Monday, 22 November 2010

Review - Collaborative games: Lessons learned from board games

Authors: Jose P. Zagal, Jochen Rick, Idris Hsi.
DOI: 10.1177/1046878105282279.
Downloaded from

The paper talks about the difference in game theory between competitive, cooperative and collaborative games:

  • Competitive is a game where you are pitted against your fellow players. 
  • Cooperative means that there is scope for working together, but not all are rewarded/punished equally for doing so and the aim of the game is still to come out 'best'. 
  • Collaborative games only reward collaboration, and all players gain or suffer equally. 
The writers are focussing on collaborative games because the 'design space for computer collaborative games remains largely unexplored', and in fact the collaborative mechanisms in some cooperative games don't really seem to result in collaboration. They use board games to explore what works in collaborative game design because board games are easier to understand than the few collaborative electronic games. (Interestingly they do say that RPGs tend to be good examples of collaborative games but are mostly considered to be described by narrative theory not game theory - I'd quite like to follow that up!)

They examine a really successful game: 'Lord of the Rings' designed by Reiner Knizia in 2001. By analysing the game play, they come up with four lessons:

  1. Lesson 1: To highlight problems of competitiveness, a collaborative gameshould introduce a tension between perceived individual utility and team utility.
  2. Lesson 2: To further highlight problems of competitiveness, individual players should be allowed to make decisions and take actions without the consent of the team.
  3. Lesson 3: Players must be able to trace payoffs back to their decisions.
  4. Lesson 4: To encourage team members to make selfless decisions, a collaborative game should bestow different abilities or responsibilities upon the players.
Three pitfalls are also identified: 
  1. Pitfall 1: To avoid the game degenerating into one player making the decisions for the team, collaborative games have to provide a sufficient rationale for collaboration.
  2. Pitfall 2: For a game to be engaging, players need to care about the outcome and that out- come should have a satisfying result.
  3. Pitfall 3: For a collaborative game to be enjoyable multiple times, the experience needs to be different each time and the presented challenge needs to evolve.
They then consider the implications for computer games, including a very interesting section looking at the communication differences between online and board (or face-to-face) games. They include positives and negatives for the lack of face-to-face communication, such as the flexibility of not being co-located, and the power of restricting some types of communication while supporting other types, vs. the loss of cues like identity, personality etc, and the increased risk of deceptive practices. I think this section could be particularly relevant to our game design!

I don't feel that we are designing a purely collaborative game; our game probably allows for all three types of strategy depending on the players concerned. However, some of the discussions around in-game communication could be extremely relevant, and going from board game to computer game is useful too. 

I reached this paper from a discussion on a blog post on Lost Garden: Cooperation War Challenge. One of the writers chipped in on the comments stream. Actually, the article is worth reading (it's a game design to teach collaboration to 10 year olds), but the discussion in the comments is equally worth reading. Lost Garden has a small section of essays on Serious Games, which might bear more reading although they are kind of old (2007, 2005 ish). 

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