The Wicked Problem of Collaboration

Collaborative Circle?

How to Cite

Ruggill, J., & McAllister, K. (2006). The Wicked Problem of Collaboration: Collaborative Circle?. M/C Journal, 9(2).
Vol. 9 No. 2 (2006): 'collaborate'
Published 2006-05-01

In “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” urban planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber outline what they term “wicked problems.” According to Rittel and Webber, wicked problems are unavoidably “ill-defined,” that is, unlike “problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable…[wicked problems] are never solved. At best they are only re-solved—over and over again” (160). Rittel and Webber were thinking specifically of the challenges involved in making decisions within immensely complex social circumstances—building highways through cities and designing low income housing projects, for example—but public policy-making and urban design are not the only fields rife with wicked problems. Indeed, the nub of Rittel and Webber’s articulation of wicked problems concerns a phenomenon common to many disciplines: interdisciplinary collaboration. As anyone who has collaborated with people outside her area of expertise will acknowledge, interdisciplinary collaboration itself is among the wickedest problems of all.

By way of introduction, we direct the Learning Games Initiative (LGI), a transdisciplinary, inter-institutional research group that studies, teaches with, and builds computer games. In the seven years since LGI was inaugurated, we have undertaken many productive and well-received collaborations, including: 1) leading workshops at national and international conferences; 2) presenting numerous academic talks; 3) editing academic journals; 4) writing books, book chapters, journal articles, and other scholarly materials; 5) exhibiting creative and archival work in museums, galleries, and libraries; and 6) building one of the largest academic research archives of computer games, systems, paraphernalia, and print-, video-, and audio-scholarship in the world. We thus have a fair bit of experience with the wicked problem of collaboration.

The purpose of this article is to share some of that experience with readers and to describe candidly some of the challenges we have faced—and sometimes overcome—working collaboratively across disciplinary, institutional, and even international boundaries.

Collaborative Circle?

Michael Farrell, whose illuminating analysis of “collaborative circles” has lent much to scholars’ understandings of group dynamics within creative contexts, succinctly describes how many such groups form: “A collaborative circle is a set of peers in the same discipline who, through open exchange of support, ideas, and criticism develop into an interdependent group with a common vision that guides their creative work” (266). Farrell’s model, while applicable to several of the smaller projects LGI has nurtured over the years, does not capture the idiosyncratic organizational method that has evolved more broadly within our collective. Rather, LGI has always tended to function according to a model more akin to that found in used car dealerships, one where “no reasonable offer will be refused.” LGI is open to anyone willing to think hard and get their hands dirty, which of course has molded the organization and its projects in remarkable ways. Unlike Farrell’s collaborative circles, for example, LGI’s collaborative model actually decentralizes the group’s study and production of culture. Any member from anywhere—not just “peers in the same discipline”—can initiate or join a project provided she or he is willing to trade in the coin of the realm: sweat equity. Much like the programmers of the open source software movement, LGI’s members work only on what excites them, and with other similarly motivated people. The “buy-in,” simply, is interest and a readiness to assume some level of responsibility for the successes and failures of a given project.

In addition to decentralizing the group, LGI’s collaborative model has emerged such that it naturally encourages diversity, swelling our ranks with all kinds of interesting folks, from fine artists to clergy members to librarians. In large part this is because our members view “peers” in the most expansive way possible; sure, optical scientists can help us understand how virtual cameras simulate the real properties of lenses and research linguists can help us design more effective language-in-context tools for our games. However, in an organization that always tries to understand the layers of meaning-making that constitute computer games, such technical expertise is only one stratum. For a game about the cultural politics of ancient Greece that LGI has been working on for the past year, our members invited a musical instrument maker, a potter, and a school teacher to join the development team. These new additions—all experts and peers as far as LGI is concerned—were not merely consultants but became part of the development team, often working in areas of the project completely outside their own specialties. While some outsiders have criticized this project—currently known as “Aristotle’s Assassins”—for being too slow in development, the learning taking place as it moves forward is thrilling to those on the inside, where everyone is learning from everyone else. One common consequence of this dynamic is, as Farrell points out, that the work of the individual members is transformed: “Those who are merely good at their discipline become masters, and, working together, very ordinary people make extraordinary advances in their field” (2).

Additionally, the diversity that gives LGI its true interdisciplinarity also makes for praxical as well as innovative projects. The varying social and intellectual concerns of the LGI’s membership means that every collaboration is also an exploration of ethics, responsibility, epistemology, and ideology. This is part of what makes LGI so special: there are multiple levels of learning that underpin every project every day. In LGI we are fond of saying that games teach multiple things in multiple ways. So too, in fact, does collaborating on one of LGI’s projects because members are constantly forced to reevaluate their ways of seeing in order to work with one another. This has been particularly rewarding in our international projects, such as our recently initiated project investigating the relationships among the mass media, new media, and cultural resource management practices. This project, which is building collaborative relationships among a team of archaeologists, game designers, media historians, folklorists, and grave repatriation experts from Cambodia, the Philippines, Australia, and the U.S., is flourishing, not because its members are of the same discipline nor because they share the same ideology. Rather, the team is maturing as a collaborative and productive entity because the focus of its work raises an extraordinary number of questions that have yet to be addressed by national and international researchers. In LGI, much of the sweat equity we contribute involves trying to answer questions like these in ways that are meaningful for our international research teams.

In our experience, it is in the process of investigating such questions that effective collaborative relationships are cemented and within which investigators end up learning about more than just the subject matter at hand. They also learn about the micro-cultures, histories, and economies that provide the usually invisible rhetorical infrastructures that ground the subject matter and to which each team member is differently attuned. It is precisely because of this sometimes slow, sometimes tense learning/teaching dynamic—a dynamic too often invoked in both academic and industry settings to discourage collaboration—that François Chesnais calls attention to the fact that collaborative projects frequently yield more benefits than the sum of their parts suggests possible. This fact, says Chesnais, should lead institutions to value collaborative projects more highly as “resource-creating, value-creating and surplus-creating potentialities” (22). Such work is always risky, of course, and Jitendra Mohan, a scholar specializing in cross-cultural collaborations within the field of psychology, writes that international collaboration “raises methodological problems in terms of the selection of culturally-coloured items and their historical as well as semantic meaning…” (314). Mohan means this as a warning and it is heeded as such by LGI members; at the same time, however, it is precisely the identification and sorting out of such methodological problems that seems to excite our best collaborations and most innovative work.

Given such promise, it is easy to see why LGI is quite happy to adopt the used car dealer’s slogan “no reasonable offer refused.” In fact, in LGI we see our open-door policy for projects as mirroring our primary object of study: games. This is another factor that we believe contributes to the success of our members’ collaborations. Commercial computer game development is a notoriously interdisciplinary and collaborative endeavor. By collaborating in a fashion similar to professional game developers, LGI members are constantly fashioning more complex understandings of the kinds of production practices and social interactions involved in game development; these practices and interactions are crucial to game studies precisely because they shape what games consist of, how they mean, and the ways in which they are consumed. For this reason, we think it foolish to refuse any reasonable offer to help us explore and understand these meaning-making processes.

Wicked Problem Backlash

Among the striking points that Rittel and Webber make about wicked problems is that solutions to them are usually created with great care and planning, and yet inevitably suffer severe criticism (at least) or utter annihilation (at worst). Far from being indicative of a bad solution, this backlash against a wicked problem’s solution is an integral element of what we call the “wicked problem dialectic.” The backlash against attempts to establish and nurture transdisciplinary collaboration is easy to document at multiple levels. For example, although our used car dealership model has created a rich research environment, it has also made the quotidian work of doing projects difficult. For one thing, organizing something as simple as a project meeting can take Herculean efforts. The wage earners are on a different schedule than the academics, who are on a different schedule from the artists, who are on a different schedule from the librarians. Getting everyone together in the same room at the same time (even virtually) is like herding cats.

As co-directors of LGI, we have done our best to provide the membership with both synchronous and asynchronous resources to facilitate communication (e.g., conference-call enabled phones, online forums, chat clients, file-sharing software, and so on), but nothing beats face-to-face meetings, especially when projects grow complex or deadlines impend mercilessly. Nonetheless, our members routinely fight the meeting scheduling battle, despite the various communication options we have made available through our group’s website and in our physical offices. Most recently we have found that an organizational wiki makes the process of collecting and sharing notes, drawings, videos, segments of code, and drafts of writing decidedly easier than it had been, especially when the projects involve people who do not live a short distance (or a cheap phone call) away from each other.

Similarly, not every member has the same amount of time to devote to LGI and its projects despite their considerable and demonstrated interest in them. Some folks are simply busier than others, and cannot contribute to projects as much as they might like. This can be a real problem when a project requires a particular skill set, and the owner of those skills is busy doing other things like working at a paying job or spending time with family. LGI’s projects are always done in addition to members’ regular workload, and it is understandable when that workload has to take precedence. Like regular exercise and eating right, the organization’s projects are the first things to go when life’s demands intrude. Different projects handle this challenge in a variety of ways, but the solutions always tend to reflect the general structure of the project itself. In projects that follow what Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede refer to as “hierarchical collaborations”—projects that are clearly structured, goal-oriented, and define clear roles for its participants—milestones and deadlines are set at the beginning of the project and are often tied to professional rewards that stand-in for a paycheck: recommendation letters, all-expenses-paid conference trips, guest speaking invitations, and so forth (133).

Less organized projects—what Lunsford and Ede call “dialogic collaborations”—deal with time scheduling challenges differently. Inherently, dialogic collaborations such as these tend to be less hampered by time because they are loosely structured, accept and often encourage members to shift roles, and often value the process of working toward the project’s goals as highly as actually attaining them (134). The most common adaptive strategy used in these cases is simply for the most experienced members of the team to keep the project in motion. As long as something is happening, dialogic collaborations can be kept fruitful for a very long time, even when collaborators are only able to contribute once or twice a month. In our experience, as long as each project’s collaborators understand its operative expectations—which can, by the way, be a combination of hierarchical and dialogical modes—their work proceeds smoothly.

Finally, there is the matter of expenses. As an institutionally unaffiliated collective, the LGI has no established revenue stream, which means project funding is either grant-based or comes out of the membership’s pockets. As anyone who has ever applied for a grant knows, it is one thing to write a grant, and another thing entirely to get it. Things are especially tough when grant monies are scarce, as they have been (at least on this side of the pond) since the U.S. economy started its downward spiral several years ago. Tapping the membership’s pockets is not really a viable funding option either. Even modest projects can be expensive, and most folks do not have a lot of spare cash to throw around. What this means, ultimately, is that even though our group’s members have carte blanche to do as they will, they must do so in a resource-starved environment.

While it is sometimes disappointing that we are not able to fund certain projects despite their artistic and scholarly merit, LGI members learned long ago that such hardships rarely foreclose all opportunities. As Anne O’Meara and Nancy MacKenzie pointed out several years ago, many “seemingly extraneous features” of collaborative projects—not only financial limitations, but also such innocuous phenomena as where collaborators meet, the dance of their work and play patterns, their conflicting responsibilities, geographic separations, and the ways they talk to each other—emerge as influential factors in all collaborations (210). Thus, we understand in LGI that while our intermittent funding has influenced the dimension and direction of our group, it has also led to some outcomes that in hindsight we are glad we were led to. For example, while LGI originally began studying games in order to discover where production-side innovations might be possible, a series of funding shortfalls and serendipitous academic conversations led us to favor scholarly writing, which has now taken precedence over other kinds of projects.

At the most practical level, this works out well because writing costs nothing but time, plus there is a rather desperate shortage of good game scholarship. Moreover, we have discovered that as LGI members have refined their scholarship and begun turning out books, chapters, and articles on a consistent basis, both they and the organization accrue publicity and credibility. Add to this the fact that for many of the group’s academics, traditional print-based work is more valued in the tenure and promotion economy than is, say, an educational game, an online teachers’ resource, or a workshop for a local parent-teacher association, and you have a pretty clear research path blazed by what Kathleen Clark and Rhunette Diggs have called “dialectical collaboration,” that is, collaboration marked by “struggle and opposition, where tension can be creative, productive, clarifying, as well as difficult” (10).


In sketching out our experience directing a highly collaborative digital media research collective, we hope we have given readers a sense of why collaboration is almost always a “wicked problem.” Collaborators negotiate different schedules, work demands, and ways of seeing, as well as resource pinches that hinder the process by which innovative digital media collaborations come to fruition. And yet, it is precisely because collaboration can be so wicked that it is so valuable. In constantly requiring collaborators to assess and reassess their rationales, artistic visions, and project objectives, collaboration makes for reflexive, complex, and innovative projects, which (at least to us) are the most satisfying and useful of all.

Author Biographies

Judd Ruggill


Ken McAllister