Play learning, or why playing games is important for learning about games

As part of the Learning, Literacy and Technologies reading group’s work this semester, I’m documenting some thoughts, notes, design goals and rationale, and some brain-dumps and debriefings from meetings. This regular series will live on both my personal website (gamerhetor.com) as well as a specialty site dedicated to game-inspired teaching and learning (gameinspiredteaching.wordpress.com).

Several students in ASU’s new Learning, Literacies and Technologies program and I, along with great faculty guidance by Dr. Elisabeth Gee, have started a reading group focused on videogames. We’re planning on covering some broad overviews of games in general, a little bit of gaming (and games studies) history, some deeper analysis of specific games, and the connections between videogames and learning. A future post may focus on our readings more directly, though at this point we’ve remained somewhat informal in how we’ve structured readings.

I’ve suggested a arcade/play session as part of our regular meetings for reasons I explicate below. The short version is that playing games is a critical part of studying them; like most good learning, knowing the specifics of the domain rather than just decontextualized abstractions is a key step in deeper, more meaningful understanding. This is by no means a revolutionary observation, but just because it may seem self-evident it is nevertheless worthwhile to state this as a starting point for our subsequent analysis.

Playing games is a critical part of studying them; like most good learning, knowing the specifics of the domain rather than just decontextualized abstractions is a key step in deeper, more meaningful understanding.

Our play group will meet bi-monthly, on off weeks from our reading/discussion group. We are fortunate enough to take advantage of the Center for Games and Impact’s Innovation Lab space, which has a range of technologies and equipment which makes facilitating a group like this easier (which is, of course, no small feature – many similar groups may not have the kind of access we enjoy, but this remains a discussion worth it’s own post, most likely). We plan to play for roughly an hour during our sessions, though we we likely supplement our play with at-home or asynchronous play simply to cover more ground than a few scant hours during a semester allow. We will look at different genres of games, different platforms, and focus on some of the “big ‘G’ game sites” that Gee discusses (such as forums, modding, wikis, machinima, and so on). With luck we’ll be able to cover a fair amount of ground in terms of content as well as types of play experiences.

In this post, I outline a high-level rationale for suggesting the play session as a component of our reading group. I also briefly describe some of the features particular to this group, most importantly the variety of previous play experiences. Future posts will focus on general design goals of the play group, and will provide some specific debriefs from play sessions.  

Why a play group as part of a reading/learning group?

Since our reading group is looking at videogames and issues of learning, literacy, teaching, and more, I think it’s critical to include game play as part of our regular activities. Games are about experiences, so grounding our work in the common experience of play is one core move in aligning games studies with our broader interests. Some of this gameplay is already “native” to most of the members and regularly occurs outside of the group in general, though not all of us play regularly. However, I believe a semi-structured, regular meeting where we play games together would also benefit us by giving us some shared/common experiences, a chance to play together (or at least be present together while we play), and a chance to interpret the gameplay on-the-fly with the support of more experienced gamers using the language of both play and scholarship.

Games are about experiences, so grounding our work in the common experience of play is one core move in aligning games studies with our broader interests.

Each of these is important in different ways, which I’ll briefly describe more fully below. In general, though, co-play is a great way to ground our discussions and also serves an important social function, in particular in how we navigate a range of gaming backgrounds, interests, experiences and more. Some of our group members are highly experienced with games as players, some from academic/theoretical perspectives, and some have very little background in either. Making a productive and even semi-equitable learning environment is an important function of the group, and I feel group play events are a fantastic way to facilitate that move.

The experience of play together

Since games are great experiential spaces, sharing these experiences as a group of players and researchers provides a couple of important benefits. The first is that we’ll have a collection of common references we can make to each other as we discuss various theoretical topics or to contrast with other games, experiences, or play moments. Being able to quickly call back to a moment we had together is a nice shortcut to facilitate good, deep learning (and teaching) since we won’t have the burden of trying to define some referent. Further, it fits nicely into a constructivist model of learning as “learning-by-doing”, since playing the game and our learning of/about the game go hand-in-hand. And, since the group consists of different people with different ways of knowing about and talking about games, we’ll provide a more robust space for discussion and further play. Lastly, it provides a nice opportunity to “share out” about games we like, experiences we’ve had, or things we find important about that particular game or moment.

Playing together and playing along

Another core goal of the play group is to play alongside each other. Some of our play will necessarily require time outside of our regular meetings (it’s hard to play games I hope to get to this semester in an hour every other week; games like BioShock Infinite or Red Dead Redemption take a good amount of time to get “into”). But I believe there is value to playing together, or at least alongside each other as well. First, gaming is a social activity in general, so providing more opportunity to socialize–both as gamers and as students–is a good thing. Second, as I’ve already alluded to above, different people with different experiences (and different agendas) interacting around a common activity provides a fertile space for learning. Indeed, novice gamers have access to more experienced gamers for advice, modeling, support, and even chances to complicate or challenge their play; experienced players have the chance to look at gaming from a novices eyes and to try and articulate what they think is important/critical/useful; and, from a scholarship perspective, these roles occur similarly. In short, co-play is a great opportunity for apprenticing new players and new scholars into the Discourse of game play and games studies.

Further (from a somewhat selfish perspective), I think it’s important from a teaching/design perspective to have a blend of novice and expert gamers and novice and expert scholars playing together. The dynamic of the group forces the expert (ie “teacher”) to consider how to organize readings and game experiences, how to assess if they are effective, and to interact with new learners and players in a self-reflective manner. That is, expert players can think about what the new player needs, but also as it relates to their own play (and the same goes for a scholarly  perspective).

Indeed, much of the work I’ve been looking at lately (especially Hattie and Yates’ “Visible Learning”, 2013) suggests that a real challenge for experts in a domain is to look at the task/concept from a novice’s perspective; since experts can “chunk” so much information quickly, and because they have a deep reserve of experiences and models that they use when assessing any given moment, they often can’t see some critical information or frame that a new learner/player might need. So having a space like a play group to practice “looking” at things as a novice will only improve our future teaching (which is one subtext of this group, since at some point we will all likely be teaching at some level). The play group is a nice, “safe” space to take on the role of teacher/mentor for each of us as emerging teachers, scholars, and players too.

Critiquing on-the-fly

Another advantage that comes from shared play side-by-side is that we can pause and reflect as we’re playing and don’t have to wait to “report back” during a group meeting; we can work on-the-spot so to speak. For example, during this week’s arcade time, an interesting moment occurred during Little Big Planet in which the game intentionally “breaks” on the player (they fall into a hole that they can’t possibly jump out of, and the tutorial shows them how to “reset” their character). When this moment occurred, we could stop and talk about why the designers might have made that choice, and what it allowed the player to “learn,” and how. It might have been a moment that wouldn’t have surfaced during a subsequent discussion or which may not have seemed all that important a week later; but at the time, it was a great chance to stop and explore it as it happened.

And, just as the previous sections have stressed, having a variety of play and scholarly perspectives provides a great chance to look at those interesting moments from a number of different ways, and which might uncover points of tension or that need further explication that might not surface post hoc. Lastly, co-play is a chance for the experts in the group to model ways of playing, of talking, and of thinking “just-in-time/on demand” (following Gee’s 36 principles, 2003).

Sharing out and broadening perspectives

Since this group has a rather diverse set of play histories, play preferences, and varying levels of expertise, a play group like the one outlined here has the simultaneous advantage and disadvantage that comes with such diversity. We will benefit from calling on such an array of knowledge and will certainly be able to bring new games, new ideas, and new critiques to each other’s attention. Perhaps most importantly for the play group sessions, we can highlight a number of different games which will likely be new to at least some of us. We’ll get a chance, in other words, to learn about what each other thinks is important or worth playing and will likely try out new things, even those of us who are “experts” as players or as scholars.

However, there certainly exists the possibility that we’ll end up having to constantly “define the map,” so to speak, in order to talk across the gulf of experiences and knowledge. Once again, this is not unique to this group or even this field, but it nevertheless remains a tension that we’ll have to confront throughout our time together. If nothing else, it again provides an opportunity to think about our group itself, a kind of meta-reflection of the practice. At least, the experts will likely have this opportunity since we’re more familiar with the games themselves and the various theories around the games studies scholarship; novices may struggle with things like terminology and “minor” things that experts can gloss over. Novices can, on the other hand, often see some of the “invisible” assumptions or things that experts have overlooked or forgotten which in turns can force the expert to reconsider.

A play group is a way to build a starting place for the rest of our work

There are many other features of a play group worth exploring that benefit our reading group in general, but this post focuses on several of the critical issues at hand. It demonstrates that our particular group must account for a pretty broad range of play histories and stresses the importance of some shared experiences. This rationale also highlights the various tensions and opportunities for a diverse group such as ours, particularly as it relates to the relationship between novices and experts in both the gaming and the scholarly domains. Lastly, this post is a “soft” argument for a kind of theory-informed practice; that is, I hope to show that having a specific theory for how good learning happens drives more effective praxis by constraining certain activities and focusing on some particular features of learning (and teaching) which benefit most from that theory. More directly, I believe that game play itself provides a strong model for good teaching (not surprisingly, since Gee has clearly shown how videogames can demonstrate good learning – I simply look at games from a pedagogical perspective). This theory–that games showcase one particularly good model for teaching (and learning)–drives the kinds of design decisions I’ve argued for here and the emphasis on these particular features of shared experiential practice.

More directly, I believe that game play itself provides a strong model for good teaching.

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