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Productive Play


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Journal of Advanced Technologies for Learning, 2007

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Productive Play

  1. 1. Advanced Technology for Learning, Vol. 4, No. 4, 2007 PRODUCTIVE PLAY: PARTICIPATION AND LEARNING IN DIGITAL GAME ENVIRONMENTS L. Galarneau∗ 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 [1]. 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” [2]. 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 participation. belief that play is a fundamental human need with the supposition that “the opposite of play is not work, its Key Words depression” [3]. 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” [4]. 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 [5], 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 [6]. 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 mainstay of the adult learning process [7], is missing. Play, (paper no. 208-0924) and games in particular, can create an authentic learning 1
  2. 2. Figure 1. The ESP game ( 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 [8]. 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 [16]. 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” [2]. 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 [9] and Huizinga [10], so much as a mode of plant geneticist Barbara McClintock, “a feeling for the or- experience [11] 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 [12] than to a simple description of one engaged in leisure issue from myriad directions [17]. 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” [9]. As such, motivating effectively with situations outside of the original context of people to learn can simply mean affording them a context learning” [18]. 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, 2
  3. 3. 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” [27]. 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 [21]; 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) [31]. 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 [24] 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 [25] employed by media consumers, and are now of this shift from spectator-focused media consumption to 3
  4. 4. 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 [32]. fan production, consumers no longer have to exclusively Not only have young people come to expect the free- “poach” assets [28], 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” [32]. 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” [28]. 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- 4
  5. 5. ness’ is deeply woven together with the social and the then attempting to use them in an educational context co-constructive work of players” [2]. 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 [33]. 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 [34]. 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 [35]. 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 [36]. 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 5
  6. 6. 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 [37]. 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 a critical one, in forming a basic interest and acceptance References of history, and realizing that our understanding of history is informed and continuously revised by myriad points of [1] T. Malaby, Stopping play: a new approach to games, 2006. [2] T.L. Taylor, Play between worlds: Exploring online game view. It is this thinking like a historian that becomes that culture (Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2006). transformative factor: this is a participatory practice, even [3] B. Sutton-Smith, Video conference with Brian Sutton-Smith if only in the play environment. And once the learner and Eric Zimmerman, Digital Games Research Association has the sense of being a participant in history and the Conf., 2004. [4] J. Dibbell, The social dimensions of digital gaming. 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