Dissecting the Power of Play

Posted by Lisa Galarneau on August 26, 2013 in Editorial -- Share:

Games and play are a bit of a guilty pleasure in our part of the world, but there are many reasons to consider play therapeutic and one of the best things you can do for yourself in life.

 

Play as a Critical Skill

To overlook play as a critical component of the human experience is to miss an opportunity to leverage an inherent human capability for learning that is also a drive rooted in basic survival strategies. Researcher Brian Sutton-Smith underscores his belief that play is a fundamental human need with the supposition that “the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression”. Play is not an optional leisure activity, but a biological imperative that supports our cognitive and emotional well being, occupying an important role in our development as humans. As Julian Dibbell puts it, “play is to the 21st century what steam was to the 20th century”. In other words, play is a productive phenomenon and as such, a harness-able resource: play can be explicitly leveraged for production, as in the case where South African children’s play on a merry-go-round has been harnessed to pump water, or in the case of the ESP game in which players volunteer to provide meta-tagging services for images by playing a web-based game .

Play also serves as a motivating force, but it is most powerfully an apparatus for allowing experimentation outside of limitations of physical practicality or other opportunity barriers, e.g. the difficulty of training for natural disasters, that arise from needing to develop competency in an area that is highly dependent on experiences that are not frequently encountered. Harnessing the human predilection to play and learn from both real and virtual experience may be a necessity within contexts where relevant and directly applicable activity, a mainstay of the adult learning process, is missing. Play, and games in particular, can create an authentic learning experience equivalent to a similar real-life experience.

The ESP game matches anonymous players and creates a game environment in which they are challenged to agree on words that might describe an image. This data is subsequently used to create a repository of image meta-data, an invaluable tool for image searching. “Taboo words” are words that have been agreed upon by players in previous game sessions.

Much of the recent confusion regarding play and its role in human production comes from our collective observation that there is much work that feels like play and indeed, especially in the realm of videogames, much “play” that looks to many observers strangely like work. The leveling treadmill in many role-playing games, also referred to as “the grind”, is a case in point. As T.L. Taylor notes in Play Between Worlds, “the simple idea of fun is turned on its head by examples of engagement that rest on efficiency, (often painful) learning, rote and boring tasks, heavy doses of responsibility, and intensity of focus”. In this sense, play is not a discrete activity as defined by many theorists, so much as a mode of experience characterized by enjoyment of the pursuit of game goals, but more akin to a description of flow than to a simple description of one engaged in leisure activities completely disassociated from work. Play, as a state, is simply an opportunity for unfocused, open-ended experimentation, often in an environment that has been designed to allow for a range of experiences, some prescribed, but some almost entirely emergent. It is no longer the case, if indeed it ever was, that play is isolated from the rest of life . As such, motivating people to learn can simply mean affording them a context in which productive activity feels like play and allows for the cognitive and creative freedoms associated with open ended experimentation.

With respect to this alternative framing, rather than to say that one is “at play” it would be more descriptive to say that one is “in play”, i.e., one is carving out a space in which experimentation is safe and possible – this state is non-linear, unfocused on a particular end result, and allows for creative thinking, innovative problem solving, and shifts in perspective. These shifts in perspective may be one of the most salient features of this sort of open-ended experimentation, allowing gamers to “go meta”, or view situations or problems from various angles. For example, unexpectedly viewing the immunological system of the human body from the perspective of a virus, as in the game Replicate, might give one a whole new take on a situation: in the words of plant geneticist Barbara McClintock, “a feeling for the organism” that forms the basis of an intimate knowledge of a phenomenon, allowing one to pivot one’s mind to view the issue from myriad directions. Likewise, the web-based game September 12th provides a context in which players can experience a novel perspective on terrorism.

Play as Participation

While it seems intuitive that there must be a way to co-opt the enthusiastic engagement and motivation for learning that is readily apparent when one observes videogame play, the formula for widespread success has remained out of reach. Part of the problem is that the appeal of multimedia, including videogames, has often been emphasized relative to the sophisticated graphics and fast pace of the images, a perspective rooted in notions of media spectatorship. However, the appeal of videogames to people of all ages is more about the interaction(s) created around the game than the game itself; indeed, some researchers consider games to not be inherently interactive at all; it is the player(s) who create(s) the interaction. The idea of player-driven interaction being key to engagement and learning underscores the importance of framing the appeal of videogames and interactive media within a larger conversation that considers the movement away from passive, spectator-oriented understandings of both education and media. There has been a shift from didactic, teaching-oriented approaches in education to new models that acknowledge the need for the active participation of the learner in the process of learning. A similar evolution has occurred in media studies, where reactionary models like encoding/decoding that sought to outline an unbalanced, hegemonic relationship between media producers and consumers, gave way to an empirically based acknowledgment of the variety of uses and gratifications employed by media consumers, and are now evolving into more fully illustrated examples of a participatory culture that was heretofore only suspected.

Along with this perspective has come an increased awareness that the issues and opportunities surrounding media cannot be understood using old paradigms. Games, particularly co-created online game worlds, are especially problematic because it is impossible to read them simply as texts; the experience of playing a game is co-produced and continuously negotiated between developer and player. As a media form, therefore, games can only be understood within the panorama of an increasingly participatory media culture: A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices.

A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created). As demonstrated by the Web 2.0 hype and the associated fascination with blogs, wikis, shared video, social networking sites and other collaborative forms, participation has turned out to be a fundamental and compelling characteristic of digital domains. The particularly notable aspect of this shift from spectator-focused media consumption to participatory efforts. Players choreograph actual game play scenes into short narratives or music videos that they then distribute on shared video sites like YouTube. active participation is that people who have experienced a media relationship of the latter sort come to expect those sorts of options, if not always, then at least when they want it: Participatory culture contrasts with older notions of passive media spectatorship.

Rather than talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands. Not only have young people come to expect the freedom to make contributions to the media spaces they inhabit, but co-creation and production have also become critical skills for many customers.  The effects of increasingly skilled participation from amateurs on the entire media machine from journalism to the music industry illuminate a dialogue that has emerged between producers and consumers, resulting in the co-creation of media properties that span and simultaneously reinforce both commercial and non-commercial contributions. Though many examples are emerging, videogames may well present the most interesting examples of emerging participatory cultures.

Game modding and machinima are both examples of the activities of players who take commercial game assets, and with the co-operation of game developers, act as amateur developers by making and distributing changes to the game or leveraging game assets to create narrative films. Unlike the early days of fan production, consumers no longer have to exclusively find and use assets, but are instead allowed varying levels of sanctioned access to the elements necessary for co-production. In online game worlds, the flexible parameters specified by game designers involve creating the basis for an emergent world where environments are in constant flux: rules change, documentation is scarce, and the mastery of the game relies on a host of skills well beyond the game’s manual. Indeed, these games and the strategies for playing them, are exercises in co-creation where players, as co-producers of the entire game play environment, can influence the rules, affect the outcome, and create a rich universe of social interactions, emergent activity, and culture that ultimately become the core of game play rather than the periphery.

Playing to Learn

It seems intuitive that denying meaningful interaction, as is the case with most educational environments, to learners who have become accustomed to the pleasures of participation and contribution, might be the source of much of the consternation we experience as we attempt to motivate students using outdated models that assume passivity: We are coming to understand that what we so valued as an attention span is something entirely different from what we thought. As practiced, an attention span is not a power of concentration or self-discipline in the least, but rather a measure of a viewer’s susceptibility to the hypnotic effects of linear programming. The “well-behaved” viewer who listens quietly, never talks back to the screen, and never changes channels, is learning what to think and losing his grasp on how to think .  Helping to convince ourselves that our lives could run smoothly and easily if we simply followed instructions.

Media guru Douglas Rushkoff’s insights could as easily apply to our notions of learners as it does to television viewers, as it is tied directly to 20th century models of people as consumers. People are passive, uncritical vessels to be filled with stuff: propaganda, programming, content, curricula, desire for the latest and greatest gizmo. When this filling up is appropriate, a person’s only responsibility is to be open to it by paying attention – the rest just happens magically. The dark side of this, of course, is that people if people are so accustomed to this process, they can also be easily filled with all sorts of other things, like murky political messages and other by-products of hegemonies and commercial agendas wrapped in pretty, entertaining packages. As we know people are susceptible to this, the conventional wisdom is to use games to serve up learning in a nicer package, thereby seducing learners to learn. However, this is a view that obscures the broader potential of games and virtual worlds for learning.

Play and Happiness, Innovation and Creativity

There has been quite a lot of attention lately placed on the idea that play is critical to activities and states ranging from happiness to innovation and creativity.  Tim Brown discusses in his TED talk, Tales of Creativity and Play
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Written by

Dr. Lisa Galarneau is a socio-cultural anthropologist, futurist and games researcher. She's been playing video games since 1981 (Pong!) and loves adventure-style games, RPGs, online games, simulations and anything novel. Her love for games has been passed onto her gamer kid, and she spends a lot of time observing and pondering the future of games.

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