A question of culture… and games.

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks: presentations, games, panels, games, travel, panels, games, mixed in with new friends and old, and a couple of drinks. But there’s one thing that seems to have kept resurfacing over that time: culture; and our ability to mold it, nurture it, change it, and bask in it. The topic of culture also seems to have been triggered by games, and the baggage that comes with them.

Duke photo

We all love to celebrate culture, but we hate to be the ones to try to acknowledge its flaws. This seems to be the case with education. The reason for this is that it is impossible to talk about the opportunities of curriculum change, technology, or teacher skills without considering the impact of any one of these within a particular school culture. And with about 9,500 schools in Australia, that’s a pretty big number of variants in school culture. Implementing changes like these can be easy if you have a culture where innovation is the norm, and doing things differently is the way things get done. However this would be the exception. Generally any culture resists change because it establishes itself in the longevity of the people, places, and practices that have stood the test of time. These are often good and productive elements of culture, except when they stagnate and imagination wanes, then you’ve got problems. That’s where games come in as a vehicle for shifting culture, either strategically as a way to shift the models of learning and creativity, or subtly in the technology and resources being introduced.

So you can imagine why games meet with such cynicism and resistance in education settings: because they were stowaways on the great ship of technology that has been sweeping schools. Teachers want the tech, but not the games that kids want to play. Kids want to play, but not in the way school wants them to. The school makes rules, but not the ones that help kids feel empowered. The kids look for loopholes and alternatives, in the same way they do in games. Yes it’s a spurious point, but it’s the same game schools have been playing with cyber-safety: build a bigger fence around the ‘pool of websites’ so that kids don’t drown (and is less risky for the school). The only problem is that schools are trying to build a fence around a veritable¬† ‘ocean of websites’, all the while kids are not learning to swim. Games are in the same boat: schools would rather shun the external world that kids inhabit, because they are a threat to school culture. If that is in fact part of school culture then I would argue that the school has no real culture, but a series of rules enforced to artificially maintain a culture that is more like the world the adults once inhabited. Sorry to be beating up on schools, it’s not their fault. They are trying to implement an archaic curriculum, supplemented by the assumed panacea of technology.

Lets move the focus on culture towards libraries because they are tied with the same constraints. Libraries can be anything they want to be, but what happens when the community wants them to be something else? Libraries are the mirror of society, they reflect the knowledge, the tools, the heritage, and the stories of communities in all sorts of settings. This makes them pretty complex places: a giant spice rack of all kinds of cultures, housed within a culture of their own. So it is interesting when games are introduced into this mix. They are at once a saviour and a black-hole: engaging youth and new people, but expensive to maintain and complex to program around. They also push buttons in the same way as the do for schools: they create noise, they make people gather in groups, they distract people for other more important studies. This is where the games communities come in. They generally love libraries, or have vague recollections of one, and are energised by the opportunities of having public space to play in. It’s the same context in which students want to play games in their school libraries. It is an acknowledgement of a culture, based around the concept of play, that brings people together. It also presents a pretty powerful springboard for libraries, especially when you realise lots of people want to participate. It only took a couple of days at PAX Australia (and a panel on The Playful Library) to be reminded of just how rich, diverse, and wonderful the games communities are. As for the noise, the groups, and the distraction: this is actually quite negotiable, once you’ve opened your mind and your spaces to them. It was refreshing to see these very concepts being challenged in New Zealand at the Auckland Library Youth Services Hui.

I made a lot more sense in this article on Games and learning for SCIS (Schools Catalogue Information Service), but that was before I turned the lens onto culture. In fact I am not so sure culture is the target now, I should qualify it and say workplace culture. This seems to be the place where it becomes clear just how far you can take those words of ‘risk’, ‘innovation’, ‘imagination’, and ‘play’. Workplace culture will only show its beauty and its repulsion when you put these words into practice – and it seems most of us, including the students, are still trying to figure out why it reacts the way it does.