Conflicting schedules had prevented me from fully accessing the keynotes and paper presented during Meaningful Play 2010 at East Lansing. Being a first time attendee at Meaningful Play, I couldn’t help but feeling a different vibe in the air upon entering the reception hall and that vibe permeated throughout the conference site. The vibe is distinct from the concomitant world language conference I presented at in that I sensed extra vibrancy and briskiness in the conversations I couldn’t help but overhearing between game designers, researchers, and educators. The exquisite color print program and the oversized projector showing game footage again reminded me I have now entered a thrilling realm, the realm of games, game design, and game research. My exultation went beyond words’ description.
Enough meandering as I now focus more on a single talk that inspired me. A panel of four speakers from Miami University gave a presentation on “Teaching meaning: The challenge (or lack thereof) of encouraging student designers/developers to make meaningful play”. These speakers demonstrated approaches to motivating a new population of meaningful play makers, i.e., the students. In particular, I gravitated to how they addressed the question, “how can educators turn the passions of their students toward the benefits of game that do more than entertain?” In other words, these faculty and game industry professionals are pushing novice game designers to get out of their familiar comfort zone (of aiming at entertainment) and encourage them to venture into designing for meaningful play that provides potential for cross-disciplinary learning.
Lindsay Grace first elaborated on his seven heuristics from seven years of teaching to demonstrate how game design educators should approach the issue of teaching meaning. William Brinkman followed by discussing two measures—evidence of tiered engagement with other professionals and engagement with theory– that can be used to tell whether students are succeeding at meaning making during game design. What intrigued me was that both panelists stressed on the importance of allowing students to rid themselves of specific outcomes they seek with the game, but to find what is relevant to them by making meaning of the problems of their choosing. Instead of cramming students with pre-existing game design knowledge, these two educators advocate discovery learning. Following from Piagetian and constructivist perspective on learning, game design students are taught to aim for meaning first through investigating issues of personal/critical relevance, and build from that investigation for successful gamification that produces meaningful play.
Of specific interest to my background in education is the argument put forth by Shira Chess that creating meaningful play experience is “not just for game students anymore”. Educators who are appealed to or are already practicing game-based teaching and learning should bear the following three points of emphasis and two questions into consideration. Below is a list of the propositions and my personal thoughts provoked by them:
Point 1: teaching that play can be meaningful
Game educators have to sensitize students to the aspects of the meta-play going on during physical game play. Game play can be fun, engaging, and create meaningful learning experience all at once. This also means as educators, you cannot assume that all students are interested in games. One caveat for game-based curriculum is that it is often difficult to find baseline games that appeal to everyone.
Point 2: students can use video games to unpack larger systems of meaning
Game educators have to teach students to critically analyzing games. Games are systems which consist of formal and dramatic elements that add to the appeal of game play experience. By exposing students to the deconstruction of game systems, they can then unpack these individual elements or game mechanics and relate them to how games work as systems of meaning. Understanding how and why individual element works on a collective level can mean so much more than knowing what works.
Point 3: playful pedagogies not just for gamers anymore
Shira Chess talked about the potential of using games for education. Subsequently, what goes on behind game design does not limit itself to the world of games. She proposed the free movement in a more rigid structure implicating that quality educational game does have a role in a traditional prescriptive curriculum. Playful pedagogies are not to be taken for its literal meaning but imply that the learning theories and design concepts that go into games can be mirrors by which classroom practitioners and curriculum design experts can learn from.
Question 1: how can we use meaningful play in our pedagogies to entice non-gamers?
To begin with, game educators should not always be preaching about the competence of game-based curriculum. Pedagogies based off meaningful play would attract their due audience. To answer the question, I would propose to look into why non-gamers came to be in the first place by surveying or interviewing them on a deeper level. This is not an attempt to convert non-gamers into gamers per se. Rather, these investigations can contribute to a more well-rounded future game design that benefit game users and game educators on the long run, One other easier way may be to sit a non-gamer down with a highly acclaimed game and let’s wait and see what happens.
Question 2: how can we continue to legitimate meaningful play as serious critical investigation?
Serious games encourage meaningful play. There is a multitude of ongoing serious critical investigations on the efficacy of serious games in and out of classroom contexts. Under the current educational climate and movement toward stringent assessment and educational accountability, I would argue the legitimization and propagation of serious games in educational institutes is, to me, largely hinged on their ability to showcase intended learning that accounts for learning outcomes in academic contexts. Simply put, game-based curriculum has to show that aside from motivating students during game play which generates incidental learning, learning outcome as measured by standardized tests has to be increasingly evident.
The above questions deserve further investigation and research. Teaching meaning and meaningful play, as defined by these panelists in relation to teaching game design and game-based pedagogy, can take on multiple meanings (meaningful for individual students or meaningful as measured by high-stakes testing) as the tension between the push for both game-based curricula and the overarching accountability movement simmers.