The Scope and Politics of Learning-Games

                 To say that every sort of purposeful learning can be seen as a game of some kind, or as a sequence of games, is more than just a figure of speech.  It is an integral perspective, which permits the systematic description and analysis of education processes, and perhaps their reconstruction.

         The learning-games that people play alone include Memorization, Meditation, Immersion, Browsing, Deadline, and so on; altogether, I imagine they are as various as people are.  The group games that people play to learn, in schools and most other places, are much less various.  Young children are encouraged to play more freely, at least in progressive schools; but as people come to be taken no longer as children, a few games – Lecture, Debate, Classroom, Seminar (a combination of these), Homework, and Test come to account for almost all the group action of organized education.

         The problem is not simply with restriction of potential richness.  Every educational process has a political character, which may well be independent of its content’s character, or even opposed.  The schools do try to teach democracy; but the politics of their usual learning-games is authoritarian – if not in essence, in the imbalances of their uses.  They are indifferently voluntary; they motivate by punishment and reward; their style is judgmental and competitive; the gamekeeper has ultimate power not only over the game but within it, deciding and providing for what is to be learned and how.  They are, in short, centralized and hierarchical forms of interaction, and this is what they teach.

         Of course lectures, etc., do have their uses, which are best served in moderation.  I don’t want to get into that tired old argument again; but I do want to suggest that the usual games of education have a sameness to them, a very limited character and scope.  Their precise character is, I think, a consequence of the way they are used to prepare people, by the very processes of playing them, to fit into the larger games of work and power in our society.  This again is beyond this book’s domain, except to mention that it was for the sake of studying and changing these larger games that we developed many of the rather different learning-games that I discuss.

         I’ve devoted so much space to open-circle processes in part because discussion is a basic and pervasive game in most systems of learning, and also because, in their limited fashion, they speak to the core of the political problem of reconstructing education.  Against the prevailing character of education, represented by the closed-circle process of Classroom with the teacher in the center, open-circle processes are democratic, peer-oriented, decentralized, power-sharing, essentially non-hierarchical, communitarian rather than divisive, and so on.  Such processes will not suffice by themselves for the reconstruction of education, but they’re an essential foundation.  And if I have seemed to search them out in unlikely places, it is for the sake of learning to recognize what is healthy in what we do, and how it works.

         The democratic character of open processes is typical of most of the games we played, as thinking about them in detail will show. Indeed, many of them may be understood as ways of shaping open circles of experience, rather than of conversation.  Thus there is an overall political cast to this body of our work.  It is integral to the games, which function best when played in a spirit of democracy and mutual empowerment.  They are open forms, not closed, in which law supports individual freedom.  And they lead me to imagine a pedagogy suited to a community of self-directed learnings, a democratic society.

         The role of gamekeeper may seem to stand in contradiction.  Does she not at times rule out speech, stop action, say who is to speak when on what?  Isn’t that centralized authority?  Of course. But I think that our gamekeeping was a different way of solving the eternal dialectic of freedom and constraint.  Only a certain sort of authority, the authority over process, was made central.  Its domain was precisely defined and limited; its practice was disciplined and in public view; its purpose was purely functional; and its power was consciously and voluntarily granted by the people affected by it. All control of the content of people's behavior and experience was, with equal explicitness, relinquished, or rather restored to the players individually.  Thus our games with their game-keeping were one model for an arrangement of authority in the larger society. 

         One aspect of Open Circle processes not dealt with directly here is the extraordinary consciousness they can engender.  I've mentioned some extraordinary states connected with specific games, and will discuss more: but it is important to recognize that "extraordinary states of consciousness" may be collective as well as purely personal, and as such may be of extraordinary importance, however much privatistic psychology may neglect them.  The bliss of followers quoting the guru, whether Mao or the Majara-ji, is one such state; and the state of the Open Circle is another, quite different.

         The experience of being in a genuinely public space, giving testament directly to something larger than anyone, empowered in a whole that rests equally on each person's participation and transcends it; the experience of creating a collective world -- all this is political experience, and gives rise to a collective and political consciousness, which though modest is all the more valuable for being come by so rarely in the ordinary course of our lives.  It is truly extraordinary, not only in its rarity but in the depths of its penetration into our being, and in the energies it mobilizes.  Some of these are social; and some, perhaps not so surprisingly, seem to have much common with the energies raised in private extraordinary states such as meditation and clairvoyance.

        As for the scope of learning-games, I don't mean to inflate our efforts.  We didn't sit down deliberately to try to design a comprehensive pedagogy.  Rather, we came to our games one by one, in piecemeal response to problems as they were recognized; and saw each use as an experiment, not sufficient but food for more experiment.  Still it is instructive to summarize the educational ground covered even by the few games I have described, the various aspects and thrusts of learning to which they apply as tools.

         Games apply to the process of group learning, and to the processes which support it.  The chapters above give examples of games for meeting each other; for organizing into subgroups; for coming into harmony together; for raising individual and group energy; for tapping the deeper gestalts of the self and the group; for defining expectations and problems, and focusing on issues; for drawing material up and out, both cognitive and emotional; and, for evaluating learning experiences.

        The games also are vehicles for the content and purpose of learning, or for certain contents and  purposes.  Though games may apply to content even as dry as mathematics, as I speak of them here they are tools to represent and study personal roles and social interactions, i.e. most of human experience, whether for the sake of simply understanding this or for the purpose of its improvement.  This scope is broad; it runs from the couple-relationship through collective processes of creation to the working of whole social systems and the organizing of institutional change.

         I don't think we got far enough with any of this study to boast about; we were just another group of bozos on the bus, trying to get along.  But what excited me about the games, and excites me still in their summary, is the sense that we had stumbled into a kind of comprehensive technology of learning which could perhaps be applied to every aspect of the learning process and to contents limited only by ingenuity, in ways far more systematic and powerful than we managed in our rather haphazard experiments.

         Such an ambitious perspective would surely have crushed our own playfulness, and there is no need to burden any particular game with it.  But I think it's proper to see these games as modest elements for the reconstruction of education, and to speculate a bit on how reconstruction might begin around them.  I don't mean the reconstruction of the institutions, such as schools and legislatures, which would be necessary to support any really changed version of education; this is a subject in itself. I mean rather the reconstruction of educational processes, which I'll speak to in the next few chapters with some notes on the principles of game-design, the art of game-keeping, and the design of larger learning experiences.

         These coming chapters are rather technical in their detail, which is intended for people already somewhat familiar in practice with learning-games. But beneath the detail, the overall thrust is this: to show how games of the sorts I’ve described can be combined and orchestrated into longer, integral learning experiences.


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