Gaming is Serious Play

What is it about video games that’s so appealing? From a phenomenological standpoint I think primarily of the subjective experience. Even when playing an old game like Donkey Kong for example, engagement is created through the complete control a virtual actor. It is a very simple game and environment but in this sense I am granted a certain sense of omnipotence as a virtual being. The sensory combination of movement, sight and sound (game feedback) captures my senses. There are several other factors that make this immersive and this includes the narrative which places me in the role of rescuer whose job it is to save the lady in distress from Donkey Kong.


Despite the character roles perhaps supporting gender norms, I’m not at all put off by the prescription because “subject positioning and character formation in game contexts are accomplished through role enactment rather than self-representation” (de Castell & Jenson, 2003). Basically I’m able to choose the degree to which I relate to or identify with the character. My engagement is increased by the feelings evoked through the use of timing, pressure and urgency. Obstacles are time-released, sound effects serve to remind of impending doom and the subject of rescue is jumping up and down, upset. The design creates links with specific knowledges through the use of uneven planes, height and obstacles that require me to calculate and anticipate timing, frequency, speed and direction of things falling/rolling as well as with basic survival needs and self preservation.


I also have to learn to calculate and compensate for the physical limitations of my new virtual body applying strategies specific to this new immersive context. When I discover what doesn’t work, I am forced to quickly revise my thinking to find what does. This metacognition happens so rapidly I’m not aware I’m doing it. I must also use logic and strategy to outpace the ‘bad guy’ or I can’t pass on to the next level. Levels and scores also serve to motivate and the overall effect of these combined aspects is the desire to achieve success and come out on top. Design mediates gameplay by framing the virtual environment, defining its limitations and constraints and endowing me with a very specific list of attributes that I can use to negotiate the environment. It also sets a social/emotional stage for me to participate in. It’s very much a physical/action-based and logical survival-knowledge domain. In this type of game, there isn’t much of a social-constructivist sense of community as there are in newer multi-player games. The skills built from level to level are however anticipatory, calculative, and strategic.


Is it possible to use this type of strategy for effective learning? Absolutely, but I’ve rarely seen this accomplished effectively as there’s almost always a trade-off that occurs when moving to the realm of educational games. Take away too much of education or game and it quickly becomes edutainment. The Game for Change link provided in class had a great example of this called Dumb Ways to Die. While the ‘game’ video was indeed cute and funny it wasn’t really a game as much as it was a one-shot novelty. It was actually a great contrast to the idea of an active and immersive experience as presented by (even an extremely dated game such as) Donkey Kong. In this sense, Dumb Ways to Die certainly represented the ‘edutainment’ category spoken of by de Castell & Jenson as for any method of sustained use it is “neither entertaining nor educative” (2003). This is one of many areas where gamification strategies go wrong in educational design, failing to serve those areas which make a game desirable to play regularily, or to create a sense of intrinsic motivation to play in the first place.


In my mind this was a clear example of how “design-and-delivery contexts function handily as justifications for diminished attention to playability” (2003). There was simply an environment, a video and a few slides to scroll through which was supposed to constitute ‘a game’. In this sense it failed miserably as ‘playing’ consisting of a few dozen mouse-clicks at most and no desire to return other than to show someone else as a novelty. What I found more telling was the way the game was referred to on a, ‘educational gaming’ site geared towards change.


[Update: Recently these edutainment slides (game?) has been removed and a video posted to indicate there’s an app coming, perhaps this will be more interactive?]


de Castell, Suzanne, & Jenson, Jennifer. (2003). Serious play. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 35(6), 649-665.

Gee, J. (2003). Semiotic domains: Is playing video games a “waste of time? Chapter in: What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave.

Image source:  JD Hancock. (2012). Super Blast Donkey Kong. [Image file] Retrieved from Flickr under CC by 2.0.



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