By Jennie Rose
An estimated 135 million people play video games, spending three billion hours a week glued to a screen. But that’s not necessarily bad news. In fact, playing video games may be part of an evolutionary leap forward, according to Howard Rheingold, educator and author of the book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online.
Rather than characterizing them as hapless drones wasting time, Rheingold’s book contends that this massive population of gamers is part of a growing group of “supercollaborators,” as described by Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, who’s interviewed in the book.
Rheingold connects the dots on collaboration literacy and what he calls “Social-Digital-Know-How.” Multi-player games in particular, and virtual communities in general, are technologies that require cooperation. And when you consider the cumulative amount of technical knowledge, these gamers could be the first wave of people who possess what scientists have started calling “collective IQ.” Already, gamers who play the online game Foldit have cracked the code of the structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus, which has eluded scientists for years, and could lead to a new drug.
This idea of collective intelligence and digital culture came from French media scholar Pierre Lévy, who argues that a networked culture gives rise to new structures of power, stemming from the ability of diverse groups of people to pool knowledge, collaborate through research, debate interpretations. Together, these groups refine their understanding of the world.
Wikipedia is one of the best-known byproducts of this process of refinement and social production. Though the website is still dismissed as a research tool in some education circles because it does not represent a traditionally vetted information source, danah boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and a former student of Rheingold’s, counters that students must exercise their investigative skills when they use Wikipedia as a source.
“If educators would shift their thinking about Wikipedia, so much critical thinking could take place,” she says in an interview with Rheingold in the book.
The key value of Wikipedia is transparency. It’s not just for information consumers, it’s an invitation to participate and leverage new skills. To successfully “wiki” is to leverage these useful skills, like analyzing contradictions in facts, contributing to a large body of collective knowledge, and vetting sources.
School-aged children — whether they’re in or out of school — are faced with the ubiquity of networked and collaborative culture. Rheingold says that it’s hard to think of a realm of human behavior that has not been influenced, in some way, by a form of mass collaboration.
Rheingold has dedicated years to studying human potential and the species’ capacity for cooperation. The outlines of his perspective, breaking the old school “every man for himself” narrative, stem from a distinctly utopian lens. Rheingold’s findings and admonitions serve as a tonic for some of the dystopian views in the mix that predict digital communication will spell doom for humanity.