Virtual Convergence: Exploring Culture and Meaning in Playscapes
by Sandra Schamroth Abrams, Jennifer Rowsell & Guy Merchant - 2017
Background: Research into digital practices and cultures repeatedly calls attention to the complexity of communication spaces and meaning-making practices. With the blurring of boundaries between online and offline, these entangled practices involve the interweaving of human, material, semiotic, and discursive practices.
Purpose: This introductory article builds on theoretical work by Huizinga (1950/2014) and Appadurai (2001) and presents the concept of playscapes to help situate the overall collection of articles in this special issue, Virtual Convergence: Synergies in Virtual Worlds and Videogames Research.
Research Design: This analytic essay examines virtual worlds and videogames and offers the concept of playscapes to expand the discourse about space and finitudes of practice.
Conclusions: Playscapes extend current conversations about learning, transmedia, and play ecologies because playscapes can support the discussion of entangled meaning making across space and time, all the while acknowledging the situated nature of the activity.
Traditional, factory-oriented models of education have been characterized by a mass of students who sit in rows, learn a uniform curriculum, and demonstrate mastery of that information through standardized assessments. With the advance of digital technologies, new practices, new norms, and new patterns of employment have emerged, prompting some to lobby for changes in the way we think about education. In schools, it has been argued, students need to move away from rote memorization and standardized assessments and toward creative, critical thinking and problem solving. This has prompted some teachers, curriculum developers, education researchers, and policy makers to consider ways to help students develop the literacies of collaboration and iteration. Literacy research that recognizes multiple modes and dimensions of learning (Kalantzis & Cope, 2012; Kress, 2010; Rowsell, 2013; Street, 1995) has sparked new understandings of socially situated meaning making and a growing interest in environments in and beyond the classroom that can help students learn and develop these literacies. As we confront new practices that accompany emerging and shifting technologies, there is a need to understand, examine, and locate this work in digital cultures as they evolve.
This special issue initiates an important dialogue about learning and meaning making with articles that address socioculturally mediated and embodied activity across different media and contexts. Our initial intention to bring together scholars who investigate virtual worlds and videogames was to highlight how work in both fields may overlap and inform a larger discussion about meaning making. What we found, however, was that our original ideas around convergence have become more expansive as we place virtual world and videogame play within the wider context of digital culture. Here we see digital communication absorbed into the fabric of everyday life to a level at which holding distinctions between on- and offline interaction, communication, or play becomes hard to sustain, as many of this special issues contributing authors suggest.
WHY VIRTUAL WORLDS AND VIDEOGAMES?
Research into digital practices and cultures repeatedly calls attention to the complex tapestry of communication spaces and meaning-making opportunities directly and peripherally related to them. Within the last 12 years, scholars have addressed a number of factors, including, but not limited to, participatory cultures, communities, and dialogic spaces (Black, 2005; Gee & Hayes, 2011; Gillen & Merchant, 2013; Jenkins, 2006; Ochsner & Martin, 2013; Steinkuehler, 2006, 2011; Steiner-Adair, & Barker, 2013; Stornaiuolo, DiZio, & Hellmich, 2013; Turkle, 2011); embodied characters and identities (Abrams, 2011; Behm-Morawitz, 2013; Carrington, 2009; Gee, 2003/2007; Martin, 2012; Merchant, 2009); pedagogical connections (Abrams, 2009; Compton-Lilly, 2007; Gerber & Price, 2011; Jukes, McCain, & Crockett, 2010; OBrien & Scharber, 2008; Squire, 2012); and spatial design and positioning (Abrams, 2012; Kitchin & Dodge, 2011; Leander & McKim, 2003; Sheridan & Rowsell, 2010; Warf & Arias, 2009). Typically, practices have been discussed as cultural phenomena, including human interaction with devices in general, and individual programs in particular.
Consider two attractive topics of studyvirtual worlds and videogamesthat have captured the attention of education scholars. More often than not, these related topics have been addressed as separate entities; grounding particular instances of virtual worlds or videogame play in place-based meaning making (Prinsloo, 2005) has, in effect, worked to dichotomize them. Though some studies have featured collective findings from research on virtual worlds and videogames (Abrams, Gerber, & Burgess, 2012; Abrams & Rowsell, 2011; Araki & Carliner, 2008; Bailey, Burnett, & Merchant, 2017; Burnett, Davies, Merchant, & Rowsell, 2014; Lammers, Curwood, & Magnifico, 2012), research into specific practices holds them as separate.
This special issue shows scholars grappling with features of virtual worlds and videogames as a way to shed light on practices that have been examined and classified separately, even when the two are clearly interrelated. Though we go on to suggest widening the angle of examination and offer a language that supports interrelated research and inclusive conversations, we first address how virtual worlds and videogames have been conceptualized, what can make them seem distinct, and why the investigation of meaning making in such forums is an important endeavor.
Predating the current millennium, the virtual world was synonymous with an alternate, virtual reality that revolved around a simulation or was controlled by a wearable device, such as a glove, that enabled human gestures to be replicated on the screen (Haberman, 1991). Activity that was once relegated to the nondigital space was being transferred into a digital one. Watkinson (1990) focused on illusion when he looked to ways people controlled on-screen action with offscreen movement and tools. Watkinson identified three components of virtual reality: illusion of depth, usually achieved using goggles, illusion of place and how the movement of the human head or body was tracked and replicated in the virtual environment, and the illusion of interacting with humans and nonhumans in the simulated environment.
Though most understandings of virtual worlds are related to the computer-generated space (e.g., the virtual reality), not all focused on the use of specific devices. Rather, early definitions of virtual reality included a computer-synthesized three-dimensional environment (cyberspace) in which a plurality of human participants, appropriately interfaced, may engage and manipulate simulated physical elements in the environment and, in some forms, may engage and interact with representations of each other (Nugent, 1991, p. 609). In the articulation of the virtual, therefore, there were three termsvirtual world, virtual reality, and cyberspacethat seemed to be used interchangeably even as the discussions of space and meaning making started to address nuanced multimodalities.
For instance, Theall (1992) explained that the complexity of interacting in a cyberspace is the simultaneous experience of time, space, and the flow of multi-dimensional, pan-sensory data (para. 2). Though Theall noted that people englobed within virtual worlds find themselves interacting within complex, transverse, intertextual multimedia forms that are interlinked globally through complex, rhizomic (root-like) networks (para. 34), there still was an emphasis on space, as opposed to the forms of meaning making that existed. However, the concept of the rhizome (from Deleuze & Guattari, 1987), which calls attention to various diverse and nonhierarchical participatory pathways, has since been used as a construct for addressing hybrid practices, movements, and meaning making in virtual worlds, thereby extending the conversation from space to activity (Leander, Phillips, & Taylor, 2010; Leander & Rowe, 2006; Wohlwend & Handsfield, 2012). Therefore, though virtual worlds have been, and continue to be, seen as computer-generated spaces where people can interact and explore, there is a growing understanding that an entanglement of activity and resources occurs in the computer-generated space (Burnett & Merchant, 2014, 2016). Literacy research in particular has focused on how, when, and why experiences initiated in the virtual space can carry over into nondigital forums and vice versa, thus supporting expansive discussions of meaning making often using the rhizome metaphor.
Gamelike elements and interactions are not requisite or defining characteristics of virtual worlds even though such features typically exist in a virtual space; thus, distinguishing how and whether meaning making is related to the virtual world or the videogame (or both) is complicated. Likewise, characteristics of videogamesand even debates over the spelling of the term (to hyphenate, separate, or conjoin the two words)complicate understandings of game spaces and related media. A simple Google news search of the two-word term, video game, yields 10,300,000 results, and the one-word option pales in comparison, with 455,000 results. Though such data suggest that the privileged two-word definition should prevail, we embrace the argument set forth by The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual (Thomas, Orland, & Steinberg, 2007), which calls for consistency and accuracy when spelling and defining videogame and related terminology. In the guides introduction, Orland questions, Has our industry evolved from its component parts of video and game to become videogame, a one-word cultural idiom unto itself? thereby suggesting that the one-word option denotes an established concept, whereas two words simply reference parts of a whole (p. 6).
The definition of a videogame, like that of a virtual world, continues to be connected to the hardware that hosts it. Thomas et al. (2007) defined videogame as a Catch-all term for any type of interactive entertainment software, and they explained that videogames can be divided into sub-categories including: console games, portable games, computer games, arcade games and mobile games. All can be generally referred to as videogames (p. 65). Similarly, J. P. Gee (2003/2007) defined video games as those played on game platforms (such as the Sony PlayStation 2, the Nintendo GameCube, or Microsofts Xbox) and games played on computers (p. 1).
If platform and interface are central to an understanding of videogaming, then so are the various activities that constitute play. Wolf and Perrons (2003) description of a videogame extends the focus:
The video game is now considered as everything from the ergodic (work) to the ludic (play); as narrative, simulation, performance, remediation and art; a potential tool for education or an object of study for behavior psychology; as a playground for social interaction; and, of course, as a toy and a medium of entertainment. (p. 2)
A videogame, therefore, includes ergodic (work), ludic (play) in purposeful activity that has emotive, cognitive, behavioral, and recreational dimensions. Although variation in game genres, hardware, and graphics may complicate the discussion of videogames, it is clear that videogames cannot be defined solely by their hardware or game genre. Rather, videogaming involves human responses, and human and nonhuman interactions that are part of (im)material meaning making (cf. Burnett, Merchant, Pahl, & Rowsell, 2014; Larson & Marsh, 2014).
Building on these definitions, we contend that, in addition to the preset rules, images, and hardware, videogames include opportunities to experiment, (re)design, and engage in participatory practices that often belie the linear and dichotomizing contours of progression markers, narrative structures, and/or competition brackets. Recognizing the human aspect in videogame playthe necessary involvement of social interaction, decision-making, and preference, among other thingswe suggest that a videogame can be defined as a multimodal program manipulated by human reaction to on-screen and offscreen stimuli, decisions and actions mediated by the use of digital and nondigital tools. Videogames, played individually or collaboratively, often involve the player(s) on an emotional, behavioral, and/or perceptual level. And videogaming can, of course, occur in a space when there is a plurality of human participants (Nugent, 1991, p. 609).
Some scholars (Schulzke, 2014; Williams, 2009) have noted how the virtual world and the massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) may have different focithe former is specifically about creating and interacting in the space, and the latter is specifically about gamingbut there are similarities between the two in that they often give rise to complex social and economic institutions, develop their own cultures, and foster associational networks among their players (Schulzke, 2014, p. 20). Other videogames not classified as MMORPGs may have similar features and related practices, and some videogames, like the sandbox game Minecraft, have a specific emphasis on the space in which activity occurs. Research into meaning making in Minecraft has called attention to participation and performance, with a focus on building and displaying knowledge (Dezuanni, OMara, & Beavis, 2015), community building and improvisational play (Burnett & Bailey, 2014), and affectfrom sensory and affective responses (Rowsell, 2014), to affective atmospheres (Hollett & Ehret, 2015, p. 1852), to layers of affect and literacies (Abrams, 2017). Minecraft players can wander, experiment, and make things with a purpose in mind or simply play, thus including the sense of improvisation and spontaneity that both virtual worlds and videogames share. There often exists boundary-forming and boundary-pushing behavior that may seem contradictory but that work in concert to tell a richer story about the complexity of learning and meaning making in which space and activity are coproduced and mutually generative. Situated practices, therefore, become entangled and complicated.
COMPLICATING (AND COMPLICATED) MEANING MAKING
A considerable and influential body of research has been predicated on the assumption that meaning-making practices are bounded by the contexts in which they take place. One who snowboards atop a snow-covered mountain likely engages in different activities and uses different resources when enjoying a leisurely day at the beach. Situated practices (Gee, 2004) such as these hinge on the understanding that an activity occurs at a particular time and in a particular space and that related language and value systems can distinguish groups of people and their practices. However, digital practices complicate this concept because they include meaning making that occurs within, across, and beyond a collection of contexts. Learning and meaning-making practices have become so intertwined that simply separating them based on where they seem to take place may disregard the very entanglement that makes these experiences so powerful. After all, if a learner creates in Minecraft and does so by viewing YouTube walkthroughs, socially engaging with others, independently building in the game space, and designing a similar rendering on paper, then it would be difficultif not impossibleto identify the meaning making without accounting for the range of online and offline influences and activities.
Given the entangled nature of this sort of activity and the fact that language used to define spaces and practices with regard to place (as with online or offline) or context (as with virtual worlds and videogames) often dichotomizes practices and meaning-making experiences, we suggest that it may be more generative to focus on playful engagement as a unifying factor. More specifically, we build on ideas of digital play (Marsh, Plowman, Yamada-Rice, Bishop, & Scott, 2016) and virtual play (Merchant, 2015) by considering a wider category, which we refer to here as the playscape. The roots of our use of the term playscape derive from Huizingas understanding of play and Appadurais concept of scapes.
PLAY + SCAPES
Huizinga contended that play is an immersive, aesthetic experience that takes place in its own realm, and he explained that there are three main characteristics of play. First, play is a form of freedoma deviation from the mundaneuntil it becomes associated with cultural rituals or obligations. Then, freedom does not exist because play becomes constrained and regulated by external factors, goals, and expectations. Second, and relatedly, play involves entering a space that is beyond the everyday aspects of life; Huizinga noted that, as something that is not part of the ordinary, play occurs in a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own (1950/2014, p. 10), thereby emphasizing the importance of the space(s) in which activity occur(s). Third, play is a time-related activity (e.g., there is a beginning and an end) that occurs in temporary worlds that are dedicated to the activity. In these ways, though movement and change are part of play, Huizinga also underscored the distinct situated nature of play, which can be exemplified by sports that take place on a field or a court, or a game that hinges on play in the particular virtual world. In other words, play is intricately tied to its environment.
Though these three characteristics of play also underscore the importance of a specific space and an activity bounded to that space, there also is a blurring of boundaries. Huizinga acknowledged how the social connection of play retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game (p. 12), suggesting that aspects of play transcend temporalspatial constructs. Play, therefore, is not specifically a linear practice. It has elastic and affective features that are part of the freedom, the imagined, and the function of the experience. Yet, Huizinga also noted how ordinary life can interrupt a game and cause a collapse of the play spirit, a sobering, a disenchantment (p. 21). Play and the spirit of play can exist within and beyond a particular activity but also can be ruptured by external norms and expectations. There is movement in and out of activity, in and out of the felt experience, and this complicates the discussion of meaning making, especially when we consider digital worlds. As we discuss play, therefore, we also look to Appadurais concept of scapes to support the articulation of mobility in meaning making and contextual change.
Appadurai theorizes that scapes move and circulate in disjunctive flows that exist locally but that are tied to global discourses and ideologies. Appadurai spoke of disjunctive flows (Appadurai, 2001, p. 6) such as discourses on human rights that generate demands from work forces, or global arms flows that play out in local contexts. These types of larger ideologies, discourses, and general ways of knowing filter down into the local and can produce problems that manifest themselves in intensely local forms from contexts that are anything but local (Appadurai, 2001, p. 6). In Appadurais terms, globalization is about mobilities constantly circulating different genres of scapes as the flows of meanings move across local landscapes and get taken up in multiple ways.
Appadurai proposed that there are five such scapes bound to larger ideologies. There is some degree of social and political imaginaries involved in these scapes. Scapes are fluid, constantly on the move, and mediated by local contexts. Meanings and ideas shift and morph depending on the person accessing, applying, and understanding them. The first scape is ethnoscapes, which refers to migrations of people from one part of the world to another. Cultures on the move coalesce with others and blur cultures and borders. Technoscapes instigate and circulate new types of digitally driven interactions and exchanges that have dramatic, lightening-speed mobility tied in with digital objects. Through technoscapes, previously impervious boundaries can now be crossed with local and global information threading together across varied contexts. Closely tied with technoscapes are financescapes that entail market-driven ideas, values, and knowledge, all of which work through technologies across local and global markets to drive the economy. Mediascapes couple images that are pervasively shared and viewed around the world with information that is disseminated on televisions, iPads, smartphones, and any number of other devices. These mediascapes involve images that are pushed out to endless numbers of people and that involve, as we said earlier, public imagination to take them up and perhaps remix them into something else entirely. Finally, there are ideoscapes that concern broader ideologies such as freedom, human rights, or democracy, to offer a few examples. These ideas are master narratives that Appadurai spoke of, which, like other scapes, ebb and flow in and out of each other.
Drawing on Huizingas concept of playa labile activity that takes place in its own context(s)and Appadurais concept of scapes, we offer the notion of playscapes, which falls in line with these other scapes in that they entail flows of creativity, social interaction, and problem solving that engage children and young people with digital media. Building on the work of Appadurai, we contend that global and local flows and pathways circulate around and within these playscapes, texturing local instances of meaning making. In effect, playscapes are produced by the motility of the human, material, semiotic, and discursive practices at work as they coalesce in localized activity.
Playscapes differ from communicational domains because they leverage the improvisational nature of virtual worlds, and they cast a wider net in terms of activities and practices involved in existing within them. In playscapes, players design, curate, problem solve, experiment, and draw on their senses and their personal and social histories while having two or more modes in play as they move through and across virtual environments. Playscapes imply participatory structures as much as they imply solitary engagements.
Playscapes orient the user/player/person around actions and epistemologies rather than orienting practice around space. The term blurs the material-immaterial work that happens within virtual environments, such as sensing something sinister when playing a first-person shooter game and positioning an avatar for battle, or, to return to Minecraft, designing a building in preparation for a zombie invasion. In her work, Burnett (2015) artfully analyzed (im)material relations in both virtual worlds and videogames, which she described as relations between the material things we encounter and the immaterial aims and intentions that have shaped their designs (p. 524). Playscapes, as a term, allows us to recognize, and possibly celebrate, the originality and enchantments (Burnett & Merchant, 2016) that may emerge as players move their way through virtual and related spaces.
This special issue includes articles that examine meaning-making activities, contemplate evolving cultural norms, and reconceptualize how we identify and/or understand fluid practices. Across the articles, we see engagement in discrete and entangled playscapes, calling attention to the complexity of contemporary scholarship and the importance of juxtaposing ways of examining, conceptualizing, and contextualizing textured, layered, and protean learning. At the same time, they work together to show how playscapes are produced through the interweaving of human, material, semiotic, and discursive practices.
For example, in an autobiographical account of how technology is embedded within her life in the cycling community, Davies (2017, this issue) describes how capturing, archiving, and quantifying activity plays out in multiple on-/offline social networks. Recreational activity (human) combines with the technologies of routes, bicycles, GPS trackers, and so on (material), and different kinds of representationmaps, stats, accounts (semiotic)in the practice of doing and talking about cycling with others (discursive practices). As Burnett and colleagues (2014) observed, this sort of account renders binaries, such as online/offline or real/virtual, redundanta theme that authors in this collection reflect in different ways.
Troubling earlier ways of thinking, Carringtons article (2017, this issue) interrogates some of the metaphors that researchers and others have used to describe life with technology. These metaphors, she argues, have helped to enact particular ways of seeing the world and of holding the human and the digital separate. On and offthe two-way switch modelhas constrained our thinking for too long. How we live now is seen through the eyes of two young women, with Carringtons postphenomenological gaze trained on how people and technologies comingle. This work hints at the diversity of everyday practice while underscoring the ways in which the literacies involved are highly valued.
Similarly, in evoking the notion of storyworlds in their depiction of the Hunger Games, Black, Alexander, and Korobkova (2017, this issue) show how meaning making flows seamlessly across modes and media and into the everyday lives of fans; boundaries begin to blur in a way that is consistent with the notion of playscapes. The authors go on to show how power relations are always present in media ecologies and how fan activity at times complies with, and at other times resists, attempts to bound and control the storyworld.
The interweaving of modes and media is also at work in play episodes that embed virtual activity in everyday life, as Marshs (2017, this issue) study of smart toys illustrates. Taking a postphenomenological perspective, she traces the play of a 3-year-old girl, highlighting how traditional and digital play merge. Like Black, Alexander, and Korobkova (2017, this issue), Marsh draws attention to how local playin this case, with Furbytakes place in a globalized context of consumption, and the local and the global comingle in the playscape.
Also focusing on childrens imaginative play, Wohlwend (2017, this issue) attends to a different segment of the playscape. She takes the Monster High franchise website and related Monster High fanvids on social media as a way of tracing the relationship between traditional and virtual dollhouse play.
The complexity of activity that helps to constitute the playscape problematizes approaches that place screens at the center of attention and, in so doing, fundamentally challenges the moral panics and so-called evidence about the detrimental effects of too much screen time. Squire and Steinkuehler (2017, this issue) suggest that videogames, like their players, are deeply embedded in a complex social, material and semiotic context. Through their case study of football videogame play, they demonstrate the futility of separating games from the everyday life in which they are located. As in other studies in this issue, it is not as if the individual gamer creatively shapes the playscape. Squire and Steinkuehler emphasize how their research participant, Walt, uses Madden to build knowledge and cultural capital that are important resources in locally and nationally valued discourses of masculinity.
Whereas Squire and Steinkuehler focus on virtual play as complex activity that crosses domains, E. Gee and J. P. Gee (2017, this issue) develop the notion of distributed teaching and learning systems. Remaining in the general territory of the playscape, they emphasize the ways in which experiences, interactions, and learning work across the boundaries of (non)virtual worlds while holding on to the idea that social learning might be amplified or supplemented by digital tools.
LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE OF PLAYSCAPES
Playscapes involve and encourage a dynamic and integrated model of meaning making and play that transcends compartmentalized framings of time, space, and practice. Because the concept of playscape supports interrelated and inclusive discussions of digital and nondigital experiences and the space(s) they produce, there are opportunities to examine nonlinear dimensions of learning and meaning making. For example, game play may involve specific devices and (non)digital environments, but there is more at stake. The digital interface and the experience become entangled with everyday material and immaterial resources and artifacts. Revisiting Minecraft, one may see a child sitting adjacent to friends while co-constructing or competing in the digital space; if the child and her friends are on a public server, they likely encounter dozens of other players, and they communicate using their avatars gestures (e.g., nodding) and specific actions (e.g., helping another player), as well as engaging in-game chat. All the while, that same child and her friends may experience the magic of play by forming social connections (Huizinga, 1950/2014). Thus, what we see is the ordinary everyday interwoven with the digital experience to the extent that there is less of a stratification or categorization of practices, and more of an understanding of how, when, where, and in what ways such meaning making is part of, and participates in, an overall playscape.
Thinking about playscapes helps to expand the discourse about space and finitudes of practice. Assemblages of people, materials, and modalities can change depending on the playscape and those who are part of it at a specific point in time. Likewise, playscapes are labile as much as they are situated, as they morph through multiple social, material, and semiotic entanglements. Because playscapes are enacted through improvisations and affect, there is a multiplicity of practices, interpretations, and engagements. Rather than emphasizing space or device, as the traditional definitions of virtual worlds and videogames respectively do, playscapes center on individual and collaborative creativity and practice, as well as human and nonhuman interaction.
Thus, we anticipate playscapes expanding current conversations of learning, transmedia, and play ecologies because playscapes can support the discussion of entangled meaning making across space and time, all the while acknowledging the situated nature of the activity. Investigating learning in the context of playscapes also creates opportunities for methodological creativity and problem solving; collaborative explorations and discussions of playscapes and multiple interpretations of meaning making can amplify and extend how we discuss what is seen, felt, anticipated, and (mis)understood. Likewise, we encourage engagement in transdisciplinary research, experimentation with methodological approaches, and examinations of distinct but separate studies through new lenses, as seen, for example, in collaborative retrospectives (Abrams & Lammers, in press; Dooley & Assaf, 2009). In other words, rather than neatly compartmentalizing research, we suggest embracing the messiness of learning and exploring the sharp, rough, blurred, and even absent edges of contemporary practices and the textures of meaning making that make it personal, puzzling, protean, and playful.
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