“Gee and other educators worry that students who are comfortable participating in and exchanging knowledge through affinity spaces are being de-skilled as they enter the classroom”- Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture
Every day, I’m struck by the differences between the experiences I have in situated affinity spaces and those of my educational communities of practice (and the classroom itself). With Jenkins and Gee, I suspect it’s probably similar for learners in our classrooms. As Gee says, this not about a particular software or platform but the rich learning communities and environments that use those tools. Our approach therefore is really about identifying and cultivating investments in affinity groups rather than attempting to artificially produce or stage them (schooly uses of games/social media) around a chosen software or tool.
When I talk with a student who plays World of Warcraft there is a shared recognition of the steep learning curve, massive time investment and knowledge base required of players. This recognition is meaningful because it conveys that I understand their mastery, knowledge and skill in a realm normally nullified by formal education (except if you’re lucky enough to be in Lucas Gillespie’s class :). Jenkins frames it this way, via Gee:
“affinity spaces offer powerful opportunities for learning, Gee argues, because they are sustained by common endeavours that bridge across differences in age, class, race, gender and educational level, because people can participate in various ways according to their skills and interests” (Jenkins, Convergence Culture, p186)
In my affinity space (a family-friendly casual guild in World of Warcraft), I play and learn with people of all ages (10 years old to 60+) of varied educational, socio-economic, cultural, political and experiential backgrounds. The barriers for acceptance in this affinity space are minimal when contrasted with the (often unspoken) hegemonic deference to qualifications, experience, credentials or social capital that determine who is heard or valued in spaces associated with formal/institutional learning.
Transgression, embodiment and empowerment
For me, truly situated affinity spaces are also highly transgressive and empowering. Hegemonic power laws are often reversed or reconfigured in radical ways by participants whose identities and lived experiences are valued and celebrated rather than nullified or de-skilled. While affinity spaces are not devoid of hierarchies and may mirror hegemonic systems, they can reconfigure these structures in creative and empowering ways.
For example, I might take direction from a teen raid leader who possesses the mastery, knowledge and skills I do not. He may not be my age but he is a “peer” in this group. The people I learn with in my affinity space (my community) may not be”qualified” teachers but their methods and approaches rival anything I’ve observed among my professionally trained colleagues. And as Herbert kohl and others have pointed out, the decision to learn from another person is often a product of feeling rather than credential. In my observation, the most meaningful teaching experiences have occurred when one of my friends self selects the person they wish to learn from. I’ve seen profound learning experiences occur in those who were not compelled to change but open to trying something different when the advice came from “a friend”.
Fighting ‘Blaze of the Heavens’: Learning to “kite”
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The kind of experience people have in affinity spaces of every kind. And a typical scenario within MMORPG guilds.
The other day my guildies invited me to join them for a “heroic” dungeon. A dungeon is a series of encounters with increasingly difficult groups of monsters ending with a final series of bosses. A heroic dungeon is a more challenging version of this. Given their difficulty, heroics often call for a little bit of prior knowledge, particularly if you are leading the group. Tankspot is a website that creates instructional videos just for this purpose. Here is a tankspot guide to the dungeon we did (a relatively easy one as heroics go).
At a certain point in the fight, one of the bosses requires a tactic called “kiting” . Up until this point I had thought I knew what kiting was. It turns out I did not and had been doing it wrong. So I wiped the group (everybody died thanks to me). More than once, too. Had it been a random group I would have been kicked (out) by now. Given the time commitment of this dungeon (we were already an hour in), I felt it was unfair for me to keep noobing things up and suggested somebody else take on the kiting task. But the group leader, our guild officer, assured me that I would not get out of learning so easily. “No. You’re going to learn how to do this. However long it takes.” Everybody agreed.
Insights (so far) from this situated learning experience:
- Supportive = friendly, easy-going, good humoured, non-competitive, cooperative
- Everybody is the teacher though experience/confidence may influence who self-selects to do so
- Everyone is responsible for some self-directed learning (visiting forums, watching videos, practicing skills, etc)
- We all accept that learning takes time and will be patient with those who need more time to learn what we might know
- We get to know each other‘s personalities, learning styles and communication preferences by playing together
- We challenge each other to overcome our limitations and offer meaningful and supportive feedback
- Talking and post mortem is key to our learning. After an instruction is explained, the player then confirms their understanding. After we’ve completed the task, especially if it goes wrong, there is discussion about what we did or did not do and what we need to change or alter.
The group leader went over it all again (note: this was the third time it was explained to me). In detail. This time, there was a little piece I’d missed before – and I only knew this after communicating what I’d been doing: “I was throwing everything I had at it and it was killing me!” Group leader: “Aha. OK. You only need to *ping* it. Get its attention, keep it interested. You’re not burning it down. And yes, it will destroy you.” And then another guildie said: “choose one of your instant DOTs (damage over time), just ping it enough so that it keeps following you. That’s it.” I dotted the bird with Insect Swarm and Moonfire and it worked. It was a bit like flying a kite too, a giant flaming bird of a kite :)
“Awesome Mila! Woot!” is what I heard through my headset. And it felt great to finally get it right. The experience of being “noob” in my game often helps me understand some of the learners in my classes who may be new to the stuff I’m teaching. An affinity group structured around a foundation of commitment, trust, respect and general goodwill makes all the difference to those who may feel inexperienced, frustrated or even angry about their learning challenges. Some of this goodwill is often, arguably, a product of affinity (the simple awareness that the person you’re playing with shares the same investment in the game/space) but much of it is socially constructed through simple gestures of kindness, humour and patience – that doesn’t require a teaching degree but basic human empathy.
Our investment in the game and the knowledge and skill required to play it also contributed to our sense of pleasure in attaining the mastery or achievement of both. This was made even more meaningful by our shared investment in this culture. There is quite a lot more I could write (and plan to write) about my experiences with this form of learning outside of traditional education so this is really a first, non theoretical, stab at (for me) trying to articulate it.
I’ll let you make conclusions about what you think is valuable – or not – about my experience but I wanted to share it as an example of what I mean by learning within an affinity culture.
Learning in “magic circles”
Aside from the fun of game play, I have discovered that in addition to authentic offline situated learning I enjoy learning in “magic circles” (i.e, within a cultural or social membrane where I may inhabit more than one identity or reality). Playing wow, particularly with different guilds, has helped me to understand different ways of learning and relating that I have not observed in any other space. The closest thing I can think of to this would be team sports though the context is quite different. As an educator, and gamer, I see many different play styles being engaged and think that the learning we do in schools must be tied to authentic affinity cultures – either offsite (out of school) or re-situated within school (Lucas Gillespie’s Wow in Schools is an example).
Myself (the big feathery creature with the pillar like staff) resting between boss fights. We are all “eating” our magical foods that give us added bonuses, heal us and contribute to our general well being :)