Games, Play & Porous Membranes

Game scholars often distinguish between two modes of play, ludic and paidiaic. Ludic from the Latin ludos, describes structured, rule-driven, competitive games relating to play or playfulness, while paidiaic describes unstructured play in open-ended metaverses that are often co-created by their inhabitants – or as Celia Pearce describes them in Communities of Play, “Paidiaic environments are designed for spontaneous play and creative contribution.” 

The two modes of play can be thought of on a spectrum – too much toward one end the game risks becoming a grind whilst too much in the other direction the game can often feel pointless (if a game at all), and indeed this game/not game binary distinction is often discussed when exploring the differences between games and virtual worlds.

Fixed Synthetic worlds such as World of Warcraft & Skyrim are characterized as ludic environments as they are primarily defined by Blizzard & Bethesda, who have complete control over narrative, world rules, mechanics and design. On the other end of the spectrum we have co-created worlds like Minecraft that include affordances for the customization of the environment that allows players to engage in content creation within the parameters of the world’s design. These paidiaic environments typically have no set storyline and are open for interpretation by the player, allowing players to build their own spaces and express their creativity.

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Regardless of where the world falls on this spectrum we see evidence of emergence as play ecosystems or communities of play that transcend the original game space.

The term magic circle was coined by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872–1945) in his work Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, Huizinga basically states that the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place. To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins. The magic circle was often thought of as a circle where belief could be suspended, sacrosanct, one which bounds play in time and space from ‘reality.’ This definition is starting to blur as evidenced by our work with students from around Victoria in Quantum Victoria @ Massively Minecraft.

Quantum Victoria @ Massively Minecraft is for kids aged 4-16 in Victoria exploring digital citizenship, creativity and imagination using the video-game Minecraft. Hosted by Jokaydia as a pervasive online game environment, our current game has over 65 Achievements that children can undertake and each can be mapped to the ISTE NETs Standards for students using technology in learning.

Whilst originally developed as an innovative model for outreach in the STEM disciplines, we are seeing students mature and develop skills like self-efficacy, sharing, negotiation, conflict resolution, thinking skills, empathy and most importantly leadership.

Students are engaged in artefact creation, collaborative building, Machinima, Fan Fiction, thematic Journal writing together with learning about aspects of Computer Science. The Achievement System that has been built augments the game – students can complete the Achievements if they want but they are not required to. The Achievements are not sequential, meaning that students can jump in and out as they see fit. What we are finding is that students want to complete these Achievements in their own time – as Celia Pearce states,

“Especially in co-created worlds, productive play becomes a major engine for emergence, the prolific player-producers can play a significant role in emergent cultures. The creation of artefacts is identified as an expression of social agency, promoted by feedback that encourages player-producers to produce more.”

Students as young as 12 years old are taking ownership of the space and exhibiting leadership well beyond their years. This feature of emergence was intended – having students teaching and mentoring each other so that the space becomes a self-sustaining learning/play community.

The magic circle coined by Huizinga can be better described as a porous membrane with culture invading the game world, and the game invading culture. (eg. Students designing and creating Creeper’s on our 3D printer similar to this one).

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Western culture demands that play be productive – many say that to be seen in a positive light it requires a metamorphosis from play to creative output. The irony here is that whilst much of students work in a paidiaic environment like Minecraft would be seen as unproductive by those who don’t ‘game’, the reality is that at all times students are engaged in community building, identity building and social construction of knowledge whilst under the guise of ‘unproductive’ or free play. This is in stark contrast to those who try to emulate the power/control climate of the classroom – whilst genuinely trying to engage students using GBL in the classroom, they are in fact just replicating a 100 year old paradigm and not seeing these spaces for what they allow – radically different types of learning. (in relation to a previous post: Play Ecosystems.)

Einstein said that,

“Play is the highest form of research.”

Most adults above a certain age will struggle to ever make it back to a place where they will permit themselves the freedom to play. But they should at least give the time for students to engage in the pursuit of this form of research – summarized succinctly by Celia Pearce,

“Play has a life of it’s own. It can be guided, but never controlled.”

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