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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Comic Strips and Virtual Models

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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.

IMG_0469 IMG_0468 IMG_0465Additional points

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’.

 

Recent Minecraft Research

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This post provides a very brief summary of few recent pieces of research conducted around Minecraft. Whilst my research is not specifically about Minecraft, the game nevertheless plays a significant role as the focus of the club and one of the sites of participation. Recent studies examining children’s video game preferences have seen Minecraft rate highly, based on responses from both boys and girls (Holloway et al (2013), Beavis et al (2015)) Academic research around Minecraft has grown in recent years, reflecting this expanding popularity and the exposure that the game has gained, both in homes and other institutions. The literature in this post came from searching academic sources for the term ‘Minecraft’. Whilst there is work that deals with the use of Minecraft in a number of educational contexts and lessons (eg. Maths – Bos et al (2014); Science – Short (2012)) using a number of different methodologies the focus here is on the research around Minecraft that takes a broadly ethnographic , socio-cultural or theoretical approach in order to examine the impact of those who engage with the game, in order to locate my  study within the pool of similar literature.

  • Quiring (2015) largely uses video analysis of Youtube playthrough videos, supplemented with reflections on his own gameplay in order to explore ‘place-making’ in Minecraft, looking particularly at alteration/change, proximity and conflict/cooperation. He also problematises issues of ‘actual’ and ‘virtual’ and considers the relative importance of landscape or social construction in the role of place-making. Whilst Quiring’s (2015) rationale as to why virtual places are as ‘real’ as physical places, the fact that this virtual presence is always conducted with a physical place – the individual does not physically disappear from physical space to inhabit a virtual equivalent – suggests that this needs further exploration – which is one of the reasons why I have proposed this as the next text to discuss at the Children and Video Games meeting.
  • Using a similar approach, Wernholm and Vigmo (2015) examine methodological issues around researching Minecraft. Conceptualising gaming as a ‘complex cultural activity’ (p. 244) their methdologically focussed paper considers the use of screencasts published to Youtube as a source of data. As with Quiring’s (2015) study, however, this focus purely on player curated materials does not allow for a consideration of the context in which the gameplay was conducted.
  • Lundgren’s (2015) study of ‘pottering’ in games uses Minecraft play as one of five studies that examine gameplay patters of players, looking specifically at the idea of ‘pottering’ as a virtual pursuit. Whilst this study focuses on the impact of the game mechanics rather than the outcomes itself, it does provide a useful way of beginning to take account of one type of player experience, whilst providing a reminder that the game itself is not a neutral artefact but one whose mechanics and design patterns lend themselves to generating, or at least affording, certain types of player behaviour.
  • Trcek (2014) considers Minecraft in the lives of children in Solenia, from a ‘cybersociology’ perspective (p. 162) Trcek (2014) forms short narrative case studies from interviews conducted with young players specifically relating to Minecraft, conceptualised as Bildungsromans (p. 162) (otherwise translated as coming-of-age stories). These stories are presented as a way of understanding the ‘everyday e-lives’ (p. 163) of children. Whilst there is some attempt to highlight the learning potential for such virtual worlds and Minecraft is again positioned as a site of ‘very intensive peer socialisation’ (p. 175) and ‘an important space of… creative activity’, Trcek (2014) suggests that ‘teachers are unprepared for such challenges’ (p. 175), partly stemming from the lack of sufficient research in the area.
  • Pellicone and Ahn (2015a.) use the notion of ‘affinity space’ to help conceptualise the ‘meta-game’ gameplay that happens ‘across the many physical and digital contexts’ of a player’s life, away from the ‘single game environment’ (p. 1) They employ an ethnographic account of one Minecraft player in order to help describe the ‘stitching together’ (p .2) of the spaces in which this meta-game is played. They observe Ben using Skype during gameplay, in order to enable him to connect verbally with other players. This combining of on-screen and of-screen data allows them to consider the contextual impact of the player’s gameplay – exemplified by an instance where another player makes ‘a racially charged’ comment about after overhearing his Grandmother’s voice via Skype.
  • Dezuanni et al (2015) investigate a group of girls’ Minecraft play in home and school spaces in order to examine processes of identity construction. They examine the children’s participation in the game and in embodied gameplay spaces, suggesting that ‘an important part of the pleasure gained from playing Minecraft is being social’ (p. 153). Also drawing on the theory around ‘affinity groups’ they outline a number of ways in which children ‘establish knowledge and expertise’ though Minecraft play, concluding that ‘an individual can only become recognisable and therefore socially viable when there is someone else to recognise them’ (p. 161).

References

BEAVIS, Catherine, MUSPRATT, Sandy and THOMPSON, Roberta (2015). ‘Computer games can get your brain working’: student experience and perceptions of digital games in the classroom. Learning, media and technology, 40 (1), 21-42.

DEZUANNI, Michael, O’MARA, Joanne and BEAVIS, Catherine (2015). ‘Redstone is like electricity’: Children’s performative representations in and around Minecraft. E-learning and digital media, 12 (2), 147-163.

HOLLOWAY, Donell Digital Play: The challenge of researching young children’s Internet use.

LUNDGREN, Sus and BJÖRK, Staffan (2012). Neither playing nor gaming: Pottering in games. In: Proceedings of the international conference on the foundations of digital games, ACM, 113-120.

PELLICONE, Anthony James and AHN, June (2015). Play across networks: An ethnography of information behavior in online gaming. iConference 2015 proceedings, .

QUIRING, Tyler (2015). From Voxel Vistas: Place-Making in Minecraft. Journal for virtual worlds research, (1).

TRCEK, Franc (2014). ” THE WORLD OF MINECRAFT IS CUBIC”: LEGO BLOCKS FOR E-KIDS? 1. Teorija in praksa, 51 (1), 162.

WERNHOLM, Marina and VIGMO, Sylvi (2015). Capturing children’s knowledge-making dialogues in Minecraft. International journal of research & method in education, 38 (3), 230-246.