Knowledge Games: How Playing Games Can Solve Problems, Create Insight, and Make Change, by Karen Schrier

Dana Ruggiero on new ways of thinking about how to construct gaming experiences that allow people to help tackle intractable challenges

August 18, 2016
Person holding retro gaming joystick in hand
Source: iStock

Are we really helping to cure cancer and Aids through games? The idea that ordinary people can help to find the cure for medical problems by playing games has been publicised in the past five years by projects such as Reverse the Odds and Fold It. Games occupy an interesting space in the world; we play games to check out of our world, and we play games to create new spaces for social interaction. But do we play games to help to create knowledge? Looking beyond the video games pilloried in news stories as inspirations for mass shootings, we find an area of gaming that aims to make a difference, to change the world. According to Karen Schrier, when we play games created to crowdsource both fun and labour, we gain insight into how games can save the world.

Via a combination of personal narrative, research analyses and design dissections, Schrier has created an intuitive guide to understanding how “complex systems and interactions” can motivate people to change the world through fun and not-so-fun games. The systems of most real-world problems, she tells us, are highly complex ones that involve living, breathing social, cultural, economic, political and scientific concepts. Fun, according to Schrier, can problematise the ways that games add to social discourse. The role, purpose and contours of games are reimagined in this text through the use of exemplars of knowledge games and an exploration of their design, development and evaluation.

We can now say with confidence that “powerful” is a suitable word to describe the effect of knowledge games. Schrier argues that constructing knowledge in games is a give-and-take relationship where the player must leave something of him/herself to participate fully in the dynamic system. Motivation and problem-solving are keys to creating successful and influential games that go past entertainment and into creating insights about human nature; we can see a vision of ourselves as benefactors of a system that we cannot yet understand. This book is accessible on many levels and creates opportunities for game players, game designers and game scholars to understand their own knowledge-building processes when working with games. Schrier summarises current literature in the field and creates a dialogue about what we know about the effects of games, but she does not ignore what we don’t know about them. The limitations and implications of games have been problematised by the media, and Schrier addresses these concerns while admitting that no one knows the answers.

Games can engage the world’s problems, but these problems are what are known as wicked ones, and not easily solved. Building knowledge is messy, Schrier contends – and that’s OK. By asking questions and using examples from knowledge games that promote reflection, action and critique, her book has introduced new ways to think about games as systems rather than art. There are social considerations that exist beyond games; nevertheless, specific knowledge games can create conversations around historical, sociocultural and ethical issues. Ultimately, the creation of knowledge through games is not what this book is about; instead, Schrier uses this text to delve into the what and how of building knowledge and how that looks when it is applied to games.

Dana Ruggiero is senior lecturer in learning technology, Bath Spa University. She is currently writing a book on wicked problems in game design.

Knowledge Games: How Playing Games Can Solve Problems, Create Insight, and Make Change
By Karen Schrier
Johns Hopkins University Press, 280pp, £22.50
ISBN 9781421419206
Published 29 July 2016

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