One of my proudest accomplishments to date has been to contribute an article to Nature magazine. My parents are both hard scientists, and I grew up with an acute awareness of its great value to the scientific community. Never expecting to be part of it (as a psychologist, I’m a so-called “soft” scientist you see…), I was over the moon when I was asked to write about the real-world applications of computer games mechanics for serious hard science questions.

It is, unfortunately, behind a paywall. However, the first paragraph is free:

It is the year 2110, and the level of methane in the atmosphere has reached a critical threshold. You have a decision to make: accept the risk of global catastrophe and continue extracting the gas to meet the energy needs of an increasing population; implement a one-child-per- household rule to reduce future energy demand; or fund a decade-long research programme to deliver technological solutions.

Access the full article here.

In the article, I make the case that game-based play can support learning in schools and beyond. I lean on the 2006 ELSPA/DfES report I wrote and Managing Edited, Unlimited Learning, but also bring more contemporary evidence from practitioners like Fate of the World developers Red Redemption, Raph Koster, Jane McGonigal and, of course, the award-winning Channel 4 Education slate into the mix.

It has been a few weeks since the article was published (I’ve been busy!), and as is the practice of the scientific community, there has been a formal response to what I wrote. Professor Anthony D. Pellegrini, an Educational Psychologist from the University of Minnesota, is concerned is with how I appear to have conflated the terms “game” and “play”. Again, it’s behind a paywall, but here’s the first paragraph:

In discussing the importance of computer games for conveying serious messages through play, Aleks Krotoski uses “play” and “games” interchangeably (Nature 466, 695; 2010). However, this is incorrect in the context of human development: these terms denote separate constructs, with different ontogenies, proximal causes and functions.

You can access the rest here.

Indeed, although I won’t get too deeply into this potentially troubled water (and thus over my head), I’d like to clarify that yes, I recognise a difference between the two terms. Games have formal structures, mechanics and rule-sets. Play may be one of them. The way I view “play” in this context, however, is as the freedom to explore possible solutions to a game-set problem in a self-directed and unrestricted way. The games I describe in the article all feature this kind of play, and I argue that this is what makes them effective as deep learning exercises.

Wan Ying, a graduate student from the Learning and New Technologies Research Group at the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, has posted her response to Prof. Pellegrini’s response here. I believe it sums up the debate nicely in this statement:

Even if the meaning of “play” has been synonymously associated with “games”, my opinion is that the difference in semantics is subtle, especially for non-domain experts. This is not to say that I condone a loose use of terminologies in technical writing. What I am questioning is whether one should see an article in its entirety and appreciate the ideas it is trying to convey, or zoom in to dissect the definition of a single term used in the passage. There is, after all, a danger of missing the forest for the trees.