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Team Building with Mario and Luigi

January 10, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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.

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Curtiss Murphy
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Fantastic experiment and excellent article. Thank you.

Jason Drysdale
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Thanks, Curtiss--much appreciated!

Sean Monica
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This is really cool and well done!

Jason Drysdale
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Thanks, Sean--glad you enjoyed it!

Axel Cholewa
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I can only agree with Curtiss, fantastic experiment and article!

It would be interesting to do the same study with

a) Rayman :Origins. It shares a lot of features with NSMBW, but players can't collide, except if one lands on top of the other (which, as in NSMBW, can be used for higher jumps). Therefore you can't really inhibit your team mates. Using this game could help clarify the importance of verbal coordination in such teams.

b) NSMBW in Boost Mode. It would be interesting to see who plays with the GamePad. Is it always the same person? Does everyone want to play with the GamePad? Maybe they develop their own rules who has to play with the GamePad, and when? Is there a role like leader or follower attached?

Jason Drysdale
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Hey, Axel--

The Rayman idea sounds awesome--that's also the benefit in using games for building teams, I think--if you evaluate one game that doesn't quite fit your needs, there is likely another that will do the job.

Also, right on about boost mode--the asynchronous gameplay thing has a lot of possibilities for collaborative learning and team your idea about developing unique rules for using the GamePad. Now I may need to go pick up a Wii U! For research, of course. ;-)

Thanks for the great discourse!

Axel Cholewa
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Hey Jason,

interesting effect: I was assuming you used NSMB Wii U, although you explicitely wrote Wii. Might be because I just got one before christmas :D

Have fun with your Wii U research ;)

BTW: it's asymmetric gameplay, not asynchronous. :)

Jason Drysdale
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Oops! Must've been thinking one and wrote the other, haha. The perils of posting on Friday!

John Flush
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In my own experiences at home I found the NSMB experience frustrating on all levels when playing multiplayer. Everything bad about video games was present with little to no way of mitigating it. Every castle was the water fall level from contra - which to this day still scars my childhood and is the comparison for game design failure when analyzing a game.

It is interesting though to see as the pain materialized what roles people took. The people that know what they are doing have to slow down and help those that don't, to their own frustration. Those that lacked the skills improve faster but don't really become experts themselves. They have to put in place plans to prevent each other from getting in the way... It really is the workplace.

They key in the workplace is to cut loose those that get in the way and hire more people that know what they are doing or are at least talented enough to become experts in a quick fashion.

Axel Cholewa
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That's a bit shortsighted. "Those that get in the way" are always the slowest, or least efficient, or least experienced and so on. If you cut them loose other people will take there place. There will always be people with less experience or qualification, simply because there is no such things as a completely uniform team.

Train those that seem to slow you down, while not using focus of those that stride ahead. Difficult but possible.

Jason Drysdale
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Hey John--

I think many people echo your sentiment about the frustration with NSMB's multiplayer--and some groups would find it more of a reason to quit than to problem solve. I'll reiterate my statement to Axel, above: this is exactly the reason why games are such a great framework for team building--if one game wouldn't work well, evaluate another until you come to the right one.

I think it's also important to keep in mind that fun is at the center of all this; we are always more invested in the outcome if we are having fun. If the game isn't fun for you or your team, definitely try a different game with collaborative goals and results!

Thanks for the comment, John!

Filipe Salles
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This article is amazing and gave me a new perspective on how to use games as a way of not only delivering fun, but also making people's lives better.

I really appreciated this article, thank you very much!

Jason Drysdale
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Hey, thanks Filipe! Very glad you found it useful. Best wishes!