15th February took me to the Remix Play conference at the University of Coventry’s Distributive Media Learning Lab. The one-day conference explored how playfulness could improve higher education, and provide a better learning experience for students.
The day was both enormously interesting and, as I hope one might expect to be the case for a festival about play, a great deal of fun.
Probably the absolutely highlight for me was getting to play with Bernie de Koven – the founding father of Play Studies and basically a god – or maybe a patron saint – of Play. In his inimitable style he led us into a number of games, creating a space where we could make them our own.
We heard from Ian Livingstone, who co-founded Games Workshop and is also well-known for his Fighting Fantasy books, and launching Tomb Raider. He’s a heavyweight defender of games and, most surprisingly for me, launched an impassioned defence of the Arts in an era where politicians seem to want to privilege STEM subjects.
Nic Whitton took us through some of the latest thinking on how Play might improve learning, from the perspective of those actively trying to integrate it into their pedagogy. More on The Monkey Island Theory of Failure below.
Sebastian Deterding introduced us to Playful Design and The Multiplayer Classroom. He emphasised how much more effective education can be when we are given more transparency and agency over our own learning.
As you’ll know if you’ve read this blog before, I’m not a big fan of justifying play on the basis of other benefits. I think play is a genuine good in itself. But that doesn’t mean I believe it isn’t a great way to learn. As all the speakers were keen to emphasise: play is learning.
What I found particularly inspiring was that nobody was advocating for play as a nice ‘add-on’. In fact, there was broad agreement against the ‘spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’ conception of play (which Mathias Poulsen calls ‘Playwashing‘). Instead, we should recognise that play is an inherent part of lived experience. The reason why I think that this message is of particular relevance to adults is that by exhorting us to ‘find the play’ in whatever activity we’re doing we’re able to embrace tough learning events as a joyful opportunity to improve.
One of the most actionable concepts of the day for me came in Nic Whitton’s Monkey Island Theory of Failure. Her notion is that we should get frequent feedback on (celebrated!) failures. Not only does this improve (radically) our learning processes, but it also enables us to see that any challenging experience is an opportunity to hold the moment lightly, and be glad of another chance to get it right next time.
By viewing failures as a disaster rather than a necessary step on the path to success, we put up barriers to progress. If each time you get something wrong in Monkey Island you quit, you’ll never defeat Ghost Pirate LeChuck. But, in fact, it’s the joy of experimentation – and repeated FAIL – that makes it a game!