Video Games & Knowledge: A Q&A with Karen Schrier

In anticipation of Dr. Karen Schrier's latest book, Knowledge Games: How Playing Games Can Solve Problems, Create Insight, and Make Change, we asked her some questions about her research and the inspiration behind the project.


Q: Why did you decide to write Knowledge Games?


In April 2016, we all watched a viral video of the Prime Minister of Canada explaining quantum computing to the general public. In Quantum Moves, we can all contribute to our knowledge of quantum computing --through a game of all things! Anyone can play Quantum Moves and manipulate some virtual atoms, and through these in-game maneuvers, help physicists build an actual quantum computer.


That we can solve problems through video games comes as no surprise to me, however. Over the past 15 years, I have been questioning whether games can help us learn, express, connect, explore, and inspire—in addition to entertaining and engaging us. What are the possibilities--and limits—of games in teaching topics and skills as varied as math, art, systems thinking, or ethics? For instance, when can video games better support the learning of STEM skills in the K-12 classroom or enhance a preschooler’s curiosity about geography?


With my new book, Knowledge Games, I wanted to turn questions about games and learning inside out. Rather than consider how games can teach us topics we already know, can games also help us build brand new knowledge? Instead of teaching us about DNA, for example, can we construct new insights about genetics through a game?


This is already happening. Games such as Foldit and EteRNA use crowdsourcing and collective intelligence techniques to help solve real-world problems. In other words, they motivate a huge crowd of game players to play a game and solve problems, which in turn helps us better understand how proteins fold or how to design RNA molecules. For example, with Play to Cure: Genes in Space, players play a space adventure mobile game, and through playing it, are also helping to analyze a huge set of real breast cancer data.


This is similar to citizen science, where people might help scientists evaluate galaxies, such as in the case of Galaxy Zoo, or crowdsourcing efforts, where the public might contribute to finding planes that are lost at sea.


As I began delving deeper into this topic, I also started to question whether we could use these types of knowledge-producing games for social and humanistic purposes, in addition to scientific ones. Can a game help us achieve peace in the Middle East? Can we work together as players to help heal people suffering from PTSD or depression? Can we collaboratively reshape the healthcare system through a game? Could we use games to better evaluate historic moments or literary styles?



Q: What were some of the most surprising things you learned while writing/researching the book?


First, one of the biggest surprises for me is that there are actual games being created that can help solve real-world problems and make change. Besides Quantum Moves, which is being used to create quantum computers, we also have the Eyewire VR Game, a virtual reality version of the original Eyewire game, where players help to map 3-D neurons of the brain. Researchers and game designers are also creating a game called SchoolLife, which seeks to better understand bullying—and even try to reduce it. The in-progress SUDAN game, by scientists at USC and Carnegie Mellon, seeks to find a solution to peace in the Sudan. DARPA’s Monster Proof invites players to explore a monster kingdom, while also helping to find and verify flaws in software code—no coding ability necessary.


One of the more surprising aspects of writing about this topic, specifically, is how many different types of questions arise from the use of games for knowledge production. Knowledge, and what we know and how we know it, is so interconnected with every human system, field, and community, that it truly is an interdisciplinary endeavor. As a result, I needed to look at the intersection of knowledge-making and games through as many different lenses as possible.


Likewise, for many readers, it may come as a shock as to how many aspects of human life games and gaming touch upon. Many consider games a marginal activity; however, like music, money, poetry, or DNA, games and play are a meaningful part of who we are as humans. It is in this way that they also may be used to more deeply understand who we are and our world.  


At the same time, I am surprised by the responses so far that I have had to the book’s topic. For example, when I have discussed the possibility of using knowledge games for social or humanistic purposes, many are initially aghast. They cite the many issues with using games to understand psychological processes or social institutions, such as privacy, though they do not see the same need for interrogating the use of games for science.


On the one hand, I wonder why the public is not as concerned about using games for scientific knowledge production. On the other hand, I am glad that we aren’t so concerned so we can more easily explore their potential.


When I have discussed the book’s topic with a younger generation—such as my college students—I get a very different reaction than the general public. The students seem to feel that any loss of privacy is a small price to pay for being able to participate in knowledge creation and having a “much more fun” way of learning about the world. They seem less concerned about any potential consequences of using games for knowledge creation, such as the exploitation of players, the loss of privacy, or the misuse of results.


On the one hand, I am thrilled at their optimism and hope for the future of games, on the other hand, I believe we need to continually interrogate how we make and use knowledge, whether in games or not.


I am surprised that both of these tendencies exist when it comes to games and knowledge. We need to keep enthusiastically moving forward and explore the possibilities for using games to solve complex problems. At the same time, we need to stop and question knowledge games—and all knowledge-making—so we can move ahead and innovate appropriately as a society.



Q: What is new about your research that sets it apart from other books in the field?


Games are as old as humankind, yet our understanding of their power and possibilities is still so young. For instance, over the past decade we have only started to more rigorously study how games and play might support learning. We are only beginning to concede that games are more than mere frivolity, and that play can be meaningfully serious, while also serving as leisure and other purposes.


This is the first book to critically investigate this brand new field at the intersection of games, knowledge, crowdsourcing and problem solving. How do we define games that aim to solve scientific, social scientific, and humanistic problems and contribute to knowledge production? How do we interrogate them?


Likewise, the emergence of these knowledge games forces us to consider questions that have been long simmering, such as about public participation in knowledge production, the relationship between amateurs and professionals, the limits and potentials of data analysis, and what it means to game, to know, and to be human today.



Q: Does your book uncover or debunk any longstanding myths?


Myths are both troubling and valuable when it comes to knowledge creation. Myths can keep us from seeing knowledge, such as the ones that influenced how maps were made during Galileo’s time, which kept us thinking that the world was flat, despite knowledge to the contrary. Myths can also shape knowledge, can help us make knowledge more accessible and palatable, and can reinforce knowledge and make it socially established. We need myths and stories to help embed knowledge in society.


So, I had many myths as I headed into this project—both beneficial and limiting. One is the myth of progress and the idea that innovation is always effective. My orientation is typically to think toward the future, and consider how to grow and shape the world to come. However, as I dived into this myth, I also found it useful to think historically, and consider how past public participation in knowledge creation can provide insight into its future. I also began to see how innovation itself may not always lead to the best solutions, and more complexity is not always better.


Another myth is the idea that “the more, the merrier” when it comes to knowledge-making. On the one hand, when faced with tricky problems, we can argue that the more perspectives are included, the more democratic, multifaceted, and better the solution. On the other hand, if we let the crowd decide how to solve a problem with unfettered access, we could end up with a boat named Boaty McBoatface, a bridge named Chuck Norris, or a space station named after Stephen Colbert.


Finally, I followed a myth of “bigger is better.” Over the past few years, we have been lauding Big Data and quantitative analytical techniques as the next big thing. We believe it will solve all of our problems and open up new avenues toward predicting the future. But Big Data, and other big terms, such as crowdsourcing, collective intelligence, and human computation, are also a form of mythology. Big data, for instance, relies on numbers, but also on stories we tell ourselves about how we use numbers to control our destinies or problem solve in a bigger, better, faster way. But more numbers does not necessarily mean more knowledge. And numbers are not the only way toward knowledge. Storytelling, song, conversations, poetry, interviews, observations, and other forms of mythmaking and myth subversion, are also useful avenues toward understanding our world. We cannot necessarily privilege quantitative and “Big Data” methods over other ways of knowing.



Q: What is the single most important takeaway revealed in your book and why is it significant? What do you hope people will take away from reading Knowledge Games?


The single most important takeaway from the book is that knowledge is useless without humanity. In April 2016, we saw what happened when Microsoft’s artificially intelligent chatbot “Tay” was fed lots of knowledge and taught by the general public. Rather than acting as a wise teen, she rapidly turned into a hate machine. Although she had tons of knowledge, she did not know what to do with it. Although she was filled with data, she did not know how to interpret it.


To me, this encapsulates the powers and predicaments of knowledge games. We can build the knowledge, but we also need multiple perspectives, empathy, values, and humanistic approaches to understand what to do with it. We can have tons of data but we need humanity to interpret it, to tell its story, and to make meaningful myths with it.



Q: Did you encounter any eye opening statistics during your research?


Less than one hundred of these so-called knowledge games are currently out there, and a very small minority of avid game players actually play any of these games. For instance, perhaps these games are better than learning from a textbook in a classroom, but they are not necessarily going to compete with mainstream popular games, such as Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty.


One of the statistics from researchers of crowdsourcing and user participation in online platforms was this idea of the 90-9-1 rule (described by Stewart, Lubensky, and Huerta in their research on a crowdsourcing platform their created). As they describe, 90% of users are typically passive users, or lurkers, of various websites, such as Facebook, whereas 9% might contribute or participate every now and then (such as by posting from time to time). However, 1% of users are very frequent “supercontributors” who are constantly contributing and dominating the conversation.


How might these statistics relate to knowledge games? If only some people are “superplaying,” will their ideas, strategies, and perceptions be overly influential in a game’s results? How do we motivate many different types of players to interact with knowledge games?


Just as we are mindful of how a laboratory, classroom, questionnaire or other methodology or context affects the results of a research study, we need to cognizant of how a game may frame knowledge production and bias any results. Assumptions and values underlie all research, but we need to manage these biases to better understand what any results mean.



Q: How do you envision the lasting impact of your research in Knowledge Games?


I believe that my book is acting as a harbinger of a possible future, where games will be a significant way we create new knowledge as a society. I am excited at the possibility that we may be able to solve complex social and scientific problems, in part, through collective participation in games.


At the same time, the book is a clarion call to critique and question the use of games in knowledge-making—and perhaps the process of knowledge-creation itself. How do we know what we know, and how might games shape this? What can we learn better and solve more easily through playing games—and what are their limits? What are we missing when we rely too much on new technology, public participation, or big data? How can we use games not just to build knowledge, but also to help us figure out what to do with it?



Karen Schrier is an assistant professor of media arts, the director of the Play Innovation Lab, and the director of the Games and Emerging Media Program at Marist College. She is the editor of the Learning, Education, and Games series. Her book, Knowledge Games: How Playing Games Can Solve Problems, Create Insight, and Make Change, is available now.