Play and learn

On: May 20, 2010
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About Bram van der Kruk
My name is Bram van der Kruk, I am 27 years old and an aspiring new media theorist based in Amsterdam. My area of academic interest and professional expertise concerns new media in education. Being a full-time English teacher myself, I deal with the drifting apart of educational practice and students on a day to day basis. Moving back and forth from their wired, graphic, global digital environments into the classroom and that one person in front of class to listen to. Any observant teacher will notice this at one time or another during his or her career, a professional requirement for working in school being to listen to and adapt to students‘ needs. But to dig into both the methodological consequences of teaching digital natives and how this would affect their participation in today‘s mediascape is something most teachers will not have the time, resources and background for. The demand for new ideas concerning this intersection of media and education is one of the reasons I chose to commit myself to this area of new media theory.


In this post I will try to describe the way videogames have helped pave the way for information visualization as a tool for digital native learners by consistently  tracking and visualizing achievements. I will also try to show how visualized information on academic achievement might aid learners in reflecting on their learning strategies. To do this properly, I must first contextualize gaming in education:

To clarify the way in which the underlying dynamics of new media consumption could augment learning strategies, I want to focus on online gaming and skip the explanation of the merits of digital games. I do this because, to quote Steven Johson, writer of Everything Bad is Good for You:

When I read these ostensibly positive accounts of video games, they strike me as the equivalent of writing a story about the merits of the great novels and focusing on how reading them can improve your spelling.[1]

Other than explaining how digital games embody general principles of learning, or how the obvious use of games for training should be recognized by educators, I want to argue that competitive game orientation in its broadest sense might be an untapped reserve of new student strategies for reflection on learning. I wish to avoid making arbitrary claims on the amount of gaming enthusiasts amongst students in Amsterdam, but as is the case in many wired countries around the globe, gaming as a pastime is on the rise in The Netherlands.[2] And if American trends tell us anything about the future of European gaming demographics, this rise will continue and encompass young and old and, more importantly for my purposes here, male and female[3]. Important since qualitative analysis of gaming habits has stereotypically shown a (contested[4]) feminine/masculine dichotomy between respectively identity (chatting, connecting and expressing) and competitive (score) related aspects of play in videogames.

I want to focus on the latter, the competitive element of play. To be specific, the competitive element of play in online digital games. Online gaming is about stats, about achievements, unlocks, experience points and about how you stack up to other players. Devotion to in-game status players strive for is notoriously associated with Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, or MMORPGs. In these games, the acquired equipment, the gathered experience points and the levels gained are all on display for anyone participating to see. But tracking gamers’ performance over time is not limited to one specific game and regardless of game genre. Two examples of these overarching systems built to keep track of in game performance respectively used for PC and console games are Valve’s Steam™ and the achievement records on personalized Xbox live™ accounts. [5]

Steam™ is primarily a digital distribution platform but is also used by gamers to see and publish their rating (how much time they have lately spent playing games) to show off their achievements (the completion of specific challenges in different games) and to show other players connected to Steam™ which games they have been playing. The achievements system on Xbox live™, the online service for Xbox owners, revolves around the same functionality but is important to include to illustrate that both PC gamers and console gamers have access to these mechanics.[6] I also mention these services because they show that highlighting the competitive element of game-play can go beyond being recognized as competent within one game at a time and can instead show the overall dedication to playing videogames.

Just as I skipped the merits of gaming and how it embodies the general principles of learning, I will also take for granted the educational value of visualized information and its obvious role in augmenting the mental processes needed for learning. Instead I want to focus on how studying, listening, learning, presenting and other classroom activities can be reflected upon by using information visualization.

Having performance and activities captured in data, tracked and stored, is not exclusive to gaming but is part of being digital and commonplace for digital native learners. The pervasiveness of the interfaces that deal with scores and benchmarks in their spare time begs the question how educators should mobilize the skills and motivation that is now dedicated to play to enhance their learning.

Competition has a slightly negative connotation in a nation of self-perceived egalitarians, but can’t be ignored when play becomes a part of our cultural fabric. Traditionally gold stars and stickers are used to signify progress and appreciation, red pen is used to highlight errors in papers and numbers or letters are used to indicate the level of academic achievement. Much like the interactive whiteboards have outdated the chalkboard version, these visual clues also seem ready to be replaced by something closer to the mediated, competitive and visual world students live in.

Student information systems are a perfect opportunity to not only facilitate administrative processing of grades, absences and transgressions, but should also incorporate visualized information on learning, accomplishment and achievement. An obvious start would be a line chart for overall grades throughout the year per student and on average, perhaps to discover an ebb and flow of interest, laziness or eagerness. Or a dynamic scatter plot, exploring the nature of the subject, attendance and marks over time. Other ideas include parents scanning parallel coordinates for grades per year and a tree map or flowchart to show overlapping topics within the curriculum at the start of the year.

In a sense the infrastructure to realize the use of these example visualizations is already present, the digital dossier one builds up inevitably contains reference to past education, and is indeed used to make context sensitive discriminations among populations in job applications or when pursuing further study. But these data doubles do not (yet) augment teaching and reflect on past learning, and are not at all composed out of visualized information.

The core advantage of using interfaces and structures familiar to digital natives, comprised of visualized achievement, is that this would allow them to develop indirect, or meta-cognitive learning strategies in which learners manage or control their own learning process. The value of any formative feedback that can be extracted from captured data greatly depends on how learning would, on a practical level, take place. Who is responsible for the input of data, what data is captured and most of all how the educational context is then determined and changed by using visualized information are interesting questions for further study.

[1] Johnson, Steven. Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.

[2] In 2005, Dutch teenagers spent an average of four and a half hours on videogames per week.



[4] For example in: Taylor, T.L. Play between worlds. Exploring Online Game Culture. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006.

[5] Steam, PC (2003). Developed and published by Valve Corporation. Xbox live, PC (2005). Developed and published by Microsoft.

[6] As of February 2009, there are 20 million user accounts registered with steam according to Gabe Newell, the founder and managing director of Valve Software, see:—Gabe-Newell-Valve-Software.html. Edge online, the Global Game Industry Network, makes mention of a similar number of active members for the Xbox live service as of May 28, 2009:

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