To boldly go where no classroom has gone before: multiplayer cooperative games with asymmetrical roles

I watched a video recently which completely blew my mind, both as a computer game player and as an educator:


In this game, Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator, six computers (or smartphones or tablets) join together to simulate a spaceship’s bridge. Each screen has a separate interface and a separate set of controls. One acts as the “main screen”, showing the starship itself as it flies through space; one is an engineering console; one is a weapons console; one is the helm for driving the ship; one is the science officer’s station (basically a radar system); and one is a communications console used to speak to other ships.

Each player is in charge of a separate piece of the puzzle. Image: Scott Maxwell, CC BY-SA 2.0
Each player is in charge of a separate piece of the puzzle. Image: Scott Maxwell, CC BY-SA 2.0

Correspondingly, the players have six roles. There is a captain who controls nothing directly, but who makes the decisions and tells the other bridge officers what to do or prioritize; an engineer who monitors and controls the distribution of power throughout the ship’s systems; a weapons officer who manages the ordinance in the torpedo tubes and controls targeting and firing; a pilot who steers the ship and controls the engines; a science officer who watches the radar scope and runs detailed scans on other ships and planets; and a communications officer who manages all ship-to-ship communication.

First things first: this game has cartoonish sci-fi violence, complete with phasers and torpedoes flying through space. There’s also no clear educational content beyond the exercise of teamwork. Taken as is, it’s probably not well suited for classroom use.

But think of the life skills this kind of game or simulation helps to cultivate. The captain has to prioritize objectives, issue clear commands, and deal with the limitations and frustrations inherent in not being able to directly “push the buttons” to control the ship. On the other hand, each officer has to understand orders from the captain and execute the orders correctly—and the rest of the time, when the captain is speaking to other officers, each officer must pay attention to the bigger picture of what is going on and continue working to the best of his or her ability to keep the ship running smoothly. For example, in a battle, the captain will likely issue most orders to the pilot and the weapons officer, so the engineer must independently continue to monitor shield and engine power levels and reroute power as needed to keep the ship flying safe.

In a sense, it’s like the ultimate information gap activity. Each player only sees and controls a limited slice of the big picture, and only through teamwork and good communication can the players succeed in their common mission.

Just add five more players! Photo: David Goehring, CC BY 2.0
Just add five more players! Photo: David Goehring, CC BY 2.0

Imagine an educational game which takes the same principles and applies them to the classroom setting. For example, one could imagine a game focused on Lewis and Clark’s expedition. One player could be the expedition leader calling the shots; another could steer the boat or raft; another could be the linguist communicating with Native Americans for information and supplies; another could catalog plant and animal species; another could be a surveyor or cartographer; and so on. Alternatively, we could have a team of virtual scientists in the Amazon working to catalog the local species, explore ecological connections between organisms, determine the impact of a nearby logging operation, and work out a conservation plan. Another idea would be a virtual detective agency with each player controlling a different aspect of the investigation: one who interviews witnesses, one who takes photographs, one who handles forensic evidence, and so on. Maybe students could run a virtual company together, adopting roles like CEO, marketing, research and development, and human resources. Or we could update that old favorite, the Oregon Trail, by giving each member of the wagon party a role: one person who chooses the route and handles obstacles on the trail, one who controls the money and inventory, one who hunts and cooks, one who handles medical problems, and so on.

Again, the core element is that the players are divided into several critical but asymmetrical roles, and the only way to succeed is through good communication and teamwork. That’s how the real world works, after all. Why don’t we practice these skills more in the classroom?

What do you think? Is this video game paradigm as pedagogically promising as I think it is? Do you do any similar kinds of activities in your classroom (with or without technology)? Let’s have a conversation in the comments!

Did you enjoy this entry? Follow this blog via RSSFacebookTwitterGoogle Plus, or LinkedIn.

2 thoughts on “To boldly go where no classroom has gone before: multiplayer cooperative games with asymmetrical roles

  1. Pingback: To boldly go where no classroom has gone before...

  2. Pingback: Outside the classroom: The ugly truth about the gaming world

Leave a Reply