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.
Welcome to our very first edition of IGD Anecdotes, where we share the memorable stories, ideas, and experiences of previous library participants! As you read, consider bringing some of these ideas and experiences to your library so you can share your story with us at the end of the year. Let’s not forget that International Games Day @ your library is about reconnecting communities around the social, recreational, and educational value of all types of games. Whether it attracts experienced gamers or curious non-gamers, individuals from diverse backgrounds and all walks of life congregate, forming new experiences and stories to tell.
Stories of Teaching and Learning
Although games are often perceived as trivial play, many of us overlook the significant learning and teaching that takes place. The assessment survey of IGD 2013 provided stories of how games transformed public, school, and academic libraries into social environments immersed in teaching and learning. This phenomena is far from pointless.
At UCLA, students are honing their skills to design games for a living. Students from the Design | Media Arts school presented their tabletop games assigned for their Game Design course at UCLA’s College Library. They shared the creative process involved in making the game (e.g., handcrafting the pieces, building the story, creating the rules) and provided an interactive teaching and learning experience so that visitors could engage and play. Attendees sat around and learned how to play while listening to the inspirations behind the creator of the game. If you are interested in applying a similar activity in your library, be strategic and contact a target community in the local area that has applied their creative talents to an end product that will enhance the event. For example, in addition to inviting student game designers, the UCLA Library also invited student musicians to perform an hour-long video game music concert at noon. Performers want an audience, game designers want players, and you want attendees. The additional effort to coordinate was worthwhile for the UCLA Library, building their local network for years to come. You can, too!
Many attendees may be learning a new game for the first time. One high school library anticipated this scenario and organized “Teach me” tables that were moderated by faculty. In this case, students who did not know how to play a particular game learned how to play games such as Risk, Sheepshead, Settlers of Catan, and Dominican Dominoes. No matter how simple or advanced a game may be, the faculty themselves must learn or relearn the rules of play in order to properly moderate and teach their students. If you are interested in implementing a similar idea, set tables to attract attendees who may not be familiar with the new game, and find volunteers with expertise with the games to help moderate the game. If attendance is low, moderators should play to get the game started. Reading the rules help, but experiencing through play is one of the best ways to retain and understand the rules.
People enter public libraries from all walks of life. An elderly gentleman from Ukraine attended a public (urban) library in the U.S.. Though he knew very little English, a young woman helped him with Scrabble at every turn and when the game was over, he was pleased to learn new “American words.” In addition to increasing one’s vocabulary in a foreign language, the games provided a way for connecting people. Take a moment to look around the room during your event. Is anyone sitting alone in front of a tabletop game? Are they struggling to begin a video game? Delegate your volunteers to help another and they too will learn something new and even if they are not a moderator, they can add to yet another teaching moment of the day. We are there to serve as a community hub for lifelong learning in the library.
Meeting and Interacting with New People
International Games Day provides an excellent opportunity for people to develop the social skills critical for effective communication and interaction with other people. In-person or online, games can make this process much easier.
Certain communities are more diverse than others and the survey revealed that one academic (suburban) library was “really happy to see that a very diverse group of college students attended events at the library for international game day.” It appeared as though the participants playing the Mario Kart time trials came on their own and challenged people they have never met. This library was pleased to see that the library could be “a place to meet new people and make friends.” There is no question IGD pulls together diverse populations to engage in the diversity of games.
The survey also revealed interactions between traditional and home-schooled students at a rural public library. Organizers were pleased with the social aspect of IGD programming which were particularly effective for “students who have underdeveloped social skills and are less likely to participate actively in [their] programs.” Games can be inherently social and the choice of game can change the interaction and the dynamics of that interaction. It is important to consider the type of library one works for and consider the diversity of one’s own community.
An example of an inherently social game that IGD @ your library welcomes all to participate in is the Global Gossip Game. It is an excellent example of how such a simple, social interaction could bring forth lengthy conversations, laughter, and learning, simultaneously. One high school suburban library stated that “[t]he students, parents, and teachers absolutely loved playing the GGG. This aspect, I think even more than the physical games themselves, was a source of incredible excitement.” Students learn the history of the game, interact directly and indirectly with the understanding that others have participated, and as a result, meet and socialize with other people.
The survey presented many other stories and facts, so stay tuned for the next edition of IGD Anecdotes! We hope that these stories provide motivation and inspiration. We are just over five months away from the 7th annual celebration of IGD and if your library seeks to connect with the rest of the world on this memorable day, now is the time to start planning your successful event!
Hi folks! After the series of Talking Points on why games belong in libraries last year, I thought it would be worth following up with a discussion of why play itself is so important.
Play is to games what reading is to books: the underlying verb that enables the noun, but is applicable well beyond it. Reading, as a peculiar eye-based (also finger-based, and even - thanks to audiobooks - increasingly back-to-being-ear-based) subset of listening, is used for signage, notes, instructions, lists, and a ton of other chunks of information and culture besides books. Likewise, play is used for many things beyond formal games: teasing, joking, various informal contests and challenges, notional tinkering, creation, and many more. As such, it’s worth pointing out the many important aspects of life empowered by play.
Here's a list of a few key areas in which play is crucial:
- Innovation – There is tremendous value in a systematic grinding-through of possibility spaces, but the fact remains that play is a phenomenal way to apply the power of the brain to exploring new ideas. It’s telling that computers, which excel in the first kind of problem-solving, are still taking longer than human brains (at least those with an aptitude for this sort of thing) to solve questions of protein-folding, RNA-shaping and similar activities. Regardless, in an economy increasingly driven by innovation, play is only becoming more important as a life skill. [Full post up here]
- Freedom – The essence of play is a pocket of possibility-space which may be shaped and limited by external constraints, but produces a place and time in which unconstrained action according to one’s nature is possible. (Even a formal game may have rules, but if there’s no room for individual decisions and/or skill, i.e. for a player to actually play it, it’s not much of a game!) In political-economic contexts, this quality reads an awful lot like “freedom”. This isn’t a coincidence. [Full post up here.]
- Health (including happiness) – Just on first principles, it should be obvious that play – activity that expresses and exercises one’s nature, determined by internal impulses rather than external ones – will tend to be conducive to health and general wellbeing. And there’s a ton of research to support this. At the most obvious level, physical play (fun exercise) tends to be good for physical health. Mental play sharpens memory, focus, perception, comprehension, and decision-making, hence the profusion of “brain-training games” (and see again the talk linked earlier, Your Brain on Video Games). Setting meaningful challenges for ourselves, whether through a formal game/program like Superbetter or informally, not only helps us overcome particular obstacles but trains us to expect that obstacles in general can and will be overcome. Social play (such as Werewolf) uses and expands on our connection to others. [Full post up here.]
- Learning – This is obvious from the links to innovation – which could partly be defined as “learning things nobody else yet knows”! – but if anything this is the primary purpose of play (and the fact that it’s good for our health is because learning things is healthy, is what our organism is naturally disposed to do). This is so much the case that (as I mention in the post on innovation) the quote I used for the Global Gossip Game in 2013, “play is training for the unexpected”, was not from educational theorists but from mammalian biologists Špinka, Newberry and Bekoff. Clearly the drive to learn and experiment is ingrained in us at a bodily level… hence, again, the links to health! [Full post up here.]
- Inclusion and community-building – In addition to being a way to foster community connectedness, play is a way for people to explore difficult issues such as discriminatory beliefs and the ways that they shape behaviour (which in turn feeds back into beliefs), and also to spend time with other folks and learn about them as actual individuals rather than instances of a stereotype, both in relative safety and comfort. [Full post up here.]
- Promoting activity – I’m talking here not just about physical activity, but the assumption that thought and analysis will lead to concrete action: play isn’t just about comprehending the systems with which the game’s creator has presented you, it’s about you doing something with them. That leads to better thinking and better acting, as well as more productive uses of both. [Full post up here.]
Any one of these associations would qualify play as pretty important, even by the narrow, numerical criteria which govern so much of our key decisionmaking (except perhaps freedom, because it’s too hard to quantify). More holistic, humanistic values can only increase the value placed on play as something deeply rooted in the best of the human experience.
To be clear, I am not saying that frivolity should reign supreme and that work doesn’t matter. I’m trying to break the false opposition of play and work (they may be very much in tension in some respects, but play is ultimately a form of self-imposed, more-or-less self-directed work; the best work feels like playing; and the best workers are those who work in that playful, motivated, engaged way), the false association of play and frivolity (one can play seriously, and grimly grind away at something completely frivolous, and these are not the same thing), and the false assumption that frivolity is inherently unworthy. (See this post on fun.)
Play is central to our humanity. It has produced many of the best parts of our collective and individual experiences, and enabled us to find solutions to (and, failing that, temporary escapes from) many of the worst. For us to continue to treat it as an inferior part of culture, when it is in varying forms and ways a central part of all culture, is a mistake we should not continue to make.