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.

What Can 135 Million Video Gamers Add to Our Collective IQ? 28 September,2012MindShift

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  • Harmonia

    Interesting, though I’m not completely convinced. Maybe if Ms. Rose
    had more words allotted by her editor, we’d see what she really has to say!

  • Cata

    My daughter spends much time out of school on Minecraft, collaborating with mostly males her age across town. She has been playing with friends she knows offline and has made some friends online. Every week she seems to meet more kids offline who share in this other realm and is eager to spend time with them on Minecraft. Some of them make video tutorials that she watches and she also seeks out tutorials. This knowledge she shares ad hoc while playing and others also share their knowledge with others while they play. She quickly puts the knowledge and craft she has gleaned from those tutorials to use at a speed and mastery that I find amazing. And, recently she has begun preparing to make her own tutorials. She is part of a collaborative sub-culture. This is why I find that I have positive feelings about Minecraft and though I don’t want her to live entirely in this other world apart from our shared physical reality, this screen time differs from what might be “bad” screen time choices. I see the collaborative aspect of it as great training in collaboration. It leads to knowledge sharing, though our Minecraft experience may differ from yours. The kids she plays with are their own little tribe and sure there are marauders too. Collaboration as a theme brings to mind a lovely vision of the best of what we can expect of our species.

  • silence_music

    Your article does not really answer the headline’s question.

    Also, I’d dispute the assumption that all video games foster collaborative skills — maybe with the players’ ego. I wish they did, or that we’d find what makes them so, and I don’t see a categorization of existing games accordingly.

    Most video games appear to be either mindless or focused in competitive, violent and destructive behavior.

    It would be great if we could determine which elements of a game and which games can be said to teach people collaborate; and then we need to re-organize the existing failed social and economic system to have such collaborative skills matter.

  • laurie p.

    Really interesting piece. The concept of Collective Intelligence is a really fascinating one to me. Just read that there will be sessions on this topic at the Learning and the Brain Conference, being held in SF in early Feb. 2013.

  • LJRG

    As a tutor, grandmother, and former preschool teacher, I have had fairly negative attidtudes towards media “in all its insidious forms”. Having read the informative ( but a bit too short ) article by Jennie Rose and the links, I am now willing to explore more of the issue. . If we humans use face to face communication, as well as electronic communication to collaborate on some of the enormous problems we face, there is hope for our race and our planet. If our children’s thinking and interacting skills are cultivated and excercised, they will be more equipped t o handle the challenges of the future. And, for right now, there lives will be more stimulating and engaging, and their learning experiences more significant.

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