Virtual Worlds, Learning, & the New Pop Cosmopolitanism
by Constance Steinkuehler - November 17, 2006
American schools largely remain locked within a Ford type factory model of industry and efficiency; games, on the other hand, are forward leaning, recruiting intellectual practices, dispositions, and forms of social organization that are aligned with many of today’s “new capitalist” workplaces. Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), in particular, function as naturally occurring, self-sustaining, indigenous online communities of learning and practice, and our study of them can tell us something important about how such communities form and function out “in the wild” (Hutchins, 1995). Perhaps most interesting, however, is the constellation of intellectual practices that constitute gameplay in such spaces and the way these coalesce into a form of cosmopolitanism found in the least likely of places: the context of pop culture. Games are incubators of a new pop cosmopolitanism–a discourse, or “way of being in the world” (Gee, 1999), marked by a willingness and ability to navigate an increasingly globalized, diverse, networked, socio-technical world. If our world is indeed becoming increasingly “flat” (Friedman, 2005), then gaming communities such as those found in MMOs are, in some respects, our proverbial canaries in the coalmine.
There is a great generational divide on the matter of video games. For those older than 35 or so, games are, at best, an unfortunate waste of time and, at worst, Trojan horses introducing our youth to violent, misogynistic themes. For those younger, they are a (if not the) leading form of entertainment, a resource for creativity and innovation, and a new campfire around which to socialize. While public figures such as Hillary Clinton urge concerned parents to effectively boycott such media that offend their values and sensibilities (Clinton, 2005), their popularity with children and young adults only continues to increase (Ipsos-Insight, 2005), with more than eight out of every 10 kids in America having a video game console in the home, and over half having two or more (Rideout, Roberts, & Foehr, 2005). The National Endowment for the Arts (Bradshaw & Nichols, 2004) bemoans the huge cultural transformation of our societys massive shift toward electronic media (video games given as the quintessential example) that purportedly make fewer demands on their audiences require no more than passive participation, [and] foster shorter attention spans than do print media; yet, the gamers I research engage in rich intellectual practices that rival those found in contemporary classrooms, build social capital through participation in online communities, and report on the transformative role that video games play in their social and intellectual lives.
As a thirty-something academic interested in games and learning, I sit on the cusp of both worlds, often acting as translator for each. I talk to parents, teachers, librarians, and other academics about the social/intellectual value of gameplay, and I talk to game players and designers about why education is important and how research on cognition and learning might have something important to say about how games are designed and experienced. In my experience thus far, librarians are the easiest sell and game players the hardest. Overwhelmingly, even those who are doing well in school no longer believe it is about much more than credentialing (Baines & Stanley, 2003).
American schools largely remain locked within a Ford type factory model of industry and efficiency; games, on the other hand, are forward leaning, recruiting intellectual practices, dispositions, and forms of social organization that are aligned with many of todays new capitalist workplaces. Games are incubators of a new pop cosmopolitanisma discourse, or way of being in the world (Gee, 1999), marked by a willingness and ability to navigate an increasingly globalized, diverse, networked, socio-technical world. If our world is indeed becoming increasingly flat (Friedman, 2005), then gaming communitiesparticularly the massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) I researchare, in some respects, our proverbial canaries in the coalmine.
MMOs are highly graphical 3-D video games played in persistent virtual worlds online, allowing individuals to interact not only with the gaming software (the virtual environment and computer-generated characters within it) but also with other players. Such virtual worlds are significant. The current global player populations of the three game titles (out of dozens) that I research (Lineage I, Lineage II, World Of Warcraft) totals over 9.5 milliona population greater than any U.S. metropolis, including even New York. Moreover, thanks to the out-of-game trade of in-game virtual items, the virtual economies of some popular titles now rival the economies of many real world countries (Castronova, 2001). The empirical investigation of these games has resulted in some of the more cutting edge research in fields such as economics, law, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and yes, perhaps even education (for a review, see Steinkuehler, in press).
Because MMOs function as naturally occurring, self-sustaining, indigenous online communities of learning and practice, our study of them can tell us something important about how such communities form and function out in the wild (Hutchins, 1995). In my own work, I am most interested in the constellation of intellectual practices that constitute gameplay in such spaces and the way these coalesce into a form of cosmopolitanism found in the least likely of places: the context of pop culture. Such practices include:
Complex forms of socially and materially distributed cognition including the coordination of people, (virtual) tools, artifacts, and text, across multiple multimedia, multimodal attentional spaces (Lemke, n.d.);
Collaborative problem solving practices in cross-functional teams within the game and distributed fandom communities beyond them, both of which emulate key forms of collaboration espoused in new capitalist workplaces;
Novel literacy practices including the use of highly specialized forms of language for in-game social interaction and genres of story-telling, fan fiction writing, and discursive argumentation on game-related forums;
Scientific habits of mind (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993) such as hypothesis testing and revision, and model-based reasoning;
Forms of computational literacy (the understanding and use of computational models, such as algorithms or code, to conceptualize a problem, diSessa 2000) represented by player-generated artifacts such as user interface modifications or mods,;
Mechanisms for learning crucial to success in those categories above such as reciprocal apprenticeship, through which individuals enculturate one other into routine and valued practices and perspectives, and a culture of collective intelligence (Levy, 1999; Jenkins, 2006) evidenced in the joint creation, maintenance, and transformation of shared online repositories of community knowledge and skills.
Such practices are the mainstay of MMO gameplay, and surely any one example from this partial list might provide counter-evidence to the outright dismissal of games as torpid and inviting inert reception (Solomon, 2004). In combination, they form a twenty-first century skill set that is crucial to democratic success: collaboration, inquiry, argumentation, media literacy (not just critical consumption but also production), and the ability to productively participate in the negotiation of shared meaning and values within a community markedly diverse. You see, MMOs are not merely the sum total of the cognitive work they exact but, in practice, function as third places (Oldenburg, 1999) for informal sociability and the development of bridging social capitalinformal social relationships that, while not fostering deep emotional support per se, do build rapport among individuals who are markedly diverse (Steinkuehler & Williams, 2006).
While the mainstream media commonly reverts to a rhetoric of addiction to explain the time and intellectual labor players invest into MMOs, they all too often ignore the most obvious and important function such virtual worlds play in the everyday lives of those who inhabit them: a social one. MMOs provide spaces for social interaction and relationships beyond the workplace, school and home, thereby functioning as third places much like the pubs, coffee shops, and other hangouts of old. More crucially, however, in so doing, they foster social relationships with a more diverse array of people than we might encounter otherwise.
In a world increasingly divided into niche markets, where the deluge of information online and off can sometimes result in people all too often choosing to engage with only those points of view they already hold (Sunstein, 2001), bridging social capital is important. Without it, we run the risk of slipping into personal forms of fundamentalism, mistaking confirmation bias in our choice of media outlets, colleagues, and friends as evidence of fidelity between our view of the world and the world itself. As Giddens (2000) argues, The battleground of the twenty-first century will pit fundamentalism against cosmopolitan tolerance. In a globalizing world, where information and images are routinely transmitted across the globe, we are all regularly in contact with others who think differently, and live differently, from ourselves. Cosmopolitans welcome and embrace this cultural complexity. Fundamentalists find it disturbing and dangerous (pp. 22-23).
MMOs have the potential to function as sandboxes for the reconstruction (perhaps, reinvigoration) of a new form of twenty-first century citizenshipa cosmopolitan disposition marked by the willingness to engage in an increasingly globalized, diverse socio-technical world and the development of intellectual practices crucial to successful navigation within it. And while I recognize the boldness of such claims, I would also submit that research on such contexts has the potential to help us formulate new educational means and ends, ones that lean forward, toward what the world is becoming, rather than backward, toward what the world was like when we were growing up.
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