The Role of the Student in the Game of Education



So I’m reading this book called Finite and Infinite Play by James P. Carse, a religion professor.  His take on play has inspired some interesting possibilities that I can see being very useful in the current debate about gaming and education.

First, and he makes this very clear, “whoever must play, cannot play” (his italics).  And in education, that creed has been a really big problem.  We see most students as unwilling learners and unwilling participants, and thus when we bring play into the class, we are forcing them to play—which will always necessarily be a failure: “play to order is no longer play” (Huizinga).

But an interesting point Carse makes is that games are really all about roles.  If we choose to play a game, we must first agree to the rules.  Ok, that makes sense.  And as part of the game, we agree to play a particular role and then self-veil (ie. convince ourselves that we are that role, though we never really forget that we are acting).

We would see the student as a role.  Different people come into that role, play it in different ways, and eventually leave that role.  As teachers and administrators, we define the parameters of that role through assignment guidelines, student handbooks, even the lore we perpetuate to the next group of people who play student.

So wouldn’t it be helpful, then, if we helped our students recognize the roles they play?  Now, I’m not trying to rehash a tired cultural studies approach—as if recognizing they are playing a role will in some way liberate them.  But it may make students more receptive to learning if they can clearly see the rules of the role they are playing and recognize that they are stepping into that role freely.  Even education can be seen as a type of game—as I have argued elsewhere—and at the college level the students do enter into it freely.  They may not have much of a choice with the economic climate and zealous parents, or even their own goals might force them into college, but by recognizing their participation in their own education, they can begin to feel a sense of control.

Ok, so, step 1: recognize the roles we all play and define boundaries, parameters, rules dictating behavior, and rules restricting freedom.  Explore.

So, step 2: define the role I am asking them to play in my classroom.  This is particularly easy with classes like business writing.  As a brilliant colleague, Jen Talbot, teaches in her class: professionalism and ethos are two key components of successful business writing.  Therefore, emails, conversations, grade disputes, and all other communication must be conducted as a if the student were playing the role of the professional.

Then step 3: And I think this would be the hardest for me.  Carse writes that players won’t buy into games with rules that dictate their behavior, but they will buy into games that limit their freedom.  This may seem like a small difference, but to a reluctant learner, it can make a big difference.

It is sort of like when I teach my freshmen comp students to write movie reviews.  I don’t give them an assignment sheet with a list of rules, but I give them an assignment sheet with a list of resources.  I ask them what they would do if they wanted to be a movie reviewer.  Typically, they say they would research what a movie review looks and sounds like, then they would try to write one in a similar style.  And helping them realize that academic essays, research papers, lab reports, memos, and most writing they will do in their lives are not dictated by a set of rules handed down from a wizard, but are discursively constructed through the habits of people playing different roles, is probably the most important thing I can do.

Anyway, I’m still struggling through some of the implications of Carse’s argument for education.  But I think the idea of the role holds a lot of promise for those of us in games and education.  Food for thought I guess.

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3 Responses to “The Role of the Student in the Game of Education”

  1. linda e amos says:

    This is a very real experience. The field of Social Psychology will give much research-driven information on how behavior occurs in the context of roles. I experience an awesome response from adult students when I tell them that I am addressing their role as students. I then define the rules that contain both of our behaviors (the institution’s) and their behavior as students in my classroom. And of course, we play (learn) in groups, where the group role rewards also become the focus of attention. Careful though, if you do not have the skills it takes to tolerate a noisy classroom; start with a small game like “go fish”.

  2. dr. b. says:

    This really is food for thought on games and gamers. If gamers have to agree to both the roles and the rules of the games that they participate in (and I see this as being a much deeper thing than playing) then there is definitely a lot to be said about characterizations of Others in games and the acts that we are asked to participate in as gamers. More to consider when we start to think about ESRB ratings and games, especially when there are rumors that ratings may be done electronically in the future in order to keep up with the volume of new releases. Just a thought.

  3. dr. b. says:

    This week’s Extra Life episode is a nice tie in. It’s on the Role of the Player!