Media, Technology, and Education

Summer Play

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m chairing a panel at NeMLA in April about using Web 2.0 technologies to play.  Because of this panel, I’ve spent much of my summer playing and thinking about playing online.  Yes, I recognize that I have a great job!

The game that has captured my online attention this summer is Scrabble on FaceBook.  There are a few people (Liz, Scott, Ann) that I’m playing with regularly, multiple games at a time.  There are also a couple of people (Sally, Carrie) with whom I seem to constantly have one game going.  And then there are a few people (Gary, Cathrine, Kate) that I play with occasionally.  I even sometimes play with strangers, although I find those games less engaging, probably because the social aspect of the game, which I’ve also written about before, is lacking.

One of the things I really like about Scrabble on FaceBook is that it will not let you play an invalid word.  So the game is completely about pattern recognition.  When I play the game in person, nothing stops me from playing an invalid word and so I am unlikely to take a chance on a word that I am unsure about.  If my opponent challenges me in the real life game and I have played an invalid word, I lose a turn.  In the online version of Scrabble, I can’t lose a turn for playing an invalid word.  As a result, I’m likely to try letter combinations that I would never have tried in real life.  I’ve learned lots of new words by just trying out letter combinations.  What is “zax” for example?  Or “tranqs”?  And I’ve learned many, many two letter words whose meanings I’m sure I’ll never know.  Anyone know what “za” is?  Or “xu”?  Or “ka”?

Lots of other FaceBook games have come to my attention and not captured it this summer.  I’ve tried Farkle and Rummikub, both of which I love in the real world.  Many of my friends have been playing Farmtown and so I’ve created my own farm but I haven’t visited it for days.  And Mafia Wars.  And Bejeweled.  Well, to be honest, I won’t allow myself to really play Bejeweled because it is exactly the kind of game that I could become addicted to and I don’t really want to be addicted to a game right now.

But the kind of play I’ve been most interested in this summer has not been play that is associated with games.  I’m really interested in play as a way of practicing and expressing parts of one’s identity that is difficult to practice or express in the real world. 

My FaceBook friends seem to do a lot of quizzes.  They want to find out which philosopher most closely represents them and how well they know their Princess Bride quote trivia.  They want the rest of us to know five places they’ve lived and five jobs they’ve had and five cars they’ve owned.  For some reason, I have resisted these quizzes although I’ve been thinking a lot about what people get out of taking them.  And what I’ve come to realize is that these quizzes are a way to reveal one’s identity, either your real one or the one you wish you had.  This came to me the other night as I was engaging in non-gaming online play of my own.  I like to play with memes that come in the form of lists of questions that you answer in a note on your FaceBook profile.  A meme is a cultural idea that is transmitted from one mind to another, in this case, via FaceBook.  There are lots of memes running around FaceBook.  Most of these memes allow users to reveal things about themselves (or not), helping to construct a kind of online identity that supplements (or perhaps alters) one’s identity in the real world.

A few weeks ago, for example, I revealed to my friends the fifteen books that I’ve read that have stuck with me.  The idea is that you list these books without thinking too much about them, presumably so you can’t make yourself seem cooler than you actually are.  My list contained books that I’d talked recently with Ann about (Disgrace and The Road) as well as books that I’d seen on other people’s lists (To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple).  The list also really did contain books that popped into my head because they were memorable and important to me in some way (A Separate Peace, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Sing, Gone to Soldiers and The Mists of Avalon).  But I rejected a number of books from my list just because I didn’t think I’d want to reveal them (Valley of the Dolls, The Other and The Group).  And I rejected some just because they didn’t send the message that I wanted to send (Heart of Darkness and Carrie).  As I reflected afterward on the books that I put on my list, I started to think about identity management again, that is, how I present myself to the world, the FaceBook world in this case.

What does this have to do with play?  The other night, the two concepts merged for me.  I was playing with another of these memes, called My Life According to … .   The note contains a series of questions that you are supposed to answer using the song titles from one artist or band.  I chose the Indigo Girls so my note was called My Life According to the Indigo Girls.  Here’s what I wrote:

Several people have tagged me with this–I won’t tag anyone. Play if you want to. Using only song names from ONE ARTIST, cleverly answer these questions. Pass it on to 15 people you like and include me (presuming I’m someone you like). You can’t use the band I used. Try not to repeat a song title. Repost as “my life according to (band name)
Are you a male or female:
“The Girl With The Weight Of The World In Her Hands”
Describe yourself:
How do you feel:
“Closer To Fine”
Describe where you currently live:
“Get Out the Map”
If you could go anywhere, where would you go:
“Perfect World”
Your favorite form of transportation:
“Midnight Train to Georgia”
Your best friend?
“She’s Saving Me”
You and your best friends:
What’s the weather like:
Favorite time of day:
“I Don’t Wanna Know”
If your life was a TV show, what would it be called:
“Lay My Head Down”
What is life to you:
Your relationship:
“Moment of Forgiveness”
Your fear:
“Kid Fears”
What is the best advice you have to give:
“Don’t Give that Girl a Gun”
Thought for the Day:
“I’ll Change”
How I would like to die:
My soul’s present condition:
“Cold Beer and Remote Control”
My motto:
“It’s Alright”
 The interesting thing to me about this particular meme isn’t the answers that I gave but the process I went through in deciding which artist to use and then which song titles to use for each question.  As I chose song titles, I tried to think about how that particular choice would be received by my potential audience. For example, I don’t drink beer but I thought the song title “Cold Beer and Remote Control” was a clever response to “My soul’s present condition:”.  So I clearly wasn’t trying just to reveal true things about my identity.  I was also trying to construct (or reinforce?) an image of myself that shows me to be funny and clever.
I’ve been searching for work that discusses how adults use play in identity management.  I have found lots of work that discusses these issues for children but not much about adults.  I’m just starting to read Brian Sutton-Smith’s Ambiguity of Play.  He identifies four categories into which play activities can be grouped.  One of those categories is “play as self” so I’m hopeful that his work can help to advance my thinking on this subject.

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I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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