A statement on games and expert gaming (annotated!)


I wrote the first draft of this with Theresa Horstman a while ago when we were launching AGILE (Advancing Games in Innovative Learning Environments) at UW. Sadly, we didn’t really do anything with AGILE, but I thought this statement should be salvaged.

Annotations are written in “burnt orange”. (<–WP’s name for the color. 🙂 )

Games are systems of rules/constraints that present players with goals that can best be accomplished by exploring and pushing at the limits of these rules/constraints.

I’ve since started thinking that goals need not be inherent to the system/platform for something to be called a game. Instead, people can set their own goals and bring with them a playful attitude, and, in so doing, the activity becomes a game (so long as it still meets the other criteria: rules, constraints, etc.). In other words, yes, a “game” has goals, but the game is more than just the designed artifact; it’s the larger social and cultural context. The whole ecology has goals and is constrained by rules that can best be learned through exploration and resistance. Also, *good* games require careful decision making. Chutes and Ladders or Sorry! suck as games.

Encouraging players to push at these rules necessarily also encourages subversion and destabilization. This decenters power, challenging top-down approaches to leveraging games (i.e., many gamification models). Pushing at the bounds of a system is our definition of “expert play.”

Most of the backlash by game scholars against gamification is against the version of gamification that takes an activity and layers on points, achievements, badges, etc. without actually changing the nature of the activity. This uses the superficial rewards layer of games but not the core of what makes a game a game. A wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf.

Since players need to push at the boundaries of the system to figure out where those boundaries lay, the activity is inherently subversive, which is, of course, completely opposite of most models of public instruction. When I think of (American) public instruction, I think of a system that rewards obedience and stifles creativity, mostly by using the superficial gamification tactic called “grades.”

There is little distinction between the make-believe of games and the projected identity or role taking people do in their everyday lives in settings where they imagine a future possibility. (cf. Gee, McGonigal, Sutton-Smith)

Okay, so in games players have particular goals, particular desired outcomes. As they imagine these outcomes, they also imagine themselves in those future states thus projecting a desired identity that they attempt to enact. But this is essentially true of all of our spaces. It doesn’t matter what the activity system is, whether it’s a computer game or it’s graduate school or it’s a work place… In all of these spaces where we imagine some desired future, we try to live up to what we believe we should be living up to.

To get a bit meta, players participate and project identities in a designed gaming artifact, but they also participate and project identities in the larger community around games. They hang out in gaming websites, they trade stories with each other, they share tips and tricks, they front and posture, they troll, they make friends and enemies, etc.

Participating in this broader view of games discourse is our definition of “gaming” or “gaming practice.” Therefore, “expert gaming” is not just mastery of game content but also the ability to participate authentically and the possession of well-above average social and cultural capital in the broader discourse.

By “discourse” we’re talking about basically the same thing as “domain” or “community,” invoking Jim Gee again…

Summary: play is exploring a game space; expert play is identifying and pushing at boundaries of game space; gaming is participating in larger community around games; expert gaming is doing this well, pushing at the boundaries of the community around games and building cred and social/cultural capital in the community.

The practice within this broader discourse can be thought of as a mangle. As with any culture or community of practice, what determines capital production changes over time and is in constant tension. Different parties in the actor-network are constantly renegotiating what it means to “game” and the division of labor within the landscape of gaming.

What counts as authentic participation in a gaming community changes; it’s dynamic. Different people and agents constantly push and pull and redefine what counts (in a Gramsci sort of way).

Okay, so where does this leave us? What does “education using games for learning” mean in this context? For me, it means helping people see patterns and connections in all the systems or spaces in which they participate and live. The way to do this in a game space is to explore and push. I really, really think this same tactic could be used in all our spaces or participation. So, my goal with using games is to help people develop a set of practices and attitudes towards discovering. For me, the process matters most, not the recall of static information that our public schools emphasize way too much.

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