Gaming Networks – Closed to outsiders

There’s much written about social systems and in the face of rising interest and participation in networked digital games such as Team Fortress 2 and Minecraft, it’s fair to say that many adults see game-networks as a adding little and disrupting a lot. But what if games are more than fun and more than the material they contain. What if games are self-producing social systems which, get this “the parts act in a way that generate the emergent properties of the whole but, at the same time, the configuration of the whole shapes the behaviour of the parts” (Mingers, 1995).

So why is this new? Well it’s not. It’s just that the majority of game studies has focused on play, what games are and so on — and we’re still flapping about how one day, classrooms might feel like digital games. Well I don’t think they ever will unless the metadomain itself ‘the big S of SCHOOL’ starts to rethink many things aside from Play,  Rules, Motivation and Flow etc., the essential rhetoric of TED Talks so far.

Games have a SPECIFICITY about them. This is the “what” of digital games: what are you doing; what is the point; what is it called; what happens if and so forth. They also have a CONSTITUTION, which is the where: where is this play being provided — for example, Steam or Xbox Live. That constitution matters because the social reproduction that occurs in it is unique and though it can be CONSENSUAL with other constitutions. There reason to believe two constitutions are are composed of the same rules, values or language, even though to the outsider they look the same. For example: Minecraft XBOX360 and Minecraft PC. Games also have ORDER. This is the WHEN they are played.

Perhaps the biggest reason to stop trying to port games into classrooms as commonly attempted is because sophisticated networked games are social systems with their own cultures. They are what some communications theorists and social theorists have called CLOSED systems. The structure and organisation of these social systems is the opposite of what many are attempting to do with them in classrooms currently. As much as I like the idea of using games, I’m conscious that they die like Eric Northman in the sun when decoupled from their social-structures.

For example, the point of a closed social system of this type (not getting too deep into this here) is essentially self-referencing in that they work to reproduce themselves. This is unlike the an open system where there is some INPUT followed by a process and finally an OUTPUT. Think about a baker, they are an open system is that they make bread from several raw materials. It’s not at all proven that playing a game will OUTPUT something that school administrators would see as useful products — and guess what, as they have little experience of CLOSED systems, they will probably resist the idea. For the most part, administrators know exactly when technology goes bad, and this is self-evident. As technology develops old practices die out, simply because they no longer occur and are therefore not reproduced. Everyone lost their mind over blogging, then iPads and now Googletopia. It is guaranteed that schools will continue to spend millions of dollars on OPEN systems because they have never attempted anything else.

Organisational closure occurs when processes within a system become circularly linked to each other thus generating an entity that has a degree of autonomy in defining its own boundary. The point here is that if schools become genuinely student centric, they would have no power to command students to do anything as the students would know exactly what to do. Now think about how fast it is to get into a closed game-system — only games can make new games to borrow from Suber (1990) – because they create players who are self-amending inside their environments. Gamers learn very quickly, not because they are gamers, but because their are part of effective social systems. Even stand-alone, single player games are in some unity with the biggest massive multiplayer systems.

The reason kids are doing amazing amounts of learning in game networks is because they are in an ideal social system with recurrent interactions that are structurally coupled and can be distinguished by players as distinct from the background. Let me explain. A gamer doesn’t compare the narrative, dialogue and action in a game with cinema, but though a lived experience. They are not interested or motivated to reproduce that which is IN society (in the classical notion of sociological theory of reproduction). Gamer actions are TOKENS and SYMBOLS for others in the domain and through consensual actions maintain the own identity and that of the organising structure (I’m a WoW player, COD player etc.,)

Gamers walk away when changes to the structure occur that fail to maintain the structure. In order to reproduce, players must be a UNITY when it comes to ‘being in’ a cognitive domain and and consensual domain. I have some reservations about the claim that kids playing games ‘get in the flow’ because, if it is true, it relates to individuals and not composite groups, who I happen to think are enjoying the experience of being in a closed social system that are effective and geared towards maintaining that closed system in which the main aim is to reproduce themselves. Think about David Beckham when he played football, what kind of system did he develop his skills? now think about what the local under 10’s soccer team does at training … see it’s all connected to social reproduction and efficacy.

To me, it is almost impossible to imagine how to port a digital game (popular with kids in society) into the micro-practices of school curriculum — unless that game was deliberately designed to do so. On the other hand, a pervasive global game of this type does exist, it’s called Quest Atlantis, but as I’ll also discuss later, it’s a step in the right direction, but has trade-offs to appease the politics of education itself. It’s also the only one which has lasted for any length of time. But what about commercial games like Minecraft? Can’t we just tap into their popularity and harvest the rewards? No. In my efforts some years ago, Massively Minecraft was imagined as a closed system. We never made any effort to bolt on a curriculum. We were interested in social reproduction and consensual coordination of actions and so never attempted to port it into ordinary schools – yet it thrived as a model in extra-ordinary ones.

The edu-crippling of commercial games is ignorant and futile as it fundamentally changes the what; where and when, essential to contemporary gaming culture – and can be a red-herring when it comes to trial-and-error based pedagogy. Not least because almost no schools are designed the way game-networks are — as that isn’t actually their purpose or intent.

This isn’t to say games can’t be developed, or existing games used. The closest I’ve encountered is Warcraft in Schools  but even then, there is a trade-off going on, however it’s still the best example I’ve seen attempted so far because it accepts that social reproduction inside closed systems can have a positive impact on individuals because of it’s metadomain — game culture. Yes, it’s been compromised to get some approvals, but it is still a remarkable trade-off none the less.

There’s a whole lot more in this — but games are here as both a media and medium, as a result of communications theory and social theory meeting at a point in time where technology can support many forms of social-systems. Yes, humans like to play, this is not interesting to teachers — we know play is great way to learn, but is it a the best way to learn (what you have to learn) in school? I guess the test would be … if schools closed, would kids re-open them and if they did, what changes would they make to the what, where and when of learning.

This is also why parents in particular, report in the media that they find it hard to fathom the attraction (some say addiction) to contemporary digital games. It isn’t the material content that is appealing to children, it’s the nature of the social-systems that they get to be part of. They are almost the opposite of their contemporary childhood experience — and almost optimal when it comes the kinds of organisations and structures which kids find attractive. The idea that you can port this into schools, like putting a rabbit in box, or downloading software is likely to cause more harm to children’s development than as they will struggle to couple school-play with home-play, which of course is really just about power.

More Reading:

Mingers, J. (1995). Self-Producing Systems: Implications and Applications of Autopoiesis, New York.: Plenum Press.

Suber, P. (1990). Paradox of Self-Amendment, New York: P. Lang Publishers.

Synnott, A. (1993). The Body Social: Symbolism, Self and Society, London: Routledge.