Advanced Technology for Learning, Vol. 4, No. 4, 2007
PRODUCTIVE PLAY: PARTICIPATION AND
LEARNING IN DIGITAL GAME
Abstract fore embracing play, within a rigorous educational context.
Within the study of learning, in particular, games been
Although there is considerable interest in the idea of using games plagued by exceptionalism, leading to a phenomenon in
for learning, success in this area has proven elusive. Clearly it is which they “have been sold short by their unexamined and
challenging to take established curricula developed for other media seemingly unbreakable conceptual association with play”
types and attempt to ﬁt them into open-ended game contexts . Solving this problem may be, as Malaby suggests,
where content is secondary to experience. Digital games are very a matter of disassociating games from play. Or it may
eﬀective for learning, but they represent a type of productive play require a huge shift in our normative approach to play in
that does not ﬁt neatly within established educational paradigms. general. Taylor notes that its association with “the term
Furthermore, play and learning take on new dimensions within the ‘fun’ . . . cedes the discussion of the pleasures of play to
context of an increasingly participatory culture that blurs traditional an overly dichotomized model in which leisure rests on one
boundaries between producers and consumers, as well as teachers side and labour on the other” .
and learners. In participatory contexts, learning is a systemic
activity where the contributions of the individual contribute to the 2. Play as a Critical Skill
larger collective intelligence, and learning is often a by-product of
play or creativity. Attempts to use games for learning must take
To overlook play as a critical component of the human ex-
this broader context into account and acknowledge the shifting
perience is to miss an opportunity to leverage an inherent
expectations and emerging literacies of learners steeped in a digital
human capability for learning that is also a drive rooted
culture that introduces and reinforces new standards for play and
in basic survival strategies. Sutton-Smith underscores his
belief that play is a fundamental human need with the
supposition that “the opposite of play is not work, its
Key Words depression” . Play is not an optional leisure activity,
but a biological imperative that supports our cognitive and
Learning, education, digital games, participatory culture, participa- emotional well being, occupying an important role in our
tion, play development as humans. As Dibbell puts it, “play is to the
21st century what steam was to the 20th century” . In
other words, play is a productive phenomenon and as such,
1. Introduction a harnessable resource: play can be explicitly leveraged for
production, as in the case where South African children’s
The movement associated with videogames for learning has play on a merry-go-round has been harnessed to pump
evolved uncomfortably from a category called “edutain- water , or in the case of the ESP game (Fig. 1) in which
ment” to one called “serious games”, both terms that are players volunteer to provide meta-tagging services for im-
clearly rather awkward oxymorons, reﬂecting an inherent ages by playing a web-based game . Play also serves as a
tension in the way we view play and its possibilities for motivating force, but it is most powerfully an apparatus for
learning. Yet attention to such a basic human (and indeed, allowing experimentation outside of limitations of physical
animal) activity as play cannot be trivialized, despite our practicality or other opportunity barriers, e.g. the diﬃ-
collective and seemingly pervasive discomfort with the no- culty of training for natural disasters, that arise from need-
tion that play is fundamentally antithetical to work. This ing to develop competency in an area that is highly depen-
has led us to a point where we are both fascinated and dent on experiences that are not frequently encountered.
frightened by the possibilities of using games, and there- Harnessing the human predilection to play and learn from
∗ Department of Screen and Media, The University of
both real and virtual experience may be a necessity within
Waikato, Private Bag 3500, Hamilton, New Zealand; e-mail: contexts where relevant and directly applicable activity, a
email@example.com mainstay of the adult learning process , is missing. Play,
(paper no. 208-0924) and games in particular, can create an authentic learning
Figure 1. The ESP game (http://www.espgame.org) matches anonymous players and creates a game environment in which
they are challenged to agree on words that might describe an image. This data is subsequently used to create a repository of
image meta-data, an invaluable tool for image searching. “Taboo words” are words that have been agreed upon by players in
previous game sessions.
context by simulating experiences that are inconvenient or ended experimentation. With respect to this alternative
impossible to produce using other means . framing, rather than to say that one is “at play” it would
be more descriptive to say that one is “in play”, i.e., one
Much of the recent confusion regarding play and its role is carving out a space in which experimentation is safe and
in human production comes from our collective observation possible – this state is non-linear, unfocused on a particular
that there is much work that feels like play and indeed, end result, and allows for creative thinking, innovative
especially in the realm of videogames, much “play” that problem solving, and shifts in perspective [13–15].
looks to many observers strangely like work. The levelling
treadmill in many role-playing games, also referred to as These shifts in perspective may be one of the most
“the grind”, is a case in point. As Taylor notes in Play salient features of this sort of open-ended experimentation,
Between Worlds, “the simple idea of fun is turned on its allowing gamers to “go meta”, or view situations or prob-
head by examples of engagement that rest on eﬃciency, lems from various angles . For example, unexpectedly
(often painful) learning, rote and boring tasks, heavy doses viewing the immunological system of the human body from
of responsibility, and intensity of focus” . In this sense, the perspective of a virus, as in the game Replicate, might
play is not a discrete activity as deﬁned by theorists like give one a whole new take on a situation: in the words of
Caillois  and Huizinga , so much as a mode of plant geneticist Barbara McClintock, “a feeling for the or-
experience  characterized by enjoyment of the pursuit ganism” that forms the basis of an intimate knowledge of a
of game goals, but more akin to a description of ﬂow phenomenon, allowing one to pivot one’s mind to view the
 than to a simple description of one engaged in leisure issue from myriad directions . Likewise, the web-based
activities completely disassociated from work. Play, as game September 12th (Fig. 2) provides a context in which
a state, is simply an opportunity for unfocused, open- players can experience a novel perspective on terrorism.
ended experimentation, often in an environment that has This is an “epistemic frame” that can be written into a
been designed to allow for a range of experiences, some game “as a mechanism through which students can use
prescribed, but some almost entirely emergent. It is no experiences in video games, computer games, and other
longer the case, if indeed it ever was, that play is “carefully interactive learning environments to help them deal more
isolated from the rest of life” . As such, motivating eﬀectively with situations outside of the original context of
people to learn can simply mean aﬀording them a context learning” . Furthermore, once this state or frame has
in which productive activity feels like play and allows for been experienced, it can be recalled at will, even outside
the cognitive and creative freedoms associated with open- of an explicit play activity. Extending the virus example,
Figure 2. The web-based “game”, September 12th, encourages players to think about terrorism from a novel perspective.
a doctor who has played a virus may continue to have the evolving into more fully illustrated examples of a partici-
ability to think like one, simply by recalling the experience patory culture (e.g. 2, 26–30) that was heretofore only sus-
of shifting to that point of view. pected. Along with this perspective has come an increased
awareness that the issues and opportunities surrounding
3. Play as Participation media cannot be understood using old paradigms. Games,
particularly co-created online game worlds, are especially
While it seems intuitive that there must be a way to co-opt problematic because it is impossible to read them simply
the enthusiastic engagement and motivation for learning as texts; the experience of playing a game is co-produced
that is readily apparent when one observes videogame play, and continuously negotiated between developer and player:
the formula for widespread success has remained out of “The particularity of games as media texts rests on the fact
reach. Part of the problem is that the appeal of multi- that they cannot be only read or watched but they must
media, including videogames, has often been emphasized be played. Thus, the creative involvement of the player
relative to the sophisticated graphics and fast pace of the becomes a fundamental feature of any game” .
images [19, 20], a perspective rooted in notions of me- As a media form, therefore, games can only be under-
dia spectatorship. However, the appeal of videogames to stood within the panorama of an increasingly participatory
people of all ages is more about the interaction(s) created media culture:
around the game than the game itself; indeed, some re-
searchers consider games to not be inherently interactive A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low
at all ; it is the player(s) who create(s) the interaction. barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement,
The idea of player-driven interaction being key to engage- strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations,
ment and learning [22, 23] underscores the importance of and some type of informal mentorship whereby what
framing the appeal of videogames and interactive media is known by the most experienced is passed along to
within a larger conversation that considers the movement novices. A participatory culture is also one in which
away from passive, spectator-oriented understandings of members believe their contributions matter, and feel
both education and media. There has been a shift from some degree of social connection with one another (at
didactic, teaching-oriented approaches in education to con- the least they care what other people think about what
structivist models that acknowledge the need for the active they have created) .
participation of the learner in the process of learning. A
similar evolution has occurred in media studies, where re- As demonstrated by the Web 2.0 hype and the associ-
actionary models like encoding/decoding  that sought ated fascination with blogs, wikis, shared video, social net-
to outline an unbalanced, hegemonic relationship between working sites and other collaborative forms, participation
media producers and consumers, gave way to an empiri- has turned out to be a fundamental and compelling charac-
cally based acknowledgment of the variety of uses and grat- teristic of digital domains. The particularly notable aspect
iﬁcations  employed by media consumers, and are now of this shift from spectator-focused media consumption to
Figure 3. A screenshot from the World of Warcraft -based machinima ﬁlm called /dance. Players choreograph actual game
play scenes into short narratives or music videos that they then distribute on shared video sites like YouTube.
active participation is that people who have experienced a taneously reinforce both commercial and non-commercial
media relationship of the latter sort come to expect those contributions.
sorts of options, if not always, then at least when they Though many examples are emerging, videogames may
want it: well present the most interesting examples of emerging
participatory cultures. Game modding and machinima
Participatory culture contrasts with older notions of
(Fig. 3) are both examples of the activities of players who
passive media spectatorship. Rather than talking
take commercial game assets, and with the co-operation
about media producers and consumers as occupying
of game developers, act as amateur developers by making
separate roles, we might now see them as participants
and distributing changes to the game or leveraging game
who interact with each other according to a new set of
assets to create narrative ﬁlms. Unlike the early days of
rules that none of us fully understands .
fan production, consumers no longer have to exclusively
Not only have young people come to expect the free- “poach” assets , but are instead allowed varying lev-
dom to make contributions to the media spaces they in- els of sanctioned access to the elements necessary for co-
habit, but co-creation and production have also become production. In online game worlds, the ﬂexible parameters
critical skills that may diﬀerentiate “consumers [who] have speciﬁed by game designers involve creating the basis for
greater abilities to participate in this emerging culture an emergent world where environments are in constant
than others” . It is no longer a straightforward matter ﬂux: rules change, documentation is scarce, and the mas-
that “fans lack direct access to the means of commercial tery of the game relies on a host of skills well beyond the
cultural production and have only the most limited re- game’s manual. Indeed, these games and the strategies for
sources with which to inﬂuence entertainment industry’s playing them, are exercises in co-creation where players,
decisions” . The eﬀects of increasingly skilled partic- as co-producers of the entire game play environment, can
ipation from amateurs on the entire media machine from inﬂuence the rules, aﬀect the outcome, and create a rich
journalism to the music industry illuminate a dialogue that universe of social interactions, emergent activity, and cul-
has emerged between producers and consumers, resulting ture that ultimately become the core of game play rather
in the co-creation of media properties that span and simul- than the periphery: “these are worlds in which ‘game-
ness’ is deeply woven together with the social and the then attempting to use them in an educational context
co-constructive work of players” . means having to reconcile the increasingly participatory
It seems intuitive that denying meaningful interaction, sensibility that young people bring to all of their interac-
as is the case with most educational environments, to tions. To be told what needs to be learned is fundamentally
learners who have become accustomed to the pleasures at odds with this type of approach. Part of the process of
of participation and contribution, might be the source of participation is co-creating the system: guidance from en
much of the consternation we experience as we attempt expert educator is always useful, but if a learner has no in-
to motivate students using outdated models that assume put into what is to be learned, has no say in choosing what
passivity: is relevant to their individual life, there is no motivation to
learn. Placing the irrelevant in a slightly more appealing
We are coming to understand that what we so valued
package is a short-term strategy at best.
as an attention span is something entirely diﬀerent
To fully leverage the potential of digital games for
from what we thought. As practiced, an attention span
learning, it is imperative to recognize that these environ-
is not a power of concentration or self-discipline in the
ments demand approaches to learning that privilege play
least, but rather a measure of a viewer’s susceptibility
and production over traditional models of serving con-
to the hypnotic eﬀects of linear programming. The
tent in a more appealing package. To eﬀectively use a
“well-behaved” viewer who listens quietly, never talks
videogame for learning means using the game as a site
back to the screen, and never changes channels, is
for learning, not simply as a means of delivery. It means
learning what to think and losing his grasp on how
using the game as a tool to create a learning context with
to think [original emphasis]. . . . Helping to convince
broad objectives: the speciﬁcs of what is learned might
ourselves that our lives could run smoothly and easily
vary considerably from learner to learner and might span
if we simply followed instructions .
a range of competencies. It may be necessary to memorize
Rushkoﬀ’s insight could as easily apply to our notions particular facts to accomplish the goals, or even develop
of learners as it does to television viewers, as it is tied skills like problem solving. However, the real opportunity
directly to 20th century models of people as consumers. is in learning to be, to foster varied or deeper perspectives,
People are passive, uncritical vessels to be ﬁlled with stuﬀ: like what it feels like to not simply know the steps of the
propaganda, programming, content, curricula, desire for scientiﬁc method, but to employ it as part of a rigorous
the latest and greatest gizmo. When this ﬁlling up is scientiﬁc belief system and get results that allow one to
appropriate, a person’s only responsibility is to be open to see the world diﬀerently . To this point, Thomas and
it by paying attention – the rest just happens magically. Seely Brown reference Dewey’s “play of the imagination”:
The dark side of this, of course, is that people if people are learning a set of dispositions or comportment in a world is
so accustomed to this process, they can also be easily ﬁlled more likely to transfer than speciﬁc bits of knowledge .
with all sorts of other things, like murky political messages The opportunity provided by play is potentially transfor-
and other by-products of hegemonies and commercial mative, and may trivialize speciﬁc content expertise .
agendas wrapped in pretty, entertaining packages. As Content will continue to be important, but with the right
we know people are susceptible to this, the conventional perspective, a learner can pick and choose what needs to
wisdom is to use games to serve up learning in a nicer reside in one’s head and what can be acquired on a more
package, thereby seducing learners to learn. However, this ad hoc basis. This approach encourages the learner to
is a view that obscures the broader potential of games and take responsibility for the speciﬁcs of one’s learning within
play in learning. a framework of overarching goals.
This is precisely the area in which games really shine.
There are particular things that need to be learned in
4. Participation and Learning the pursuit of game goals. An educator can create a
context, for instance, in which an intimate knowledge of
Despite a great deal of fascination with learner-centred (if Greek architecture and language become fundamental to
not learner-driven) constructivist learning, the vast major- understanding a virtual environment well enough to win a
ity of formal educational opportunities are still unilaterally game. Similarly, a context can be created in which team-
decided and created by some educational body that decides work and communication must be eﬀective in order for a
what a learner must know: those things that are imme- group of players to work together to achieve a particular
diately relevant to an individual’s life are deemed largely goal. In typically constructivist fashion, it is incumbent
inconsequential. Likewise the majority of eﬀorts to use upon the educator to understand the various moving parts
games in education do not take into account our chang- within a system, anticipate learner responses, and loosely
ing understanding of people as media participants rather craft an experience that meets the learning objectives. The
than consumers. Notions of teaching and learning are assessment is based on whether the overall objectives have
equivalent to notions of media producers and consumers. been met. It is then the responsibility of the learner to ﬁll
And this eﬀect, once experienced, is not limited to media, in the gaps provided by the openness of the experience, and
but pervades a range of expectations about participation, this plays well into the co-production sensibility. Learners
especially an increasing drive to seek autonomy and rel- can be given a larger set of directives and various tools
evance in one’s educational endeavours. Herein lies the and resources to access information they think is relevant
quandary: acknowledging games as participatory forms, to the directives; it gives the learners an important sense
of autonomy while also being forced to sort through a role of play in our lives. Awareness of these evolving
complex set of options, mimicking problem solving in the areas will surely help inform our understanding of the
real world. In addition, learners have the opportunity to systemic nature of learning, its connection to productive
form connections between the content they acquired and play in an increasingly interconnected world, and the place
the experience that allows them to integrate it more fully; that game-based learning occupies within such a system.
the latest thinking in neuroscience speculates that this is A deep holistic understanding of game play trends and
a critical aspect of forming a pattern that can later be player habits across both oﬄine and online games, as well
applied to a diﬀerent situation without relying heavily on as ongoing attention to the larger backdrop of participatory
strict protocols or procedures . practices, will both be critical to our success in helping re-
Furthermore, the creation of loose game-based learn- alize the promise of videogames to learning, both in formal
ing contexts allows for identity transformations that are educational settings and informal learning contexts where
not possible within more closed, content-oriented learning self-discovery and development might be of interest. In
systems but may clear the way to signiﬁcant learning. In fact, this might emerge as the sweet spot for videogames:
Squire’s work with low-income and minority students who tools for self-directed learning in a world where learners in-
played Civilization III as part of a world history unit, the creasingly guide the direction of their learning, co-creating
ﬁrst hurdle to be overcome was the students’ basic concept relevant educational scenarios with the assistance of ed-
of the validity of history and their distrust, as marginal- ucational faculty, but with an eye towards using a range
ized people, in the various themes and facts they were of digital resources to achieve the sorts of goals that can
exposed to in history classes. The ability to participate in be powerfully explored through safe experimentation in
simulations of historical or quasi-historical events from a digital play spaces.
range of perspectives was an important ﬁrst step, indeed
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