Valve’s much-loved Portal 2 was, perhaps, one of the more obvious commercial games to play as part of a project that looks at communication and collaboration skills, as it features a particularly robust and inventive cooperative mode. From a practical point of view, it is also worth noting that the cooperative portion of the game allows for split-screen play, meaning two people can play together on the same machine without the need for a solid internet connection to the PlayStation Network (an impossibility due to our institutional firewall1).
Our first pair of players had both experienced the game to some extent before, but, in one case, on PC rather than PS3. This lack of familiarity with the console-based controls immediately led to frustrations with the control scheme that no amount of communication could address (in fact, the nature of the inter-player communication at this point might have been rather unhelpful). Issues with the PlayStation controller aside, communication quickly became an integral part of play. In this case, the more experienced player took the lead and directed the less experienced player, using a mixture of verbal and visual cues to orient the latter within the game’s three-dimensional space. In the end, this pair made limited progress together, and, while they shared a screen, they did not share the same understanding of what constituted patience. The following exchange was typical:
“Does argument and disagreement still count [as communication]?”
“You tried to kill me!”
“I warned you.”
The pair that followed this unfortunate duo, however, demonstrated how communication – if not impeded by barriers such as unfamiliar control schemes and limited patience – was absolutely vital to progressing in the game. Using the same mixture of verbal and visual communication, this pair quickly and efficiently worked their way through the puzzles presented by the game, although not without the occasional moment of mischief – one player was observed deliberately crushing his team-mate using a handy elevator.
Based on some of the ‘peer tutoring’ behaviour observed earlier in the project, pairing players with differing amounts of experience of the game at hand is an appealing approach. Such disparities can certainly result in an interesting dynamic and create the need for significant communication. However, when the disparity is too great, cooperation may quickly give way to frustration and, ultimately a breakdown in communication between players, rather than creating opportunities to exercise and develop such skills.
This, perhaps, points to a more general consideration when planning to use commercial video games in a formal learning environment: it is important to ascertain students’ familiarity with the games and plan groups or pairs accordingly. Based on what we’ve observed over the last few weeks, the experience gap between a pair of players can be quite significant if progress through the game does not require explicit collaboration (as Portal 2’s puzzle-solving does). A game such as Minecraft, where ‘progress’ is largely defined by the individual player, and players – even when inhabiting the same game world – are free to work alone if they wish, provides a more relaxed environment for collaborative play.
The worst possible combination might be a pair of players with no experience of the game (or gaming, more generally) between them. When players spend the majority of the session wandering aimlessly or struggling to grasp the controls, there is little opportunity for meaningful play, and inter-player communication may be limited to short bouts of ‘the blind leading the blind’.
As a small pilot project, we’re really only getting clues about how game-based learning of this sort might be organised in a formal learning environment but, even if further experimentation is required to determine a best practice approach, the importance of balancing player experience is clear.
1 The online multiplayer aspects of last week’s Journey session – so thoughtfully summarised by Carmen – were facilitated by means of a tethered mobile phone…