Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Sandbox Project - Enhance

Inspired by Darcy Osheim's thesis that examines World of Warcraft from a pedagogical perspective, I'm launching a little experiment in paragraph-level writing that explores the intersection of pedagogy and sandbox style gaming, focusing mainly on console games like GTA, Red Dead Redemption, and LA Noire. Aside from common interest, my project and Darcy's thesis are unrelated. These 'graphs are written without an outline. Their connections may be tenuous or superfluous. I may never finish.

"Freeze and enhance."

This command, typically ordered up by the lead investigator in some neo-brutalist command center, conveys technological sophistication. Blade Runner was my first encounter with this fantasy of infinite gaze, back in '82. There's Decker with his Esper machine, trying to glean the truth from an old photograph: "Enhance 224 to 176. Enhance. Stop. Move in. Stop…" He commands and the image clicks, left then right. Closer. Left then… Decker's machine somehow manipulates a mirror's reflection to peer around a corner. "Enhance."

Image from The RPF
Halo's Theater option offers up a similar thrill, allowing the player a chance to halt gameplay and fly through the expansive battlespaces of previously saved missions, to click frame by frame through every minute of an encounter, to zoom and enhance - even the boring parts, such as when hero stands lazily in the hanger bay while marines are getting annihilated by aliens nearby ("Ah yeah, that's when I got up for a snack and forgot to pause the game"). Halo's narrative pathways are far too rigid to enact a sandbox experience. Yet in Theater-mode, the player becomes a director: tilting, panning, and advancing through scenes [sometimes racing, sometimes crawling], discovering previously unknown options. "So that's where the sniper was hiding!"

The player-as-director reveals an important dimension to the sandbox concept, one that might offer useful insights for anyone interested in teaching and learning. Instructors often deliver course concepts in dribs and drabs, epitomized by the click of phrases on a slideshow. Knowledge wasn't there; now it is. Better write it down. But what if all the information, all the tools, and all the toys are present in one open space, and the student isn't reliant upon the steady drip-drip of instructor-wit? What if the student can direct her or his learning narrative, or at least feel some sense of control and creativity in the process?

That latter proviso ["some sense" - italicize either word] is, of course, the point. After all we have such a world right now. Someone seeking knowledge could do far worse than to cruise the vast and growing Wikipedia data-sphere. Sure, there's plenty of dreck in those pages: vandalism, provincialism, and goofy editorial nonsense by folks who have more time than expertise. Still Wikipedia is undeniably able to offer up at least a semblance of knowledge, not to mention useful breadcrumbs to genuinely peer-reviewed research. Add YouTube educational videos, a decent local library, and the occasional free public lecture, and the determined student can learn nearly anything without setting foot in a school. Yet while a student may enter a grand and seemingly endless array of ideas [Isn't there something creepily antisocial about the much-hyped "Internet of Things?"], that person needs guidance and encouragement to make sense of it all.

An alarming number of university administrators dream of Intelligent Agents that whisk students from automated prompt to automated prompt. They envision a spreadsheet comprised of one hundred professionals, one thousand technicians, and one million students [clients? customers?]. For many of these folks, the long-form lecture and small group seminar makes no sense; it just costs too much. A few of us, particularly those who bemoan the de-professionalization of our craft, will guard the old barricades for another generation. We will practice the art of first-person learning. Few of our students, though, will replace us at the gate.

Our goal therefore should be to adapt the sandbox to our purposes. To "direct" student learning - dripping knowledge at our pace - is one approach. And sometimes such direction is the best way to teach. I merely hope we can practice a more experimental, more entrepreneurial ethos too, one not easily commodified into the MOOC model. We all have the tools, and goodness knows, there are plenty of people yearning to learn. What we must build is a practical and economical model to craft learning spaces that meet local needs. A hundred or so professionals can design the widgets and interfaces that enable our best creative efforts, But no one can know our students as we do. We can help students become directors of their own lives (and not cells on a spreadsheet), maybe to investigate the knowledge-space as they might fly through a Halo theater. The question that remains is a matter of will.

Will we master the games of our new world, or will we get played?

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