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Judith Harding University of the Arts
Monday 3 September 2007, 15.45-16.45
Themes: Lifelong learning, Skills development , Better practitioners, Learning for learning’s sake
The contradiction in the phrase ‘serious play’ has, since its earliest appearances, drawn attention to the potentially beneficial (but perhaps surprising) links between these apparently opposed ideas. The thought that learning could be a serious form of play, first expressed in Heraclitus and Plato, has been echoed across a broad spectrum of disciplines. Later philosophers (Nietzsche, Rousseau, Gadamer), educators (Comenius, Vygotsky, Bruner, Sutton-Smith), historians (Huizinga) and scientists and psychologists (Feynman, Einstein, Winnicott), have all adapted the term in different ways to describe the developmental importance of the seemingly trivial, the value of ambiguity, and the rich possibilities of free and playful exploration. It has now been incorporated, as well, by the business community to designate specific systems of training and communication (Schrage, Lego, IBM), and has recently begun to appear in studies of digital culture and gaming. Even the proposed designation of a new discipline, ‘ludology’, has emerged to describe and collect some of these disparate strands.
Though there have been few explicit attempts to link these cross-disciplinary references, recent work by socio-linguist James Paul Gee on the lessons of video games for learning, Pat Kane’s broader cultural studies approach, and emerging discussions of game design theory suggest significant shifts. There is a growing awareness of a new generation of so-called ‘digital natives’ who are spontaneously developing approaches to learning that will shape their responses to formal education. Gee and his colleagues see a new kind of learning becoming possible. The concentration, autonomy, flexibility and engagement with virtual worlds promoted by computer game play inform his ’36 principles for learning’; these may support the design of interaction in a range of settings.
While much of the literature on this phenomenon has focussed on experience in schools rather than that of higher education, it is becoming clear that our real and virtual classrooms will soon be populated by digitally literate students. Attempts to augment the technology currently in use with ‘game-like’ activities have not, argue Suzanne de Castell and Jennifer Jenson, taken on board the sophisticated nature of the abilities that are being developed. Until this generation has completely replaced current university staffing, a gap in approach is likely to remain.
This paper will first trace some of the strands of this complex background. Discussion will focus on distinctions between the frequently confused notions of play and game, their relation to research and learning, and the potential for participation in digital environments to inform approaches to group interaction. It will then explore the relevance of school-based evidence for the design of strategies for online, blended and, in particular, face-to-face facilitation in higher education. Finally, it will be argued that ‘serious play’ has always, implicitly or directly, been at the heart of the strategies of our most expert and inspiring teachers, and that the affordances that rapidly changing technology offers to build on this approach must not be wasted.