The Ecology of Games

Gaming is play across media, time, social spaces, and networks of meaning; […] it requires an attitude oriented toward risk taking, meaning creation, nonlinear navigation, problem solving, an understanding of rule structures…

Connecting youth, games and learning
edited by Katie Salen

«A generation is growing up in an era where digital media are part of the taken-for-granted social and cultural fabric of learning, play, and social communication.»

Emerging field of games for learning, need for interdisciplinary conversation

«Those immersed in new digital tools and networks are engaged in an unprecedented exploration of language, games, social interaction, problem solving, and self-directed activity that leads to diverse forms of learning. These diverse forms of learning are reflected in expressions of identity, how individuals express independence and creativity, and in their ability to learn, exercise judgment, and think systematically.»

Media literacy: ways of understanding, interpreting, and critiquing media; means for creative and social expression, online search and navigation, new technical skills

User participation, p2p, new forms of media communication

«Gamers expect that media are subject to player control.»

«All forms of media are increasingly being contextualised in an online communication ecology where creative production and expression is inseparable from social communication.»

– What forms of participatory practices do games and gaming engender for youth; which forms of learning are present, missing, or reinforced through gaming?

– What gaming literacties, or families of practice produced by games and gaming attitudes, do we see emerging?

– How does gaming act as a point of entry or departure for other forms of knowledge, literacies, and social organization?

– What barriers of entry into gaming and game communities exist, and what are the implications for those who haven’t been invited to play?

– What forms of knowledge, literacy and social organisation are being supported by a broad ecology of gaming?

– What forms of learning do we see emerging from the specific qualities of games (i.e., their status as play experiences, procedural systems, interactive and visual systems, etc.)? Which forms are emerging from the qualities, characteristics, and social practices of digital media more generally?

– Are video games presenting new pedagogies, or employing existing ones in an unfamiliar context and transforming them?

Mitzuko Ito

Kurt Squire: The learning merits of open-ended simulation or sandbox games; looking at video games not only as contexts for gaming but as doorways or catalysts for the aquisition of knowledge

Jane McGonigal: MMOs; an age of powerful networked collaboration

«Gaming is play across media, time, social spaced, and networks of meaning; […] it requires an attitude oriented toward risk taking, meaning creation, nonlinear navigation, problem solving, an understanding of rule structures, and an acknowledgement of agency within that structure.»

a stance of playfulness; creative, improvisational

«Gamers not only follow rules, but push against them, testing the limits of the system»

«There is no “one” game: the individual, social, and cultural motivations of any player affect what is experienced through play, and no two players ever experience the “same” game. This creates a challenge for those looking to games to provide a standardized context for learning.»

Games as systems in which people participate as gamers, producers, and learners

What Will Wright looks for when testing games: «Can I try?» – players getting excited to try the game, players understanding what to do, and feeling confident in their ability to play

a player who lacks confidence will rarely choose to play

The ability to SAVE; players feeling invested in the game experience and feeling that the time spent is valuable and meaningful

«Games as a productive literacy drives feelings of personal agency, affecting both life and thought»

Empowering young people to create content

«Want me to show you?» Players’ desire to teach others about the games they love

«How did you do that?»

feedback loops that cycle through levels of engagement, agency, mastery, expertise, and back again

Games are recognized by players as learning systems

A game has to successfully communicate to its players how to play; players trust the game to teach them in the process of playing; reading the rule book is a waste of time as the instructions mean nothing out of context

— How do players come to games in the first place?

Play is iterative, as is good learning

Gaming is a practice rooted in reflection in action, which is also a quality of good learning

Learning and Games

James Paul Gee

Good game design has a lot to teach us about good learning
Earlier learning theory argued that the mind works like a computer; humans think and learn by manipulating abstract symbols via logiclike rules, but newer work argues that people think and learn through experiences and not abstract generalisations
"People store these experiences in memory [...] and use them to run simulations in their minds to prepare for problem soling in new situations."

Video games recruit learning as a form of pleasure and mastery

Experiences useful for learning
– structured by goals
– immediate feedback during the experience
– interpreted afterwards
– opportunities to apply previous experiences and "debug"
– learning from peers; what worked and why?

goals, interpretations, practice, explanations, debriefing, and feedback

Social groups and learning; social identity as crucial for learning; the interpretation of the experience flows from the identity of being or seeking to become such a person (WoW guilds, online communities); the game is embedded in a social system
"Social groups exist to induct newcomers into distinctive experiences, and ways of interpreting and using those experiences, for achieving goals and solving problems."

"game design is also design for good learning, since good games are, at their heart, learning and problem-solving experiences"

"Any learning experience has some content, that is, some facts, principles, information, and skills that need to be mastered. So the question immediately arises as to how this content ought to be taught? Should it be the main focus of the learning and taught quite directly? Or should the content be subordinated to something else and taught via that “something else”? Schools usually opt for the former approach, games for the latter. Modern learning theory suggests the game approach is the better one."

Learning in context; designed problem spaces; goal-driven problem spaces

Models used for imaginative thought, learning, and action; when the real thing is too large, too complex, etc, to deal with directly
Models are basic to both human play, learning sciences and game design; simulation games are models; sometimes model making is integral to game play
Modeling is an important way to interrogate and generalize from experience

Microcontrol over objects in virtual space; feels like an extension of the human body; join virtual and real space

Embodied empathy for a complex system (scientists imagining themselves as tiny fireflies); human thinking and learning go beyond the processes inside your head; "distributed cognition/knowledge"
Cross-functional teams in modern workplaces; each team member has extensive as well as intensive knowledge (WoW)

Motivation and ownership
low price of failure encourage risk taking
competition is fun
collaboration is fun
cocreating game worlds; shaping the experience; ownership
producers, not just consumers

Both thinking and learning depend on emotions; learning involves not just the cortex but the limbic system, amygdala

Video games attach emotion to problem solving
We store information more deeply when it has an emotional charge for us; emotions help us focus and retrieve information from long-term memory
Inspire emotion through elements of storytelling

Situated meaning; relating words to actual experiences, actions, functions, problem solving; games put language in context, not like textbooks full of words and definitions; creates ability to apply the knowledge in practice


In-game vs in-world: "I would never behave like this in real life"

The productivity of gaming environments for learning lie in the fact that players among themselves are free to figure out and create learning and teaching arrangements that work for them.

Education vs. Entertainment

Mizuko Ito

(author of

incorporating gaming idioms into learning software
reforming existing social and cultural structures

the tendency to fetishize technology as a force with its own internal logic, standing outside of history, society and culture
technologies are in fact embodiments, stabilizations, and concretizations of existing social structure and cultural meanings

how can games contribute to systematic change in learning and education?
the design of a game has structuring but not determining effect on how the game will be played

media genres and participation genres

The focus on entertainment as a motivator tends to designate the role of games as a form of educational 'sugarcoating'

Gary and Douglas Carson: "None of us had degrees in education. We didn't want to go out and make all these pedagogical claims... Basically, our idea was to do products that we ourselves found interesting. (...) Whatever seemed fun."

"Media content is inseparable from the economic and structural conditions in which it is produced and circulates. Social change needs to be pursued at all levels of the circuit of production, distribution, and consumption, a daunting task for anyone aiming to transform the relations between technology, social stratification, and learning."

Opportunities for creative mobilization are expanding for a media- and tech-savvy generation
Shifting power balance

"If I were to place my bet on a genre of gaming that has the potential to transform the systemic conditions of childhood learning, I would pick the construction genre."
geeky/hacker-oriented play; a more participatory form of learning and media engagement


Jump Start 2nd grade

The Rhetoric of Video Games

Ian Bogost

Associating video games with leisure is a by-product of misunderstanding the nature of play
"play is the free space of movement within a more rigid structure" (Katie Salen, Eric Zimmermann)
Play refers to the "possibility space" created by constraints of all kinds
Imposing rules does not suffocate play, but makes it possible in the first place; kids invent games based on the constraints of their environment
When we play video games, we "explore the possibility space its rules afford by manipulating the symbolic systems the game provides" and through that encounter the meaning of the game

Procedures (processes) are sets of constraints that create possibility spaces, which can be explored through play
"To write procedurally, one authors code that enforces rules to generate some kind of representation, rather than authoring the representation itself. Procedural systems generate behaviours based on rule-based models." 
The ability to execute computationally a series of rules fundamentally separates computers from other media

Video games more frequently and deeply than other software exploit the property of the computer that creates possibility spaces we can explore through play (?)

Rhetoric; elegance, clarity, and creativity in communication
Success means effective expression, not necessarily effective influence

Procedural rhetoric: Video games can make claims about the world; not with oral speech, writing, or images, but with processes. Procedural rhetoric is the practice of effective persuasion (communication?) through processes.

Models of real and imagined systems

Open-Ended Video Games: A Model for Developing Learning for the Interactive Age

Kurt Squire

«As educational games leave the realm of abstraction and become a reality, the field needs to move beyond rhetoric and toward grounded examples not just of good educational games, but effective game-based learning environments that leverage the critical aspects of the medium as they apply to the needs of a twenty-first-century educational system.»

We need a better understanding of what players do with games and the way of thinking involved

Video game-based learning environments as designed experiences; we can use the capacity of sandbox games to recruit diverse interests, creative problem solving, and prouctive acts (creating artwork, game mods, building digital models)

The game should do something to suggest to students how the concepts they’re learning relate to phenomena in the world around them

Leave directions for where to go after playing the game

Suggest what a successful player can do to extend their interest beyond the game, such as a career

Through studying professions, we can create gamelike experiences that re-create the practicum

Problem-solving spaces in which the players must think creatively and collaboratively with a suite of digital tools

«Sandbox games are known for their status as contexts for creative player expression, with mulitple solution paths (their quality is judged according to their ability to deliver such an experience) as opposed to their ability to create a more-or-less common experience.»

«In these games, learning resembles a process for coming to understand a system, experimenting with multiple ways of being within that system, and then using that system for creative expression»

about creating spaces for knowledge creation and discovery

open-ended simulation games function as possibility spaces for their players to try on and inhabit; develop new ways of knowing, learning, and being in the world

«The games themselves are not stories, nor just abstract rule systems, but worlds built according to (implicit or explicit) values, visions, and ideas»

Educators and game designers task:
How to create spaces that ultimately exist for people to do interesting things? (Alice Robison, The “Internal Design Grammar” of Video Games)
Create contexts where players can generate meaning / give players contexts with which to THINK
gradually give them a sense of mastery of something complex
games are designed experiences
develop worlds that are WORTH UNDERSTANDING

academic/gaming culture in its infancy