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The Importance of Play and Online Education: 'Nothing lights up the brain like play'

According to Stuart Brown, ‘nothing lights up the brain like play.” In his Ted Talk, Brown argues that play is essential to proper brain development and has a biological place in our lives similar to sleep and dreams. He cites research on rats and other animals that prove play builds skills that help with survival. He also outlines several different types of play including body play, object play, social play, imaginative play, rough and tumble play, spectator play and ritual play.

Brown is not alone in stressing the importance of Play. Jane McGonigal went so far as to argue that playing games CAN save the world and laid out four ‘superpowers’ that are embodied by gamers. They include urgent optimism and self-motivation, the ability to weave a tight social fabric, blissful productivity and creating epic meaning. McGonigal feels if these skills were targeted toward real world challenges instead of virtual ones, we would all be better off (Mcgonigal, J. 2010).

McGonigal also cites an interesting stat published by a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. The average young person today in a country with a strong gamer culture will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games by the age of 21. This is the SAME amount of time U.S. youngsters will spend in school from fifth grade to high school graduation. Games are providing children with an extremely engaging form of online learning, whether we like it or not.

Developmental Theory

Several theorists have studied the stages of human development and their work can help guide our efforts to ensure we experience a lifetime of learning. Kohlberg developed the six ‘Stages of Moral Development’. The levels moved from 1) Pre-Conventional: obedience and self-interest to 2) Conventional: interpersonal accord and conformity to the final level 3) Post-Conventional: Universal ethical principles (Crain, W. 2010). The sixth stage, called ‘Universal Principles’, is characterized by the ability to see a situation through one another’s eyes. People reaching this stage are less concerned with maintaining society for its own sake, and more concerned with principles and values that make for a good society (Crain, W. 2010, p. 164).” It can be argued that embodying an online avatar or taking on the role of a different character or even simple role-playing builds the skills required to help ‘graduate’ to stage six on Kohlberg’s scale.

Kohlberg wanted to see people advance to the highest possible stage of moral thought and spent time studying how to best impact this type of development. He created an approach to teaching called ‘the just community’ approach.  He focused NOT on individuals but on groups – asking that the group function as a democracy and think of themselves as a community. He monitored their moral development and found that after a year the group norms had advanced and there was a degree of trust and care exhibited by the group (Crain, W. 2010). The result was that stealing and other behavior problems declined and those in the group began helping one another in many ways. This type of ‘just community’ approach is exmplified by online gaming communities. Thousands of online groups exist that are self-regulated and include players that are working together to solve problems. It would be extremely interesting to see what percentage of online gaming communities exhibit characteristics of stage five and six on Kohlberg’s scale.

Jung’s Shadow Played Out On Our Computer Screen?

Carl Jung was another theorist that explored how we move into adulthood. Basing much of  his work on Freud’s principles, Jung expanded upon Freud’s work and developed his own model of the human psyche. Perhaps his most notable contribution was his work on archetypes and what he defined as ‘the shadow’. Jung believed that we exhibited our deepest inner yearnings and unconscious tendencies via archytpal images found in myths, art, dreams and fantasies (Crain, W. 2010). These images can include the Earth Mother, the Wise Woman, the Trickster or Fool and many others. The Shadow, according to Jung, consist of traits and feelings we can’t admit to ourselves. The shadow can be projected onto dream figures of the same gender as ourselves and can be both positive or negative. Jung felt that getting in touch with our shadow side was an essential first step toward self-awareness and integration of the personality.

I believe online gaming and virtual world environments allow users to safely explore their shadow. This can help stimulate honest self-expression for those who are more introverted, isolated or who have stigmatized identities. (Baym, 2010.) The freedom that virtual worlds offer to design and develop any type of environment and avatar and then animate those objects allows for unlimited self-expression. The uses of this feature are limitless and somewhat controversial. There are many fetish communities online and while some might argue the platform allows for the harmless playing out of these activities others contend that it can lead to real life criminal behavior. Perhaps future research can help to determine which outcome is more likely.

The notion that ‘Play’ is an essential part of learning is still a hotly debated topic. I strongly believe that as more evidence becomes available, those who doubt the power of play will eventually see the light. There is no denying that the lure of online games has engaged millions of users around the globe. Why not apply the principles of engaging online play to education?

References:

Baym, N. K. (2010). Personal connections in the digital age. Cambridge, UK: Polity press.

Brown, S. (2008). Play is more than just fun. Ted Talk.(http://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital)

Crain, W. (2010). Theories of Development 6 th Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Deterding, S. (2011). Meaningful play: Getting gamification right. Google Tech Talk.

McGonigal, J. (2010). Gaming can make a better world. Ted Talk. (http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world/transcript#t-646000)