Tuesday, 20 February 2007

LEVEL 6 - Towards meaningful play and gaming

If gaming is to be accepted and encouraged in mainstream education as a valid and effective teaching practice then it must overcome one of its biggest hurdles: the notion that playing games is meaningless distraction and of no real value. As I mentioned in my previous entry, modern culture's general image of play tends to disregard the more 'mature' benefits of rule-informed playing, such as the mental and verbal contests that Huizinga recognises in sophisticated disciplines such as politics, philosophy and law. The potential value of play for adults tends to be subsumed by the perception of play as something that's infantile and foolish, and for children only. The 'work ethic' mentality, that has arisen since the industrial revolution, compelling the workforce to toil relentlessly and efficiently, has contributed to the opinion that play and games have no place in an adult (or even young adult) work or learning environment - work is qualitatively distinct from play. In spite of play now being generally acknowledged as a necessary feature of our free time, the general view is that *work and play are irreconcilable* - at least in any self-respecting organisation. However, it is clear from research and anecdotal evidence that work and play *are* compatible. And that when play and games are embraced thoughtfully in a work and/or learning environment, the results can be *better* than they would be without their influence. Games and play are not just mindless distractions, but can in fact facilitate meaningful developments psychologically, socially and functionally.

Kane's chapter 2 of 'The Play Ethic: A manifesto for a different way of living' is a compelling call-to-arms for play and gaming enthusiasts. (In spite anything with *manifesto* in the title tending to be somewhat one-sided!). Drawing on rich sources from literature, culture, history and science, he presents a persuasive case for the importance of play in personal and social development, and in scientific endeavour. He goes as far as to present the case for a *play ethic*, a way of living and working that it is in his view more personally fulfilling and better suited to present day life than a 'work ethic'. In his words, the 'play ethic is about counterposing a purely neo-liberal, capitalist network with a whole thicket of other networks - emotional and sexual, geographical and traditional, artistic and civic... [It's] a 21st century identity'. In spite of being perhaps a little overdone, he presents some convincing arguments and evidence for the benefits of play.

One of his propositions is that play contributes significantly to human progress and development. I have touched on this issue of play in development in previous postings, highlighting how play is a form of experimentation for infants. Kane echoes this point, writing that 'the consensus from biologists and psychologists, derived from over a century of observing animal and human play, is that play is a necessity, not a luxury, for advanced mammals.' In terms of education, there are a number of progressive educationalists who have recognised play's potential for inspiring children, most notably Froebel, who conceived of the now well-established Kindergarten - 'where children could blossom like flowers'. Froebel gave children 'play gifts', such as play-dough and crayons, etc. , so they could 'externalise consepts in their minds, rather than have 'the facts' imprinted on their brains. There are also a number of other unorthodox teaching methods championed by Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, and Kurt Hahn among others, involving creative and undogmatic principles, which are only now beginning to creep in to mainstream thinking, though mainly at a primary level. The ultimate aim of these methods is not for the children to enjoy themselves, though this is often a welcome advantage, but to *facilitate effective learning*. What makes using play more effective? The answer lies in the brain. Kane references a New Scientist article which states that, 'early play in childhood is less about practising to fight and mate..., and much more about improving brain power at a crucially formative moment... The very act of playing seems to strengthen and extend the number of neural connections in the brain... Neuropsychologist Stephen Siviy, when observing brain chemistry under experimental conditions [says], 'play just lights everything up'.'

Another of Kane's more striking propositions is that much of modern scientific thinking and language is inspired by playfulness, which he proposes is a fitting attitude for the complexities of the present day. He uses examples of Schrodinger's half-serious thought experiment involving a cat at the mercy of the unpredictability of quantum theory, and Einstein's famous (misquoted) aphorism, 'God doesn't play dice with the universe'. References to play and gaming can be found throughout scientific research, and that some of the more recent sciences especially, such as chaos, complexity, systems and networks theory, actually require a playful vision to appreciate. Kane quotes Manfred Eigen and Ruthild Winkler as saying: 'Everything that happens in our world resembles a vast game in which nothing is determined but the rules, and only the rules are open to objective understanding'. Kane suggests that modern visions of the world require us to accept some of the apparently random and arbitrary nature of the universe, understanding the world better by 'entering into its games, by respecting its creativity, by joining in the play of living forms'. As biologist Brian Goodwin says, 'this realization that the ovarall behaviour of complex systems (like the weather, or the brain, or human society) cannot ultimately be predicted has 'enormous consequences'. "Real systems, and particularly living ones such as organisms, ecological systems and societies, are radically unpredictable in their behaviour"'. To progress in these uncertain fields, scientists must accept 'just how unpredicatbly creative the evolutionary process is', adopting a 'playful' attitude of both controlling/understanding and being controlled/challenged by our environment. Kane also cites Geoffrey Miller, whose book The Mating Mind, suggests that from an evolutionary perspective, 'nature commands that humans should play in order to survive and thrive.' With respect to Maslow's pyramid of needs, there is no priority in life that has greater *meaning* to humans than survival itself.

Accepting play as meaningful action can also mean acknowledging play's significant contribution to facilitating our development as people - by recognising play's contribution to selfhood, imagination and identity. Play enables us to fashion not only our early selves, but also throughout our adult development. As Kane writes, 'play is the primal force which built our early selves, and can revivify and infuse our adult selves with a craving for action and innovation.' As neuroscientific studies have shown, our brains 'light up' during play, even through adulthood. As Howard Gardner, the Harvard Educationalist and psychologist says: 'We play to master our self, our anxiety and the world.' So play helps us to develop as people, but also as groups. Playful group rituals such as festivals and parties helps us to bond as communities. On this subject Kane quotes Alessandro Falassi, whose book, Time out of Time, describes collective play as being a 'periodic renewal of the stream of the community by creating new energy ... which gives sanction to its institutions'. Thus collective play is a *meaningful* act of collaboration, encouraging reciprocal altruism, and enhanced civility (though not *always* of course).

So all in all, playful activities (including games) are valuable and meaningful activities, not just during leisure time, but also potentially during working hours and learning environments. Not only can playful activities lighten serious and monotonous work, they can also make it more efficient. And I agree with Kane's manifesto proposition, that play and games are especially necessary in our changing working and learning environments. Raigeleuth's and other's recognition that we have entered an *information age* [see appendix below] requires that we change our attitudes. As Kurt Squire writes, there is a growing recognition that traditional models of instruction, organized by modernist, scientific, rationalist social theory and assembly line metaphors for social organization are failing to work for us in the new economy. Like Reigeluth, Gee, and others, I argue that new organizing metaphors for learning and new models of learning environments are needed to respond to the social and economic realities of the 21st century'. Hence play and games offer one possible way of engaging young 'digital native' learners and the subsequent workers that grow up in the digital age.

Accepting the meaningfulness of play and games in education however, is likely to require some institutional reform, particularly in evaluation methodology. Play will often involve using imaginative and creative processes, but as Kane writes, 'how much 'imagination' can educators allow into the teaching process - when the currriculum is geared towards a competitive jobs market and is based on test reults rather than an open-ended journey towards understanding?'. This concern is likely to polarise educators, until at some point, the digital natives at home in the information age and the 'experience economy' will have their way. Finally, as Kane suggests, 'by recognising our essential ludicism, by dignifying our play with an ethical force, we can begin to create and act, rather than simply consume and spectate.' Let's hope this recognition comes sooner rather than later.

Appendix - Table 1: Changes in Global Economies (Reigeluth, 1999).
Standardization .......... Customization
Centralized control .......... Autonomy with accountability
Adversarial relationships .......... Cooperative relationships
Autocratic decision making.......... Shared decision making
Compliance .......... Initiative
Conformity .......... Diversity
One-way communications .......... Networking
Compartmentalization .......... Holism
Parts-oriented .......... Process-oriented
Teacher as "King" .......... Learner (customer) as "King"

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