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What Among Us can teach us about multiplayer learning

The three tenets of the Student-Technology paradigm

For many years, researchers have looked into the circumstances under which multiplayer (collaborative) learning is more effective. In this article, we examine the opportunities and challenges for multiplayer learning in an online environment. We will use the game Among Us as a reference point in our discussion.

The multiplayer game, Among Us, quickly grew to be a cultural phenomenon over the last year. It is currently many peoples’ favourite way to pass the time whenever they have a spare moment. The premise behind the game is simple - 10 players run around inside a spaceship completing tasks while trying to figure out who the “imposters” are before they kill anyone. In short, it is a game of social deduction like its real-world counterpart Mafia, albeit with astronauts.

From the Among Us’ game framework, we can identify three features that can help us unpack multiplayer learning in a modern context, namely:

  • Communication;
  • Context; and
  • Collaboration.

First, let us begin by defining multiplayer learning to standardise our understanding of the term. In our case, it is “an instance wherein a community of people with shared interests and goals progress through an educational experience together”.

Community

Among Us is a game best played with friends, not strangers. Part of what gives the experience its pleasure is having an offline human connection with other players involved. Random players often only care about what they can do during an Among Us game while alive. They may mutely go through the motions and won’t contribute to conversations. At worst, some players quit the instant they die, making things harder for everybody else. These community dynamics put the game in a weird place.

But it’s not all gloom and doom - the remote possibility of finding strangers who are fun to play with also exists. Many can testify to the experience of playing several fun games with completely random players.

Typically, a negative Among Us game session rarely engages players for long, because the game’s selling point is social interaction. Similarly, as discussed in previous articles, most online courses have a low completion rate, especially if they follow the Student-Technology paradigm. Incumbent platforms often neglect the importance of learning in groups. As a result, the communal aspects of learning such as discussions, debates and exchanges between individuals seldom exist in online environments. It is unfortunate, as we place so much emphasis on the abovementioned dynamics within a classroom setting.

However, it isn’t easy to replicate this sense of community within an online classroom setting. A recent thread by Wes Kao asserts that, at its premise, “community” is a catch-all term. It can mean many things to different people, so conflating these elements can reduce opportunities to maximise each of them individually. Therefore, Kao suggests unbundling the concept of community to a list of precepts.

From these precepts, we deem companionship and shared purpose to be the elements worth exploring, as they complement our initial definition of multiplayer learning. Multiplayer learning environments which often encourage or require learners to work together towards a shared goal can foster a sense of camaraderie, countering any feelings of loneliness or isolation.

Several startups are currently exploring this construct of community, albeit in different ways. For instance, Aula, Engageli and Eduflow are social learning platforms for education built to help students feel connected to their wider learning community.

We also see this construct propping up in unexpected places. For example, several personal trainers ended up migrating their fitness classrooms to Zoom during the coronavirus pandemic, a move which proved to be psychologically beneficial for participants as they could foster a sense of camaraderie in a virtual setting.

Context

Before each Among Us session, players meet in the lobby of a small spaceship wherein they can customise their appearance and decide on game rules.

The former involves players setting the colour and cosmetics of their character on a first-come, first-serve basis. Any physical commonalities between crewmates could cause confusion between players during a game, so they aren’t encouraged.

The latter can severely affect the game’s dynamics. For example, setting the running speed to be high for crewmates creates the possibilities that tasks, which are the predetermined chores around the ship you play on, will get completed faster. If players can finish these tasks before losing a majority to murder and mutiny, they defeat the imposters. However, a slower speed for crewmates and a faster speed for the imposters can have the opposite effect.

Among Us’ lobby, albeit a brief interlude to a series of ever-cascading afflictions, serves to frame expectations. Within the scope of multiplayer learning, one would naturally assume that this translates to setting clear goals and objectives at the outset. But unlike a game of Among Us, incumbent multiplayer learning platforms seldom provide the internal mechanics required to facilitate a long-lived session. As a result, it falls onto the instructor to dedicate a significant amount of their time upfront to determine how learners should:

  • Make decisions and discover consequences;
  • Set goals for themselves and determine how to achieve them through experimentation;
  • Get constant feedback on their performance, and adjust the difficulty level of the content to meet their needs; and
  • Engage in the practice of tutoring or mentoring fellow learners who are finding the content challenging.

Context enjoys a shared definition within the scope of multiplayer learning and Among Us. In both settings, we define it as the “activities conducted within a framework of agreed rules that directly or indirectly contribute to achieving goals”.

However, how we arrive at this notion of context can completely differ in both settings. Within multiplayer learning, it risks being no more than a motivational wrapper used to make the experience more palatable for participants. In contrast, with Among Us, we find that the game’s mechanics situates activity and drives the experience.

In future articles, we will explore how narrative and stories could play an important role in multiplayer learning environments.

Collaboration

Among Us is a game of teamwork, interrogation and deception. It employs a set of mechanics that lend itself to collaboration, albeit in a constrained manner. As crewmates run around the ship completing their chores, they are unable to communicate which other. Throughout the game, there are opportunities during which players can share what they know to identify any imposters. Such windows are time-sensitive, and as a result, players must engage in clear, targeted and concise communication that gets to the essential facts.

Social interaction between peers within a multiplayer learning context is equally as important. It enables learners to establish personal connections and a chance to interact with each other’s ideas. It also allows them to serve as scaffolding to help each other tackle difficult content. Moreover, it can also serve as a springboard to learners competing against each other as adversaries or opponents. The somewhat unpredictable outcomes can make the experience more interesting for learners but more difficult for the designer as they consider how to structure solutions that affect more than one player.

However, incumbent multiplayer learning platforms are likely to place different weighting to collaborative outcomes. For example, any supplementary discussion is meaningless if a multiplayer learning platform presents knowledge as a series of discrete facts. Such facts are set in stone by an authority and negate the opportunity of exploring “knowledge” as a toolset to solve problems, wherein it can start to colour perception, ideas and strategies.

The task of understanding the various aspects of a game like Among Us and then attempting to port them over to a multiplayer learning environment is a complex undertaking. Nonetheless, the game serves as a useful cultural reference point and implores us to understand what motivates such a large audience to engage with it. Against the backdrop of academic research and community derived insights, it can hopefully help us create better multiplayer educational tasks.

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