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Playing a Broken Game: Digital Publics at Play in US Classrooms

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In addition to my panel presentation, I’ll be speaking as part of a roundtable at the upcoming Association of Internet Researchers IR14 Conference in Denver, Colorado. That roundtable, titled, Producing Digital Publics from Gaming to Crowdsourcing, will have me discussing briefly recent ethnographic work surrounding serious games in US classrooms.

From the multiplayer classroom (Sheldon, 2011), to games teaching “us” about literacy and learning (Gee, 2007), to our ever-present broken reality (McGonigal, 2011) and the gamification of nearly everything [including learning and instruction] (Kapp, 2012) games and play lie at an emerging narrative about (“successful”) US classrooms. This essay turns to ethnographic data gathered over the course of three and a half years of participant observation with scientists, education researchers, teachers and students designing serious games, interactive case studies and e-books for the classroom. The essay reflects critically on the varying socio-technical logics that mobilize the various strategies deployed in this context and their broader cultural implications.

Towards the end of the 20th century, as the so called “Millennial Turn” was upon us, sociologist and media scholar Manuel Castells penned a prescient outline of “a new mode of development, informationalism, historically shaped by the restructuring of the capitalist mode of production.” (Castells 1989: 14). Indeed, he called for nothing less than an “empirically grounded, cross-cultural theory of the Information Age” (Castells 1998: xii). Geographer David Harvey, among others, described this economic Leviathan of the “information age” as the coalescence of “post-Fordism” and “flexible accumulation,” producing, in its wake, fundamental shifts in the organizational practices of space and time (Harvey 1989; Piore and Sabel 1984). AoIR conference participants and scholars assembled for this roundtable have much to contribute to the thick description and deep analysis of this paradigm of a new mode of production. The proposed roundtable panel interrogates “digital publics” as both instantiations of civic life as well as commodities produced by and through the information age. We explore how labor practices yoked to the nexus of information economies and digital networks produce and extract value from cultural forms of civic engagement. In doing so, specific practices of labor at the heart of the information age increasingly corral public life through global flows of capital and the commodification of everyday life. We ask: what are the labor relations produced by and embedded in the institutional reorganization of public life through digital publics?

The presentations proposed for this roundtable build from the premise that power relations of inequality and late capitalism’s capricious search for “growth” ensnare developed and marginalized economies in a global “division of labor” (Castells 1996:439). Some presentations (examples of “publics as industry products”) examine these divisions through a close analysis of the labor practices of the gaming industry. Games offer an expansive terrain and platform for civic engagement. From live-action role-playing games harnessing the affective labor of an international fan base; to the heralding of authentically “American publics” “games” and “play” in educational success narratives; games are positioned as products rather than processes of public engagement. The remaining presentations (examples of “labor as information infrastructure”) offer close analyses of the labor exchanged through networked information economies. Video game players-turned-YouTube commentators converting their love of play to a commodity; and crowdsourcing platform workers piecing together the information that we buy and sell online, everyday; contribute to a vibrant conversation about the “immaterial labor” that buttresses digital economies. Together, the panel shifts attention to a more grounded understanding of the modes of production fundamental to digital publics. They better equip us to consider the political and ethical stakes of the very material labor digital publics produce through cultural engagement and exchange.

About Casey O'Donnell

Casey O'Donnell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University. He is part of the games faculty and Games for Entertainment and Learning (GEL) lab at MSU. He is also part of the game development collective Affinity Games. His research examines the creative collaborative work of videogame design and development. This research examines the cultural and collaborative dynamics that occur in both professional "AAA" organizations and formal and informal "independent" game development communities. His research has spanned game development companies from the United States to India. His research examines issues of work, production, copyright, as well as third world and postcolonial aspects of the videogame development workplace.

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