Shall We Play? (Part One)

A few weeks ago, I delivered one of the two keynote addresses at the USC Teaching with Technologies conference. This year's theme was "The Connected Mind." I chose to spend my time talking about the value of play, a theme which has surfaced several times in my recent talks, so I wanted to share the core ideas from this presentation with you here. SHALL WE PLAY?

In many ways, I am speaking to you today under false pretenses. This talk is not primarily about teaching with technology. After spending two decades of my life at MIT, I have almost reflexively become that guy who challenges claims about technological determinism and who stresses the importance of the culture which informs the design and deployment of tools.

These themes are explored more fully in the white paper which I wrote for the MacArthur Foundation on Learning in a Participatory Culture. New media tools and platforms have affordances which support new kinds of learning, but those forms of learning are also very strongly informed by participatory practices, many of which have a history far older than the web. Today, in focusing on play, I am going to be drawing heavily on ideas that emerged prior to the introduction of digital games, but which continue to be relevant in rethinking our pedagogical practices. If we embrace the values of play, we may find ourselves toying with new technologies and insofar as these participatory practices are closely associated with some of the new platforms of the Web 2.0 era, we may also find that in working with these tools, we are drawn towards a reappraisal of the value of play in our teaching.

This is also not a talk about games-based learning. Through the work I did almost a decade ago at MIT with Kurt Squire, Philip Tan, Eric Klopfer, Alex Chisholm and others on the Games to Teach Project, I have been an early and frequent advocate of games-based learning. I both share James Paul Gee's belief that good game design is also good pedagogical design and have worked to model what games for education might look like. But in talking always about games, we may under-estimate the value of more open-ended forms of play and of play as a general disposition in the educational environment. These are the themes I want to explore more fully today.

This is also not a talk about gamification, a term which is being used far too often today, as if it could adequately sum up the larger movement towards games for change. To me, gamification as a concept grossly simplifies what research on games-based learning has shown us over the past decade or so. When the Games to Teach team worked with content experts, we sought ways to embed information from the curriculum, knowledge from the text book, into activities in the games. We asked each expert what knowing this allowed people to do and then we sought to capture those activities through the game design and mechanics so that they provided deep motivation for the learner to master these concepts.

At the heart of this model was intrinsic motivation. The power of games is in part that they provide such clarity in defining the roles and goals, that they helped us to know what to do and how to do it, and as such, they motivate deeper forms of learning. Gamification, at its worst, rejects a theory of intrinsic motivation in favor of one based on extrinsic motivation. That is to say, it attempts to motivate "proper" or "desired" behavoirs through attaching points to otherwise mundane and uninteresting activities. For example, Foursquare represents a gamification of consumer loyalty programs.

One might argue that this version of gamification does not in any significant way break with current educational practices which may be why it has been easier for schools to embrace than the more challenging kinds of learning games which were proposed in the past. Our students learn NOW in schools not because they value what they are learning but because they have been taught to value grades. And where their grades are not strong, they plead for extra credit points, which represents another way of adding points as rewards or incentives to behaviors valued by their teachers. I do believe we can learn much from games but I sure hope that what we take away from them goes deeper than most current models of gamification.

But, for the moment, I want to push games aside and talk about play. The distinction I am making here comes from an essay by the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Here's what Bettelheim tells us:

'Generally speaking, play refers to the young child's activities characterized by freedom from all but personally imposed rules (which are changed at will), by free-wheeling fantasy involvement, and by the absence of any goals outside the activities itself...'

Bettelheim thus links play to freedom, experimentation, personal investment, and process, all values to which I will return later in this talk.

"Games, however, are usually competitive and are characterised by agreed-upon, often externally imposed, rules, by a requirement to use the implements of the activity in the manner for which they were intended and not as fancy suggests, and frequently by a goal or purpose outside the activity, such as winning the game."

We might think about the game, Candyland, as an ideal transitional device -- a game which teaches young players the basic mechanics of board games, one which often plays a key role in socializing us into the world of games. For Betteiheim, learning to play games represents an important step in the socialization process -- learning to accept outside and sometimes arbitrary constraints on one's behavior for the purposes of social reciprocity and delayed gratification.

"Children recognize early on that play is an opportunity for pure enjoyment, whereas games may involve considerable stress."

So, while learning to play games is a step forward, it also is accompanied by some kinds of losses -- in terms of personal expression and immediate pleasure. People cheat at games, for example, as a way of coping with the anxiety of competition in ways that they do not generally find it necessary to cheat at play. Indeed, it is not clear what cheating at play would look like given the lack of social constraint on individual expression it entails.

By that same token, institutions find it much easier to incorporate games, which preserves the notion of rule-driven activity, rather than play, which is often understood as a kind of anarchic freedom from any and all constraints. So, schools often treat most forms of play as minimally a distraction, more often a disruption, of school practices, hence the concept of "class clown" which runs through educational literature. In other cultures, the clown is an educator who invites us to re-examine existing hierarchies and structures, taking the world apart and putting it back together again, where-as the clown in our schooling is seen as an unwelcome rival for the classes attention, a challenge to discipline and a disturbance of learning.

In part, this is because our puritan culture maintains a world view in which play is the opposite of work. We have decided that schooling should be about work rather than play, and as such, we are driving down the creative impulses of our students. No wonder that many are seeing a crisis of creativity in contemporary America!

Interestingly, though, when we work with teachers in professional development programs focused on learning and teaching the new media literacies, they consistently gravitate to play out of the 12 social skills and cultural competencies we've identified through our work. Here's how our white paper defines play as a literacy: "the capacity to experiment with one's surroundings as a form of problem solving." Today, we are pushing beyond play as a skill to think about play as a disposition -- a way of seeing oneself and the world through new creative lens which depend on suspending real world consequences and encouraging a process of innovation and creativity.

Educators are sometimes drawn to play for the wrong reasons -- because they seek to entertain their students. I sometimes hear various lay theories of "stealth learning," the idea that we can smuggle in learning disguised as play into schools and students will have so much fun that they will overcome their resistance to the schooling process. In many ways, I see this as like that moment in Tom Sawyer where Twain's protagonist sells others in his cohort into helping him white wash the fence by convincing him that doing so is great fun. This is perhaps the same kind of trap that we fall into when we talk about gamification -- a confusion between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Play is not disguised learning; play IS learning.

Jean Piaget captures this sense of the value of play when he tells us that "play is the work of childhood." He rejects any simple opposition between play and work, suggesting that play is the most important work children perform, because it is through play they acquire basic knowledge and skills fundamental to their culture. A kitten plays at stalking. In a hunting society, children play with bows and arrows. And in an information society, people play with information and interfaces.

We can rehearse and acquire core skills and knowledge through play because play lowers the stakes of failure. One of the activities we've developed through Project NML for thinking about play is called "Fail and Fail Often," and it uses the casual game, Bloons, to get people to reflect on the strategies of experimentation and calibration they apply in solving problems in games. This is a totally addictive game in part because it is so simple and the way you move forward through the game is to try different strategies, most of which will not work. Through this process, we learn basic things about the physics of the game and how different materials respond to us. We can compare this with the role failure plays in schools: children are afraid to fail and teachers are afraid to tell their students that they are failing. As a result, students do not take risks which might push their performance forward and they do not get the feedback they might need to better calibrate their efforts.

Lately, as I've talked about the value of play for learning, I have started to identify a series of properties which help us to better understand the core principles of play. I call them the Six P's of Play (though this remains a work in progress and may end up with fewer or more Ps before all is said and done).

1. Permission. Before we can play, as adults, as students, we have to give ourselves permission to do so. This is of course different for many children who play often and only stop playing when they are prohibited from doing so. The concept of permission is closely linked to what game theorists call the "magic circle," that is, a mental bracket which we put around our activities which changes their affect, their meaning, and most of all, their consequences. Within that magic circle, we lower the consequences of risks; we agree to engage with each other with good humor; we try hard but do not take the outcome as seriously as we would if we performing the same activities outside of a play context. I love the example of the little girl who is sweeping the floor -- we would understand her activity differently if she were doing chores or playing house, even though the actions would be the same. In a school culture, where there is a long history of prohibiting play, we must work very hard to give signals when play is an acceptable mode of engaging with the activities and we have to build up trust with our students that we are not going to retrospectively count their play against them.

2. Process -- Play values process as much or more than product. Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salens make the point that the most efficient and effective way to play golf is to walk right up to the hole and plop the ball into it. But we would not see that as a very fun way of playing golf. Instead, we create as many obstacles as possible -- we use strange implements, we move far away from the hole, we create sand and water obstacles, we slope the landscape to give us less effective control over the outcome. In an education system now focused so heavily on how students perform on standardized testing, performance based on product completely displaces performance assessed based on process, yet play's value is focusing our attention on the experience itself, in the moment, in the process. It asks us to be aware of how we do things as much as on what we do. This is why play can be helpful in supporting the acquisition of basic skills which can be rehearsed and valued on their own without regard to the finished product.

3. Passion --The Gates Foundation has found that an increasing number of young people are dropping out of school not because they are incapable of performing what's expected of them but because they are bored. Work in the Digital Media and Learning Field tells us that we need to recognize the rewards of passion-based learning, of students pursuing those topics which they care about most deeply and using these interests to motivate and sustain other kinds of learning. Mary Louise Pratt has a great story she tells about her son's baseball card collection and how talking with him about it pushed him to learn more about history (as a backdrop to the key games in baseball history), geography (as a context for where the teams come from), architecture (as a way of discussing different stadiums), and math (as a way of playing around with batting averages.) This brings us back to Bettelheim's notion of play as open-ended, free-flowing, self-determined, and thus as something which is experienced as a site of freedom and passion.

4. Productivity -- Play is highly generative, despite or perhaps even because of its focus on process rather than product. I am very fond of the photographs which Martha Cooper took in the 1960s and 1970s of children's street play in New York City. These images show the imaginative ways that children transform their geographic environments through their play, claiming space even in relatively inhospitable environments where they are free to explore and interact; these images also show them taking up everyday materials around them as raw materials for their own play, transforming them from their mundane functions through a clever recognition of their underlying properties and affordances. And of course, they do the same thing with their bodies and with their social relations, performing new roles, trying out new structures, redefining old situations. This is the sense in which play can be linked to creativity. While in the spirit of play, old rules and structures are suspended, allowing us to look at the world in new ways, and allowing us to transform and transcend our environments.

5. Participation -- Play occurs in a social context which invites us to enter into the fun. We do sometimes watch others play, to be sure, and this represents what educational theorists call "legitimate peripheral participation." We watch with the anticipation of future participation. We watch to observe how others perform, to learn new skills, to appraise our own performance, or simply because we do not yet feel in the right spirit to play. But watching in this case is also a form of learning and is of a very different kind than watching which occurs when we know we will never be able to participate, when we feel that our participation is not welcome, when we anticipate not being able to do what's expected of us. As we sit in classrooms where no one offers up answers and no one is engaging with the learning process, we could learn a lot by going back to the ways that young people are introduced to a new kind of play and the ways that ideally they are encouraged to participate. (Of course, I don't want to romanticize this. As someone who often was not picked for teams in school, I know that the promise of participation can become cutting if we experience exclusion rather than engagement.)

6. Pleasure -- Pleasure is the byproduct of play. The search for pleasure is often what motivates play. This takes us back to Bettelheim's point about the stress around winning a game versus the relative freedom of participating through play. The game remains an operationalization of play, it represents a stress on the outcome that undercuts play's focus on process. And thus, a game may offer pleasure to some but with no guarantees and often a strong threat of displeasure if we lose the game. Thus, while it is very valuable to bring games into school, it is also important to provide contexts for more free and open-ended forms of play, which can offer pleasure to all who participate, rather than offering rewards to those who win.