Collective Intelligence or Group Think?

This case study contributes to the understanding of behaviors and experiences of players in World Without Oil, 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. The designers sought to elicit this response by posting the news of an imaginary oil crisis on their website for the period of 32 days starting April 30, 2007. The players then responded by imagining how such news might change their life and local environment as well as the possible steps they could take to respond to it. Concepts of collective intelligence and community development are central in the design and subsequent discussions of the game.

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 (unintentionally) 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.

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

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 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).

[4] 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).