Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On ontologies and the dialectical dualism of play

I was reflecting on Mary's response to my stance on the nature of rhetorics (and play). Ontologically, I am deeply committed to a dialogic interaction between consciousness and the material world. It is not monistic and very much accepts the dualism of the two concepts as representative of existence. However, even as one accepts the dualism of existence, there are those who try to understand the world from a material perspective (e.g. Marxists, CHAT theorists) and others who seek to do so from consciousness (e.g. phenomenologists). My theoretical commitment is very much aligned to the work of Hegel who then influences the succession of theorists who have had an impact in my thinking: Marx, Vygotsky, Luria/Leon'tev and Engestrom. To this end, I have a deep appreciation of a materialist perspective (in my past life, I was a sociologist). Having said that however, I also believe that language plays a key role in. In the cultural-historical activity theory tradition, language takes on the role of a master tool. However, language is more essential than the role that it has been given. If practice is the core of human activity, then communication (or language) is the other side of the coin that makes it possible. Communication or language is what we think in, and praxis is the act that may or may not express our thoughts.

How does this relate to play? Judging from the dichotomies and the discussion that we have had on binaries, play is the very essence of dualism - it is real/unreal, it is serious/fun, it is the whole but it is also the parts. In play, we have praxis and also communication (internal speech or social as Vygotsky would put it). Given that  our praxis is the very expression of our selves, it is no wonder that play is so ambiguous. The nature of the self is highly adaptable and flexible. When we try to express ourselves, at times, we are just not able to do so. Here I think about Goffman's work about how we present ourselves in different situations, or Mead's abstract other, or Cooley's looking glass self. We act based on our certainty, as Hegel would put it, and based on what we perceive others would understand. It is only through a response from another person that we can assume that there is some sort of intersubjectivity (or lack thereof). Most notably, play is not play until we reflect on it or receive a sign from someone that indicates play (I need to talk about signs as some point!!). Much like learning, that moment of reflection is crucial. Perhaps this is why we do not think of play as part of our lives. When we are having an experiential state of play, it is a moment of just being. We only label it as such afterwards. I am reminded of the experiences of my peers about having to play. Thinking or being tasked to play seems antithetical to the experience of play. As for my own experiences, play is integral. Even in moments when I am tasked to write, word play (even though I am not good at it) is wonderful, much like an activity of reading.

Note: I apologize for the lack of cites, it's a stream of consciousness right now (later, as I reflect on the blog writing activity, I will say that it is play but in the actual moment-to-moment writing, there are moments of play and not play!)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The nature of rhetorics

A crucial aspect of  mapping the questions that we had thought up in class was to question the underlying assumptions about the questions. This was not at all easy, given that I had to take on the perspective of the person who was writing the question. Indeed, if one were to think of this intersubjective stance from a particular frame, one can argue that I was playing with ideas; taking on the role of abstract peers and questioning their worldviews. This then led me to ponder about the Sutton-Smith's (2001) rhetorics and the assumptions embedded in each category. He characterizes play rhetorics as those that include “broad symbolic systems - political, religious, social, and educational” (2001, p. 9). Here, rhetoric highlights  various discourses, narratives and values that members of a particular discipline align themselves to. Rhetorics are thus drawn from larger sociocultural systems that individuals are a part of. These rhetorics are therefore ideological ways of thinking about play which he separates from more scientific or personal rhetorics. At the core of a rhetoric is also ontological and epistemological assumptions. For instance, what kind of stance do developmental or animal theories adopt? A person who assumes a constructivist stance could think of the mind as paramount and therefore focus on imaginary play as more salient construct than say physical play. Questioning and understanding our assumptions about the nature of play is therefore integral to defining play. Of course the term definition itself may have different ontologies. For instance, does a definition need to have set properties? Or is it dialectical? Or is it contextual?

An act of play therefore contains several assumptions of what play is; both to the organism playing and to the observer. This is an age-old debate about the nature of knowledge (epistemology). Do we try to know knowledge from a third person perspective, or do we try to capture it from the emic perspective? What forms of knowledge is valid? Are subjective states a useful way in determining play? Or are we looking for general characteristics? For me, play is necessarily intersubjectively derived. If one has to define play, it has to be a consensus that participants agree to before, during or even after the fact. This is however, not entirely easy to ascertain, particularly if we as researchers have to glean such information from participants (sometimes, it's not feasible). In playing a video game with other people for instance, the assumption is that everyone engaging in the activity is actually playing. This assumes that play is a continuous state, but is it always so? If one breaks away from the play (like when my cats distract me), is it still play? There are ways to ascertain this from a third person perspective such as drawing some general observable characteristics but it may be unclear unless the researcher engages in conversation with the participants. The frame that participants bring to these contexts are paramount in understanding what play means to them inasmuch as the observed characteristics. This then raises multiple questions for me (more of them!), questions that can only be answered empirically given the worldview and theoretical perspective that I adopt in relation to what play is.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The dialectics of play

I had originally titled this post, the duality of play but as I began writing, the notion of a duality can be problematic because play is neither simply about mind play (e.g. imaginary play, strategy play) nor physical play (e.g. sports) but instead straddles between the two. In this regard, play can be regarded as liminal - it is the in-between. In Hegelian terms, play involves a dialectical process. In some moments, it is enjoyable, in others, one may be frustrated, it can be serious but it can also be for fun. Thus, Sutton-Smith's (1997) astute observations on the difficulty of defining and understanding play is well-aligned with the multiple instantiations of play research such as that in biology, anthropology and sociology. In the field of learning sciences, much of play has been attributed to Vygotsky and Piaget's theories of cognitive development. In this regard, my fascination with play has always been about the processes of learning, or in some cases, why people don't learn.

From the age of 10, I have been an avid video gamer. I would go over to my friend's house just to play their Nintendo or Sega games, and just generally to hang out. When I entered secondary school, I would do the same, except it would be the computer. The interest in learning developed much later on when I first built my personal computer at 17. The family could finally afford one and it was a glorious day indeed! From playing with friends who are physically around, I then moved to making friends online by playing real-time strategy (RTS) and role-playing games (RPG). My obsession with playing games in part started out as beating the artificial intelligence (AI) or the game itself, never mind that the odds are usually stacked against you depending on the difficulty level. I was thus very competitive and strove to be the best. If one were to subscribe to Richard Bartle's taxonomy of type of players, I would place myself within the achievement camp.

Once I started playing multiplayer online games (MMOGs, though they weren't coined yet at the time), I began to notice how certain players just seem unable to learn from their past encounters in the content, no matter how many times they tried! This really baffled me - I could not understand what was so difficult about generalizing principles or strategizing moves in order to beat the encounter (be it a boss or another player). This was often extremely frustrating as well since the nature of MMOGs meant that you have to depend on other people in order to achieve your aims. Finding 39 other skilled individuals was a chore at best.

Thus began my journey into trying to understand why individuals get 'good' at certain skills while others seem to struggle. On the other hand, there were also the social rhetoric and commentary about video game vice. Studies abound were making connections between video game violence and real life violence, all the while not taking into account the complex environment that human beings live in. Growing up within the culture of 'video games are bad', I was adamant to demonstrate that this simplistic causal claim is unwarranted and unsubstantiated. I was just as well-adjusted as any other outgoing teenager. So were my friends, some of whom are dedicated parents and what society would consider 'normal'. This cultural perspective of video games frustrated me, in part because my parents were of the opinion that video games were a waste of time.

These cultural norms and ideologies reminded me greatly of how play is generally thought of. Play after all has sometimes been described as only for children insofar as it keeps them occupied. Compared to work, where the outcome is certain and one can measure productivity, play is ambiguous. It can be serious, but it can be playful. Play, as Bateson (1972) argues, involves a situation where an an act of play can be communicated at two or more levels at once. Take for instance when human beings joke with one another. At one level, there is the joke, or the fact that one is horsing around. But on another level, there may also be a serious commentary behind the joke or at least another meaning of what the joke can take on. This capacity for meta-communication means that the playing organism is able to communicate to another participant what “is” and what “is not”, which suggests that play involves paradoxical communication  (Nachmanovitch, 2009). I believe that this paradox is due to the dialectical nature of play and is  inherent in it as a construct, which could explain the different interpretations that researchers have of it and why it is so difficult to pin down. As a starting point however, play is dialectical in that it is a continuum of experiences and that each moment of play sublates the moments before it. Play, in a sense, is also a frame that we bring to a particular context which already has it own existing frame. Using Goffman's (1974) definition, a frame contains the basic elements of a situation, which consist both existing structures and is made sense of by an individual’s subjective perspective. It is thus the meeting of the two (our own frame and the current context) that creates the paradoxical nature of play. In the next few weeks, I hope to develop these ideas further and explore more of how the paradox of play relates to learning.