Changing my PhD topic: out with depression, in with WoW!

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.


About Clara O'Shea

I'm an Associate Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. I teach on the MSc in Digital Education. I'm also doing a PhD on learning and becoming in collaborative digital environments.
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2 Responses to Changing my PhD topic: out with depression, in with WoW!

  1. I like your new topic. That looks interesting. I’m also interested in your phrasing of ‘voluntarily submitting’ to rules. Is it submission? Or acceptance? And are they the same thing? Submission suggests a relinquishment of agency in the game, and I wonder to what extent that actually happens. It certainly happens in academia, and in some cases (unfortunately) is required or worse, demanded, in the classrooms of authoritarian teachers. I wonder if the digital environment changes that dynamic. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  2. Clara O'Shea says:

    Ooh Bo, nice pick up on my language there, thanks! I’m going to have to think about that more.

    My initial thought is that it’s not necessarily ‘acceptance’ (or ‘submission’) in that ‘players’ (learners) can choose to reject the rules at times and even go to great lengths to break/hack them. Indeed, one of our Manifesto points is that ‘Assessment strategies can be designed to allow for the possibility of resistance’ which is what that breaking/hacking/rejecting could be imagined as. Yet, at the same time, that acting against the rules is also, in a way, a response to the rules. It’s still action that depends on knowing and choosing to acknowledge the existence of rules (whether one feels bound to ‘obey’ them or not).

    In his work, Ian Hacking talks about a ‘looping effect’ – where are aware that they are being put under a particular description (e.g. ‘student’, ‘gamer’) and engage with that process of description, either becoming more like the description or contesting it. (We care about how we are categorised.) Whatever people do in response to the way they are being described, it changes what that thing being described is. This causes a feedback effect on the ‘name’ or description of the kind.

    This is a handy paragraph from my MSc dissertation on this:
    “[H]uman kinds are value laden and partly because human kinds are aware of their classification. Thus, argues Hacking (1995), while mud may not care if it is classified as ‘muck’ or ‘mud’, a person may care deeply about how they are classified. For instance, to call someone a ‘depressive’ has moral connotations, it may make us treat that person differently, it may make them feel differently about themselves and to behave differently. It changes the description under which they exist, enabling a re-description of present and even past experiences. A person diagnosed as depressed can make choices, conscious or tacit, to adopt the ways of that kind or to reject the classification. As Hacking (1995: 369) notes, “classifying people works on people, changes them, and can even change their past”. This awareness and response to classification has implications for the classification itself. Firstly, the changes of individuals within the kind can effect the kind itself. Secondly, since the kind changes, new knowledge about the kind exists which then informs people of that kind. This second point sheds light on the ever-changing definition of depression in formal classificatory practices such as the Diagnostics and Statistic Manual, as depressed people as a cohort developed particular characteristic behaviours, and in practices more informally, such as discussion of depression as being related to a poor diet after an Oprah Winfrey special.”

    So, thinking back to your original question – I wonder if words like ‘submit’ and ‘accept’ end up muddying the waters. This is going to be an issue in my PhD. I’m trying to bring together literature from different fields, and while Suits might use ‘accept’ in one way, I think Hacking would avoid it altogether. I’m going to have to get very precise with my use of language! 🙂

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