Play Ecosystems & Why You Can’t ‘Teach’ Games

from http://minecrafteduelfie.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/kids-are-just-kids-sometimes.html

“I caught up with her after the lesson and she said she had a lot of trouble with them, they were not listening to her instructions when asked to not to dig tunnels into the mountain and generally being uncooperative. I must say I am a little disappointed in the students, however does the saying “kids will be kids” excuse the behaviour?

I have been very upfront with the students about how what we do in class, while being used to teach them, is also being used to help other teachers see how this can be used in classrooms to make learning more interesting, both at our school and further afield…

Now I have this class tomorrow, and I will be having a discussion with the class about what they did, and what it means for them, me and other teachers. So my question to you is, how would you approach this situation?”

Roger Caillois in Man, Play & Games (building on Huizinga [1938|1950]) describes the essential characteristics of play as being: 1) free (not obligatory) & 2) uncertain (outcomes are not determined in advance). The emergent behaviour in games and virtual worlds like Minecraft, arise out of a complex interaction between players and the affordances of the play space they inhabit – the affordance of the play space leads to a dichotomy of freedom v control. Freedom in a relative sense compared to absolute freedom (but still freedom) as opposed to the culture of control in the classroom. In this case the teacher is trying to exert control over a space where she has none – this is why as Lisa Dawley from Boise State explains,

“We don’t teach games, we game games.”

Borrowing from complexity theory, an environment such as Minecraft can be characterised as a play ecosystem. It has been designed to facilitate networked play, and has specific features and affordances (freedom & uncertainty) that differ significantly from school environments (control & certainty) – but at it’s core is the fact that it hinges on intrinsic motivators of students wanting to be there, and the fact that students’ experiences are not obligatory and certain. Many educators and indeed parents differentiate between a time for play and a time for learning without seeing the vital connection between them – play is not unproductive – saying that we need to cover ‘x’ in ‘x’ amount of time misses the forest for the trees.

The teacher in the example above, introduces a magic circle of freedom and than attempts to battle the affordance of the space – in MInecraft you can’t tell students to build a model eye for example – more likely it should be creating a space and designing the ‘activity’ in such a way that they want to create an eye. The game world is non-linear which has its own rule set – trying to overlay a rule set that doesn’t make sense to either the game or the player will not work out that well in most cases. This post doesn’t touch on the social aspects of such a space – but I echo Dean Groom’s comments.

My only suggestion would be to lose the specifics – instead introduce students to a fairly broad driving question, and then giving them sufficient time, see what they are capable of. Trust the students and maybe, just maybe, some of them will surprise you.

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