More than once I tried to ask my dad for an Atari game console when I was a kid. The answer usually came back something like, “When you are old and sick and gray, then you can play video games. Right now you should be outside running around. Now, go pick up all the sticks in the yard.” Eventually, I internalized my dad’s strict attitude towards fighting sloth and mindlessness through character-building activities like yard work, sailing in November, and camping in chilly downpours. But I think part of giving up was also in response to my recognition that I just wasn’t good at video games; I never got practice time. This lost piece of my childhood lay dormant for many years.
Until – last month when my husband decided we needed Nintendo’s new Wii U system, so my four- and six-year-old sons could play – *gasp* – video games, namely Skylanders. I balked. I imagined my boys morphing into suburban marshmallows with crossed eyes, laying about and making varying grunting noises of delight and despair at the TV all day, all social skills hopelessly lost, no longer motivated to go out into the world and conquer anything real.
So, I watched them carefully. They quickly learned the basics of the game and could get themselves started pretty well. One handled the game console. The other managed the impressive “Portal of Power.” For the most part it didn’t really matter to them who did which task, and they switched back and forth easily in their excitement to complete the game’s challenges. The game was actually brilliantly designed. It helped the young players with tips and directions, and seemed to sort of adapt to their playing ability. In no time, they had reached Level 4.
One afternoon a friend joined them, and then it got really interesting. Instead of fighting it out to be the master of the game console, they arranged themselves so that one controlled the console, one oversaw the Portal of Power, and the third stood back to jump up and down and shout directions from his vantage point, occasionally dashing over to the Portal of Power to switch characters. No one was bossing, commanding, or name calling. They were all focused on the same task and engaged in harmonious – albeit loud – joint problem solving. Could this be… collaboration? Have my children reached the highest level of human collective action through… gaming?
I reached for my copy of Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart to find out if I was witnessing a textbook definition of collaboration among kindergarteners. Deep in chapter 4, Rheingold, a long-time writer and observer of digital culture, looks at how human collective action plays out in the digital world. On Twitter, he once asked, what’s the difference between coordination, cooperation, and collaboration? Canadian professor Wayne McPhail responded within minutes: “You need coordination to dance, cooperation to dance with a partner, and collaboration to dance with a flash mob.”
There’s something to that. Researcher Arthur Himmelman developed a taxonomy of collective action, comprising four levels:
- Networking – simple, low-risk, and low commitment interactions, like handing out business cards or attending a conference.
- Coordination – all parties share information and agree to modify their activities.
- Cooperation – exchanging information, modifying activities, and sharing resources to achieve a common purpose.
- Collaboration – this most sophisticated form of collective action goes even further to include adding to the capacity of another for mutual benefit.
And there it was, in my living room: collaboration. Are my children already on to the next step of human evolution? Will humanity be better if we develop collaborative skills at an early age? I don’t know. But I do know the thrill I felt when I was called upon to help the young players unblock a passage to reach the next level. Even in this new virtual world, mom still knows best.
Follow Jacqueline on twitter: @jacprause