Tag Archives: Phil Bell

submission to summer institute for the science of socio-technical systems

The Consortium for the Science of Sociotechnical Systems is holding their annual summer institute at Skamania Lodge this year. Since I’ve been leaning heavily towards actor-network theory, distributed cognition, and mangle of practice ways of looking at my data, and since it’s so close, I decided to apply. Here’s my research summary I wrote for the application:

Contributions to the Scientific Understandings of Sociotechnical Systems

I research the ecology of gaming and new media (Salen, 2008, Stevens, Satwitcz, & McCarthy, 2008). My dissertation focuses on ethnographic accounts of online gaming practice, documenting expertise development, teamwork, and collaboration in a World of Warcraft player group (Chen, 2009). Using actor-network theory (Latour, 2005) and distributed cognition (Hutchins, 1995), this work treats the group as a learning network that successfully enrolled various human and nonhuman resources to thrive in a high-stakes joint-task environment (Taylor, 2009). I find using an analytical lens that recognizes the mangle of gaming (Steinkuehler, 2006, Pickering, 1993) helps to see that distinctions between subject-object or player-game don’t adequately describe in-action learning across settings and time. Rather, a player group’s expertise trajectory is always collaborative and social, always contentious, and always drawing on both micro- and macro-level sociomaterial (Orlikowski, 2007) resources in complex, messy gaming spaces. Analyses of informal learning arrangements using a socio-technical lens are important for science and technology studies, learning sciences, and new media scholars as specific examples of the distributed nature of learning that may lead to a broader conception of everyday practice and learning with new media.

I combine this object-oriented ontology (Bogost, 2009) with other interdisciplinary ways of describing learning arrangements including how people position and are positioned into specific roles and relationships (Holland & Leander, 2004) across timescales (Lemke, 2000) in interdiscursive moments (Silverstein, 2007).

I hope to continue using these ideas to describe learning across all of life’s myriad settings (NRC, 2009). As I am just finishing my dissertation this year, I feel like my options are wide open. Possible future areas of study include continued work in online and offline gaming practices in different player communities to expanded sites of study. For example, one research interest I have is to study software and media piracy networks and the learning and expertise development within those networks.


  • Bogost, I. (2009). What is object-oriented ontology? Retrieved February 25, 2010, from: http://www.bogost.com/blog/what_is_objectoriented_ontolog.shtml
  • Chen, M. (2009). Communication, coordination, and camaraderie in World of Warcraft. Games and Culture, 4(1), 47-73.
  • Holland, D., & Leander, K. (2004). Ethnographic studies of positioning and subjectivity: An introduction. Ethos, 32(2), 127–139.
  • Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Lemke, J. L. (2000). Across the scales of time: Artifacts, activities, and meanings in ecosocial systems. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 7(4), 273-290.
  • National Research Council. (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments. P. Bell, B. Lewenstein, A. W. Shouse, & M. A. Feder (Eds.). Board on Science Education, Center for Education, Division of Behavior and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  • Orlikowski, W. J. (2007). Sociomaterial practices: Exploring technology at work. Organization Studies, 28(9), 1435-1448.
  • Pickering, A. (1993). The mangle of practice: Agency and emergence in the sociology of science. American Journal of Sociology, 99(3), 559-589.
  • Salen, K. (2008). Toward an ecology of gaming. In The ecology of games: Connecting youth, games, and learning (1–17). USA: The MIT Press.
  • Silverstein, M. (2007). Axes of evals: Token versus type interdiscursivity. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 15(1), 6-22.
  • Steinkuehler, C. A. (2006). The mangle of play. Games and Culture, 1(3), 199-213.
  • Stevens, R., Satwicz, T., & McCarthy, L. (2008). In-game, in-room, in-world: Reconnecting video game play to the rest of kids’ lives. In K. Salen (Ed.), The ecology of games: Connecting youth, games, and learning (41-66). USA: The MIT Press.
  • Taylor, T. L. (2009). The assemblage of play. Games and Culture, 4(4). 331-339.

Absurdity and the mundane

Here’s a bunch of stuff that’s happened/been happening/going to happen:

I’m revising that paper on visualization of chat logs in WoW raiding to map onto expertise development today and tomorrow. One comment is that the section on how I made the charts should be put into an appendix and the paper should focus on the actual argument rather than be a methods paper. That’s spot on, but I needed Constance to confirm it for me. One problem, however, is that some of my lit review is relatively sparse, but I can beef them up a bit, drawing from the excellent expertise work being done by my fellows (ESTG) at the LIFE Center.  Another problem, though, is my analysis isn’t as robust as it could be given that I haven’t had time to chart out all the raiding nights nor go into detail on specific nights to get a clear sense of exactly what is going on. But I guess I’ll have to do as much as I can in the next three days and hope it’s good/interesting/valid enough.

I played a lot of WoW over the holiday break, getting to level 80, getting pretty much the best gear I can get without raiding, etc. Now that classes have started and I’ve hit 80, I’ll probably cut back my WoW time significantly. My subscription is set to end in Feb… I don’t know at this point if I’ll be resubbing (again…).

In related news, I also tried out Tabula Rasa for a week or so. It would be much better with a regular group of people in a LAN party. As it is, it’s visceral and adrenalin pumping, but ultimately it feels like a grind and got too repetitive. It’s a free game right now until the servers shut down in Feb, so if you want to check it out (Windows only), let me know and I can play with for a bit…

I’m taking 4 courses this quarter rather than just working on my dissertation. All of these haven’t been offered during my stay here at UW before.

  • Phil Bell and Suzanne Reeve (one of his students and one of my cohorts since I’m also one of his students) are coteaching a Learning Across Settings class, drawing from a lot of what LIFE does… specifically the “I” in LIFE (Learning in Informal and Formal Environments), internally known as Strand 2 of LIFE.
  • Reed Stevens is teaching a Technology in Contexts class that will focus on Activity Theory, Actor Network Theory, and Distributed Cognition. These three theories are pretty much the ones I need to focus on in my diss, so this class seemed like a no brainer, especially since I get most of my learning from classes, meetings, face-to-face interactions, and conferences, not being a good independent reader and all…  too many games.
  • Terry Schenold, a grad student in English, and Tim Welsh (who I haven’t met yet–our first class starts in half an hour) are leading another seminar on gaming this quarter as part of the Critical Gaming Project here at UW. This one is called Pandora’s Wake and is essentially visions of dystopic futures and hope as portrayed by Children of Men (film), Fallout 2 (computer game), and The Road (novel). Awesome. I installed Fallout 2 on my mini netbook this morning. Turns out there’s a few mods out there that fix bugs the original developers never fixed, add new areas and quests, and make it playable at higher resolutions. Due to compatibility issues (as in you can’t install all of the mods that are out there at the same time), I opted to go with the consensus as found on the No Mutants Allowed forums (killap’s Restoration Project and the Resolution Patch).
  • And finally, I’m going to attend a seminar onthe college of ed’s common book, Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment of Whiteness. Issues of social justice have been gaining prominence in what I’m thinking about, though, it hasn’t really surfaced in my research. This class hopefully will help me think through some things, as past classes, discussions with others, and involvement with the grad student group Educators for Social Justice has.

Anyway, all this work and new activity with the new quarter just starting up seems like complete bullshit against the backdrop of world events and the civilian deaths in Gaza. On the Red Square today were two protest groups standing at odds with each other on either side of the square, one group holding up signs like “Israel has a right to defend itself” and the other with signs like “As a Jew, I’m against Israel’s attacks against Gaza.” And meanwhile, we’re just walking through like this is completely normal. WTF is wrong with us?