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GLS - What we can learn from fantasy baseball

Baseball_firstbase_2 How is fantasy baseball really played? What can it teach us about how and why we play complex games and what we derive from that experience?

Erica and Rich Halverson's talk at the GLS Conference provided a snapshot of their research into the ways “learning, play, and engagement in fantasy sports require a combination of fan cultural practices and skills characteristic of gamers in order to be successful.” Erica Halverson is an assistant professor of learning sciences and Rich Halverson is an associate professor in educational leadership and policy analysis, both at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The Halversons believe expert fantasy sports players “construct organizing metaphors for their gameplay and that these metaphors guide both in-game decisions and experts’ mental models used for reflecting on play.” Understanding how expert gamers think and behave could yield great benefits to educators and game designers alike. Such an understanding “could help guide the design of learning spaces that use the competitive fandom model as a principle for design.”

Fantasy baseball emerges, according to the Halversons, via the convergence of three activities: Primary activity (Major League Baseball); Fan activity (watching games, collecting cards, etc.); and Fantasy activity (organizing or participating in a fantasy baseball league). The fantasy activity “repurposes the primary activity content” with fan activity to create a game-based environment with its own unique set of player created rules.

The Halversons are trying to “reverse engineer” fantasy baseball to better understand how data-rich games work. They are trying to determine “what is added to fan knowledge to produce fantasy gaming expertise.” To find the answers they are analyzing the discourse of in-game play (both spouses are fantasy baseball players) and conducting semi-structured interviews with expert players. Much of this has occurred within “an incredibly complex transmedia environment” of phone, voice and video chat, multiple internet resources, email, charts, graphs, databases, etc.

Expert players, say the Halversons, rely on what Aristotle called practical wisdom: “patterns of problem-setting and problem-solving; an eye for the appropriate move in navigating complex systems.” High-level gamers rely on reasoning, data reduction techniques (“chunking large bodies of information into meaningful patterns”), and an ability to adapt knowledge to novel situations.

Stories and analogies are constructed around play and are often mapped onto other experiences, such as stock market analysis. The Halversons' research suggests that expert players routinely use their fantasy baseball acumen to succeed in other situations requiring skillful analysis of ever-changing data and information.

High-level players must develop and utilize adaptive expertise, according to the Halversons. “The primary activity is dynamic, so rules are really heuristics. Things change quickly, and players must respond nimbly by developing strategies for multiple scenarios.” Expert fantasy players are ready for almost any situation and quickly turn unexpected events to their advantage. “It is also a social learning and adaptive situation. You must know the other players, know the league, etc.” Referring to one especially successful fantasy player, Rich Halverson described him as “the smartest man I know.”

Of particular note to educators is the Halversons' finding that fan knowledge and primary activity expertise go both ways. An expert fantasy baseball player's knowledge of the primary activity (MLB) “enables hypothesis testing that makes you an expert fantasy player.” But perhaps more importantly, expertise in the fantasy game creates heightened expertise in the primary activity as well. This could result in broad applications for teachers who wish to apply the competitive fandom model to teaching a wide range of other subjects. It could also impact game designers who want to better understand how and why players engage on a deep level with games.