Alpha Players and In-Class Group Work

File this under “designing board games is a lot like teaching”…

The cooperative board game Pandemic, designed by Matt Leacock, showing a world map with "virus cubes" spreadingI was recently reading the new issue of Senet magazine, a publication whose tagline is “board games are beautiful.” The issue featured an interview with Matt Leacock, designer of the popular cooperative board game Pandemic. In a cooperative board game, all the players work together to defeat the game. There’s no single winner; either everyone wins or the game wins. What happens when one player starts telling all the other players what they should do? That’s called the alpha player problem, and it can really take the fun out of a cooperative game.

Leacock was asked about the alpha player problem and what a game designer can do about it. “The designer… has a responsibility to create mechanisms where everyone can shine and one player can’t dominate.” What are some mechanisms that can prevent or at least minimize the alpha player problem? Leacock identified three strategies:

  1. Hidden information. Structure the game so that no one player has access to all the relevant information. “It’s difficult to be domineering if the other person has autonomy or ownership of that information,” Leacock said. He also noted that hiding information in a cooperative game can feel artificial.
  2. Wicked problems. If the game is hard enough, no one player can run the table. Leacock described his forthcoming cooperative game about climate change, Daybreak, which I mentioned here on the blog last fall, as hard in this way. “There are so many moving parts that trying to internalize the entire game state is very taxing.”
  3. Nuance problems. These are challenges in a game “where there are many right answers.” Leacock said he enjoys these kinds of challenges, since they “lead to lots of discussions.”

As I was reading the Leacock interview, I couldn’t help but think of analogies to the college classroom. When integrating group work in a class session, there’s a risk that some groups will have an “alpha student,” that is, a group member who takes charge in an unhelpful way. Not only can this make for some uncomfortable social situations, it can also deprive other group members of opportunities to learn.

How can teachers try to prevent or minimize the alpha student problem? Leacock’s three game design strategies transfer very well to educational settings!

  1. Hidden information. When students are given access to different resources or different ways to prepare for group interactions, no one student has all the information needed to tackle the group work. Consider a jigsaw activity where each member of a group brings different ideas or resources to the table, drawn from a previous set of group interactions. Or consider structured reading groups, an approach that involves giving different group members different roles to play as they prepare for and participate in group work.
  2. Wicked problems. Giving students a sufficiently challenging or complex problem, one that no single student can solve, can create a sense of interdependence. Researchers in the Netherlands led by Femke Kirschner studied how individuals and groups went about solving both low-complexity and high-complexity problems. In their 2011 study, they found that group work had little relative impact on student learning over individual work for the low-complexity tasks. For the high-complexity tasks, however, group work shined.
  3. Nuance problems. When there’s no single right answer to a question, it’s a lot harder for one student to dominate group discussions. That can still happen, but if you’ve framed the problem at hand as one that permits multiple interesting and useful answers, there’s more reason for all the students in a group to weigh in and share their perspectives and ideas. And these problems exist in all fields, even “high consensus” fields like the natural sciences. There are often multiple ways to get to a single answer, or ethical questions to explore.

How do you go about structuring group work to avoid “alpha students”? Do your methods map onto any of these three strategies?

For more on the intersection of games and teaching, see my “Learning at Play” blog posts or my Leading Lines podcast interviews with Patrick Rael, Max Seidman, and Kimberly Rogers.

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