Collaborative Games

with Dr. Eric Meyers, iSchool, University of British Columbia

Collaborative Games

Digital participatory media such as collaborative games create environments that vary in their capacity for social engagement and learning. Part of my research looks closely at such environments to tease out whether and how the design of such environments relate to the quality of social interactions mediated by them. Two case studies of World without Oil and Google Image Labeler are particularly informative.

The case study of World without Oil contributes to the understanding of behaviors and experiences of players in an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), providing a foundation for a critical understanding of the quality of participation in this game and informs design theory and practice of participatory environments and applications. World without Oil is a massively collaborative imagining of the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis. Designed by Ken Eklund and Jane McGonigal, the game aims to bring a diversity of people together around a shared concern, providing a space for players to reflect and share their insights about oil dependence and devise possible courses of action in response to the game narrative.

Based on an online ethnographic study of players’ responses to the game and a close reading of arguments made by its designers, this study maps the relationship of the designers’ assumptions about motivation and participation; the form and structure of the game such as organization of content and reward mechanisms; and the individual and collective experiences of people who played the game.

World Without Oil seeks to overcome the limitations of hierarchical structures and the rigidity and political nature of traditional organizations, replacing it with a non-hierarchical ad-hoc system for sharing knowledge and learning. In doing so, it downplays the role and power of the game’s structure, and the fact that the stories that are added or highlighted by the designers have a central role in steering the direction of the game. Moreover, in its emphasis on openness and inclusiveness and a positive atmosphere, it plays down reflection and resistance that are important modes of participation and real world problems solving. The absence of outside perspectives, or other sources to encourage, support, or bring in critical points of view, together with the overall emphasis on members to adopt “positive” responses, can inadvertently undermine this diversity, motivating the members to conform.

Relatedly, “Human computation” is the idea of employing “human processing power” for tasks that computers are unable to perform. For example, people can complete parts of machine processes such as image and speech recognition or language analysis that are otherwise difficult or impossible for computers to perform. Among strategies for bringing people into machine process in efficient and economic ways, is the idea of creating games that fun to play yet are designed to to aggregate small cognitive contributions of individuals to complete difficult tasks such as. Google Image Labeler is an example of such a game with the main purpose of  accumulating accurate labels for images on the web.

Based on an online ethnographic study of what players and critics say about their interactions with the game and a close reading of arguments made by its designers, this study maps the relationship of the designers’ assumptions about motivation and participation; the form and structure of the game such as organization of content and reward mechanisms; and the individual and collective experiences of people who played the game. I identified five major themes in players’ responses to the game: playing because the game is fun; playing because the game is addictive; playing for a good cause; (not) playing because the game is exploitative; and playing to subvert the game and break the game.

By reducing the community of players to a network, Google Image Labeler fails to realize both the individual and collective potentials of participation in a collective activity such as commitment, responsibility, care and learning to name a few. When terms such as social (as in social computing) is used to refer to online environments such as Google Image Labeler certain aspects or possibilities of the social are excluded. The emphasis is on parts and the whole is assumed to be nothing more than the sum of interchangeable parts. Participation is then reduced to “being a part of” or in the context of technology “to be connected to the network”. This characteristic is reminiscent of assembly line in its treatment of individuals as part of industrial machines. The difference is that computational machines do not require the physical labor of the individual but her intellectual labor in order to secure efficiency. The individual is, nonetheless, treated as an interchangeable part in the operations of the machine. The work is similarly meaningless and does not support self-expression, communication, or social interaction.

Related publications and presentations:

  1. Nassim Jafarinaimi and Eric Meyers, “Collective Intelligence or Group Think? Engaging Participation Patterns in World without Oil,” in the Computer Supported Cooperative Work Conference (CSCW ‘15), (Vancouver, Candada: ACM 2015).
  2. Nassim Jafarinaimi, Eric Meyers, Allison Trumble “Crafting Meaningful Participation: Analyzing Contribution Patterns in an Alternate Reality Game,” in the International Conference for Group Work (GROUP ‘14), (Sanibel Island, Florida, USA: ACM 2014).
  3. Nassim Jafarinaimi, “Exploring the Character of Participation in Social Media: The Case of Google Image Labeler,” in Proceedings of the 2012 iConference, (Toronto, Canada: ACM 2012), 72 –79.
  4. Nassim Jafarinaimi and Eric Meyres, “World Without Oil and the Challenge of Cultivating Educational Experiences.” (Paper presented at the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA 2013). Atlanta, Georgia. August 2013).
  5. Nassim Jafarinaimi, Eric Meyres, and Lisa Nathan, “Entertained but Misinformed? Play and Prevarication in Alternate Reality Games.” (Paper presented at the 41st Annual Conference of the Canadian Association of Information Science: Tales from the Edge: Narrative Voices in Information Research and Practice (CAIS-ACSI 2013). Victoria, British Columbia. June 2013).