefit over most cooperative board games. In board games, where thinking time is theoretically infinite one player can, in theory, play the game by himself. This causes a situation where less experienced players find themselves being told exactly what they should do on their turns. This is seen as a problem among the board gaming community, largely because in board games carrying out actions is trivial. Fun is in the thinking. In digital games it is much easier for game developers to make games where one experienced player cannot play for the whole team. Experienced players can still be leaders, giving out directions or even orders (in more organized play) but overall success is much more dependent on everyone's skills.

Assuming the aim is to improve everyone's communication skills, some tricks can be employed. Many board games employ rules that somehow limit communication. For instance, in many cooperative board games players are not allowed to show their cards to others. Often it is even forbidden to talk about one's cards in detail. Another thing that can be done in board games is enforcing time limits. If time is limited, one experienced player simply doesn't have enough time to mind everyone else's playing. Basically any kind of knowledge distribution scheme works wonders.

In digital games critical resources can be distributed among the players. When everyone can do something others can not, everyone needs to be involved. In most games, location can be considered a resource. Information visible from one particular place can be valuable and therefore require one player to stay there and report said information to others. Generally speaking, dividing the game to multiple terminals (computers or consoles) allows more player specific information which is also harder to convey to others. In the spirit of time limits, the game could even enforce microphone time limits. Speak too much, and your mic goes silent leaving leading for someone else to do.

Ahem. Looks like I sidetracked quite a bit. But hey, at least now you might know more about the specifics of cooperative games. Cooperative play is motivating. Winning or losing is no longer just about yourself but the whole team. It also makes many seemingly less interesting games much more interesting (try and play some coop board games solo, they are quite boring). Cooperation is also generally important at work. Most people these days don't work solo. As usual, there are two angles when looking at games and real life cooperation. The first angle is improving communication skills via suitable cooperative games or game-like activities. The second angle is making tasks more motivating by increasing game-like cooperation.

The second angle is a matter of tools. Cooperation generally leads to better results and is therefore already desirable. Many applications on the other do not support cooperation. Means of remote communicating need more improvement. Voice and text are often insufficient. It is much more powerful to show things. Solutions have been developed and will be developed in the future. One important requirement for communication and cooperation is that it needs to be effortless. Cooperating with people on the other side of the globe should be as effective as with people in the same office. At the moment this clearly is not so. Perhaps games can help us here. That is one more question for me to think about.

* There is at least one really good exception. Space Alert is a game where players together as a team have exactly ten minutes to plan all of their actions for the game. These are then carried out afterwards to see how the plan holds together. The time limit demands quick thinking and really good coordination from players.

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