Play: Cubby Designs

A video I shared as part of a recent keynote at the DLTV conference.

Spot the learning. Playful, Imaginative.

Discovery not delivery.

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.”

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


“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.

Why Children Need Make-Believe Violence

Children play – its how they make sense of the world.

In societies where guns are part and parcel of media and culture, children inevitably at an early age play toy guns and ‘shootouts’. In other cultures, where guns are not part of the local symbology, children play instead with toy spears or bow and arrows.

The act of imaginary weapon play and violence in itself provides children a sense of power as they struggle to make sense of the world around them. In all of popular culture, from Harry Potters magic wand, to the ‘One Ring’ in Lord of the Rings, Excaliber from Arthurian Legend to destructive spells emanating from a child’s seemingly normal open hand, a single object becomes a vehicle for story and a symbol for power – this act of ‘violent’ play is important for the development of a child.

From when they are born to the time they are independent, all children feel powerless to a certain extent. They struggle to learn how to walk, they are dependent on their parents for meals, and what seems easy for adults can be frustratingly difficult for children. This feeling of powerlessness can be especially amplified if the child grows up in an environment of abuse, neglect or poverty.

A Grade 4 student in the school yard who is reenacting a scene from Call of Duty where he’s avatar has snuck up behind an enemy player and slit their throat with his knife, knows that what he is doing is play. The same child who with his friends pretends that he is a Wrestler from the WWE knows that he is not actually a Wrestler from the WWE. Children are using this reenactment to develop emotionally – they are reenacting a story and using it’s emotional power to aid in their development of character. Games enable children to play with certain realities and to take power over them to an extent. Gangsta Rap and movies about seriel killers are similar tools – in engaging in this culture children feel that they understand things better, and feel stronger in the face of such realities.

Most adults are anxious about this type of behaviour. The cybersafety consultants who do the rounds in schools would most likely say to be vigilant in the look out for this type of behaviour. Won’t children who play guns or video games like Call of Duty become desensitised to violence and grow up thinking it’s ok to shoot people? Won’t this act of play, turn out kids who enjoy violence? These anxieties are natural. From years of experience, we know that in reality guns are bad and do lead to violence – but adults mistake play with reality – kids don’t. They have an innate sense of what is play and what is real. 

Children need to fantasize, and play, and lose themselves in stories. It’s how they learn. Most anxieties and fears about make-believe violence and violent video games come from ignorance, media ‘beatups’ and hyperbole or perpetrated soceitel ‘myths’ – Henry Jenkins debunks these myths about video games in his article Eight Myths About Video Games.

Gerard Jones in his book Killing Monsters states,

“Nearly all the violent stories that kids play with deal with lessons about courage, resiliency and development. It is the action itself – the process of identifying with a character who is faced with a physical threat and fights back with every resource he can find – that transmits some basic life lessons:

Achievement feels good.

Goals are achieved through complete commitment.

Clear Choices must be made.

Sometimes conflict is useful.

Sometimes shattering old ways is necessary.

Loss and defeat are survivable.

Risk has it’s rewards.

We can feel fear – but do it anyway.

Monsters can be destroyed.

Self-assertion is powerful.

Simply being me is heroic.”

There is nothing wrong with this picture

Today I spent the day with Grade 3&4 students playing & designing in Little Big Planet and learnt more about them in 4 hours than some teachers would in six months – and yet, some teachers would scoff at this picture and say that it isn’t rigorous and nothing of value could possibly be going on here. Play is for home. Play is for ‘free-time.’ Play is for children and only after the ‘hard work’ has been done…

At its most basic level, play fosters creativity and imagination and connects pleasurable emotions to learning. This is what ‘back to basics’ should be all about.

Play with your students. Get down on their level. Learn with them.

It’s empowering.


Out of Our Minds

“Our ideas can enslave or liberate us. Some people never do make the transition and remain resident in the old world view; their ideological comfort zone.” – Sir Ken

Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative is a book that, for the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed. Sir Ken gives a very broad overview of a changing world, a broken education system, shares anecdotes that sometimes relate to the points that he is trying to make and gives the reader a general framework for being a creative leader.

He defines common misconceptions about creativity; namely that ‘creativity’ as it is currently understood actually consists of:

  • Imagination – the source of creativity. The ability to bring to mind things that are not present in our senses.
  • Creativity – the process of having original ideas. Creativity is applied Imagination.
  • Innovation – the process of putting new ideas into practice. Innovation is applied Creativity.

Sir Ken asks us to challenge the many things that we take for granted,

“Like the medieval astronomer we continue to believe in the assumptions of mass education, despite all the evidence that the system is failing so many people within it.” – Sir Ken

and speaks about cultural aversions to change and why resistance to change is only natural.

After attending the Creative Innovation 2011 conference recently, I now know that many of the speakers where actually directly quoting this book as the book – and this is what is worrying me.

In 1780, Jacques Rousseau published Emile, in which he argued for a new approach to education that was based on play, games, pleasure and personal interests. For the next 200+ years their have been many who have argued for a more playful and creative education system, those such as Froebel, Montessori, Steiner, OrffDewey and Kohn, and yet despite their efforts, they have gone largely ignored. But in the fast-changing world of the 21st century, every business, government official and education leader wants a quick dose of creativity and innovation and will pay whatever it takes to say they have done the latest ‘Sir Ken’ workshop, and this in turn ticks the necessary innovation box. But can you actually ‘teach’ creativity? Granted, a framework can be introduced to encourage ‘creative’ thinking and a ‘creative’ culture and work environment (think Google), but in an age of the quick-fix workshop, how many of these organizations are willing to invest in long-term strategies to really drive systemic change toward a more creative and innovative environment?

Take the time to read this review of Out of Our Minds on Amazon – Is Creativity the New Snake Oil?

Is Creativity the New Snake Oil?