A collaboration is a collaboration is a collaboration1
“A collaboration is a collaboration is a collaboration. Not.” John C. Thomas IBM T. J. Watson Research Center Yorktown Heights, New York 10598 email@example.com www.truthtable.comAbstract: Human-Computer Interaction as a field has migrated over the last few decadesfrom being primarily concerned with individual users interacting with dedicatedcomputers to a field that often examines and tries to optimize teams, groups, communitiesand society interacting via a wide variety of devices in a wide variety of settings. Bettercollaboration is variously perceived as necessary for business, an inevitable aspect of thenew economy and even crucial for our survival as a species. These propositions are allprobably true but they obscure another truth; viz., that successful “collaboration” entailsnot just one, but a wide variety of skills and attitudes. In this paper, I argue that gamesmeant to use or teach “collaboration” would be more successful if more differentiatedand specific about the aspects of collaboration they are focusing on. I suggest acategorization scheme for varieties of collaboration and related skills and attitudes.Finally, I briefly outline some plans for examining the effects of team-building games inSecond Life.Why games? Why have virtually all societies developed games? Succinctly put, gamesenable learners to concentrate on building skills by providing quicker and less ambiguousfeedback than is typically possible in real life. The skills thus learned may then beapplied to real life situations. A quintessential and well-known example is chess whichembodies principles of threat, double attack, pinning, the importance of position, superiorforce, the importance of mobility and timing. All of these are important in real warfare(or economic competition) as well, but in real war, any particular commander is likely tohave only a very limited number of experiences while anyone can play hundreds of chessgames. Moreover, in real war, the actual outcome often depends on other non-strategicfactors such as weather, luck, disease or one side beginning with an overwhelmingresource advantage. Therefore chess, like many other games, has the advantage ofshowing the interplay of important principles quickly, often, and unambiguously.In order to accomplish this, chess is an extremely “pared down” version of real war. Forexample, the two armies begin with only 16 soldiers on each side. The space is limited to64 discrete squares. The two opponents are the only “conscious” entities. Each “soldier”does exactly as it is told 100% of the time. Time is partitioned into discrete moves. Theboard is completely visible at all times. There is no “fog of war.” The so-called “moral”aspects of war (that is, the psychological aspects) are not really present (U.S. MarineCorps, 1994).By contrast, modern technology allows us to forgo many of these simplifications andprovide games, such as “World of Warcraft” which are much more like “real” war. The
terrain is huge and varied; there are scores of players interacting continuously;communication and misdirection become vital components and so on. Does thisnecessarily imply that “World of Warcraft” is a better training ground than chess for realmilitary thinking because it covers more factors? That is an empirical and (so far as Iknow), unanswered question. However, one thing “World of Warcraft” certainly doesallow is collaboration. In chess, there is no collaboration except insofar as the playerforces/enables his soldiers to cooperate effectively. In order to examine such potentiallyempirical questions more deeply, however, we must first unpack the notion of“collaboration” and see what is involved.The components of collaboration. First, it seems that effective collaboration in the realworld depends on many factors beyond the skills of the people involved. It depends onexternal motivational structures, tools and technology. Some of the skills involved insuccessfully collaborating in the real world involve those factors. For instance, a personmay be a “good collaborator” in some sense, but if they cannot use the tools that theircompany has provided for communication, their impact may be quite limited. This ispotentially more than a trivial point. If, for instance, 90% of a person’s time is inlearning the interface of “World of Warcraft” or “Second Life,” there is correspondinglyless time to learn transferable collaboration skills per se.If we focus only on “focal” collaborative skills however, there are still at least twoimportant major aspects; action skills and attitudes. In the realm of attitudes, there istrust and this itself has often been further broken down into such factors as attitudinal orpersonality trust (some people are more trusting in general), competency trust (I trust thatyou are able to do something), personal trust (I trust you to do the “right thing” regardlessof consequences) and institutional trust (I trust you to do the right thing because there aresafeguards in place such as rewards and punishments to help insure that it is in your owninterest to do the right thing). See Riegelsberger & Vasilou, (2007) and Riegelsberger,Sasse & McCarthy, (In Press) for detailed models of trust.In the realm of skills, one way to break down collaboration skills is to consider the abilityto perceive the actions of others; the ability to infer their intentions and likely futureactions; the ability to signal one’s own actions and intentions; the ability to change levelsor frameworks; that is, to recognize that something systematic is going wrong and togenerate and implement fixes. These skills may also be broken down by time scale; forinstance, in the arena of long-term strategy, shorter term tactics, and moment to momenton-going action. Individuals may also have various levels of skill (due to training orpredisposition or both) in terms of modality. For example, jazz musicians in a jam maybe quite good at picking up on what their collaborators are doing based on hearingsubtleties while soccer players may be relying on subtleties of motion provided by vision;in bobsled racing, kinesthesia may be relatively more important and so on.The realm of games provides many different models for the kinds of collaboration thatare particularly important. For instance, most of the events in track and field areindividual. Nonetheless, team spirit can play some role in fostering a kind ofcollaboration through atmosphere and esprit de corps. In the Ryder Cup (a golf event
that involves American and European “teams”) the “collaboration is mostly of this ilkalthough in some formats people may get some advice from their teammate and must takeinto account, at least in a minor way, the particular skills of their partners. Noticehowever, that the pace of golf allows such advice to be “out of time” from actual play andto be quite explicit (e.g., “No, I wouldn’t try to hit a low iron out of that deep wetrough.”) Games like hockey, soccer, American football and baseball require a highdegree of collaboration. However, the nature of the collaborative skills required is quitedifferent. The role differentiation is much higher in baseball and American football andthese roles often vary according to innate and learned skills as well. Even an extremelygood outfielder, for instance, might make a terrible pitcher. An excellent place-kickermight be too small to be anything like an effective center. In role-playing games likeD&D and later, in on-line versions like WoW, the skill differentiation attempts to mirroror even exceed the skill diversity found in the human populations. In typical professionalteams, the managers and coaches handle most of the skill and role differentiation throughexplicit assignments to various people. However, even so, there are refinements to thebasic structure necessarily made by the team members themselves. For example, a thirdbaseman may know that the two first basemen on his team have different reaches andthrow accordingly. A catcher may see that a particular pitcher is not having muchsuccess on a particular night with his fast ball and call for more breaking balls.As these few examples show, the possibilities quickly seem to become too endless andunwieldy to consider without an organized framework. In the next section we presentthree simple frameworks that may help organize thinking about variations ofcollaborative situations and skills. The first framework posits a simple metaphor forthinking about and potentially measuring collaboration and the communication neededfor collaboration. The second presents and illustrates some factors of the environmentthat tend to impact collaboration. (These are important as background to differentiateperformance due to situation from performance due to skill. The third framework positsa limited set of important collaboration skills. These frameworks are clearly preliminaryand meant to stimulate dialogue; they are not meant as definitive nor based on a programof formal empirical measurement.A collaboration metaphor. Imagine two collaborators as two people moving through alandscape more or less together. We call collaboration “good” to the extent that thedistance between them is minimized. This allows both instant and summative measures.Their “productivity” is measured by their forward progress. (Depending on the situation,progress may be joint, best, or least. We can also easily extend this metaphor to the Nperson situation, but for purposes of exposition, consider the two person case). The twocollaborators are moving on opposite sides of a wall and potentially have differentlandscapes to deal with as well as different skill levels. We can say that there are threegeneral classes of communication acts which will help maximize their progress andcollaboration. First, there are Stators in which one person describes the state of thelandscape as they can perceive it or their own internal state. Second, there are Turnorswhich offer, describe, or command a change of direction. Third, there are Rators whichoffer, describe, or command a change of rate. In various kinds of collaborative situations,various means of communications are available. In ordinary conversation, these
collaborative signals are generally “metacomments.” For instance, a Stator about theenvironment might be: “I am about to cover a very complex and confusing subject.” Anexample of a Stator about internal state might be, “Whew. I am getting confused.” Anexample of a very explict Turnor would be: “I think we’ve covered that topic enough.Now, we need to consider….” One example of a Rator is simply backchannel noddingand “right, right” said quickly which signals a desire to have the other person speed up.A more explicit Rator comment might be: “Whoa! Hold on! What do you mean?” Inthese examples, the communication is verbal, but of course, in various collaborativesituations, explicit hand-signals might be used or the collaborators might be expected torely directly on their own sensory input. A soccer player sprints forward quickly with theball and another player may take this as a signal to do the same although the first player’sprimary intention is to move forward past a defender not to do any signaling. The“signaling” here is simply a by-product of the situation.In general, collaborative situations will all require these types of communication eventsin order to be maximally successful. However, the way in which these events arecommunicated varies wildly from situation to situation. In many games, part of the rulesstrictly limit how these events can be communicated. For instance, in bridge, it wouldobviously be advantageous for the partners to show their hands to each other (or describethem in detail). However, communication is limited to bidding (which has additionalconstraints) and signaling out of this band via facial expressions, comments, etc. isstrictly forbidden. Similarly, charades and password are two collaborative games inwhich the entire focus is really on communicating effectively in the face of strongconstraints on how that may be done.Situational factors that impact collaboration. It is suggested that a five point scale issufficient to describe various situational factors. For example, we may ask about whethercoordinated rhythm is Required, Helpful, Neutral, Harmful or Incompatible with respectto meeting goals. To win a gold medal in team rowing or ice-dancing, for instance,coordinate rhythm is required. Achieving fine-scale rhythmic coordination, by the way,is still a challenge for on-line environments.We can ask the same set of questions (in the form of a five point scale) about otheraspects of a situation. For example, we suggest that asking these about conversation,negotiation, shared gross stimulus context, shared fine stimulus context, and physicalcontact. There are other aspects of the situation which do affect collaboration but cannotbe put so easily into this five point framework. For instance, the physical positioning ofpeople is important. Typically, having people “face each other” connotes oppositionwhile being shoulder to shoulder or in a circle connotes team membership.In real situations, and especially in games, there are regulated and vital aspects of tokeninteraction. For instance, in soccer, American football, hockey, and basketball, there isonly one ball and possession of that ball is critical. This is reinforced by the fact that onegenerally attempts to pass possession among one’s team members without letting any ofthe members of the other team come into possession. In croquet, each person has their
own ball but these may interact. In fact, the strategy of croquet is mostly about theseinteractions. By contrast, in golf, each person only hits their own ball.A hierarchy of collaboration skills. Debates about the structure of human intelligenceremain despite a century of research and practice. At one extreme, some believe in a“general” intelligence. Often this is differentiated into “fluid” and “crystallized”intelligence, but others have suggested various numbers of components. At anotherextreme, a strict behaviorist such as B.F. Skinner would basically focus on very specifictrainable skills and not focus on positing underlying abilities at all. This is not the placeto recount these debates in detail, but only to argue that such debates are often not to be“settled” by empirical research but rather often reflect the aesthetic predispositions of theinvestigators and/or their specific purposes.In a similar vein, we may hypothesize that there may well be a general collaborationfactor. Some people seem to be better able (and/or desirous) to collaborate across a widevariety of situations. On the other hand, whether or not one can effectively collaborate ina given domain depends on some modicum of skill in that specific domain. Anindividual may be a really good collaborator “in general” but if they are not athletic andhave never played soccer, then they will not be very effective as a collaborative soccerplayer. They may not know what to “look for” how to translate from perceived situationsto appropriate actions or be able to carry out those actions.This is an obvious but important point. There is still a danger in many actual on-linecollaborative games or virtual worlds that so much time and energy is required for a userjust to be minimally competent that learning about collaboration is quite secondary andjudging who is a “good collaborator” may depend far more on the game skill than onwhether they are actually a good collaborator.Within the general skill of collaboration, we can conceptually separate skills for planning,acting, and learning/adapting. Collaborative situations differ in terms of the degree ofpreplanning that is possible, customary or necessary. Sometimes, in unplannedemergency situations, a group of strangers is thrown together and must collaborate “onthe spot.” However, in most collaborative situations as diverse as professional sports,and product development, a lot of time can and typically does go into planning the workincluding how people will collaborate. In terms of acting in the moment, collaborativeskills could include noticing what others are doing, for deciding how best to react to theon-going situation, and then for actually acting as well as for determining whether andhow pre-existing plans need to be changed. We could take any one of these skills andbreak it down even further. For instance, the skill of noticing what others are doingmight be further analyzed according to the sense or senses involved. A separate set ofskills might be involved in groking patterns of actions. It seems clear even from such anadmittedly preliminary analysis that there are a wide variety of potential skills involvedin collaboration and no necessary a priori reason to expect a high degree of inter-correlation based on ability or training. For example, someone who has learned to seeand react to patterns of play quite well in laser tag might be very inefficient coordinatingin WoW and vice versa.
Do on-line game collaborations transfer to real-life teamwork? This seems to be anopen question, but several of my colleagues; viz., Jason Ellis, Katherine Bessiere andWendy Kellogg are currently investigating whether real life distributed teams (of four)can benefit from a series of three on-line games in Second Life. These three gamesrequire increasing levels of coordination and collaboration. In one game, participantteams work together moving Tetris-like pieces to form a bridge. In a second game,participants attempt to build a tower a la the game “Blockhead.” In a third game,participants are separated into sub-teams of “designers” and “implementers.” Designersdesign a castle and implementers must build the castle so specified. However, there maynot be enough pieces to implement the original design.Participants are given pre and post questionnaires to measure group cohesion and trust.The teams engaging in the games are compared with a group who is simply given a“space to hang out” in Second Life. In addition, the verbal and non-verbal behavior ofthe participants during the collaborative games is being observed to determine, in anexploratory way, whether it seems that there are particular types of experiences that seemespecially conducive to increased teamwork. Already it seems clear from observingteams that whether or not they can “collaborate” effectively depends, among other things,on whether they are proficient enough, after minimal training, to move, manipulate, andcommunicate in Second Life.References:Jens Riegelsberger, M. Angela Sasse & John D. McCarthy (in press). Trust in MediatedInteractions. In Katelyn McKenna, Tom Postmes, Ulf Reips , Adam N. Joinson (Eds.)Oxford Handbook of Internet Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Jens Riegelsberger & Asimina Vasalou (2007). Trust 2.1 - Advancing the TrustDebate. Extended Abstracts of CHI 2007, San Jose, CA, US, April 28 - May 3.U. S. Marine Corps (1994), Warfighting: The U.S. Marine Corps Book of Strategy. NewYork: Currency Doubleday.