theorycrafting and learning

In chapter 7, Nardi discusses the practice of theorycrafting, which is essentially the working out of game mechanics. It is the adaption of  mathematical and scientific  methods to the study and play of a videogame. We probably all do this to some extent, at least intuitively: when we try to figure out our chances of having the best hand in a poker game, for example. Of course there are far more moving parts in WoW, so the mathematics is much more complex, and since, unlike a deck of cards, all the variables are not known by the players, experimentation is required.

Nardi writes:

Theorycrafting is pretty serious analytic activity. With real math! Might it have pedagogical value?  I have not seen research on this question, but it links to the work of education researchers Steinkuehler and Chmiel (2006). They studied the development of “scientific habits of mind” through game activities in World of Warcraft, examining discussion on a Blizzard forum devoted to customizing the druid character class. They found that the top three “habits” used to analyze customization were “social knowledge construction,” “building of others’ ideas,” and the “use of counterarguments.” While I see these practices as characteristic of broad critical thinking skills, and not as distinctively scientific, they do suggest ways in which gamers might engage skills very much like those we are supposed to learn in school. (141)

I see if from the other direction, I suppose. What Nardi is describing is a large-scale, collaborative effort to understand WoW, answer questions gamers think are important, and solve key problems. On a good day, this is how we imagine that school learning should happen. I think it is fair to say that the level of engagement in school is not as high as we find in WoW. Obviously the problem is that students to do not experience the level of curiosity or intrinsic motivation in school that gamers do in WoW.

When we look more generally at the development of the Internet, social media in particular, one of the most common characteristics explored is the potential for large-scale collaboration. This is often termed “crowdsourcing,” and Wikipedia is the go-to example of this activity. Increasingly we have become interested in big data, even in the humanities, which further raises the stakes on working in a new kind of collective way. I think it is fair to say that while theorycrafting may appear a fairly “geeky” activity, it reflects the way many of us will learn and work in the near future. It actually turns out to be a difficult thing to do. A lot of work goes into something like Wikipedia and that work is not without its conflicts. If, as we now typically say, 20th century schools–with their desks in rows, class periods, individual assignments, worksheets, tests, textbooks and so on–were designed to prepare a workforce for industrial culture with its factories and bureaucratic hierarchies, then we can understand how much goes into preparing humans to work and think in particular ways.

How do we learn to work in this new global, asynchronous, collaborative, networked community? Do you feel like you know how? Do you think it’s important to learn?


One thought on “theorycrafting and learning”

  1. Theorycrafting takes alot of time and effort, as most of these numbers are never officially released. It’s a good thing that people have banded together to form a small community around a game, analyzing it to figure out the best results for people.

    I’ve seen theorycraft at work for people that are not generally very good with mathematics, They seem more involved and invested in learning how to get the best gear and how to be successful at completing a game.

    A good example of this is a style of gameplay in League of Legends referred to as the Meta. In League of Legends, five champions face off against five enemy champions, each champion with a specific set of abilities. Based on these abilities the Meta strategy was developed. The current meta is comprised of a Mage/Caster in middle lane, a bruiser top lane, jungler/assassin manipulating the neutral mobs, a ranged attack damage and support in the bottom lane. This style of play did not just spontaneously erupt overnight and but was developed over time by the community. Riot used the community’s creation of this play style to develop more and more champions/abilities to fit the roles required.

    Attached is a link to the development/growth of the meta game:

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