Paper Analysis: “Martian Boneyards: Can a Community of Players be a Community of Practice”


Asbell-Clarke, J., & Sylvan, E. (2012). Martian boneyards: can a community of players be a community of practice? In CHI’12 Extended Abstracts on Human Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 409–418).


  • “Martian Boneyards” is a prototype game in a massively multi-player online environment designed to entice gamers to partake in collaborative scientific inquiry.
  • The case study examines the steps designers took to foster a community of inquiry within the game
  • Findings suggest games like this one show promise for fostering science identity and scientific inquiry
  • a core group of 66 players engaged in collaborative activity to solve the game’s mystery
  • Research questions:
    1. What design features may have been useful to support a community of scientific inquiry in Martian Boneyards?
    2. What impact did the community have on players’ experience in the game?
  • the research uses netnographic methods, blending digital records with ethnographic methods such as surveys, participant observations and interviews
  • because digital games are exploding in today’s society it is the duty of the educational community to understand how this new venue can be leveraged to foster productive scientific learning experiences
  • Design of the game:
    • designers kick off an initial game with resources and a storyline,
    • player activity creates player progress which in turn feeds into the evolving gaming design
    • the ultimate game storyline and activity is a product of the player community
    • with the structures carefully designed by the design team
    • a game is not delivered to a community but instead emerges from it
    • for a game like this to succeed, the players create social structures and form into a community of practice, building a language, habits, and practices that help them advance in the game
    • etiquette, rituals and events help to cohere the community
    • the activities, traits and behaviours that take place in some role-playing and social digital games are in common with many facets communities of practice
      • in a community of practice, people work together on domain-specific activities using common habits, language and cultural rules of engagement and developing an accompanying body of knowledge
      • in games, players often work together as part of a community to solve problems with access to informational resources and tools necessary for each problem
    • in game playing people model how they need to learn and this is in stark contrast to the way learning activities are implemented in traditional learning environments
    • gamers are found to construct nre roles and identities as they engage in collaborative problem solving and systemic thinking
    • learners’ sense of identity and science self-efficacy  indicate people’s willingness to participate in furthering their science skills and knowledge and may be important factors to consider for typically excluded members in science, such as girls or minorities
    • if players see themselves as an important community member in a game, they may gain confidence and motivation for science learning in other venues.
    • relationships at the community level are important mediators of scientific activity and identity
    • peer review, collaboration, sharing and analysis of data and evidence-based reasoning are occuring in many popular role-playing games (e.g World of Warcraft) – these activites are similar to practicing scientists in a community of practice
    • some players emerge as leaders and creators and many discovered and developed new talents and abilities as a result
    • when motivated and supported by grouop cohesion, these identities can be portable and malleable over time and lead to a high level of productivity
    • much of this potential lies in the interface design
  • the designers called upon the Blue Mars Community to help them figure out what had happened in the boneyards. Players were allowed to take the story in any direction that the community  agreed was evidence based
  • they attempted to set a culture and set of common practices among the community, through modelling of their behaviours and through guided facilitation (asking questions such as “what makes you say that?”)
  • the research relies on interviews with designers and players as well as participant observations
  • Results:
    • the relationships which the players developed with the characters is what brought them back night after night according to participant observers
    • to make a visible connection between players’ advancement and their role in the community, each week they awarded avatar clothing to players who had made significant contributions
    • later in the game, the designers used an award ceremony as a way to wrap up the storyline and held a community event where players were publicly recognized
    • there was a palpable sense of accomplishment in the community, as well as pride and respect expressed for the top players
    • players emerged as leaders and some emerged as teachers
    • the adoption of roles and players’ sense of identity within the community may be an important leverage point for designers to use to foster CoPs in games

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