awarm.spacenewsletter | fast | slow

Playing Together

First a meta note. When I was designing the game that is this newsletter I really messed up with the difficulty curve. Week three comes at you fast. Last week I wrote up a little outline, and this week I have to turn it into a complete draft! I'm writing that alongside this newsletter, so we'll see how it goes...

Okay, I'm a little further along now, and I'm realizing that it's better for this to be a raw material dump, rather than a draft. I'm fleshing out points in the outline, and just getting ideas out.

Anyways, let's get to it.

Video games are increasingly spaces where we socialize. When friends of mine moved away in middle school, Minecraft was where we could still congregate. During the pandemic I spend time with my close friends battling monsters in Remnant, and lately, dying, dying, dying, in Spelunky 2.

These games give us an environment to be together in, and a shared goal, combining into a shared experience.

I think the grouch's lens here, that games fill time or give you something to do so you don't have to "actually talk to people", is pretty off the mark (though I will concede that some elements in some games absolutely can stifle genuine interaction). The rules of the game provide a sort of scaffhold for social interactions, giving you a context to express ideas and relationships that you couldn't in a different context.

That context isn't generic though. The rules of the game, as well as it's content, shape the kinds of experiences you can have.

This kind of social interaction though, where the primary goal, beyond the goal of the game, is building relationships, is very different from the social interaction that happens in a learning context. Could multiplayer games be as powerful there?

Well, partially. There are definitely some interesting ideas we can get into! But on a whole, I think the systems I've seen in multiplayer games, are bad at dealing with players with differing contexts and goals. playing together, and that's almost guaranteed to occur in a learning context.


One common tool in multiplayer games is classes, having different roles that players can take. Though the overall goal is still shared, players can differentiate based on the skills they have, or the tasks that they enjoy doing. In a team shooter, like Team Fortress 2, or Overwatch, someone who's played a lot of similar games can play the sniper, and enjoy excersise in precision, while a less experienced player could take the role of a medic, which doesn't require as precise aiming.

The big takeaway here for me is that games deal with differing player backgrounds, not by giving the players freedom to do whatever they want, but by creating constrained roles for them to inhabit. This means the whole team can cohore, as classes have traits that reinforce each other, and it means that each player is challenged to learn and develop into their role.

In learning contexts I feel like we often default to learner freedom, asking people to arbitrarily shape the experience to whatever they want. Maybe instead creating classes with different abilities to shape the gameplay could be interesting?

Matches, and repeated games

To stick with the team shooter example, many multiplayer games deal with the fact that players are constantly hopping in and out of contexts, by having relatively short game lengths, and making it very easy for players to join new games.

This means you can try out different classes, play even when you don't have a group with you already, and fit the game into your schedule wherever you can.

Often times though this results in the loss of a sense of progression. So to deal with that games add on some kind of notion of experience points, or levels, so as you play you unlock more things.

However, that progression is only individual. What would a similar thing look like on a group level? Perhaps you could have "friendship levels", or something similar, where you unlock more experiences together as you play more with someone else or a team?

This strikes me as a useful analog to how you can embark on deeper and harder learning projects with someone you've established trust and context with over time.

Roleplaying games

Classes often turn up in classic RPGs, which have their roots in pen-and-paper games, like Dungeons and Dragons. These are really interesting, as they're infinitely more malleable environments than most video games. This means that there are more tools available to shape experience.

One of the most important features of this type of game is the Game Master. They're responsible for orchestrating the experience, but they aren't given full control of everything that happens. This is I think, pretty analogous to the role of a facilitator in a learning group. They aren't dictating every action an individual or the group takes, but providing context, and directing the experience.

There is an interesting niche of GM-less tabletop games, that distribute the responsiblity to keep the game on track among all the players.

One example I've played a bit of is Microscope, a game more about creating the worlds that adventures happen in, than the adventures itself. It has players fly around the history of a universe, on whatever timescale they want, zooming into specific events as they please. This vast scale lets the game rotate the responsibility for setting context among players, as each can explore different areas of the history, and only connect to other events intentionally.

I'm not quite sure how this could apply to a learning context, but I think there's something interesting there. How could we move the role of a facilitator away from a architect, and towards a game master? How could we distribute the work to all learners while keeping the game moving forward?

Okay, that's all I got for today! I'm still getting the hang of this new format, so today was kind of a struggle to get everything out. I'm looking forward to returning to these ideas! Here's that mess of ideas I promised at the beginning. In writing it I mostly illuminated all the areas I have no idea what I'm talking about, so hopefully I can fill some of those gaps during the next week!

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