A Comparison of Collaboration across Two Game Contexts: Lord of the Rings Online and World of Warcraft
To better understand the nature of virtual collaboration, we present analyses of high-stakes team activities, known as “raids,” in massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). These situations are hotbeds of collaboration, which is increasingly recognized as a valuable twenty-first century skill (Karoly & Panis, 2004). Raids usually involve a great amount of communication and coordination of actions, interdependence of teammates, leadership, and execution of strategy, similar to elements of collaboration in other settings, such as business (Reeves, Malone & O’Driscoll, 2008), surgical teams (Edmondson, 2003), the military (Salas, Bower & Cannon-Bowers, 1995), control room teams (Patrick, et. al., 2006), sports teams (Eccles & Tenenbaum, 2004), and educational settings (Mercier, Goldman & Booker, 2006). These raid events often span hours at a time and are often repeated over several months before the raid zone is cleared, i.e. when the team is able to successfully defeat all of the enemies. Existing studies of learning in MMOGs include gaming as a constellation of literacy practices (Steinkuehler, 2007, 2008), scientific argumentation in web forums around game strategies (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008), and learning game ethos, strategy, and fact-finding with peers via chat (Nardi, 2007). Yet other research has looked at the development of social skills (Ducheneaut & Moore, 2005) and the build-up and leveraging of social and cultural capital to succeed in game activities (Jakobsson & Taylor, 2003, Malaby, 2006). Previous work on raiding has included a focus on providing an ethnographic account of in-game activity and the realignment work needed after moments of failure (Chen, 2009). Without cross-setting comparisons, however, it is difficult to uncover which aspects of gaming are specific to the game world and which can be thought of as enduring qualities of expert collaborative group practice.
To make cross-setting comparisons, we analyze gameplay video, audio conversations, and text chat data from two popular MMOGs, The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) and World of Warcraft (WoW). Using a participant-observation approach, we examine two semi-stable teams of players who spent several weeks learning to be successful in a raid. In particular, we examine collaborative behavior and communication for two raid battles in each game: one successful battle, and one unsuccessful. The four cases were coded based on adaptations to work team behavior frameworks (Rousseau, et al., 2006), situation awareness measures (Patrick, et al., 2006), and a coding system used in examining differences between problem-solving youth groups (Baron, 2003). Informed by theories on the relational networks of human and nonhuman actors (Latour, 1988, 2005), which includes considering the distribution of cognitive work within ecological settings (Hutchins, 1995a, 1995b), and the assemblage of such systems as applied to games (Taylor, forthcoming), our analyses focus on one aspect of practice, the communication of expert players. This communication includes voice and text chat, and the patterns that emerge when looking across game sessions. By comparing two games with different designs (e.g. team size, player abilities, and scripting of battles) and cultures (e.g. roles, expectations, preferred mode of communication, and use of external tools), we can discover what is common about these collaborative activities, giving us an insight into what is common about teamwork and collaboration in virtual tasks that require a high degree of technical skill and coordinated effort. Themes emerge concerning situational awareness, psychological safety (Edmonson, 1999, 2003), problem solving (Barron, 2003; Roschelle, 1992), and critical communicative practices necessary for success. Results are discussed in relation to collaboration research in other non-virtual settings.