Diversity, Collective Intelligence, and "Why I Love Bees"

April 23, 2009

I don’t really play video games. Not out of any lack of desire to play them. In fact, quite to the contrary, I feel a persistent desire to play. In playing games, I appreciate the value of problem solving, of having the opportunity to attempt to solve the same problem multiple times, to push at the boundaries of the program and learn the rules by which the game must be played. Gaming is, in many ways, the act of learning. Moving forward in a game is a signal of learning; the player has mastered a particular element, and is rewarded with the next puzzle. The more the player plays, the better that player is at learning new rules. As a result, while I may love video games, I am not that great at learning the rules.

But why are we talking about games? We’ll get to that. First, there is one other important element of video games to consider: they happen in a virtual place. This fact has two significant ramifications. First, these games are ‘safe,’ in that their outcomes do not have obvious repercussions in the real world. Second, they have traditionally been a solo endeavor, depending on the unique competencies of the single player. In recent years, players have become networked together, playing simultaneously to solve problems collaboratively. However, my experience of these games has been that they require most players to have the same or similar competencies. This will come into play a little later. Just wait.

Now think about a video game that isn’t virtual. No really, think about what that might look like. I think this is a difficult task, but luckily, some people have already come up with the answer. The most famous one to date was called I Love Bees, and it happened all around you. I bet you didn’t even notice. I didn’t.

In the summer of 2004, the makers of Halo 2, the sequel to a smashingly successful shoot-em-up video game called Halo, contracted a little-known company called 42 Entertainment to build them an interactive marketing vehicle that would push at and permeate the boundaries between virtual and real. A simple web address was flashed at the end of an advertisement for the upcoming Halo 2 game, www.ilovebees.com. People followed this web address and found a simple bee keeping website, complete with animated gifs of dancing bees. Fast forward a few months and a few million blog hits, and I Love Bees had thousands of players working collectively to solve puzzles that manifested in “tainted” html code, mp3 communications, physical packages sent to players, and over 40,000 phone calls made to public phones and players’ own telephones. The game unfolded from this single clue into an unprecedented series of massively distributed puzzle pieces to eventually provide the full narrative story. Furthermore, 42 Entertainment monitored and built I Love Bees in real time, evaluating the capabilities of the players, feeding clues where necessary, and shifting and adding puzzles as the group of networked players got better and better at solving these complicated and amorphous puzzles. The more the group worked together, the more capable it got, and the harder the puzzles had to be to keep the players on their toes. This new game was too complex for any single player, in fact any single type of player, to move forward. Instead, it relied on the group of players to look within iteslf, identify its competencies, and then coordinate itself to approach a puzzle from multiple angles simultaneously until the puzzle was solved.

OK, fine. Sure, they made a neat game on the internet. It broke down established precedents of what gaming can be. Why does this matter to me, a Yale SOM student who wants to learn about accounting and economics and marketing and go out and make my mark on the world? Four words: Diversity and Collective Intelligence.

Enter Jane McGonigal, PhD. As the lead community designer of I Love Bees, McGonigal was responsible for understanding how the community of players was evolving, both in terms of what mechanisms they were using to solve problems, and what types of problems their emerging self-awareness would enable them to solve. In this role, she watched as a collective intelligence emerged among the players, a result of and an amplification of the diverse talents that the thousands of different players brought to the table. Rather than the narrow gaming capabilities that we discussed back in the first paragraph, the players of this game were able to harness a vastly diverse series of skills to overcome huge levels of ambiguity. In reading about the game, it is amazing to learn how little information this evolving group of players needed in order to solve hugely complex problems in incredibly creative ways.

But wait! That last sentence sounds a bit like…. real life! In fact, it could relate to being in an MBA program (like Yale SOM, for example…) full of diverse people, working on assignments that carry high levels of ambiguity. Or, alternately, it sounds like working in a team in a 21st century business environment. Amazing!

I first found Jane McGonigal’s academic article entitled “Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence” a couple of years ago, and found it fascinating if not a little inflated. A few weeks ago, I came across it again, and was blown away. Technology is slowly changing both the nature of the challenges that we meet, and the people we can gather together in order to attack these challenges in new ways. I Love Bees is one concrete example of the power that diversity can play at both the small team level and at the large organization level. I believe that the idea of emergent, distributed collective intelligence and the mechanisms that enable it have huge implications for education and training, business strategy, and a whole host of as-yet-undetermined fields. But I’m no expert. Read the article and come talk to me about it. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Ever long-winded,

neil

 

Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence / by Jane McGonigal:

http://www.avantgame.com/McGonigal_WhyILoveBees_Feb2007.pdf

 

Collective Intelligence at Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collective_intelligence

 

42 Entertainment (“42 Entertainments mission is to produce the world’s most innovative, immersive entertainment…”)

http://www.42entertainment.com/

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About the author

Neil Alger