Happy as I am that some educators have recognised the value and importance of videogames for learning, I’m increasingly concerned about approaches that I think will suck the life out of gaming and play. I’ve already written about meaningful approaches to learning about and with games (which touched on gamification) but I felt a follow up was in order to get at gamification specifically:
1) gamification: the notion that the use of selective game mechanics constitutes a game (or, as I’m using it, selective games as “texts” removed from their cultures or environments in which they are typically played and recontextualised according to schooly purposes).
2) additive: that games are merely a vehicle that learning is dumped into by “expert” educators/subject teachers.
3) creepy treehouse: the act of locating games and play within a context of evaluation, surveillance and assessment (the pedagogical influence of power relations that are largely not acknowledged reflexively on the part of power holders).
Without a real love or investment in the larger culture of gaming, there is a potential to negate a cultural expression that holds real meaning for learners. This may do far more “violence” to their minds and hearts than Call of Duty. In essence, the act of colonizing and inscribing play.
Let’s face it, a lot of what we enjoy and call play isn’t stuff we would say or do in a classroom or any space where we are being observed by power holders (or if we do, we do so out of their gaze). A boss might think a game of paintball, golf tournament or a night out at Appleby’s is a fun night and playful icebreaker. But most employees experience it differently. The un-reflexive lets-play-videogames together teacher is not unlike The Office’s boss Michael Scott, whose total absence of perspective on power relations results in uncomfortable moments for his staff. As teachers, we often do the same thing when we unpack “fun” activities that our students are obligated to participate in – often forgetting that having to do things and wanting to do them are two different things. But how could anything fun feel forced?
Have a look at this historical document on children’s play from Peter and Iona Opie’s Children’s Games in Street and Playground (Oxford University Press) 1969. What they have to say about children’s play resonates with me a lot right now in relation to the location of gaming in the classroom – and notions “adult” teachers have of what this play is and “ought” to be – and where adults situate themselves in relation to children’s authentic cultures and games. Replace the word adult with teacher and consider the parallels to contemporary discourse and media frames. Consider also games with videogames and it becomes apparent that our impulses to control and inscribe children’s play is nothing new:
“During the past fifty years shelf-loads of books have been written instructing children in the games they ought to play, and some even instructing adults on how to instruct children in the games they ought to play, but few attempts have been made to record the games children in fact play. It seems to be presumed that children today (unlike those in the past) have few diversions of their own, that they are incapable of self-organization, have become addicted to spectator amusements, and will languish if left to rely on their own resources. It is felt that the enlightened adult is one who thinks up ideas for them, provides them with ‘play materials,’ and devotes time to playing with them.’
I love the use of the word “addiction” – one often associated with videogames in moral panic media reports (and a common assumption among non gamers about the time gamers spend engaging in their cultures – playing games) the reference to “incapable of self organization” reminds me of the endless commentaries of those who wish to “teach” kids to be more critical about the games they play (reading only the surface aesthetics or themes of game rather than knowing what it is the learners enjoy). These same frames are still very present in the language of adults and teachers when speaking of children and the presumed literacies they do not possess. As well, the commentary on the “enlightened” adult “who thinks up ideas for them” is very much the classroom2.0 teacher bringing in blogs, social media and other ostenisble “play materials” to “play” with them — without considering how different their experience is when they have autonomy, privacy and freedom to do so unobserved or assessed. Consider this also in relation to Opies comments about peer-to-peer learning v. top down, adult-to-child learning:
‘Our vision of childhood continues to be based on the adult-child relationship. Possibly because it is more diffficult to find out about, let alone understand, we largely ignore the child-to-child complex, scarcely realizing that however much children may need looking after they are also people going about their own business within their own society, and are fully capable of occupying themselves under the jurisdiction of their own code.”
And the Opies made it clear that they were talking about the way kids play when they are alone, away from adults. Not playing sports or any activity requiring “supervision”:
“we are concerned solely with the games that children, aged about 6-12, play of their own accord when out of doors, and usually out of sight. We do not include, except incidentally, party games, scout games, team games, or any sport that requires supervision; and we concentrate for the most part on the rough-and-tumble games which, though they may require energy and sometimes fortitude, do not need even the elementary equipment of bat and ball.”
I’d love to have gaming recognized as an important part of our culture and one that ought to be engaged as a form of learning and literacy like any other (not even as a text but as a method of learning). If anything, games could play an important role in radically reconfiguring school according to the more meaningful mechanics of engagement found in games (i.e., low to no stakes skill mastery v. high stakes testing – see James Gee’s definitions of these affordances).
Open assessment in situated learning spaces v. school
One idea of doing gaming right involves thinking about allowing learning to happen in the spaces it really happens and exploring the integration of open assessment in peer spaces with accreditation in schooly ones. Here’s what the Peer to Peer University is working on:
- Courses are no longer simply confined to classrooms or expensive universities, but instead open education initiatives such as MIT OpenCourseWare, Peer-2-Peer University (P2PU) and OERCommons capitalize on the openness of the web and peer networks.
But we also have to deal with the disposition problem – i.e., the ideological, social or cultural values within a teacher that contribute to their assessment of “good” and “bad” games for learning and their very notion of learning, play or power relations. We have to think about the space of the classroom – in relation to more authentic peer to peer “situated” learning spaces. If we’re going to do gaming, maybe we ought to situate those games within the spaces they are played and explore the idea of peer and community assessment rather than inscribing with our own ideas of what that literacy looks or feels like?
A call to action
While I try to focus on the positive exceptions of in-school gaming that are coming from wonderfully reflexive gamer educators I still believe there are some ethics we need to unpack around coercing game-play within a context of assessment and power (a creepy-treehouse). I’ve written about some of the ways we could bypass creepytreehouses and gamification but was recently struck by another idea while talking to a student about minecraft: if the students themselves were actually involved in the curriculum development we might actually get this right (though I think students should be involved in contributing to every aspect of school).
I will be reflecting a bit more in future posts about some of the ideas students themselves have shared with me about the prospect of gaming in schools and the way they situate themselves as gamers within particular gaming cultures and approaches to gameplay. In the meantime, talk to your kids or your students – what games do they play? What do they like about these different games. Or if you are a student, tell your teachers your idea of gaming in school – or whether you even like this idea.
Non gamer teachers: take a night off or a weekend and play some games. Think about what makes that fun for you and use that as your starting point. If you’re like me, it might be the discovery that you’d rather spend several hours just roaming around and dying (“noobing it up” without any goal or objective but exploration) than looking up tutorials and going about things in a prescribed way. I wonder how I might have “taught” minecraft a few years ago given how much my own thinking has changed.
Me, noobing it up, in minecraft.
Sarah ‘Intellagirl’ Robbins offers some great definitions of games in her article “This game sucks: How to improve the gamification of education”, which she argues that higher ed is already gamified via “pointsification.”
Mozilla and Peer to Peer University explore the idea of open assessment for learning outside of schools