Reflecting on the Power of MOOC

I was recently pleased to be invited to contribute to a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) called ‘Exploring Play’, created by Sheffield University and hosted by Futurelearn. What was initially proposed as a written contribution turned into a short video segment. Whilst initially (internally) reluctant about appearing on video, I figured that I needed to overcome this aversion – partly as I had actively relied on my participants allowing me to film them, and also as it provided an opportunity to showcase some of the visual data I have collected during my Minecraft research.

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I named my contribution ‘The diversity of social play in a Minecraft club’. This drew upon three examples of the children’s play (in fact, the same three examples present in a recent poster – below)  in order to act as an overview of the kinds of play the children engaged in during the year-long Minecraft club that I ran last year, as a means of exemplifying the kinds of activities that are possible in such contexts. My contribution formed part of week five’s focus on virtual world play and, aware of the negative press that is often generated around such pursuits, I suppose I also saw this as a good opportunity to dispel the myth that video game play is necessarily isolating or anti-social – not by arguing a point but simply by presenting examples of children’s creative play that arose in and around the game.

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The comments generated during the course this week have been brilliant, and these alone have convinced me of the value of MOOC participation, both as a contributor and a learner. There are currently more than 125 comments posted in the discussion thread related to my video, from a wide range of participants from different backgrounds (academic and non-academic), from across the globe. As a means of broadening engagement with my research, therefore, it has been excellent. The MOOC’s open nature, and its wide focus on play in general (rather than on virtual play specifically) means that the video has been seen by many people for whom videogame play was an unfamiliar or even negative concept, with a number of the comments reflecting that their own views had been challenged or changed by what they had seen. Some were even quite emotional about the content of parts of the video, and the (very) few voices dissent were considered, considerate and open to discussion (the polar opposite of the usual comments stream I have seen on many other online sites, in fact!).

You can view the course (and my small contribution in Week 5) by signing up (for free) here: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/play/2/

The Banterbury Tales: Social Play in an After School Minecraft Club Poster

Here is my poster for the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences Research Showcase event, taking place on November 11th at the Winter Gardens in Sheffield.

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(And if you spot any typos please don’t tell me as it’s gone to the printers now!)

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Banterbury is Over

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So, after 26 weeks (32.5 hours!) of researching Minecraft Club, last week was the final session. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I am pleased to have reached the landmark that is the end of my fieldwork, and a little relieved that I will finally end up generating data! I now have a 500gb external hard drive (and a backup, of course!) full of videos, screencasts, photos etc. However, I will definitely miss the weekly sessions with the children. I intend to carry on with the club in a slightly reduced form next year, but this particularly group of children will be at their next school by then. The final session of the club brought with it some of the emotions I used to feel at the end of a term as a teacher – particularly as I have known many of these children since they started the school seven years ago.

The session itself was slightly different to usual – I took the opportunity to show the children some of the video and comic strip data I had been working on (I was relived that this went down very well!). The children then used the electronic whiteboard to play me and each other some of their favourite Minecraft related videos from Youtube. Most of the children also played the game as usual, continuing their creations in the virtual world until the very last second.

As a ‘thank you’ for participating in the club I supplied cakes and typed a letter to the children and their parents.

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And although I suggested in the post title that Banterbury (their virtual world) is over, it may not be entirely. One of the children approached me the week before with a request for access to the Minecraft Map files in order to enable them to continue using them at home. I made these available to all of the children – although they will not be able to play together – either in a single location or on a server –  in the same way as they have during the club it’s interesting to speculate about the possibility of Banterbury’s continuing expansion, beyond my gaze.

But for me, certainly, Banterbury and this Minecraft Club are now places from the (recent) past, dependent on the particular set of people and circumstances that bought them into being. And as I dive headlong back into the data it brings with it memories of the brilliant group of children who made this project possible. Their reactions to the data I showed them during this session were positive and I’m confident that I will be able to represent their ‘lived experience’ in a way in which they would approve.

Using Virtual Models #5

I have been using discussion activities throughout this year’s research of Minecraft Club in order to gather reflections from the children about the club. As before, this is inspired by David Gauntlett’s ‘Identity Models’ work. A small group of children build virtual models using a shared map in the iPad version of Minecraft.

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Yesterday I conducted two group interviews (#5 and #6) in school before the penultimate week of the club.

My intention was for discussion in each session to focus on three areas:

1. For the children to reflect on the nature of the club itself, with a focus on their motivation to continue attending weekly for a whole academic year.

2. For the children to discuss their perceptions of Banterbury, their ‘virtual community’. I asked them to describe what kind of place Banterbury is…

3. For the children to suggest some ‘episodes’, ‘events’ or ‘instances’ for me to look more closely at during my data analysis, based on what they felt had been ‘particularly interesting or important’. In order to prompt this part of the discussion I gave them two examples that I was already looking at – the horse funeral and the sheep song.

The following is a brief outline of the discussion session 5, centred around the models produced by the children, based on repeated re-watching of the screencast from the sessions.IMG_0470

Discussion Session #5

  • Model 1 created by Callum <Yoloface23jr> – A Place to Relax to convey the value of social gameplay

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Callum’s model represented relaxation in the game, which he suggested is one reason to play the game. He then began to focus on the importance of social gameplay, particularly for him as a new member of the class at the beginning of the year, who joined the group from another school: ‘It’s a really great way for me to join in….I’ve got to know people so well through Minecraft Club. I don’t think I’d know anyone this well or be this best friends with anybody without Minecraft Club.’ Asked why a club around Minecraft was a good place for this social time he replied:

‘People talk more, there’s a bit more chance to talk and demonstrate their feelings in what they build… so I think I’ve got to know them quite well… and what they like and stuff’.

I asked if, for example, a chess club would have helped in the same way. He replied that he wouldn’t have gone, neither would anyone else!

  • Model 2 created by Alex <Castaway112> – Mushroom House to convey variety in the game

Alex directed me over to his mushroom house and, after a bit of time establishing how to enter, he gave me a guided tour. This model was intended ‘to explain all of the places you can go’ (in Banterbury) ‘the forest… sand… mushrooms’. Above one of the doors was a sign reading ‘this is not a door’. Confused by this I asked why, to be told that ‘it’s clearly not a door’. Things are not what they appear to be.

As he led me around the house I saw ‘the most dangerous fireplace in the world, a baby sitting room, a room with a sign that says ‘do not enter because of chickens’ (we enter – there are no chickens) and a farm with cows with mushrooms on their heads’. He suggested that this ‘reminded him of the craziness of the world’ in Minecraft Club.

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  • Model 3 created by Joseph <Steve> – A Gallery to suggest ‘infinite possibilities’

Joseph created an art gallery as a chance to try out using things he had not used before. He said that this reflected that ‘there are lots of items that they don’t use in the club’ and therefore possibilities that they had not yet explored.

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Alex began by suggesting that I should look more closely at the events around the creation of Banterbury Library. This was interesting as this is already the focus of some of my data analysis. When asked why he suggested, ‘definitely when they were making the books… we were actually doing writing…. We actually tried to do something that is exciting’. Callum agreed and suggested that a focus on the library was important because ‘a lot of people think that Minecraft is just about building structures but you can build books and stories and stuff as well, which is quite good… It’s a feature that is in Minecraft all the time, and it’s part of real life… there’s books in real life…’

Joe discovered a glitch in the game where the doors were only half rendering. They then began to notice that it was possible to change skins in this new version – they left the game to change their skins: ‘Awesome! That is so cooool! Epicness!’

There was also some discussion over the legitimacy of the naming of the town Banterbury. Callum expressed frustration about the town being called ‘Banterbury’ – ‘WHY IS IT CALLED THAT?!’ He attributed its naming to one specific player’s particular interest in the word ‘banter’. Alex suggested a possible origin for the name Banterbury – a youtube video of another game ‘Terraria’ where a player names his world ‘Banterbury’ (I could not find this, however). There was a suggestion that there were some ‘power’ issues relating to the naming and the subsequent perceived ‘ownership’ of the town and control over certain activities was something that they found potentially frustrating and potentially led to the forming of groups within the club. They talked about how the girls (and some boys) like ‘all their stuff private and make a massive fuss when someone goes in’. I will pursue this more specifically elsewhere.

They also further emphasised the important of the social aspect of the gameplay in the club: ‘You can work together… sometimes we talk about other things, we talk about things while we are playing’. This ‘makes it more exciting’.

 

Banterbury Library, amongst other things (Minecraft Club #22 09.05.15)

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Still a week behind with my data familiarisation, but I’m catching up! Much of the in game play during this week seemed to centre around the creation of a new library in Banterbury. This post is built around my fieldnotes.

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Tom has trouble logging in to the game so I let him use my laptop and check that it’s ok for me to screencast his play. I become aware of the fact that there is now a library in Banterbury. I also notice that, now the town has a name, I no longer feel the need to prefix it with the term ‘virtual’ – does naming make it more ‘real’? I can’t remember if there was a library last week or not -when did it appear?

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Someone is singing ‘Milkshake’ by Kelis. Other children join in.

I focus on what Tom and Ben are doing, seating myself behind them. Tom looks at Ben’s screen. He then turns to Callum and asks him if he is writing books to – he isn’t, it’s just them. More singing – the girls start and the boys join in – it’s apparently the Minion’s Banana song.

Ben asks how to spell ‘comeuppance’ – I struggle to remember – it isn’t a word I use very often! I note that the boys flip between different ways of being in the game – writing, moving, writing again. Ben reads his book to Tom. Tom laughs. Ben takes his computer over to read the book to Lisa, the subject of his book. She laughs too. Both boys have inadvertently called their books ‘The Sick Buk!’ – they can’t believe the coincidence. One of them renames their to ‘The Super Buk’. Freya announces that she wants to write a book but Ben says that she can’t put it in the library. He relents saying ‘It’s just banter!’

Tom is typing ‘… swag mentally raged and blew up his…’ (short discussion over what sort of farm – ‘sausage or plastic’? He resumes, choosing ‘plastic’) ‘… plastic farm. Outraged with his stupidity of king pigs he…’ Tom says that his book is now ‘The Poop Buk’.

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The girls are now writing books. Mia writes one about Ben and Tom, involving them walking down the isle. The book reads:

‘Happily, Tom and Ben walked hand in hand romantically down the wedding isle as the sunset shone thorough Tom’s big head. The best bit is Freya got it all on record, now that’s one for youtube. 3 weeks later Tom got fed up with Ben leaving his big bloomers on the bed, so they got a divorce :(‘

 

On hearing this they stand up and walk around the room, holding hands, doing the wedding march. They hug and pat each other’s backs, Ben stating ‘And that is how you deal with banter!’

There’s a reprise of the song ‘Tim Jim’ from week 3. Ben’s computer shuts down, L.  suggests he does some ballet to fill the time. He does. Tom is typing, again. So far he has largely interacted with an interface for typing rather than exploring space – this observation is supported by the screencast of his play. The library was build by him and Ben and seems to have a certain number of set rules, dictated by them (so creation means ownership in Banterbury?) Each book ends with the statement ‘Property of Banterbury Library’. Callum has created a book all ‘IN CAPS’ but Tom is refusing to let it in as it doesn’t fit the correct format…

The stories created by the children seem to largely involve other members of the group. More specifically, they seem to involve bad things happening to other members of the group and, as such, could be considered to be exemplars of the ‘banter’ from which the town gets its name.

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Whilst the library draws in a lot of the children, as usual not everyone is participating on the same task. Two of the girls are busy constructing what appears to be pixelart characters using the game’s blocks. One turns out to be me, with the word ‘thank you’ above it in large letters, using Minecraft blocks.

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Finally Ben’s computer starts up again and he opens up one of the books he has created – it’s called ‘The Plastic Buk’ (each book seems to be named using this pattern, with an intentional mis-spelling of ‘book’ at the end.) He reads some of the content of the book out, to much laughter from the rest of the group.

Tom decides to hide in the game. He digs a hole under a building revealing a hidden room that he seems to have know was there already. ‘Ben, I’ve gone into operation hideout’ he says. “Ben! Come with me!’. Ben moves to sit next to Tom in the room and joins him in the game, in the hidden room. Ben is using a silly voice and I wonder what they are doing in this space.

There’s some singing from the boys, seemingly to mock the girls. ‘Don’t stop believing!’ they sing with mock enthusiasm. Tom asks Ben to fill in the secret hole.

Ben logs out, and back in. There is a discussion about veganism – about what it is. Ben starts singing a song by Blue. He is playing with words, language, lyrics, melody, tune, rhythm. Ben holds Tom’s hand. How do they drop in and out of the game like this? Ben starts rapping. I film the boys from over their shoulders as they work on separate screens, composing their separate texts – I film them doing this.

Someone asks how to spell ‘submarine’ – this prompts singing of ‘yellow submarine’ followed, again, by Milkshake by Kelis. They show a video of on of the club member at the skate park, on Youtube, on one of the class ipads. ‘How much money do you earn?’ asks one of the class, referencing the fact that people get paid for having popular channels of Youtube. He patiently explains that he doesn’t have enough views to get paid.

Some of the class discuss their Youtube accounts. They are discussing Minecraft videos and the show me a video called ‘the Villager News’

Tom returns to his computer and is typing, referencing something that turns out to be ‘Rap God’ by Eminem.

Diversity of Play in Minecraft Club

This research involves a group of children playing together during a club. As such, this work naturally draws upon work around play and the theories of play. Early on in his book ‘The Ambiguity of Play’ (2001), Brian Sutton Smith provides a (non-exhaustive) list of ‘activities that are often said to be play forms or play experiences’ (p. 4). What struck me about this list was how many of these examples have found their way into Minecraft Club over the preceding 19 weeks, either in the virtual or embodied space – or, often, across both. So while ‘vitual gameplay’ might suggest itself as a thing in itself, closer inspection reveals that it is a much more complex assemblage of multiple activities. The gamplay itself has temporal and spacial diversity (p. 6) in that it spans multiple weeks and places. Furthermore, whilst Minecraft itself is often an ‘agency for some kind of play’ (p. 6) it is not the only location or stimulus for play – drawing, as the children do, on a wide range of other influences.

[edit – I have noticed some additional examples that I accidentally neglected to highlight – most notably ‘reading and writing’ and ‘gardening’- but you get the idea!)

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