International Games Week October 29 – November 4

International Games Week

Cataloguing games – some thoughts and some resources

Posted on October 5, 2015

Philip Minchin, the 2013-4 IGD blog editor, is popping back in with a guest post on... well, the title already spoiled it. The article explores why cataloguing games can actually do a great deal to unlock their capacity to cultivate learning, and concludes with some resources and references that will help you make a start.

In my Talking Points series from previous years, I've talked a lot about why I believe games and play should matter to libraries. I hope that I've already made the point in those series that games are important and underestimated forms of culture (and play is an essential element of ALL culture), and that it is no coincidence that their escalating prominence and ballooning share of our collective time, attention, and resources comes at a historical moment when creativity, imagination, systems literacy and social skills have never been more crucial.

But to date I've only alluded to the reasons why I believe libraries matter to games and play, over and above the ways we matter to every part of culture.

This could become another Talking Points series, but for now I want to focus on one of the core elements of libraries' sharing work: cataloguing.

The role of cataloguing in establishing and popularising analytical vocabulary

If games and play are a fraction as important as I believe they are, they deserve intelligent, considered, literate discussion comparable to what we afford literature, cinema, and other arts. (And of course, playful artforms can incorporate other media, along with narrative, composition, and all the other technical dimensions that come with them - there is no medium so open as play!)

However, as a medium that consists fundamentally of elements not central to other media - of systems at the published level, and of decisions and actions taken by players within the context of those systems at the experiential level - and which is not required to incorporate any other media, games need their own critical vocabulary.

Some of this vocabulary already exists in other fields - psychology, education, mathematics, logic, philosophy, economics, systems analysis, and so on. But it is largely isolated to those disciplines, which is a pity given its direct relevance to everyone who makes decisions within systems where others are also making decisions, and who might benefit from tools that render them better able to describe and analyse their experience. Which is to say, the entire sapient population.

And of course, while those academic disciplines have much to offer discussion of games and play, play and games are their own things with their own unique qualities - there will necessarily be some terminology that arises from studying them in their own right (which may well then inform those other disciplines).

To be fair, considerable work has been and is being undertaken in advancing critical discussion of games and play. Game dev site Gamasutra, criticism site Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and new BoingBoing subsite Offworld are great places to start for meaty discussion of games and play in a more holistic cultural context, and games academia is doing its bit to develop the terminology that lets us better describe experiences that have hitherto been nameable only in the broadest of strokes. I would not wish to downplay the value of any of these.

But just as the ruleset of a game is near-impossible to grok without actual play, we learn and understand taxonomies and critical distinctions best by reference to actual experience - by exploring the patterns within a collection of real objects where the similarities and differences are made manifest. Artistic movements and genres move from being academic jargon to mainstream parlance in no small part by being made visible in collections - and in catalogues. The simple fact of highlighting opportunities for learning prime people to do so, and equip them with the tools for analysis and even metacognition about what they are learning - not to mention simply marking such learning as valuable enough to note.

And it is this which libraries could offer, by not only including games and other playful media in their collections, but by cataloguing them properly, with reference not only to narrative or thematic elements and publication metadata, but to the actual details of how they are played, or played with.

This includes describing the physical media (something we need to do anyway for collection maintenance) and the rules and procedures of play, at the very least in the sense of including gameplay genres. A first-person shooter is radically different to a tower defense game, but under current cataloguing conventions at most libraries, you would be hard-pressed to tell Plants vs. Zombies from Left 4 Dead.

Other key aspects of gameplay include questions of chance vs. strategy, how much customisation of play elements is possible and expected, how much information is open and how much hidden (and from whom), and so on.

Another key element to describe is the required audience for play, including:

  • Who will be able to play? - this is often shorthanded by age, but being more specific about which specific capacities and developmental milestones are necessary would both popularise awareness of these aspects of intelligence and maturity, and allow more accurate assessment of suitability of games. For some games, specific life experiences may even be necessary - or, more likely, a player's experience of the same game may vary depending on their specific life experiences.
  • How many can play? The larger the required group, the harder the logistics of assembling a group to play. What effect do changing numbers of players have on the play experience?
  • How long does a typical game last? (This will feed into the first question of who can play - new parents and the overemployed rarely have time!) What are the factors that affect the duration of play - number of players, experience level of players, inclusion of optional gameplay elements, or other?
  • What is the social contract of the game - how does it shape the relationship of players to one another? Is it competitive, team-based, or co-operative? Does it promote openness and collaboration or secretive shenanigans? Which way does its tone tend? (Though of course the individual instance of play can vary wildly from the default!)

These are just a few basic qualities of games that clearly have an impact on their suitability for any given person, but would largely be ignored by traditional cataloguing (which, to be fair, was developed for media that are far more uniform in their physical composition and in the qualities of the required audience - or, at least, better suited to self-selection by their audience). If we are going to take cataloguing games seriously, as I hope it is apparent we must, we need to expand our understanding of the many ways a creative work is defined.

Games studies and popular culture have both contributed a great deal in this area, but cataloguers interested in getting up to speed on some basic attributes of games could do a lot worse than starting with Elias, Garfield & Gutschera's Characteristics of Games (MIT Press, 2012).

However, I believe some of the most interesting work lies around making explicit the skills, attributes, and/or insights required, developed, and/or rewarded by the game. This is something that could also be considered for other media, especially books - but given that playful media inherently depend on their audiences' abilities and efforts in ways no other medium does, it makes particular sense to consider cataloguing these dimensions of such works.

That this might result in games and play leading the way in making media generally more useful for educators and learning... well, that sounds about right to me, actually.

Examples and other resources

Much of this discussion was covered in a paper I wrote in 2011 for Australian library tech conference VALA, which also includes tables of fields of particular relevance to various specific forms of game - you can download it here. Some of this was derived from (and informed) work I did on cataloguing videogames and tabletop RPGs while working at Port Phillip Library Service, but since I left some years ago I am not sure how much of this was kept up (especially since I believe they have moved to outsourcing more of their cataloguing).

In writing that paper, somehow I missed this 2008 presentation by Bradley Shipps of Outagamie Waupaca Library System on cataloguing board games in MARC, which goes into more technical detail - particularly about the physical description of the work. One thing I thought particularly commendable was their use of the Related Resources field (856) to store a URL of the publisher's free PDF download of the rules, but the whole presentation is a must-read if you're interested in the topic.

(If you are, there's a blog post whose comments would be interested to hear from you at the LITA blog - go say hi!)

I already mentioned the tremendous Characteristics of Games in the body of the text - that's because it's that good.

A great deal of metadata, as well as lively and informative discussion, is of course available at Board Game Geek. Wikipedia gives an outline of some of the key terms for the less-familiar.

TV Tropes has an excellent page on videogame genres, and Wikipedia's is also useful in that it provides multiple axes for classifying games.

This University of Tennessee (Knoxville) page offers useful information on cataloguing web games specifically - aside from the general notes above about the broader topics we could be cataloguing, I have nothing to add.

Play Play Learn are among the first in the world (that I've come across, at least) to include the notion of cataloguing games (especially those that are not explicitly "educational") for skills, let alone mechanisms of play. They blur these together slightly in their categorisation of games - understandably enough, as there is considerable overlap in the implications of the two when undertaking "player's advisory" work, especially for the instructional kinds of purposes they aim to support - but their work is inspiring and another must-see. (As is the earlier work of some of the same team in the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership.)

IGD: How One Public Library and Local Board Game Group Joined Forces to Bring Games to the community

Posted on June 2, 2015

Our guest post this week comes from April Shroeder and Eric Groo.

April Shroeder is the Youth Programming Coordinator for Loudoun County (VA) Public Library. Formerly a Teen Services Librarian, April has extensive experience serving teens and finding community partners who wish to do the same. You can contact April at april.shroeder [at] Loudoun dot gov

Eric Groo is an aspiring maestro of play, father of two, Cub-Scout leader, and Rotary member. He founded the Loudoun County Game Masters because he believes ‘games are good for people.’ During the day he works as blue-collar statistician. You can contact Eric at eric.groo [at] gmail dot com

2014 was not the first year Loudoun County Public Library (LCPL) participated in International Games Day, but it was the first year that all branches partook in the celebration. The unified support of IGD commenced in Minecraft community builds, family board game programs, a strategy game competition, and a Lego and Duplo family build extravaganza. The programs brought in dozens of children, teens, and families who learned new games, and played old favorites. The biggest change to LCPL’s IGD celebration was in the enthusiastic staff, and a friend-of-a-friend who was looking for just the right time and place to kick-off a gaming club.

Eric, a local board game enthusiast, approached LCPL with the concept of a community-supported partnership that would introduce games to general public as a cultural activity.  Games in libraries are hardly a new thing, but it appeared to him that many of these items intimidated patrons and they weren’t being fully utilized. So, on a beautiful fall morning in 2014 we met to brainstorm how local gamers could help LCPL with the upcoming IGD events planned at some of the branches.  Eric had long wanted to start a club to introduce modern board games to a wider audience, but had no location to host programs and no captive audience – both of which LCPL had plenty of. We considered this a wonderful opportunity for a trial run.

Loudoun County Public Library

Volunteers were happy to attend the pre-planned events as gaming specialists and helpers, and some even hosted programs at the branches that did not already have anything planned. Within a week all of the branches had something on the calendar for IGD. One week later, successful IGD programs were hosted, and game programs began to fill up the library’s calendar – some run by staff, others by volunteers.  We declared success, and found we had enough support to schedule regular events at local branches. Loudoun Tabletop Game Masters (LTGM) was born.

Loudoun County Public Library

As partners in gaming in libraries, LTGM focuses on collapsing the barriers to play. It’s not far from the act of introducing a challenging book, except that other people are an essential element. In practical terms, this means gathering a group (2-6 people); matching patrons with an appropriate title; and, a ‘soft’ play-session that bypasses the need to study a rulebook. LTGM also gives advice to library staff on which games to buy or replace; which most appeal to particular age groups; and which are suited to the timeframe of a library program. Most importantly, though, LTGM help staff understand the “why” behind gaming. Their knowledge and interest in games make them the perfect hosts and partners. Here are some of the things library staff have learned since partnering with LTGM:

1) Forget everything you remember (or, remember hating) about Chess and Monopoly. In 2014, the Guardian declared a ‘golden age of gaming.’   Modern board games are artfully balanced affairs that proudly bear their designers names on the box. High interactivity, beautiful art, streamlined rules, reasonable playtimes, integrated narratives (that also facilitate the learning of rules), and limited downtime are the norm. Stodgy train and economic games are still available, and worth investigating for those interested in the hobby, but you can now have your Zombie clichés and play them (see Dead of Winter).

2) Staff involvement is key. LGTM focuses on finding and organizing people who want to teach games, and communicates primarily via a meetup group. This is by design, because it’s difficult to find sociable people who are able and willing to share the hobby with the general public.  Therefore, additional communication channels are needed to attract patrons to events (see the following point for some helpful tips on promotion.)  In our experience, when this works it really works – board gaming events that are promoted and supported by library staff attract around 3x times the patrons, meaning 30-40 people for larger events.

3) Marketing and promoting your game programs requires thoughtful planning. Make posters featuring a picture of a representative game, and the program name and schedule. If you call your program Settlers of Catan or Survive!, you will lose potential participants who doesn’t know that particular game. If instead you name the program Introduction to Modern Board Games or Board Gaming for Teens, you will attract all levels of players and library patrons. Relegate the names of specific games to the schedule of events on the poster. Don’t let your desire to have a catchy name keep you from reaching your full potential with a gaming program. At best, you will attract the ‘hardcore’ enthusiasts who already know the games. At worst, no one will show up because they cannot tell what kind of program you’re hosting.

4) Games market themselves, if properly displayed. The art and illustrations are eye-catching and bold, so don’t relegate them to the back of a closet only accessible by staff (if they even remember that the library owns games). Put a barcode or spine label on the game boxes and put them somewhere visible! Are you uncomfortable leaving them out in the open where a child might find the small pieces appetizing? Display the games on a high shelf on book easels. Or put them on a cart you can roll after other age-appropriate programs as your way of saying, “Hey, don’t rush away. Stick around for a while and play a game.” With few exceptions, games do not require staff supervision, so give them space to play and mosey on over once in a while to check on them.

5) Proper storage is important. Don’t stack games horizontally, on top of one another, unless you like tipsy towers, broken boxes, and scattered components. Game boxes are designed to store vertically, like books.  The current standard, ‘medium’ box is 11.7  x 11.7 x 2.8 inches (there are lots of exceptions, also akin to books), so find a shelf that is about a foot deep, if possible. Additionally, for games with lots of pieces, cheap, plastic organizers, that fit inside the box, makes games faster to set-up, clean-up, and inventory. For card-games, or just games with cards, card sleeves are another recommended housekeeping supply that can extend the life of components 10-fold. If this seems like a lot of work, many patrons are happy to help with these tasks if given the necessary supplies.

6) Games are inexpensive on a per-use basis, and relatively durable. One modern game will cost anywhere between $20-$80, but if four people play it twice a week for a year, the cost-per-use is pennies. You may be concerned about all of the pieces. What happens when you lose a die? (Go buy more, or keep extras on hand.) What if a card rips? (Tape it back together, or scan and copy it onto heavy paper – remember, sleeves fix this problem.) What if a necessary piece goes missing? (The world might end.) Worst-case: you bought a game and it was a dud or essential pieces went missing quickly. How is that different from a brand new book?

Remember: Library materials are routinely injured and defaced, but you would never consider not buying new books for the shelves, right? Think of games as a necessary library material and you will soon get over your fears.

7) Patrons love to play. Psychology Today recently profiled A Playful Path, a new book by Bernard DeKoven that examines playfulness as an essential, yet oft-neglected human trait. The belief is that game is just a pretense – most readers can remember joy of discovering and ‘figuring-out’ tic-tac-toe. In fact, competition isn’t even necessary – many modern games are fully cooperative. Most adults can remember learning that ‘winning’ is often less important than being, and experiencing, a good opponent. The point is that playing is an end in itself, but this is a hallmark of cultural and artistic experience. When the vision of a library expands beyond literacy and information access, cultural experiences move naturally to the forefront.

So, games are art. We hope this conclusion came as a surprise. Aside from the vivid and fun illustrations, the modern game designer creates experiences that the most (or least) discerning of library patrons can understand and appreciate. We hope that it motivates you to organize a group, sit down, and play more games!

Loudoun County Public Library

Talking Points: Play, analysis and action

Posted on October 13, 2014

Welcome to the last of our series on the powers of play (which starts here for those just coming in). In some ways we've saved the best to last - not in terms of writing, that's hardly for me to say, but in terms of the importance of the point being made. Hope you agree - and whether or not you do, hope you've found the series thought-provoking, and that it's inspired you to grant play the respect it deserves as a fundamental aspect of human intelligence and culture!

If you're familiar with my work outside IGD, or you’ve been paying attention to the way I’ve espoused the virtues of games and play, you’ll have gathered that I have a fairly cerebral approach to things. Playing helps us learn better, think more creatively, be mindful of others, broaden our cultural horizons, make better decisions… you might be forgiven for thinking that thinking’s all I’m concerned about!

In fact, this is a long way from the truth; I’m interested in thinking because it informs what we actually do. Getting your thinking right means you’re infinitely more likely to get your doing right. But in the process of dwelling on those aspects of learning, I’ve neglected to point out that games are also the most active of artforms. So it’s time to make this point properly.

To begin with, I’ve touched on the fact that play and games actively improve skills, not just knowledge and intelligence, but I haven’t really dwelt on it, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure it’s saved my life at least once.

(Short version: driving in rural Australia, sharpened reflexes and improved threat anticipation allowed me to avoid being sideswiped by a semitrailer that had to brake and swerve into my lane.)

But in fact this is another core value of play, and games especially (but not exclusively, since it’s possible to play without the defined objectives of most games): they teach us that to achieve our goals, understanding of one’s decisions and the context in which one makes them are vitally important – but so is actually turning understanding into decisions and decisions into actions.

It’s inherent to the nature of games: while they can incorporate other artforms (language, static and moving visual forms, music and audio elements, tactile elements…), the distinctive markers of this medium (or rather, these media: games are incredibly varied) are that they include the poetic arrangement of decisions, actions, and tests of skill for the audience. In other words, if you’re not actively doing something, it’s not much of a game. You have to be playing it: “you” being the subject of that sentence means the action is coming from you.

What this means is that while games encourage and improve our capacity for analysis and reflection, they do so within a context of that thought having to inform action. That action can include decisive inaction, i.e. not doing something because that is the most intelligent option; but there is a world of difference between that and defaulting to inactivity. (As an example of this, read the section headed “Identify What Matters Most” in Live Like a Gamer, an article by Mark Rosewater, the Head Designer of one of the world’s most popular tabletop games, Magic: the Gathering. The whole article is worth a read, in fact, since its whole point is to catalogue some of the often non-obvious ways in which games teach important life-skills.)

This has two major positive effects.

First, it creates what you might call an “implementation bias”. It’s one thing to come to a good judgment; it’s another entirely to enact one. But games drive home the fact that even the most perfect understanding means nothing without action. What’s more, having the inbuilt assumption that any conclusions you come to will have to be implemented gives you a stronger incentive to make decisions which are actually good,[1] because they give you a much stronger incentive to be engaged with reality than decisions where you are (unconsciously or otherwise) letting yourself off the hook of having to make them work in the real world.

Second, linking analysis to enactment works both ways, building an iterative, error-checking propensity into our actions. Nobody ever has perfect information; while you can be more or less confident, you can’t know when you formulate a plan how it will turn out. A good game trains us for this, because it creates plenty of room for surprises, whether from random elements, from cunning AI, or from competing players. Not only do you learn to try to anticipate what might be coming, but you learn to expect that you will have to deal with things you failed to anticipate, that you may need to revise your specific tactics to achieve your strategic objectives, that strategies may need to be revised or discarded in order to achieve your goal, and even that goals may be conflicting and you may need to prioritise or choose between them. The only way you can know that you have reached this point is if you are continuing to pay attention to your environment as you roll out your plan, and constantly thinking about what you are learning.

I call this capacity to maintain mindfulness while in the thick of things “reflection-in-action”. Closely related to Csiksentmihalyi’s “flow”, it layers on top of that close engagement with immediate circumstances the detached analysis of the planning stage, allowing the mind to draw insight from both bigger-picture, abstract or systemic understandings and the minutiae of the actual unfolding of events. At its most extreme, it feels like a literally mind-expanding experience (yes, I know it’s hard to be literal about the intangible, but that’s the subjective sensation): as you watch developments with which you are this closely engaged, you feel as though your mind is extending itself both outside the boundaries of your ego-self into the abstract and conceptual truths that reflect wider reality, and also out of your skull into that actual reality.

This isn’t isolated to play – the act of creation can also induce this experience, which to me highlights the connection between play and creation. But given that elsewhere it’s a hallmark of humanity’s most exceptional achievements, and it’s a useful capacity either way, it’s yet another reason to reconsider our false assumptions – and realise that just because the overt outcomes of play are typically of little value outside the context of the game, play itself is far from trivial.

Talking Points: Play, inclusion, and community-building

Posted on September 8, 2014

Welcome back folks! This is the fifth entry in our series about the importance of play. If you're just joining us, this series starts here. It also refers from time to time to our series about games last year which you can find here.

I've already covered this topic to some degree in the post on games, sharing culture, and connecting people: games, by providing a framework for interaction, enable a connection between people that requires no other common experience - there's no need to share an age, class, culture, occupation, or anything else; even a common language can be optional.

What I didn't do in that post was call out the fact that this means games and play can not only strengthen bonds that are already there, but work to break down the barriers that artificially divide us - or, if you prefer, to regrow the bonds of our common humanity that have been artificially severed.

They can do this in two ways, which we might label the "active" and "passive" modes.

The active mode is by using the stakes-free experimentation of play and the many tools at games' disposal to explore and undermine the false rationales that justify the mistreatment and exclusion of individuals for things other than the actual consequences of their behaviour.

For instance, games can abstract the systems and dynamics that foster bigotry and division from the specifics of their circumstances. Done well, this can not only give us a certain critical distance and a chance to see them from outside, just as well-written fiction can do, but even to inhabit other positions in those pecking orders. Jane Elliot's "Blue Eyed" sessions can be taken as a relatively extreme, intentionally highly emotional, and not entirely unproblematic example of this.[1]

(Two notes: First, to the extent that calling Elliot's necessarily unfun sessions of behaviour-according-to-arbitrary-rules "games" is a fair description - and before accusing me of trivialising them, bear in mind that I do not consider games any more inherently trivial, or slaves to entertainment, than books are - I would point out that they constitute another example of games tackling vital subjects in ways other media simply cannot.

Second, just as with fiction and other poetic ways to instil empathy or vicarious experience, there are limits on how much insight can be offered. After all, even if for the duration of the work the experience of persecution is simulated perfectly, the simple fact of knowing that it will end - and that you probably have control of when it will end - utterly transforms the experience. It's similar with any draining experience. Being a carer for an abusive invalid, having water drip on your forehead at irregular intervals, even the mild tedium of involuntary social isolation can drive you insane if you don't know when it will end. One of the strengths of Elliot's approach is that just as her blue-eyed audience are starting to refuse to take it any more, she takes that point - that they want to opt out of this arbitrary BS, but you don't get to do that with real-world oppression - and drills it home, by inviting people who have experienced ongoing racism to tell those stories at a time when their audience are primed to be receptive.)

Other games exist that seek to consciously explore these issues: Steal Away Jordan, dys4ia, Dog Eat Dog, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, This War of Mine, and many more.[2] While all these work in different and fascinating ways, and are worth your time and attention, I'd actually argue that besides the value of addressing these divisions consciously and intellectually, play and games do a great job of overcoming them experientially.

This is what I mean by the "passive" mode. Whether or not a game sets out to make us think about these issues, simply by giving us a chance to spend time in the company of those different from us on a somewhat more equal footing - because a game doesn't care who's playing it - we start to break down those barriers. Having to rely on ideas and stereotypes for our understanding of whole groups of people inevitably results in us thinking of them, and relating to them, in those terms. Having experience of a range of specific individuals from those groups means we can relate to them as people, and start to see what they have in common with other people in our life, lessening the power of the group identifier in our reflexive, emotional thinking, and bringing individual humans back into focus.

Again, I'm not asserting that just having a good time together (assuming we can see past our prejudices enough to do so in the first place)  is a substitute for actually reflecting on and consciously attempting to dismantle the systems, symbols and generalisations that shape our lives in destructive ways. The bigot who sincerely thinks that <almost all X are terrible people, just not the X he happens to know, who are actually really lovely (for X), which proves he's not a bigot> is a genuine phenomenon, as well as a joke.

But that experience of the humanity of others is an indispensible complement to that more analytic approach: we are emotional, instinctive creatures as well as intellectual ones, and moment-to-moment most of us live in (and react from) our emotions at least as much as we do our intellects. Just as much of a joke (and just as tragic a joke) as the bigot-despite-his-own-experience is the idealist who understands intellectually that we're all equal and decries discrimination in principle, but who somehow still can't quite get comfortable with Those People - or help them feel comfortable around her.

It's possible to change ourselves at those primitive levels by sheer force of reason, but it's extraordinarily hard and almost never produces any kind of social ease. The best and fastest way to shift those basic, primal levels of our thought is by direct experience: by simply spending time enjoying ourselves in the company of people who are, in some way that matters more than it should, unlike us. And games and play give us a framework for doing exactly that: somewhere to bond together over shared effort and experience, where nothing is really at stake to prime our fear and anxiety responses.

You can imagine how these sorts of positive shared experiences could be provided ancillary to other media (book clubs, art appreciation societies, or what have you), all of which are very much to be encouraged. But only in games and similar playful experiences are they innate - and indeed beneficial, because arbitrary social barriers restrict the pool of possible fellow-players - to the form. Games and play give us an inherent incentive to make room in our lives for others as they really are, not as we think of them or as they are represented by someone else. That's pretty amazing stuff.

 

(Click here for the final post in this Talking Points series - "Play, analysis and action".)

Talking Points: Play and learning

Posted on August 11, 2014

Hey everyone! Here's the fourth in our series about play and why it matters. For those just joining us, this series starts here, and there was a prequel series about games last year which you can find here.

This point is already part-argued: play’s close links to innovation – and the fact that, as quoted in that post, the drive to play arises from its nature as “training for the unexpected” – make its equally close links to learning obvious. (I’m making this point briefly, but it’s a crucially important one.)

Then there’s the clear implications of the well-known “10,000 hours theory” – the idea that excellence in any field is achieved in large part by spending 10,000 hours doing it with constant feedback. Play implies a degree of interaction with and varying response to the outcomes of the various objects of play and actions being tried; it isn’t play if it’s monotonous repetition! It also motivates this kind of persistence in a task.

But, again, common sense tells us that play is a powerful tool for learning. The old adage “show, don’t tell” is true as far as it goes, and not all lessons can be learned hands-on (at least without a degree of preparation… and in some cases, warning!), but for learning how to actually do something, for any actual application of  information to real-world conduct, and even in many cases for a better understanding of abstract properties, “play with” will always trump “look at”.

This is why young children are such sensovores: they are trying to learn all the different qualities of things (including, of course, their own bodies and senses). They play with things by looking, listening, feeling, smelling and tasting – and shaking, throwing, hitting and otherwise manipulating with all the precision they can muster while they are still just starting to learn precision. Given that very few people have conscious memories of life at this age, and even if they did these memories would almost certainly be sense-memories not informed by conscious strategic/analytic thought, it’s harder for us now as socialised and enculturated beings to recall the pressing experimental drive that underpins this profound encounter with reality on its own terms, but given what we know of brain development at the ages where play is most prevalent (I could say “unadulterated”) it seems safe to say that the smartest period of our lives – not the most knowledgeable, but the smartest, the time when we work the most stuff (and the most complex stuff) out the fastest – is the most playful.

There are also the fascinating parallels between the psychological state of “flow” – discussed in this post; what Csiksentmihalyi calls “optimal experience”, but is often (though not always) experienced as transcendent fun – and the needs of learning. Indeed, if you look at the way that flow is defined – roughly, staying in a zone where you are challenged but not overwhelmed as you improve your skill in the action you are undertaking – and compare that to educational theories around presenting students with material that will keep them stretching to learn (I’m thinking here of Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” and the notion of “scaffolding”) the links between play and learning become even more apparent.

Even setting aside these considerations, the most rote and informational of learning (which on first glance would seem not to lend itself to play) benefits from external incentives – and not just gamification-style motivational incentives, though those can certainly work, but concrete external links onto which to scaffold the learning and ground it into the real. The basics of logic or mathematics or system dynamics or the laws of physics make far more sense to those still learning them if manifested in a form that students can manipulate to experience the interactions for themselves. Yes, at some point they need to stop playing with the props and start playing in their imaginations if they are going to develop new understandings of their material, especially the more complex or counterintuitive parts. But it’s impossible to deny that play is a highly effective hack for uploading those abstract principles (at escalating levels of abstraction) into a brain designed first and foremost to engage with the concrete physical world… and playfulness doesn’t stop being a useful tool once those less-evident truths have been so uploaded.

 

(Click here for the next post in this Talking Points series - "Play, inclusion, and community-building".)

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