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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.

January 10, 2013

12 Min Read

Author: by Jason Drysdale

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.

Choosing a Game

The only problem -- for in-person training, at least -- with Guild Wars 2 is that you don't have the benefit of personal interaction with your teammates (and that at the time of the focus group, the game had not yet been released). As such, I landed on New Super Mario Bros. Wii.

NSMB has competition -- you can easily steal power-ups from and double-jump your teammates to their demise -- but, like Worms, fun trumps competition. Players are working toward a shared outcome, as well -- if you cause your teammate to die, you may be less likely to complete the level. So we have a collaborative goal (work together to complete the level), a collaborative result (beat the level), and the benefit of personal interaction: It meets each criterion for a useful team-building experience.

With the collaborative game selected, I set up some parameters to ensure the learning experience was authentic. First and foremost, I decided to not interact with the focus group gamers during play. I didn't want to taint the study with my own bias -- I wanted to see if the learning would happen naturally.

Next, I made sure that I selected a group of people with diverse levels of gaming experience and different professional backgrounds. Finally, I set up a post-game reflection time to discuss what happened -- this proved to be a crucial piece of the experience.

So, let's get to it: how did Mario and Luigi help my ragtag group of professionals become a functioning team?


During the course of play, I observed the following group traits that we hope to see in well-functioning professional groups:

Gamers naturally established group roles based on skills and experience. The two well-seasoned gamers helped out the two players with no experience when figuring out the control scheme -- showing them button functions, explaining how to run or walk, etc.

They also helped the inexperienced gamers figure out the functions of the game itself: the ins and outs of each power-up, how to overcome obstacles such as floating platforms or ice levels, and the best ways to complete the level, such as shortcuts through pipes. None of these occurrences are unfamiliar to the avid gamer -- we help each other out all the time. The inexperienced gamers took on a natural role as a follower -- and the pros took a natural role as leaders.

The learning curve for new players became substantially smaller with input from experienced players. The mentorship of experienced players made it easier to learn the ropes than if the inexperienced players had done so on their own. This is an instance of value added for group play -- and the same goes for work in a well-functioning group.

The group developed a common identity as a team. Since both the goal and result in New Super Mario Bros. is collaborative, each individual player wanted to help the other (or be helped, as the case may be) to beat the obstacles and complete each level. Coupled with the personal interaction of local gaming, each member felt -- regardless of skill and experience -- an important part of the team.

Players were able to identify strengths and weaknesses without feeling threatened or challenged. Since the group was having fun, no one felt threatened when a teammate made a suggestion for improvement. Conversely, players were also eager to give praise -- for instance, when all but one member of the team had already died, the last man standing narrowly escaped defeat to move the whole team on -- high fives and cheers abounded.

Each player had a shared investment in the outcome of the game. Everyone wanted to win, because everyone was having fun -- and to win, they needed to work together.

Once the group stopped playing, we held a time of reflection where I asked questions about the experience:

What was most difficult or frustrating for you? How did you pull together as a team to overcome the obstacles?

The responses were consistent that, even though the game was fun, it was frustrating to find a rhythm to avoid not inhibiting each other. Anyone who has played NSMB knows that the multiplayer can be more frustrating than productive -- the participants certainly experienced that.

In order to overcome that potential frustration (an intentional part of the experience), participants were more verbally communicative than they typically would have been -- setting up a plan, based on their naturally-established roles, to come up with a solution.

This didn't always lead to success; there was a trial and error process, made more difficult by the time limit on each level. Once the participants started collaborating, however, their consistency in winning rose: each level took fewer tries to beat.

Why did working as a part of a team improve your experience in the game?

The participants said that, at first, it didn't -- they all felt levels would be easier to complete solo. However, once they found their groove, they were able to develop and take advantage of strategies that they wouldn't have been able to otherwise. This increase in difficulty made levels more satisfying to complete, and, as a result, improved the game experience on the whole.

What was most fun about the game?

The participants enjoyed -- expectedly -- winning! It helped that Mario is a character with whom many people are familiar, including all of the participants, and that the aesthetic layer of the game is bright and playful. Other than winning, they all enjoyed improving their skills as a result of their co-players.

Since I did not guide the group through the process, their reflection was authentic -- the questions were designed to help them critically examine the experience and transfer the skills they had exhibited during play to beyond the game itself. Keep in mind also that, as this was a sample of professionals from different fields and places of work, that I did not intend to measure their success in transferring skills to the workplace. Rather, the goal was to establish that games-based learning can build better groups by naturally promoting the traits of a high-functioning group that employers value.

Closing Thoughts

If you are interested in implementing the type of training described, I would recommend you keep the following in mind:

Not all games are created equal, instructionally speaking. Be discerning and intentional about the games you choose for collaborative training. Some games can have the opposite effect. I recommend becoming familiar with Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek's MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research for a way to critically evaluate games for their instructional value. Understanding each level of a game's design can help you determine if it has collaborative goals, results, and a practical use in team building.

Establish a team of people with varying degrees of gaming experience. This is a crucial piece of the puzzle -- and won't likely be an issue in diverse workplace environments. For roles to develop naturally, there needs to be a varied level of familiarity. If that isn't possible, refer back to the first suggestion -- maybe choose a game few people are familiar with instead, or a game that has a relatively low learning curve.

Don't try to facilitate games-based training if you aren't a gamer yourself. This is common sense, I suppose -- but it needs to be said. If you don't know the game, you can't teach with it!

Actively facilitate, but don't directly participate. The role of a trainer in team building through games is to frame the experience, not to engage in it. The key here is authenticity -- don't muddy the waters.

Plan for post-game processing: critical reflection is paramount. This just doesn't work well without critical reflection -- there has to be some intentional facilitation of the experience to ensure that skills transfer to a non-game environment.

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