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Using Video Games to Crowdsource Scientific and Intellectual Work
Book Review: 'Knowledge Games' by Karen Schrier

By Robert Hein / August 2016

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Video games have come a long way since their early days on the Atari 2600. Once perceived as a niche hobby, gaming has evolved into an entertainment and cultural juggernaut that-not surprisingly-now weighs heavily on the minds of parents, educators, scholars, and designers. Are games becoming too violent? What technical and soft skills are games teaching—or not teaching-their players? Should classrooms themselves be gamified? Karen Schrier, however, asks perhaps the most daring question yet: Can games be used to actually make discoveries and to solve real-world problems? Schrier's new book, Knowledge Games: How Playing Games Can Solve Problems, Create Insight, and Make Change, represents her attempt to answer that question. By exploring and tapping into ongoing conversations about crowdsourcing, big data, and participatory culture, Schrier thus provides her readers with a platform and a rhetoric for thinking about, discussing, and developing "knowledge games."

Not to be confused with the oft-studied "serious games" or "games for learning," knowledge games are altogether different; Schrier describes them as actively seeking "to invent, create, and synthesize new understandings of the world." For example, games like EyeWire—which tasks players with mapping neutrons—have the capacity to contribute to our working knowledge of the human brain. Where small research teams might struggle to analyze such large datasets, knowledge games like EyeWire can instead serve to outsource that work to the masses. In turn, the players—wittingly or unwittingly—generate knowledge as they collectively overcome a game's challenges and attempt to set high scores. For Schrier, these knowledge games have thus already proven themselves to be powerful tools. However, they are not without their limits, pitfalls, or ethical dilemmas. Consequently, Schrier's book becomes a critical examination of their affordances and constraints—she encourages her readers to see knowledge games' potential but to nevertheless approach them with healthy skepticism. More specifically, Schrier provides readers, scholars, and designers with dozens of guiding questions that will keep the conversation about knowledge games going long after her final chapter.

It is important to reiterate that Schrier's book is really charting new ground. Although she certainly draws on and makes excellent use of the existing literature on gaming and learning, her book focuses primarily on generating knowledge. While learning and knowledge generation are not mutually exclusive, classroom teachers might be disappointed in Knowledge Games as the book makes no efforts to enhance their day-to-day pedagogy. It is about the games themselves, not about how to apply them to traditional educational settings. That said, Schrier's writing is clear, easy to follow, humorous at times, and should appeal to anyone interested in gaming or crowdsourcing. As a gamer myself, I was impressed with Schrier's intimate understanding of gamer culture—it was clear to me Schrier did not just research the games, but she actually played them. This familiarity allows her to make connections and to draw insights that other authors might overlook. Her passion for these games is similarly infectious. She makes a concerted effort to guide her readers to online knowledge games so that they may experience them for themselves. I, personally, found myself messing around with SchoolLife—a knowledge game designed to teach computers the intricacies of schoolyard bullying—which Schrier references repeatedly in her text. The fact that this book spurred me to try something different and new (I am someone who orders the same vanilla ice-cream cone every time) speaks volumes about Schrier's style and argumentation.

Interestingly, however, the book's greatest beneficiaries will likely be the actual designers and developers of new knowledge games. Schrier laces her book with numerous design principles that will help smaller studios and research teams create quality knowledge games that target that right players, enculturate them into the scientific field, and keep them motivated and engaged throughout their gameplay. For designers without the experiences or resources of companies like Electronic Arts or Blizzard, Schrier's frameworks could prove to be invaluable touchstones. For the rest of us, Knowledge Games serves as our entry point into a new conversation about the potential—and soon to be reality—of video games. If, as Schrier suggests, knowledge games can help to fight cancer and or to predict election results, than we should prepare ourselves to play along.

About the Author

Robert Hein is a former high school English teacher and competitive gamer. He has taught literature, poetry, and creative writing both in Dublin, Ireland and in the United States. Robert is currently interested in researching narrative-driven video games and student literacy skills. He also still enjoys playing World of Warcraft in his free time…or when he should be researching instead.

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2016 Copyright held by the Owner/Author. 1535-394X/16/08-2988592 $15.00


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