Playing at it vs playing in it

Video games and their players are a sociocultural phenomenon, embedded in a technological (hardware and software) cycle, built upon commercial markets. What makes games very popular is that information situated in game ecosystems freely moves around the Internet though social communications. This is what makes games based learning (potentially) transformative – the value of an individual’s knowledge, skill and influence is essentially ‘crowd sourced’ from communications about, to and from game networks.

In games, people seek external backing and information about learning the game. For example, in the game World of Warcraft: players need to learn to complete group mission and need the backing of other players to enact this event regardless of whether they succeed or fail. Learning in a game means being intimately involved with both the ecosystem of the game and the meta-culture.

Playing games immediately immerses players in a credentialing system that matters to the ecosystem. This is problem with many ‘badge projects’, they are trying to dock a perceived set of and social-technological problems inside education with theories and ideas emerging from games which suffer none of them. Of course the central dilemma for anyone looking at badge systems as an alternative way of recognising learning. Seeking to find the right media or message that motivates learners fails to recognise the true meaning people are seeking though their use of media.

My central argument for games (and other media) pleasure is that it is the negotiations of media itself which motivates and interests us. This is no more prolific than in the largest cultural sites of this era – networked games. To me, it seems unlikely that institutions will create ‘killer credentialing’ or ‘gamification’ unless they understand the ecosystem that is driving the games industry.

A digital badge which is nothing more than a collection of meta-data aligned to curriculum outcomes seems to resemble the objectivism associated with competency based training. The challenge of badges is that they are often being visioned as a subjective method of crediting ‘other’ skills and efforts in learning. Unlike the ecosystems around games, culture is the API, it’s a people interface that can quickly discover, represent and identify people’s skills and achievements. In badges, there are ongoing frustration with data being distributed across social networks. See the issues with BadgeKit or Google’s Course Builder for examples of integration dilemmas.

My point here is that from the work I’m doing around games, this is not a time to wait for educational technology to deliver a viable, workable solution. Among the ideas are numerous innovators and start-ups competing to deliver a commercially solution. And this really is the problem for the future of educational technology: commercial shaping and competition between organisations and companies. This is not how most people want to learn. There is not an assumption that to learn well, people need to buy certain products which are nearly always focused on traditional constructions of how learning happens and the instruments to be purchased.

Games are all about ‘on-demand’ judgement and assessment. Joining a game, being able to participate or adapt are immediate and continual demands on game players and their ecosystems. Endorsement is between people and groups, where the machine maintains a record of their activity in both objective and subjective domains. There is no paper-proxy equivalent in games that many educators seem to want to create or preference. The thing about game players is that they know what badges and achievements matter and what they mean. It’s this experience which brings understanding about what reputation means inside game ecosystems and sadly, very few appear to have ever stepped into this space but rather assume they are the gatekeepers who might (eventually) allow game based learning into proper education.

Game ecosystems are not outwardly observable in the way “open systems” which the Internet has largely been constructed (technically) to be. To me, I maintain that successful game ecosystems are closed systems. Therefore it is essential to work inside these communities, not gaze or judge them.

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One thought on “Playing at it vs playing in it

  1. I couldn’t agree more re the use of badges as a simplistic way to make educational content gamified and ‘fun’. This rarely hits the mark and shows a profound lack of understanding about what makes games fun. My son learns some subjects on Minecraft Homeschool and the reward that has made him happiest is being allowed to become a game administrator, helping manage the classes – this has given him real community standing, a few extra features and a real sense of engagement and satisfaction – so much better than just an achievement badge for completing two classes.

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