Knowledge Games: How Playing Games can Solve Problems, Create Insight, and Make Change 

Karen Schrier 

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

ISBN: 9781421419206

Karen Schrier, Associate Professor of Games/Interactive Media, Director of the Play Innovation Lab, and Director of the Games and Emerging Media at Marist College (NY), presents a fantastic volume on knowledge games, which she defines as games that, “produce knowledge; solve authentic, applicable problems; or generate new ideas and possibilities for real-world change (25).”  Although compared alongside serious and persuasive games which also seek topical insight (see Michael & Chen and Bogost, respectively), the clear delineator is that knowledge games ideally produce knowledge that did not exist before.  Dr. Schrier’s overall argument is that a well-designed knowledge game synergizes human ingenuity and spatial reasoning with computer processing power and storage capacity to produce new and quality data at large scale.

Substantially building on Howe’s and Brabham’s works on crowdsourcing, Schrier details how knowledge games tap the combined minds, skills, and efforts of hundreds to hundreds of thousands of players, and also mitigates the scientist/amateur problem through sample size and quality control via game design. For example, in 2008 researchers at The University of Washington created Foldit, in which players play individually or collaboratively to manipulate three dimensional protein models and try to guess their structures.  While computers crunch data faster than players, the human players are superior at model reasoning. Moreover, a 20-person lab would live several collective lifetimes folding trillions of potential protein orientations; in turn, since FoldIt’s release over 400,000 players have contributed to the project and have accurately solved real-world problems.

This is what scientists call making a dent in the workload.

Similar to a classic research project, a well-designed knowledge game starts with solid research questions, followed by articulating why a knowledge game is the best method.  Further, the knowledge game gold standard provides real problems, meaningful choices, and sensory appealing aesthetics, for which Schier provides a range of examples from top-shelf designs (FoldIt mentioned above, Galaxy Zoo, and EyeWire) to games that function well in some areas but not others.  For the latter, Schier notes two examples that are fantastic at data collection but lack long-term problem/solution reward mechanism and thus are at pains to hold onto even extrinsically motivated players (see 40-47; anonymizing the games so as to not detract from Schrier’s fair approach).  At best, a poorly designed knowledge game is simply not fun; at worst, poor design injects bias and error into the data, magnified by the potentially massive player count.

Of particular interest to me is what motivates players to engage in knowledge games that, on casual inspection, defy the “fun factor” of entertainment games.  To answer this, Schrier highlights Ryan & Deci’s work (2000) on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  The intrinsically motivated player is internally and inherently interested in the topic itself and the problems to be solved, and thus playing the game serves as its own reward.  In turn, extrinsically motivated players find joy through external rewards that are not necessarily related to the problem itself, such as simply winning a game, pursuing high scores, or collecting in-game items, trinkets, or other measurable achievements.  The idea is that a well-designed game captures the motivation of both players, with the intrinsically motivated happy to make science happen and the extrinsically motivated player also happy to make science happen—that is, from the top of the point leaderboard.

Schrier also soberly addresses knowledge game limits and pitfalls beyond poor design.  A game written specifically for English audiences, for example, limits the player pool, perhaps even amongst regional speakers.  Language can also segue into large cultural impositions and associated ethical issues, particularly if the researcher (knowingly or accidentally) imposes cultural primers or frames in the design.  Computer-based knowledge games also magnify digital and data divides. In the former, the researcher’s sample – albeit monstrous in size – still risks bias towards players with computer access and associated digital skills; for the latter, knowledge games favor those who can afford to design such games and access the resultant data.

Finally, for those readers chomping at the bit to design their own knowledge games, Schrier provides two appendices that respectively present an exhaustive list of currently available games and a detailed questionnaire that guides readers through a design, let alone asking the reader again to consider why they assess a knowledge game is the correct method.

My only substantive critique is not so much directed at the author but at the ludology field itself (perhaps worth longer commentary in the future).  That is, ludology in its current form equals the study of computer – and video – based games and largely overlooks tabletop games.  In defense of the author, her work clearly sets out to describe computer-based knowledge games and successfully does so; and she does allude to alternate mediums in the text (44) and appendix B.  However, the book could have tied the entirety of knowledge games together with discussion on physical, tactile, and small-scale hardcopy knowledge games, even just a short chapter.  This could also provide opportunity to offer brief discussion on qualitative data collection from smaller, in-person observed games.  Then again, the topic might be worthy of another book-length treatment, and if Dr. Schrier writes it I will be the first one standing in line for a copy!

James “Pigeon” Fielder