Monday, August 4, 2014

Will This New Game Genre Change Intelligence Training, Education?

Most gamers understand that games fall into genres.  For example, Scrabble, Boggle and my own game, Widget, are all examples of "word games".  There is no standardized list of game genres, of course, but gamers are like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when it comes to genres (Stewart, in trying to define pornography, famously wrote in Jacobellis v. Ohio, "I know it when I see it.").

Most games, then, fit neatly into existing genres and truly new genres come along only rarely.  It is even more rare for a new genre of games to have a large-scale cultural or social impact.  The last such genre that I can think of was the role-playing game, epitomized by the first and still one of the most popular games, Dungeons and Dragons.  Whether you played D and D or not (or liked it if you did play it), there is no denying that it spawned a genre of games that impacted and continue to impact both culture and society.

Today there is a new genre of games - cooperative tabletop games - that I think has a chance to have a similar impact on the way we teach not just intelligence but just about everything.

Cooperative games are labelled as such because players cooperate with each other to defeat the game.  This kind of play style has long been a staple of many video games where players will gather as teams to defeat a common enemy.

While there are a few examples that date back as far as the 1980's, modern cooperative tabletop games typically require much more nuanced gameplay than their video game counterparts.  True cooperation on everything from strategy to resources is usually necessary to defeat these challenging games.  

If you are not familiar with this genre (and most people are not), I strongly recommend you get some of these games and play them.  Two good examples to start with are Pandemic and Forbidden Desert.  Both games pit you and the rest of the players in a race to beat the game.  Either everyone wins or no one wins.

There are many variations on the theme but typically these games throw an escalating series of challenges at the players.  Pandemic, for example, envisions a team of experts working to stop a global disease epidemic.  Forbidden Desert asks players to collect a series of artifacts and escape the desert before sandstorms swallow the players.

Players in these games usually assume a variety of roles, such as Engineer or Medic, each with a particular skill useful in defeating whatever it is the game throws at them.  Players can and do discuss everything from strategy to resource allocation.  This kind of game doesn't just encourage cooperation but demands it from every player.

My recent game, Spymaster (which has proved incredibly popular - I have given out nearly 200 copies to date), was designed as such a game.  Small groups of players have to make collaborative decisions about how and where to place certain collection assets in order to collect various information requirements, all while losing the fewest possible assets.  While the current version of Spymaster allows the players to determine how they will make decisions about asset allocation, I am thinking about an "advanced" version of the game that will assign various roles to the players coupled, of course, with unique capabilities associated with each role.

Whether you have had a chance to play Spymaster or not, once you have played a couple of these kinds of games, the possibilities for their use in class becomes very apparent.  There is a lot of learning going on in these games and not all of it is knowledge-based.  Teamwork, conflict management and collaboration are all essential elements of these games.

More importantly for classroom use, these games can be designed to take a relativity small amount of time to play.  Unlike videogames, tabletop games also tend to expose the underlying system to the players in a bit more detail.  Likewise, tabletop games are vastly less expensive to design and produce than videogames which means that more topics could be covered for the same or less money - clearly a consideration in these budget restricted times.  Finally, bringing a tabletop game into a secure facility is vastly easier than trying to import electrons.

Do I really think that cooperative tabletop games will change intel training and education?  I'm not sure, but I know that they can - and that this is an experiment in games-based learning worth attempting.