I’m interested in how people learn to take on particular identities in collaborative, digital environments. Originally, my research was focused on depression and drew on the work of Ian Hacking to position depression as a social kind. I am still very much informed by Hacking’s work, but I am now making a shift to look more broadly at learning online and am considering how formal learning in digital environments might contrast with informal learning, such as that of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft.
I’m inspired by something one of my supervisors said in a passing conversation – “the game is the purest form of education”. This draws on Bernard Suits point that:
To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude].
(from Suits, B. 2005. The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Broadview Press: Plymouth, pp. 54–55.)
In sum, we voluntarily submit to a set of rules in order to undertake a certain form of activity. Both formal learning and playing a game are examples of this. Indeed, I’d argue they might the same thing, because they are both about becoming something.
It is that ‘becoming’ that interests me. How do we learn to take on a particular identity? How do we know what it means to have that identity? What constitutes that identity (whether it be ‘gamer’ or ‘academic’)?
I see taking on this identity (and I’m broadly putting ‘identity’ into the same place as Hacking’s ‘human kinds’) as a collaborative endeavor – something that happens not just within an individual, but between individuals, between networks of individuals and in interaction with the environment.
I’m quite taken with the idea that MMORPGs can open up ways of thinking about learning to become a thing. A game like World of Warcraft can offer us an opportunity to look at what’s going with individuals, between individuals, within and between communities and with the material, technological elements of the environment too. (We can’t just focus on the ‘social’, we need to acknowledge the technological has a role in this too.) I think MMORPGs provide a useful way for reconsidering course and programme design, assessment, motivation and community (to name a few).
I’m currently thinking about the relationship between four different theories that might help frame this research: Ian Hacking’s work on human kinds, James Paul Gee’s work on projective identity, various takes on the concept of affordances and, very broadly, a sociomaterials approach (a la Tara Fenwick, but I’m yet to hone down on what approach works for me).
In my next post, I’ll tease out those theories a little more.