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Jan 25, 2018 Dr. Stephen Slota

What Does It Mean to 'Play Together?'

Learners Playing Together During Training

Understanding Social Interaction and Instructional Game Design

Growing up in the Quiet Corner, much of my time was spent looking for ways to self-entertain. Technology access was fairly limited in the early-to-mid 1980s, but I did have two other valuable resources: people and the woods behind our house. I’d sometimes play outside with a neighbor or friend from school, but more often than not, I’d wander off to invent my own playful activities in the trees, snow, mud, or pond across the road. Once my younger sister was old enough to understand game mechanics and rules, I shifted from solo play (e.g., matching games, flashcards, Calvinball) to collaborative and competitive play (e.g., Candy Land, Operation, Mario Kart). My dad eventually taught us chess and soccer, and my mom, who wouldn’t think of herself as a “gamer,” encouraged us to play board and card games like Trouble and cribbage as part of our family time. We regularly visited the playground, and on special occasions we would visit playful venues like Discovery Zone. Every season and in any weather, we played everything from tag, house, and manhunt to Donkey Kong Country, Monopoly, and Dungeons & Dragons. More than a hobby, play was a mindset instilled in me by others and something I tried my best to spread.

It’s easy to see how the phrase “social interaction” might imply a game that has two or more players and/or is played competitively or collaboratively, but social interaction isn’t necessarily defined by one moment occurring between a handful of people playing a particular game together at a particular time. It can also be a cascade of events that comes to shape an individual’s perceptions and actions (i.e., the notion that everything we do as living and learning beings is in some way informed by prior social activity; Young & Slota, 2017). In Solitaire, for instance—a “non-social” game (using the phrase colloquially to describe a game you play by yourself)—the player is able to shuffle, organize, and move the cards as they see fit. They can modify rules in any way completely on the fly. They are the sole arbiter of fair and foul. But the Solitaire player didn’t always know how to play Solitaire, and even if we set aside this particular player, we know that Solitaire didn’t always exist. At some time and place in history (most likely 18th-century Germany or Scandinavia), someone invented the game out of nothing but a deck of playing cards and some pre-existing knowledge of card games. Lacking that, they must have had a vague understanding that cards could be used for entertainment. And someone must have, at some time, taught them how to count.

The point is that Solitaire—like the games I played, created, and shared in my childhood—is the result of a long-term, socially collaborative effort to discuss, play with, and teach abstract concepts. When we say that a game involves “social interaction,” we’re not limiting ourselves to in-the-moment conversation. Rather, we’re talking about the sum of a player’s life experiences (i.e., their respective “life-world”; Barab & Roth, 2006), the meta-game environment (i.e., game-related content emergent outside the game, such as websites, cheat guides, and YouTube walk-through videos), and the varied channels the player uses to communicate in and out of game (e.g., Ventrilo, Discord) (Young et al., 2012). Effective, theory-supported instructional game design demands understanding that this wider definition of social interaction applies to all games, from Tiddlywinks to Call of Duty, and frequently doesn’t take the form of face-to-face dialogue or a predictable two-player co-op mode.

Of course, to really take advantage of social interaction as a design principle, we need to consider whether there is value in having students sit at a table (face-to-face) or in a text-based discussion board (blended/online) to discuss core content. Is this the most effective “social interaction” strategy given the content and instructor? Remember, social interaction can unfold asynchronously, in multiple locations, and over an extended period of time. Perhaps we should instead have learners play a solo game with mechanics/rules reinforced through interaction outside of the game (i.e., playing something by themselves and discussing play strategies, reflections, or more in an online discussion board)? Or maybe we should try a constructivist solution where learners apply their knowledge of core content by creating games to be shared and reviewed with their peers?

It’s usually best to answer these questions before a project reaches the design and development stages of ADDIE so you can allocate some of your needs analysis resources to explore whether and how stakeholders/audience members will socially engage in or around the game/game environment you’ve designed (e.g., “Will they use supplemental materials if we create them?” and “What supplemental materials would make sense given the learning objectives?”). This will require trying different social interaction strategies and changing directions if/when a strategy fails to gain traction. It will also mean embedding instructional activities in your final product that reinforce and are reinforced by social interaction (as a means of maximizing transfer from the learning context to the real world).

The design and development processes following your needs analysis should establish when and how social interaction will be woven into the learner’s path through your module/activity. That will help the design team and instructional staff plan for ways to effectively monitor and evaluate learner performance. For example:

  • Is the learner interacting with peers in any capacity?
  • How often do we want our learners to give feedback/critique their peers before, during, and after play?
  • Is it to our benefit to encourage collaborative problem solving, competitive problem solving, or some hybrid approach?

Keep in mind that these are just quick tips to get your socially interactive gaming juices flowing, and you’ll likely stumble upon other social considerations along the way. Below are a few thoughts to help you steer clear of major roadblocks:

  • DO take contemporary learning theory and run with it! Find one that’s best-suited for the instructional need and riff off of it! That means reviewing behaviorism, information processing, and situated cognition before jumping into design. Always have a learning theory foundation before starting wireframes/drafts.

  • DON’T reinvent the wheel! If a design strategy exists and has been used in another realm but not yours, repurpose it (with appropriate attribution, of course). No one will worry that it’s been done before as long as the design works.

  • DO play lots of games! There are tons of mechanics, interactions, and instructional strategies baked into commercial games (video, board, card, etc.). If you come across one that meets your needs, check if someone else has tried it in education. If not, become the first!

  • DON’T take the easy route! I’d be lying if I said instructional game design is a quick, straightforward process. It isn’t. Be prepared to invent new game mechanics if necessary. Be prepared to have things fall apart at the least opportune moment. Always have a back-up plan.

  • DO reach out to the research community if you need help or ideas! The Higher Education Video Game Alliance (HEVGA) is a great place to look for collaborators, and there are multiple volumes that elaborate on the suggestions included in this piece (e.g., What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and LiteracyVideo Games & CreativityExploding the CastleHandbook of Research on Serious Games for Educational Applications).


Published by Dr. Stephen Slota January 25, 2018
Dr. Stephen Slota