Virtual Playgrounds for the Self

What does it mean to be creative? Or, for that matter, to achieve literacy of any kind – or even to learn? Ken Robinson raises these questions, and more, in his TED talk on whether or not schools eradicate creativity as we grow older. He speaks about taking chances and being spontaneous as children, a skill we lose overtime. To make more universal,  this as a matter of experiential learning and being willing to accept some measure of flexibility in life. As someone interested in education, that is, how we educate ourselves, it is increasingly clear that simplifying learning to being a 1:1 didactic practice is problematic at best.

Take video games for example.

Games inherently let us play with value systems, which can range from how players engage with the mechanics and narrative to what might be omitted through play. On all levels, games exist as more than just open environments; they are carefully crafted interactive learning experiences. Kurt Squire argues, “games are ideological worlds in that they instantiate ideas through implicit rulesets and systems” (Squire 28). Gameplay is always integrated with preexisting conditions and experiences; interacting with a video game text is never an isolated instance.

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) are interesting for study because of how they enable players to be creative through constant social engineering and interaction with other player characters (PCs) and non-player characters (NPCs). Action and adventure games engage the capacity of the individual to solve problems and negotiations in meaningful and varied ways. Role-Playing Games (RPGs) enable the player to affect or change the world, enacting lasting and impactful decisions which reflect and engage such things as their own moral, ethical, and social identity, and open-world games allow the player simply construct worlds from scratch as they imagine or reimagine their own.

These ideological worlds (games) serve as frameworks for thinking, taste performance, content exploration. Thus, it useful to look at games as systems part of an overarching system of activity.

The subject is instilled with preexisting conditions and notions through play, yet they are also able to develop new, individualized methods of interaction and understanding; appropriating and adapting past and present social experience as they work through an expansive cycle of development and learning in relation to the knowledge, skills, and worldview they carry with them into the virtual space.

From childhood to adulthood, we are naturally motivated to learn as a normal part of development. Particularly in youths, our innate interest in learning is what engages us and allows for exploration which is not directed from above by an strong, outside force. Games can provide a necessary independence, regardless of the degree of independence offered. Whether or not they are created specifically for education, such as with the Edutainment and Serious Games movements, video games exist as learning tools which already enable people to “build civilizations, run virtual businesses, or lead organizations of real people” (Squire xi). All games are simulations in the sense that they try to create some sort of experience for the player, fictional or not.

Nor are games always just open environments and virtual playthings; they are carefully crafted learning experiences which facilitate the enactment of value systems, whether that be regarding a player’s choice of combat skills over charisma and more intellectual skills, or more nuanced decisions related to character interactions.


Now I am not arguing that these are systems which are able to educate on their own, rather they must exist in association with other elements or methods. Digital mediums, like video games, are significant for study because they enable the application of real world skills and knowledge in “playgrounds” separated (generally) from any kind of risk.

I would think that, with Robinson’s argument in mind, these mediums are able to help mitigate the lack of innovation and creative approaches to problems that becomes prevalent as we grow older.

Of course, there are always issues with how we perceive technology and its role in educational environments.

When it comes to understanding the learning potential of video games, Robert Kozma, an educational technologist and researcher, makes an important that the task is “making links between media and learning, rather than discovering them. We don’t just discover media in the wild; media are designed, developed, executed, and implemented within particular contexts” (Squire 84). For designers, this comes across through the engineering of memorable moments and the opening up of new aesthetic experiences with the transformation of the computer into a realm of experimentation and innovation that is broadly accessible.

These moments describe how players intentions, game systems, and on screen representations converge to produce uniquely personal experiences. The question and goal then, in this light, is whether video game play and narrative design can trigger experiences which challenge (or reinforce) our current models of the world and create moments of insight.

Games interact with and engage us in ways that allow us to actually test our understanding of things, whatever that may be, ranging from physics to history, even to ethics. In tying concept to praxis, creating a system of visible cause and effect, the increase in developmental potential of video games is manifold.

In removing ourselves from an education predicated on the idea of academic ability, we are able to create better environments for learning. The use of games is only a minor example of such a tactic.

We shouldn’t be trying to replace valuing academic ability with creativity or something else, rather it should be finding ways to unite the two sides; creating a system which values the comprehension of concepts and knowledge through both theoretical and practical application. I would argue that one way to do this is by placing greater emphasis on the use of digital technologies and environments.

Works Cited

Robinson, Ken. “Do schools kill creativity?” TED. Feb. 2006. Lecture.
Squire, Kurt. Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age. Teachers College Press, 2011.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: