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A taxonomy of play


taxonomy-of-playWhy is learning and instruction so severe?

Why is it that we say ” there is no time for playing here . . . don’t , mess around”.

Should games and play be considered important in designing instructional contexts?

We do know that play is important in the early development of children, but we soon change from the natural learning state of the learner to the convenience of the instructor. This may have come about from a number of factors, but it is likely an issue of convenience for the instructor, not the instructed.

Games and play may offer a more fertile approach for designing instruction, where individuals can be put into a learning environment rich with choice and feedback . . . not only for gathering information about a student’s learning, but that also demand mastery, plenty of do-overs, and where the performance is the assessment (informative assessment — not assessment where the learner is sequestered from learning for the sake of testing in a non-learning situation!). Games and play, by their very nature, assess, measure, and evaluate — and good games and curriculum built upon the principals of play do it in a way that is a seamless and an integrated part of the story arc, and the assessments are the performance ( you do it, or you do it over . . . . and you should wanna do it).

The taxonomy (above) comes from Dubbels (2008), where observations in game play were coded from this model for research on reading comprehension and game play.

The model was developed by looking at games as a structured form of play, where learning was considered as one of the primary purposes of play, and that learning really is our natural state.

We are always learning; sometimes we are learning that we do not like what we are being asked to learn and become– Play is generally though of as intrinsically motivated behavior based upon interest and purpose, as opposed to most formal learning environments.

In this taxonomy, and perhaps it is more a framework than a taxonomy since not all parts need always be present; But each step represents a level of complexity and structure until elements of purposeless free-play has become a structured pursuit in rule-based environments where probability and hypothesis testing are “the play”.

This taxonomy is not all about video games. This taxonomy is an attempt to utilize research on play, as discussed in Play is how we learn.

  1. The first category: Visualization/ imagination seems primitive, but it can be very sophisticated. It may include driving an imaginary car, or even the basis for proposing a new theory for science much like Einsteins thought experiment about relativity and the speed of light. This can be very effective in getting commitment and motivation in learning and instruction. Use the words imagine and visulaize to start the activity. Games do this well, where we are asked to suspend disbelief and create a situatoin and scenario and our place in it.
  2. Roles / Identity where the individual may take on the role of a race car driver or a medical doctor. This may include what Williamson Shaeffer calls the epistemic frame, where the semiotic domains (Gee, 2001) identify the individual as part of a group who have an affinity for an activity. In this case the individual may wear a costume, use language, and tools that are particular to this community of practice, where individuals may gather to develop Self-Determination, i.e. skills, relationships, and autonomy.
  3. Rules are where play becomes more structured, game-like, and more directed, and allows for the semiotic domains to become crystallized as institutionalized discourse, and becomes cultural hegemony, where roles and rules become part of the value system and social hierarchy. An example of this might be, “I am the mommy and you are the baby, so you need to listen to me and do what I say”.
  4. Branching is where there are a number of possibilities based upon context and situation. Often games have different paths for play where there may be a number of different ways to start the game and move through the game– whether it be through the role of dice, scenarios, and spinners. Think of monopoly and chutes and ladders (snakes and ladders), where there are spaces that are moved through or across that create different situations for success or setbacks.
  5. Probability/ Estimation involves the likelihood that if this is done, this will happen. By nature, we are calculating and estimate possibility based upon our actions and the actions of others.In a computer game or a live action role play like Dungeons and Dragons, where characteristics may have a quantitative value in proportion to a discrete category, i.e. someone may have an Intelligence of 16 out of 20, and the player must role a 20 sided dice to see if their solution solves the problem they face in the problem/play space of the game–if they roll a 17, 18, 19, or 20, their solution fails. This demands the player to build situation models of the action and propose solutions based upon their understanding of the game space scenario and the possible solution paths based upon game character skills and resources. In a computer mediated game like Elder Scrolls Oblivion or Assassins Creed the computer processes likelihoods of success based upon skills accumulated (these are developed withe each in-game success.

Central for consideration here is that learning occurs in play, and play is very engaging and may provide a portal to sustaining activities and developing an approach to activities that are often classified as work. And for many, being told to work inspires resistance, reluctance, and avoidance tactics in mandatory performances and learning environments such as school, employment, and other conscriptive activities.

Play orientation, and play identities may offer a high interest and high motivation approach to learning that may have a greater probability in sustaining and improving practice, and thus play may act as a portal to engagement.

Games are a structured form of play (Dubbels, 2008), and play represents a portal to deeper learning, where play is an inquiry state and affective approach to activity. Brian Sutton-Smith, in the Ambiguity of Play described work and play as ethos that are dependent upon purpose and context–where an activity may be a play activity for some and arduous work for others–it depends upon personal attribution. The key factor seems to be the expectations of pleasure or dread associated with the activity, and tapping into play when designing learning environments may offer significantly greater likelihood for sustained engagement.

Taxonomy from:

Dubbels, B.R. (2008) Video games, reading, and transmedial comprehension. In R. E. Ferdig (Ed.),Reference. Information ScienceHandbook of research on effective electronic gaming in education.


8 Responses to “A taxonomy of play”
  1. questions says:

    Thank you for a very interesting and thought provoking post.

    You said, “Games Assess, measure, and evaluate by their very nature” several times in your posting. I guess my follow-up question to that is, “what do they assess, measure, and evaluate?” I think that we have to remember that the majority of games that are on the market are created for purely entertainment purposes. And although this is definitely not a bad thing, it is something that has a qualitatively different purpose than, say, a game that incorporates “physics and fluid and aerodynamics in boat races.” Although this could be an entertaining game, it would also have the dual purpose of teaching in these content areas. For that, most games do NOT “…assess, measure, and evaluate by their very nature.” There are so called ‘educational games’ that do so, yet sacrifice the entertainment component. There are a very few that do both.

  2. admin says:

    Sure, thank you for responding!

    The idea here is that games can be used for models of instruction, or be designed specifically to address these issues that you bring up.

    For me, the question is not whether an off the shelf game will teach physics, but whether we can design games or instructional contexts like games or with play in mind –specifically, with play integrated . . . perhaps with the taxonomy for designing with play. Here some examples of instructional contexts where I designed instructional contexts:

    A video game analysis unit to improve reading comprehension and tech writing: Link

    For reading fluency through becoming an MTV performer and creating and album in garageband: Link

    and also for teaching engineering and physics concepts: Link
    Also, I will be sharing a game designed by my group for training certified nursing assistants.

    These two units work without being mediated on a computer, but are also game-like in their design, and the second is a unit about the study of games.

    The key here is the integration of play into instructional contexts.

    Many educational games are not fun. Why?

    Perhaps too focused on content and not on designing learning to be playful and fun?

    Also, much of my work with games has been to identify the inherent value they bring to the development of critical thinking, comprehension, content delivery, and engagement.

    Any game can be used to improve learning. The role of the trainer or the instructor is to design the context for thoughtful analysis, deconstruction, and descriptive reflection.

    The model I am sharing proposes a design method for doing this.

  3. prosilver says:

    It means that company has done lot of research on their product.;


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