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The Educator’s Guide to Collaboration, Part 1

Merrel Presents LeftDear Reader,

Hello from a new venue!  I’m honored to have the opportunity to write for ESP LLC (GG), so I hope I’ve got a real A-game topic for you today.

Epic Slant Press LLC recently asked on Twitter about how to design a co-op game.  My thoughts immediately went to collaborative grouping theory for classrooms, since I am by trade a public school teacher.  I figured we could take a short look at some of the most basic tenets of collaborative learning today, and next time, look at a handful of co-op games and see how they compare.

First, some disclaimers.  Most of what we’ll discuss today comes from decade-plus old instructional information and my experience and observations in the years since.  Also, since it has to do exclusively with education, it may or may not serve any practical purpose in cooperative games.  Still, I thought it would be an interesting comparison and perhaps a useful resource.

So, let’s talk about what a definition for collaborative grouping (I’ll be using “grouping” rather than “learning” to make it more topic-neutral).  Most resources I’ve been introduced to in the past define collaborative grouping as any kind of large-scale task that requires individual skills that wouldn’t be held by only one person, essentially “forcing” the group to work together in equal parts.  This teaching strategy is designed to emphasize 21st century skills, a category of mental and social tasks that employers have generally agreed will be necessary for working in the new century.

With that definition in mind, let’s look at a few of the basic tenets within that definition of collaborative grouping.  First, the real key to collaborative grouping is that the task must be too large for an individual to do.  This tenet can be tricky in the classroom, as you don’t want to overload the kids with something overwhelming.  It’s also very reliant on the students actually believing that their grades will not be affected by others’ performance (more on that later).  This encourages (if not forces) the students to work together.

In game terms, the game’s mechanics will have to be well-tuned enough to ensure one person playing really well can’t make up for everyone else playing poorly while also ensuring that most people playing adequately will be able to win.  It also makes it imperative that the size of the task scales with the size of the group playing.  This can be accomplished in a variety of ways including changing target “win” conditions based on the number of players or including extra “game mechanics” turns for each player in the game.

The second tenet of collaborative grouping involves the focus on 21st century skills.  The various lists of these skills vary pretty widely, but most come down to four basic ideas: communication, cooperation, problem-solving, and various types of literacy.  The tasks that teachers have students do should require most if not all of these.  In basic collaborative groupings, the problems needing to be solved may simply be organizational, meaning who will do what work, but they can certainly be more advanced, such as having students prepare a news program including an interview, a news story, and an advertisement based on whatever may currently be featured in class.  There, the problem-solving requires analysis of each of those features, knowledge of the book, media literacy, and of course the actual creation of such content.

In cooperative games, we see all of these skills used; players must talk to one another, work together, and understand the game itself (a form of literacy) to approach overcoming whatever problematic mechanic the designers have presented for the players’ consumption.  The wide variety of mechanical challenges, including exploration; combat; and resource acquisition, use, and loss; the sheer variety of cooperative games available out there that listing all challenges would be impossible.

The next tenet is that each member of the group should have a unique role.  That can be accomplished indirectly simply by grouping people of varying skill sets or directly by assigning people different roles.  As an example, when I do “literature circles,” which are essentially small reading groups, each student gets a separate role.  One acts as an organizer, another pulls important quotes, another draws images of important scenes, one digs up vocabulary words, and another creates a study guide with literary elements.  These roles are fluid from day to day or week to week (depending on the age group and how long they’ve been doing the activity), which means no one “gets stuck” in a tougher role or “gets lucky” and stays in a highly desired role for too long.

This role assignment usually occurs in games in a very direct way.  In many cases, players overtly choose roles prior to the game starting or are randomly assigned roles.  In most cases, these roles provide customization to the characters that the players play in order to distinguish roles within the game.  The roles may provide bonuses to combat, extra resource generation, or the opportunity to bend or break rules to which other players must adhere.

Lastly comes the tenet that individual contribution leads to individual outcomes.  In practice, this means that students don’t get a group grade; they get individual grades based on their own work.  This is what really separates “good” collaborative grouping from “bad” group work (that I’m sure many of us hated in school), the idea that there are individual outcomes for individual performance.  Yes, the “group” is working together to a goal, but the individual contributions into the final product are what’s scored, not only the final product.  That frees the hard workers from the fear that the slackers are going to ruin their grade, which normally forces the hard workers to do all the work.

Individual grading requires a lot of “tracking,” on both the students’ and teacher’s parts, but it’s not too tough.  In a practical way, this tracking can be done by leaving a few minutes at the end of each class and having students individually write a brief description of who did what that day.  While an individual student may stretch the truth, patterns develop over the course of the project which make it clear (alongside your own observations) who’s contributing how much.

This particular tenet doesn’t necessarily apply – or need to apply – to many cooperative games.  Some do have “winners” within the cooperative play, such as Cutthroat Caverns, in which every player loses or one player wins over the others, but such games are few and far between compared to the “all for one and one for all” teaming of most cooperative games.  Ironically, though, the tracking issue is moot in games; whatever scoring system is in place will do the tracking for the players.

Next time, we’ll take a look at a few examples of cooperative games including, but not necessarily limited to, Arkham Horror, Pandemic, and the Yawgh and see how they incorporate the tenets of collaborative grouping – or don’t.  I’ll see you then!


Stubborn (and collaborating)
@sheepthediamond | Sheep The Diamond

5 thoughts on “The Educator’s Guide to Collaboration, Part 1

  1. Fantastic article, I love seeing other forms of intellectual thought being applied to games like this. Definitely a great resource for potential co-op game designers!


    1. Shoe,
      Thanks, I’m glad you liked it! I see a lot of these cross-overs as an indirect result of my hobbies and profession. A long time ago towards the beginning of my blogging I did an Education and WoW raiding piece, too; you can find it here if you’d like: http://sheepthediamond.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/from-classroom-to-raid/ and its follow up here: http://sheepthediamond.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/from-classroom-to-raid-part-2/
      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Great post. Will look forwards to what you have to say about Pandemic (I loved that game but boy did it make us work together).

    How do you feel the problem solving part works in raiding when people are told to just read the tactics off a website?

    1. That always drove me nuts. For me, a large part of the fun was discovering how something worked and figuring out how to solve it.

      By the time we were in RIFT it was just “go look at the videos and know what is going to happen in advance.”

      It ruined some of the mystery for me.

    2. Hey, Spinks! It’s been a while! Good to see you (;

      I love Pandemic, too; it’s my favorite of the cooperative games, partly because it goes from “too easy” to “dear god we’re on the brink of losing” in such a short time span. Then you work against the clock to keep things together and hope that you can find all the cures in time.

      I completely agree with the implicit point you’re making about raid strategies and accepted practices. My blind buddy used to refuse to read or watch strats until after one night of pulls; of course this made him very unpopular in his raid groups, but I agreed with his point: he wanted to see it on his own first.

      I think a lot of the “problem solving” then comes from problems introduced by raid members making mistakes, which I think turns people within the raid on one another in a “partial co-op” sort of environment – almost like the healers are playing against the people who are making mistakes. I’ve said before I felt that healing mediocre raiders made for an untenable situation in which the healer would eventually come to loathe their raid mates, and I got a mixed bag of responses (some saying I was dead on and others saying that it was just a perspective thing).

      Still, the ironing-out of strategies and even reimagining at times when you have a guild who can’t pull off the “accepted practice” due to their middling play can still lead to a lot of fun theorycrafting, and that’s what I enjoyed the most (when I felt listened to).

      Thanks for the comment, and again, it was good to see you!

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