Cooperative Games

By: Patricia Harris, PhD for Play Play Learn

Cooperation is typically defined as having two possible meanings. First, the idea of "working jointly towards the same end” and second, “helping someone or complying with their requests.” The differences between the two meanings are subtle, yet very important when it comes to successful cooperative games. When we speak of cooperation, it seems that we more often are addressing the second definition rather than the first. For example, a salesperson might say, “If they cooperate, we can close this deal in a day.” What is being really said is “If they do what we want, we can make this sale!” This is a case of saying we want people to cooperate by doing what we want them to do. When we talk about helping children be more cooperative we are also most often focusing on the second definition. We want them to more readily do what we want them to do. Cooperation in the sense of “complying with requests” is also an important element of success in companies. Clayton M. Christensen, Matt Marx, and Howard H. Stevenson in the article “The Tools of Cooperation and Change” (Harvard Business Review, Oct, 2006) begin their article by declaring that “The primary task of management is to get people to work together in a systematic way. Like orchestra conductors, managers direct the talents and actions of various players to produce a desired result.” The authors go on to detail why managers fail in the face of introducing change and the tools they can use to bring about the desired result – the cooperation of employees.

The importance of the second definition of cooperation in business and in life is thus fairly clear. With no compliance to rules or directives, little would be accomplished. However, the first definition may be equally important. The first definition of cooperation is not about individuals or group members following a leader, doing as they are told or complying with rules. It is not about assisting a leader in reaching his/her goals. Instead it is all the parties involved working together, calling on each person’s strengths and using ideas from all, to reach a common goal. Sometimes the first definition of cooperation is further defined as an opposite to competition, which can complicate the understanding of cooperation. Competition, after all, is a driving force in American business and culture. A Forbes post tells us that competition is in fact a necessity for businesses: “Competition leads to innovation. If you’re the only player in your field, it can be difficult to improve. And if you’re working in a crowded market, you won’t succeed by doing what everyone else does. Healthy competition encourages change which will distinguish your company from others through technology, product alterations or by improving the customer experience.”

While competition is still an important spur to success in business, the authors, Andrea Saveri, Howard Rheingold, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, and Kathi Vian, associated with the Institute for the Future Technology Horizons Program suggested in Toward a New Literacy of Cooperation in Business: MANAGING DILEMMAS IN THE 21ST CENTURY (June 2004) that the need for cooperation - i.e. the opposite of competition -- may be increasing in importance.

In the last two decades, however, we’ve seen a variety of challenges to business models that stress competition over customers, resources, and ideas.
• Companies in emerging high-tech industries have learned that working with competitors can build markets and help avoid costly standards wars.
• The open source movement has shown that world-class software can be built without corporate oversight or market incentives.
• Google and Amazon have built fortunes by drawing on—and even improving—the Internet.
• Outsourcing has turned competitors into common customers of design firms and contract manufacturers.
The value of competition-oriented strategies will further decline as emerging technologies and new media diffuse from high-tech into traditional industries and as global industries become more fluid and flexible. Connective and pervasive technologies are enabling new forms of human and machine interactions and relationships; they will present business institutions with a host of new possibilities for organizing people, processes, relationships and knowledge. These forces will accelerate a shift in business strategy from solving concrete business problems to managing complex business dilemmas, which in turn will require a broader set of strategic tools and concepts than are provided by competitive models.
If companies, managers, and employees are to move into a new model of cooperation that may include working with competitors, with less oversight, and sometimes focusing work on the “common good,” our students in school now must be introduced to the concept of cooperation that does not call for compliance but calls for working together. Enter a role for cooperative games – games designed to force a team of players to work together to “win.” And enter the need for game strategies strategies or instructional strategies for games that help students develop cooperative skills.

One example of a game for young children with a high element of chance but also a high need for cooperation to win is Orchard. In the game, the players are trying to collect all the fruit from four trees before a raven puzzle is completed. The players roll a die to determine what fruit they can remove from the trees or if a piece of the raven puzzle is added to the board. If the player gets a basket, then any two fruit pieces can be removed. If the player only wants to remove apples, the apples can be depleted and other players who roll apples lose their turns. This game requires cooperation only when a player rolls a basket. Then the group needs to consider options, count remaining fruits and decide what is the best pick for collecting the fruits. Sounds simple, right? It is not always simple for preschool and primary children to think about the choices best for the group – they may want to focus on a specific tree as “my” tree because the tree holds their favorite fruit. Learning to cooperate may take some outside direction or completing the raven puzzle several times before the fruits are all removed for young children to adopt a cooperation model. Another problem in the game Orchard is that one child may want to make all the decisions for what two fruits to remove. While the fruits may all come off the trees, the children have not learned about cooperation as expressed in the first definition—they will be practicing the second definition--compliance. They will then not be learning what may be an important 21st century skill.