Monday, December 11, 2006

Collective Intelligence and ARGs

With my digital history grad seminar done for the year, I find myself mulling over two things. One is the idea of histories of the future, the subject of my last post. The other is what the French theorist Pierre Lévy calls "collective intelligence." In Henry Jenkins's formulation, "None of us can know everything; each of us knows something; and we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine our skills" (Convergence Culture). I use Jenkins's version of the idea because he develops it in a fascinating discussion of alternate reality gaming.

In 2001, a secret Microsoft team known as the Puppetmasters put together a new kind of game called the "Beast." The puzzle posed by the game narrative, which would be delivered in fragments via every medium the designers could think of, would require the cooperation of many players to solve. It eventually was solved by the Cloudmakers, a self-selected team of hundreds of players. Jenkins says, "From the start, the puzzles were too complex, the knowledge too esoteric, the universe too vast to be solved by any single player." (For more, see Sean Stewart's introduction to the game, an academic paper by Jane McGonigal, and

Setting aside the fact that the Beast sounds like it was a heck of a lot of fun, it seems to me that digital history could harness this kind of collective problem solving if framed in the right way. This is already the stuff of fiction. In Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End, for example, computing is ubiquitous, high school students take courses in "search and analysis" and collectives of intelligence analysts work together in swarm-like fashion. One of Jenkins's provocative claims is that games and other media are already teaching children to work together in this fashion to solve problems. "In a hunting culture," he says, "kids play with bows and arrows. In an information society, they play with information."

Tags: |