Probing Video Games

Clive Thompson’s latest video game article is about how players of online video games collaborate, analyze and develop strategies for beating difficult bosses. One example he gives is a game called Lineage, where groups of 150 players stage assaults on fiendishly difficult enemies. Constance Steinkuehler, a game academic at the University of Wisconsin, was fascinated with the game and how the players were able to quickly identify and exploit weanesses in the bosses. She eventually figured out how her teenage compatriots were accomplishing the feat:

A group of them were building Excel spreadsheets into which they’d dump all the information they’d gathered about how each boss behaved: What potions affected it, what attacks it would use, with what damage, and when. Then they’d develop a mathematical model to explain how the boss worked — and to predict how to beat it.

Often, the first model wouldn’t work very well, so the group would argue about how to strengthen it. Some would offer up new data they’d collected, and suggest tweaks to the model.

Sound familiar? I’ve often mentioned Steven Berlin Johnson’s book, Everything Bad is Good For You on this blog, with particular focus on the concepts of probing, telescoping and decision-making. The process of probing a game (or in this case, an enemy), developing a hypothesis, reprobing, and then rethinking the hypothesis is essentially the same thing as the scientific method or the hermenutic circle.

Steinkuehler also studied a popular World of Warcraft message board to see what the folks there were talking about. It turns out that people there are mostly doing science!

Only a minority of the postings were “banter” or idle chat. In contrast, a majority — 86 percent — were aimed specifically at analyzing the hidden ruleset of games.

More than half the gamers used “systems-based reasoning” — analyzing the game as a complex, dynamic system. And one-tenth actually constructed specific models to explain the behavior of a monster or situation; they would often use their model to generate predictions. Meanwhile, one-quarter of the commentors would build on someone else’s previous argument, and another quarter would issue rebuttals of previous arguments and models.

I’ve never actually played WoW, but I find this behavior fascinating. Towards the end of the article, Thompson talks about education:

And here’s the thing: The (mostly) young people engaging in these sciencelike conversations are precisely the same ones who are, more and more, tuning out of science in the classroom. Every study shows science literacy in school is plummeting, with barely one-fifth of students graduating with any sort of sense of how the scientific method works. The situation is far worse for boys than girls.

Steinkuehler thinks videogames are the way to reverse this sorry trend. She argues that schools ought to be embracing games as places to show kids the value of scientific scrutiny — the way it helps us make sense of the world.

That would certainly make for an interesting class. As I’ve noted before, it should be interesting to see if video games ever really catch on as learning tools. There have been a lot of attempts at this sort of thing, but they’re often stifled by the reputation of video games being a “colossal waste of time” (in recent years, the benefits of gaming are being acknowledged more and more, though not usually as dramatically as Johnson does in his book).