Learning to Play Nice

At the start of my career writing about and designing games I ran across a little known study on the social play of Foursquare. For those who need a refresher, Foursquare is a playground game involving a red rubber ball and a grid of 4 squares. Players bounce the ball into the squares occupied by other players in the hopes that they will be unable to bounce it back out. The study explored how a particular ruleset for Foursquare developed by a group of young children on a playground operated as shorthand for “playing nice.”

Foursquare offered fertile ground for such a study because an individual player (the “king”) calls a ruleset before each round of play. A call of “Rooie Rules,” for example, meant that players were prohibited from such moves as “slams” (bounces high over a player’s head) and “duckfeet” (being hit on the legs), along with a long list of other individual calls. Players were not expected to know the complete set of rules, as the players all had a tacit understanding that Rooie Rules were “nice,” and “nice” was of paramount concern. Anyone choosing to play had to accept and uphold a standard of social behavior disguised as the real rules of the game.

This study came to mind recently as part of my work with Connected Camps, a California benefit corporation I co-founded that runs a free multiplayer Minecraft server for kids, focused on helping them level up their high-tech skills. Because the server is multiplayer, supporting many kids online at the same time, much of the activity is intensely social and collaborative. Members of the server build together, go adventuring together, play games and learn together. They also make friends with each other. Connected Camps’ online moderators, college students providing instruction, mentorship and community moderation help members follow a code of conduct, which highlights citizenship, friendliness, and respect. And while the code of conduct contains lots of dos and don’ts that players probably can’t cite the details of, like Rooie Rules it is understood as a framework for playing nice with one another.

Learning how to play well together isn’t necessarily easy and Minecraft’s virtual environment provides a wonderful space for members of Connected Camps’ servers to practice socio-emotional skills like cooperation, conflict resolution and positive communication. Minigames are often designed to require players to both team and compete and many of the daily survival and build challenges demand that members work out how to share resources with one another. Game logs are monitored by mods not only for potential instances of griefing, which are taken very seriously, but also for cases of miscommunication or misunderstanding. New members often get themselves into trouble by inadvertently taking another member’s stuff or by accidentally destroying someone else’s build. Mods, as well as other expert players can step in and help new players correct course, before things escalate. These kinds of teachable moments are invaluable not only for newbies but for the server community writ large, which benefits when its norms around playing nice are reinforced.

Currently the company is training a new cohort of mods and high school volunteers in conflict resolution, as a way to better support players on their free Kid Club server. And they are working hard to live up to feedback they recently received from one young member who wrote, “All of the cool events and how nice the people on the server are,” when asked about the best part of being a member of Kid Club.

For more information on the programs offered by Connected Camps, check out their website and blog.

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