This week, we ran the first of our Games for Communication gaming sessions, playing Minecraft on PlayStation 3 (one of the versions developed in Scotland by 4J Studios). Our student volunteers were split up into pairs with a mixture of previous Minecraft experience in each pair e.g. one coupling comprised a highly experienced player and a complete novice; another comprised two beginners. Each pair played the game for two hours in split-screen multiplayer mode, beginning with the built-in tutorial world.
Split-screen multiplayer mode situates both players in the same, shared environment but imposes no demands on what the players should do: they are free to ignore each other and explore the world on their own, or they may opt to work together to construct a house or other structure, for example.
For this session, players were given a short worksheet that instructed them to explore the tutorial world which guides new players through world of Minecraft. When both players were comfortable with the mechanics of the game, they were asked to create a new world (complete with monsters!) and to carry out a range of suggested collaborative tasks. These tasks included building a home that could house both players, constructing matching sets of armour and hunting down one of the ‘creeper’ monsters.
It is fair to say that the progress made varied from group to group. An obvious factor affecting progression was experience: the pair which included an expert player took to the task with some relish, with others experiencing varying degrees of frustration and, perhaps, even despondency. The expert-and-novice group also differed from the others in terms of how well the pair knew each other, with communication between the two made easier by their existing friendship. This communication could be characterised as a form of peer tutoring, with the expert player guiding the novice through the tutorial (and forgetting to complete his own tutorial tasks in the process!)
Indeed, it appeared as though the expert-and-novice pair was the only to truly collaborate, or make any meaningful attempt at completing the suggested tasks, their efforts culminating in the exciting development of a ‘mooshroom’ farm and rather homely two-bedroom cave. Discrepancies in Minecraft experience and ability were a source of humour rather than frustration.
Two hours of play was simply not sufficient for the other groups to become familiar enough with the game – and perhaps each other – to collaborate on such impressive endeavours. That’s not to say that the other pairs did not communicate at all, however. Occasional questions were asked of one another, while (not always successful) attempts to rendezvous within the game world were made. And, there was a least one touching moment when a player came to their partner’s rescue – wooden sword in hand – when she became the victim of a creeper attack.
From a practical point of view, a number of issues were encountered. These ranged from the relatively trivial challenge of using multiple wireless controllers with multiple PS3s in the same room (using wired USB connections made it more straightforward to ensure that each controller was synced with the intended PS3) to the last-minute realisation that Minecraft requires a high definition display for split-screen multiplayer (thus rendering useless the large, but standard definition, screen intended for one of the groups). Technical issues are to be expected when video games are used in a research or teaching environment, of course, and none of those encountered on this occasion proved insurmountable.
Potentially more problematic, however, is the project’s reliance on the expected number of student participants attending the game-based exercises. Further, for exercises that require pair-based collaboration, an even number of participants is desirable. In this case, six of the expected eight participants took part, which, at least, resulted in each player having an available partner. Running a project such as this over an eight week period will inevitably result in some participants being unable to attend all of the scheduled sessions, and raises the question of how this should be dealt with. If two participants are unable to attend a pair-based exercise, for example, then it may be possible to schedule an additional session for these two to run through the exercise. But what if a single participant misses the session, leaving one attendee without a partner on the day and the missing participant without a fellow straggler with whom to catch up? Another solution might be to devise exercises that are – as far as possible – equivalent to those carried out in the lab environment but which may be carried out at home. Aside from the challenge of ensuring the equivalence of the alternative task, access to the required game software and hardware must also be considered. A student may borrow a copy of Minecraft and attempt to work through some task in the game’s online multiplayer, for example, but only if they have access to a PS3 at home.
These are issues that any concerted effort to use video games in a formal learning environment would have to address. The problem, however, is perhaps more serious in a research context such as this, where the aim is to measure the effects of playing video games. The solution to be adopted here, for now, is to devise equivalent tasks which may be carried out by participants in a more independent fashion, either at home or at an alternative time using campus-based equipment, if they cannot attend the scheduled session.
Returning to this week’s Minecraft-based session, my question for those who did take part is: how important a part did communication with your partner play in your Minecraft experience?