Tag Archives: systems thinking

A new definition for games

Fallen Enchantress Legendary Heroes
Fallen Enchantress Legendary Heroes

Note: There’s now an interactive version of this paper that was used during a poster session at Meaningful Play 2014! It’s better since it has more references in it, talks a bit about procedural rhetoric and it’s issues, etc. 

Gameplay and Learning

There’s a perennial problem in games for learning: the mechanics of a game are often disassociated from the desired learning. I think part of this stems from educational game designers placing too much emphasis on specific subject matter content exacerbated by a misunderstanding of the object of their creation.

Too many educational games aren’t really that engaging as games. They focus on content and sometimes use only the superficial reward layer of games to motivate players to engage in the activity. (This is often called “gamification.”) These types of “games” keep getting made and will continue to be made so long as our educational policy/system continues to emphasize discrete disciplinary content assessed with brute force testing methods. In our effort to meet decontextualized standards, we’ve lost student engagement and somehow think that by making our stupidly meaningless activities give out badges and points that everything will be fine.

Sometimes engaging gameplay does exist, but the learning content is just inserted as interstitial segments between layers or levels of the actual game. An example could be a game that features pop-up screens with trivia between levels of, say, a first-person exploration game.[1] Again this is because the designers are placing too much value onto these subject matter chunks of facts. They may understand what makes a game engaging but not how to incorporate these fact chunks into the activity. (Good examples of games that focus on the educational content in their game design include the work from CGS and Ululab.)

It should be obvious that I don’t think we should be dividing our education into disciplinary silos. Additionally, if you know me, you know that I’m much more interested in the processes of learning that players engage in during gaming than the actual content of their learning. I think these processes are the true power of gaming and that they can transfer to many other non-game situations.

To understand where I’m coming from, it helps to understand my definition of games. Recently, however, I’ve rethought and changed my definition, so I’ll explain that transformation here, too.

Continue reading A new definition for games

Games as a way of seeing the world

Here’s an update on some of what I’m thinking in addition to my general ethnography/description of distributed cognition and teamwork. Part of this post is tweaked from some correspondence I’m having with Michele Knobel on Facebook. :p Most of this is a jumble of ideas, but I figure it would help if I wrote it down. And why not share it?

Last year I was reading a lot more philosophy and history of education than I usually do, esp. with regards to social justice, dominant culture, inequalities of access and participation, etc. So, when I read Ian Bogost’s Unit Operations, that stuff was on my mind. I was also thinking about Raph Koster (A Theory of Fun) and Stephen Johnson (Everything Bad Is Good For You) and how their whole point is about pattern recognition. Part of learning is recognizing patterns. For Koster, gamers begin to see the underlying mechanics of games. For Johnson, current media genres and conventions are making us smarter than old forms. As in, shows like CSI make us guess what is going on with the detectives rather than explicitly state what’s going on for the benefit of the audience, so we have to work our brains and figure out the patterns.

So, anyway, I was thinking about systems thinking, which essentially necessitates a form of pattern recognition. To think about a system, you have to recognize the system. Specifically, with regards to social contexts, people can learn to see the larger system that they are in (“sense of self” I think it’s called) and see that their actions have consequences and that other actors in the network (I guess this relates to actor-network theory and activity theory, too) affect them.

So, Bogost writes about unit operations, that what’s important for a literary form and for games are the parts of the system that operate on each other. His emphasis is on the interaction between the parts. These parts can be thought of as genre conventions… kinda. And I was thinking that games don’t exist without a player and players don’t exist without a social context. Players must enact the game actions and assume the identity or point of view of the game actions. And they do this as part of a larger cultural practice. Thus the player-game cyborg could be thought of as a unit in a larger social system.

Personally, at least, I can use the idea of unit operations or the idea of me being an actor in a network or whatever to evaluate my actions and its affects on others. Think of The Sims‘ Needs meters maybe, except extend the meters to social things instead of just individual things. In other words, the framework might enable me and others to metacognate about our roles in society.

Games serve two purposes here. On the one hand, specifically designed games could help people learn ethics through role-playing specific actor roles or unit operations. On the other hand, games in general can help train people to see patterns of a system and possibly transfer that skill to everyday life and impose that way of seeing things to themselves within a system. To scaffold this, I wish RPGs would better emphasize consequences to player actions. Also, RPGs use XP bars and such; we could try considering social skills and actions/motives as something you could measure and gain experience in.

I also read a paper by Knobel and Lankshear‘s about Internet memes and thought that maybe it would be possible to relate memes to genre conventions/units. Maybe they don’t relate, but maybe the idea of memes can be used to promote students critical thinking and consumption/production within a larger system. Or maybe all that is really needed for all of these things is some level of reflection.

Does that make sense?