Home      Application of Game Theory within
Online Gaming Culture and Institutional Education

Application of Game Theory within
Online Gaming Culture and Institutional Education


Chengcheng Oliver Zhang
Cultural Theory and Research Studio: MPM 504
Dr. Edward Slopek
December 13, 2013


            Video games have made an abrupt shift in our current 21st century society; no longer is their role of that of entertainment for small select communities, they have now moved into a new paradigm where elements such as emergent problem solving, convergence of collaboration and competition, virtual environments, andsituated learning have made video games and its respective culture a medium for the potential marriage of educational institutions. This paper presents its research through new media to attempt to propose the possibility of a hybrid digital, technology driven academy space that employs the virtual environments that players inhabit in massive multiplayer online games.

Keywords: Situated learning, Virtual Environments, Cyberspace, Educational Technology, video games, Institutionalized Competition and Collaboration, Gaming culture

Introducing League of Legends, currently the most played Video Game

        On May 29, 2013, Danny "Shiphtur" Le, of Edmonton, Canada “became the first so-called eSports player to be granted a type of visa normally awarded to athletes featured daily on ESPN.” (Dave, par. 3)
Short for electronic sports, eSports is a relatively recent term for organized competitions within video games, with the participants usually being considered professionals. In Le’s case, Riot Games (publisher of League of Legends, the game that Le was representing) and his immigration attorney Jeptha Evans made a claim for Le to “play for the U.S. team under the P-1A visa program, which U.S. officials said is designed "to enrich the nation's cultural landscape" by welcoming "diverse talent" to perform in the U.S.” (Dave, par. 16) Long story short, due to eSports players making tens of thousands of dollars annually from sponsors, with a few having total earning in the six figure range, they were able to successfully make the case that it was a profession.

League of Legends is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, a subgenre of real time strategy. Players are randomly placed on teams where the aim is to co-operatively work together to attack the other team’s territorial base while defending their own, with the game being won when one team has destroyed the other team’s Nexus, a building deep inside each team’s base. According to Esports Gaming, 10 games are started every second: with games averaging 30 minutes long, “League of Legends alone racks up 1.3 billion hours of gameplay worldwide in just a month, equal to 14,830 years.” (Weaver, par. 5) In addition, “Every single day, 107,000 players talk about League of Legends on social media networks in 16 different languages.” (par. 7)


Video Games, the role they play today

Video games have gone a long way since Thomas T. Goldsmith, Jr.’s “Cathode ray tube amusement device” and Pong, the first commercially successful video game that started the video game industry. Since the popularity of massively multiplayer online games, the cultural framework within games has changed drastically in the last half decade. Aaron Delwiche from the Department of Communication at Trinity University describes the environments as “The convergence of high-speed Internet connections, sophisticated graphics cards, and powerful microprocessors has paved the way for immersive virtual environments populated by thousands of users simultaneously.” (Delwiche, 160)  Played on the internet, the space in which the players inhabit can form persistent worlds, in that the world continues to exist even as that user leaves. A staple within gaming in today’s generation is the concept of emergent gameplay, which is the concept of developers providing the tools available for the player in order for him or her to create their own objectives and solutions to the complex situations that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics. The Nintendo DS game Scribblenauts is a 2D puzzle game, where the user is required to write in objects or other required words to solve the various puzzles to progress further in the game. Within the majority of games today, artificial intelligence, both within their avatar embodiments and elements of the game itself, have surpassed the role of basic functionality which they used to play. The question now becomes what possibilities can be explored within the spaces that online games facilitate, and how developers can create artificial intelligences that have enough embodied agency to be able to create meaningful narratives for the players inhabiting the space.

        Video game culture is already crossing the bridge to the new media realm: things such as interactivity, creative participation, interactive feedback, social exchange, and instantaneous access to information have already begun to separate conventional video games into a separate paradigm of one that shifts its role as an entertainment platform into one of which has potential for creativity and education. Previous prejudices of the limitations of video games and their intended minority audiences will no longer be as relevant in the coming generation, as the assimilation of video game and popular culture becomes closer, and gaming culture becomes integral to everyday life rather than a strictly recreational activity.

Schooling and the application of Game Theory

Such integration can begin within the structure of educational institutions. The idea is not new: studies done at Indiana University are attempting to use “game designs that promote either competitive or collaborative play” and that “may lead to differential outcomes including dramatically different and social dynamics.” (Danish, Peppler, and Phelps, pg. 683) Within this context, they state that:

“…at least three types of interactions within games are presently acknowledged in game theory: competitive games, cooperative games, and collaborative games. Competitive games require players to form strategies in opposition to other players in the game. At the opposite end of the spectrum is collaborative games, which require that all participants work together as a team toward a shared outcome, where no sole winner exists (i.e., if the team wins/loses, everybody wins/loses). Sitting between these two, cooperative games model a situation where two or more individuals have interests that are “neither completely opposed nor completely coincident” (Danish, Peppler, and Phelps, pg. 686)

             A popular game mode within League of Legends is ranked, an example of the proposed competitive/collaborative environment. A player is matched with other players of similar skill level to them, following the Elo rating system. Previously used commonly for competitor-versus-competitor games such as chess, its role within an online multiplayer strategy game environment brings forth a unique motivational drive. Players are put on a team with four other players in order to fulfil objectives while working to prevent the other team from fulfilling theirs. While the objectives achieved by players within League of Legends exists only within the context of the video game itself, its emergent narrative structure and culture building community can be seen metaphorically to that of a possible future virtual schooling environment.
              An issue often seen in the game is when a player on the team is outmatched by his opponent, making it more difficult for members of his team to fulfil the team’s objectives. This leads to disputes and arguments within the team, often criticizing said player’s abilities. This undermines the team’s ability to work together and is usually the determining factor for a lost game. Essentially, failure stems when teams compete against each other rather than collaborate amongst each other and work to compete against the other team.
Danish, Peppler, and Phelps has stated that:

“small interdependent groups that are competitive in nature have poorer learning outcomes than do collaborative groups. This may be because competition undermines the ability of each student to play out their role in a manner that supports the group as a whole, thus rendering the group dysfunctional and unable to complete the task. In addition, research has suggested that to promote effective learning, groups interactions should be organized so that members: co-construct ideas; minimize conflict and controversy; are able to give and receive feedback as well as ask for elaboration or help; exhibit a general equity of participation; exhibit minimal social loafing; and have an equitable division of labor”
(Danish, Peppler, and Phelps, pg. 687)

Collaboration within groups, Competition between Groups
             In the Japanese light novel
Baka and Test, the main character attends a school where the school segregates the students based on their academic scores. On the first day of school, each student takes an entrance exam, the score determining the class they will end up in – the higher, the better the benefits, with Class A being filled with prodigies and being supplied with prestigious and luxurious items, while Class F contains the lowest scoring students and is given the poorest supplies. The unique system implemented at the academy allows the classes to have teacher facilitated battles for a lower class to exchange equipment with the higher class upon victory. The battles are fought with summoned avatars - the strength of their avatars reflective of their scores of a particular subject. Students may leave during battles to take supplemental exams to boast or replenish their avatar strengths. Interestingly, the cast of characters from Class F reveal themselves to be smarter, or more formable, than their label suggests; as some quite intelligent students are only there due to unique circumstances. Through active collaboration with each other and motivational drive, they eventually win against Classes E, D, C, and B.                         While in reality this concept would be terrible in practice, with most schools now universally accepting that dividing children by intelligence or even just publically sharing grades is detrimental to learning, it raises an interesting scenario where collaboration within a group and competition with another invokes self-motivation and emergent problem solving with limited resources, the setting being similar of that of an MMO.


Integration of Technology and Virtual Spaces to Education


The problem with the schooling of today is, as Delwiche describes it, “a highly individualized activity that stops at the classroom door. Even today, many teachers discourage students from collaborating on homework assignments, viewing such behavior as “cheating.” (pg. 162) This contrasts the emphasized situated learning experienced in a massive multiplayer online game (MMO). The uniqueness that separates it from other media spaces is the hyper-immersion that contains a user into their grossly engaging environments. In a study of the problematic usage of MMO players, Yee found that 70% had spent at least 10 continuous hours in a virtual world at one sitting.  (pg. 22) Delwiche further explains this as,

“many researchers have observed that players intensely involved with video- games display characteristics of the psychological state that Csikszentmihalyi (1990) has termed the “flow experience.” Hoffman and Novak (1996) explain that the flow state is characterized by user confidence, exploratory behaviors, enjoyment, distorted time perception, and greater learning.”(pg.162)

            If MMOs are able to hyper immerse its users so deeply within their contextualized space, it brings forth the question: why aren’t we thrusting the various aspects of MMOs (emergent problem solving, convergence of collaboration and competition, virtual environments, situated learning) into that of schools today? Perhaps the question is less so “why are we not” and more so of
“Why are we so slow to adopt new technologies in education?” An author on Musing from the bush argues:

“Why does it take so long to adopt new technologies in education? Is there a reluctance to change practice, fear of making a mistake, a natural tendency to risk aversion? Whatever the reason, our students are missing out.  Sir Ken Robinson has discussed the need to change educational paradigms.  Mark Treadwell states: without a paradigm shift schools cannot improve and that there is a need to move to a new concept curriculum. “One size does not fit all” and there is also a need to personalise learning. Technologies along with emerging technologies can assist with both the shift to and the delivery of the new curricula.  Technology should not be used in an educational setting just because it is technology or because it is new. It should only be used because it supports the purpose of education in the 21st Century. It enables students to learning to be creative and innovative; to become effective communicators and to connect (learn) with others.”(2011)

Technology and digital spaces within schooling ;a Controversy

Some argue that while technology and digital spaces actively seek to improve and change our lives for the better, they inherently take away the tangible unique experiences that can only be taken away from physical interactions with the real world. With this, a separation of digital and physical spaces is usually found. In regards to virtual and physical spaces found in video games, Oubai Elkerdi argues in his article “Why technology is not always the solution for better education”:

video games may strengthen our visual-spatial intelligence by immersing us in virtual spaces where we need to learn how to rotate objects in our minds and navigate through various architectures and surroundings. But Carr admonishes that this gained ability “go[es] hand in hand with a weakening of our capacities for the kind of ‘deep processing’ that underpins ‘mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.’” (par. 4)

Furthermore, he argues that technology and virtual reality spaces are always a more limited reflection of the real world, as “our minds can neither comprehend nor represent a thing to its completion:”

“the subtleties and complexities of the real world cannot possibly be encompassed by a computer—no matter how advanced or sophisticated technology becomes. In his manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget, the father of virtual reality technology and digital media guru Jaron Lanier remarks that technology often “captures a certain limited measurement of reality within a standardized system that removes any of the original source’s unique qualities.”(par.5)

               Thus, due to the persistent bias towards the “yet to be socially accepted” shifting paradigms of video game culture, the reluctance to partake in the risk of reforming the curriculum system to less of an individualized experience to more of a personal one, and the inherent lack of trust we hold in the complete integration of technology or shift of experienced space within our culture, it’s clear that the shift of making institutionalized schooling more collaboration and competitive based (similar to that of the current day MMOs) will be that of a slow one. However when we do reach that point in time when technology will be fully ubiquitous to that of our culture, and the virtual, augmented, and physical spaces converge into our everyday life, we may one day be able to see the possibilities of an “MMO Academy.”




Danish, Joshua A., Kylie Peppler, and David Phelps. “Collaborative Gaming: Teaching Children About Complex Systems and Collective Behavior.” Indiana University. Simulation Gaming. Sage Publications October 2013 vol. 44 no. 5 pg.683-705. Journal Article.   [Date of access] Dec 11th. 2013.

                 Dave, Paresh. "Online game League of Legends star gets U.S. visa as pro athlete" Los Angeles Times, August 07, 2013. Web article. [Date of access] Dec 11th. 2013.

Delwiche, Aaron. “Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) in the new media classroom.” Educational Technology & Society (2006), 9 (3), 160-172. Journal Article. [Date of access] Dec 11th. 2013.

                Elkerdi, Oubai. “Why technology is not always the solution for better education.” Wamda. Inspiring, empowering, and connecting entrepeneurs.
October 14, 2013. Web article. [Date of access] Dec 13th. 2013.

                   "Musing from the bush." <http://gwilson10.edublogs.org/2011/09/20/why-are-we-so-slow-to-adapt-new-technologies-in-education/>. Tuesday, September 20, 2011. Web blog.
 [Date of access] Dec 11th. 2013.

Weaver, Sarah Incredible Facts - League of Legends, Esports Gaming, 24th Oct 2013. Web Article. [Date of access]  Dec 11th. 2013.

                    Yee, Nicholas. “The Psychology of Massively Multi-User Online Role-Playing Games: Motivations, Emotional Investment, Relationships and Problematic Usage.” Avatars at Work and Play: Collaboration and Interaction in Shared Virtual Environments (pp. 187 -207). London: Springer-Verlag.  Journal Article.[Date of access] Dec 12th. 2013.