What makes a Game?

Whats in a game diagram

This question stands tall yet always obscure in my own Physical Education (PE) practice and desire to be professionally developed through knowledge creation and with a large dose of being very empathetic to the demands of a teacher and learner in the environment they exist in. This same question is what I want my learners to also be able to answer in their own understanding. Hypothetically, a learner who can articulate and act out the answer will have the ultimate learning taking place for them. I have attempted to answer this question to various degrees to myself as I seek out better understanding of teaching methodologies and practices. I can see this theme keep coming up in my own written reflection repeatedly, with my last article not spared. It brings to a conclusion that the understanding of what game means, codification of it to some degree, can lead to incredible things.

In Games Based Approaches (GBAs), Games Centred Approaches (GCAs) or information-action (ecological dynamics approach) scenarios, the word game keeps coming up. It is obvious that the game environment is held as the ultimate environment to leverage learner’s understanding in lessons. So what exactly is this game environment that is so valuable for learning? The most obvious visual answer is what you experience during the enacting of an established known game. We might add a suffix to the word game, e.g. game-based, modified games, game-like, etc., that also relates to some level of regression of the same experience that occurs in the main established activity. Storey and Butler, (Storey & Joy, 2013), expressed games being introduced as learning systems. They went on to describe these systems as “…Complexity thinking embraces this characterization of games as open systems and employs pattern analysis and relational analysis (learner to learner, learner to constraints, and learner to disturbance) in an attempt to better understand what is occurring for learners…” As these two authors put it very appropriately, teachers are not the cause of learning but rather the catalyst of learning.

This preceding quote almost guarantee to raise the ire of some very close-to-the-ground, pragmatic, instinctive teachers who for years have been teaching without the need to break up learning to so many fancy words that adds up to perhaps an even more confusing sentence! Is there a need to “…better understand what is occurring for learners… (Storey & Joy, 2013)” for PE teachers to this detailed level and if yes, what is the expected background thinking needed, quantity and quality, for lesson design? The practical teachers may probably relegate such learning opportunities analysis, the existing in a game, to teacher training and academic level and suggest more effort be put into the sharing of resources and looking at end objectives, I am guessing. This is probably related to me not particularly recalling much discussion or breaking down of the word and intent of game and its use in lesson design or its derivative in written or verbal discussions where it is usually mentioned in passing as secondary to a more vital primary process theme. I have definitely come across strong opinions on games as something that all should know without the need to elaborate, something intuitive and implicit.

Recently, I came across a discussion on the role of ‘shadow-fighting’-like design or activities involving movement without the main playing implement, e.g. a training activity in soccer without the ball, a game of net/wall without a ball but with focus still on an imaginary implement (imagery). This discussion was set off by a satirical video clip of a soccer game with a pretend ball to take away the dangers of competitiveness in competitions (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JESODKEzU2Q)! This was alluded to as a possible way of introducing concepts and was supported by a recent workshop done by a prominent academic where the ball was taken away but imagined (unfortunately I do not know the full details of this exercise but was told by those present that it seems a very effective exercise).

The episode above led me to think if there is a place for a more deliberate activity analysis that can guide us when in doubt of activity design to optimise the learning environment. Of course, any such evaluation process needs the backing of good pedagogical understanding and beliefs. We are all looking at the same teaching but from many different perspectives. At many times, we extrapolate learning scenarios and continuously analyse teaching possibilities further. The permutations for consideration are seemingly infinite.

I started off my pedagogical exploration by this need to breakdown what I need teach that represents a game for both me and the learner. I invested heavily on the whole learning experience of a learner as the need to understand and live the game. I started off informally codifying my lesson conversations/interactions with learners and found the following recurring themes; Passing (P) action behavior and rules, Scoring (S) action behavior and rules, Interception (I) action behavior and rules, and Movement (M) (a sub-movement to differentiate from the broader movement terminology popular in PE)specific to the act of moving to a position in a game, other than P, S and I related action behaviors. I also realized the very repetitive overriding use of space and PSIM as constraint potentials in my activity design. The expected themes of defensive and offensive action behavior fail to materialize as primary but often referred to in connection to my primary themes of PSIM action behavior, rules or constraints. I have written quite a bit on where this idea goes from here.

The above themes came out very strong in my invasion game activities and as I delved deeper on the possibilities of the above as a design scaffold, I extended it to net/wall and striking and fielding games, theorizing that a learner who understands the PSIM behavior well enough in a game can actually carry over the understanding easily to other games, a very attractive (perhaps naive) but acceptable prospect for me. One of the big push factor for me to explore this is my own background from an individual pursuit activity that puts me in an experience disadvantage that was very subtlety supported by the fraternity which seems to favors multi sports experience as a precursor to being a good teacher. I wanted to desperately see an overriding anchoring of teachable scenario and processes that might connect limited exposure experience for both teachers and students. My assumption is that this connective vein will also support better life long adherence to learning as it reflects to me teaching and learning by understanding.

Game condition premise no. 1: Any game-like situation need to have playing structures that supports behaviors similar to that required of an actual game (assumption: the actual game environment is one that will represent the ideal situation of the learner knowing the game through understanding…this only happens when the learner makes a decision that supports wanting to know more or testing what he already knows..) For this teacher, a game is broken down to PSIM. I further hypothesis that a minimum of two of this action behavior related structures (from PSIM) is sufficient to illicit learning by understanding and can be considered game-like (see Fig 1).

So how will I consider the ball-less dilemma (no pun intended) of the above example which will also allow me to explain and take stock of my own process thinking? This exercise in activity analysis of an outlier (a satirical activity) hopefully will help in understanding better central tendencies that we face every day.

In constraint based design of non-linear learning, it expected to modify based on representation and exaggeration. This controls the complexity through constraint control as we try to create desired learner focus. It is about creating noise in the learning environment which allows the many to one mapping from movement space to desired outcome, i.e. they are many ways to achieve the desired outcome, unlike a solution decomposition approach which might advocate a single way of achieving a movement outcome.

Storey and Butler (2010) spoke about considering the Constraint of Most Relevance (CMR) that gets in the way of attunement (giving attention) to desired affordance (opportunity created by movement problem to act out desired movement). This two authors were looking at the learning environment with a convergence of ideas, from direct and indirect perception perspectives (i.e. Processing information from a higher cognitive mechanism vs maintaining information ecologically – incredibly the processes involve between this two states are very subjective, depending on subject expert perspectives. I feel it is sufficient for teachers to know that this two states are connected and focus a bit more on immediate information processing. See {Fajen, Riley, & Turvey, 2008} and {Wilson, 2017} for a bit of background and ideas on this.), around games as a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) that is always adapting and learning. In a CAS, the CMR can be modified to reduce complexity, an equilibrium by design that basically resets a learning activity to an achievable level. This allows for better demonstration of the desired learning solution movement. The CMR decays as it is re-introduced with increasing complexity to its original level. Eventually it (CMR) is fully re-introduced into the learning activity, with the hope that it is mastered and allows the learning that was previously hampered due to CMR complexity. After this, a new CMR is identified for the next learning phase and so on and so forth. This is seemingly very typical of games-based or games-centred approaches that involves game modification towards a specific learning objective.

For the satirical scenario above (or any other similar situation where a constraint is modified and/or an attractor taken away), the idea is to increase attunement to an affordance. If the desired activity outcome is to get students aware of their/their opponents positioning in relation to implement presence then we need to decide if the actual playing implement is the CMR that is preventing that leaning. If yes, a modification may be in order to reduce that element of implement travel that is causing it to be CMR. If we modify the whole activity by removing the ball, than the implement is an attractor (distractive influence) that is not needed for the positioning learning to take place. This might not make sense as player positioning is directly related to implement position most of the time unless it is an exercise in zone positioning that is regardless of implement presence, another whole new analysis on this possibly being too unidimensional or is it sufficiently game like.

Or it could be a case that focus is wanted on the implement but through imagery. Imagery as a sports related solution is a whole complex skill in sports psychology and well used at high ability levels, e.g. the boxer who shadow fights, the speed climber who imagines route to be taken, the injured athlete on rehabilitation, etc. Can imagery be used a complementary training aid for beginner learners? I feel that it is possible to add to the noise of a learning activity but not as the main driver to a desired action or movement. So if I want to introduce positioning and the awareness of where the ball may appear next and the fast movement of ball seems to be the main CMR, I will modify this negative attribute (speed of ball or inaccurate receiving and passing of ball) by introducing a replacement implement that is bigger or slower, rather than taking it away altogether and expecting a higher cognitive loading of imagery skills to take place. Like what an experienced coach and teacher educator friend of my commented (paraphrased) “…A session without the implement will look very good and active but will probably completely breakdown the moment the ball is re-introduced…”

The lesson for me here (using CAS as a guide to process thinking this time) is that an attractor taken away cannot be part of the problem whose solution you are looking for. If it is, then it needs to be modified or exaggerated for complexity control and still keeping it within the solution landscape, there must still exist some form of affordance of that attractor which is actually a CMR, i.e. it have to be controlled in order for related skill to be fully learned. CMR are like distracting spectators to the learning environment that needs to be toned down for a short while before being re-introduced. However, this spectators must be allowed to carry on their natural interruptive disposition (part of noise), albeit at modified levels when needed, at all times to allow adaptive learning.

Game condition premise no. 2: Any game-like situation need to exhibit functional structures that functions to represents attractors (behavior or movement that provides distraction to learner attention that is not a direct learning attunement), constraints (behavior or structures that are not attractors but modifiable elements that facilitates or disrupts desired movement solution) and an achievement objective (teaching outcome that have an element of affective achievement– affective as giving a sense of success or game like accomplishment). This will relate to premise no. 1, i.e. the different playing structures in design having different functional structures characteristics (see Fig 1).

PSIM Structures Diagram

One potential confusion here is that overcoming the attractor influence, getting the CMR to decay, planning and overcoming constraint modification and moving on to full constraint complexity, etc. are all aspects of a teaching process that needs to be applied to pre-determined learning objectives. How do we decide the hierarchy of learning objectives in this complex operating system? While I have notice plenty of discourse relating to the learning processes, I struggle to find those that looks into the hierarchical importance and order introduction aspects of a game (handling the implement, moving with it, passing it, Interception, scoring, etc.). This facet is usually, I suspect, expected as a given that any PE teacher should instinctively know or relying on tested training programmes wholesale.

Here is where the instinctive/deliberate actions of the teacher/coach with game play and teaching experience/training should come in and not just rely on what a mini-game should visually look like. For this teacher, I try to codify this process of hierarchy placement through PSIM according to context, i.e. where do I place elements of PSIM in a hierarchy of learning importance and order. This hierarchy is further analysed for appropriate game/activity structure manipulation with sound pedagogical/scientific underpinnings, hopefully!

The attempt at activity analysis above is an exercise in looking at a case scenario and attempting to figure out one way to interpret lesson activities, i.e. in essence, most of the time, deciding what a desirable game-like scenario is, or not, for games-centred learning activities. In my own analysis here, I use CAS ideas to help me in that.

My conclusion is that the word game seems to be our own CMR when it comes to planning and evaluating for games based or centered approaches. (Again, any evaluation of activities other than your own must understand implementer’s intention. Otherwise it is just a personal learning exercise for the evaluator.) We think many times the game is vital to our solution designs but may be distracted by the literal, popular idea of the universal word game and its visual manifestation. What we should be focusing on is the “…pattern analysis and relational analysis (learner to learner, learner to constraints, and learner to disturbance) in an attempt to better understand what is occurring for learners… (Storey & Joy, 2013)” This provides us with very objective activity planning and evaluation abilities that is supported by experience and evidence.

References and key readings for this article

Fajen, B., Riley, M., & Turvey, M. (2008). Information, affordance, and the control of action in sport. International Journal Sport Psychology, 40, 79 – 107.

Storey, B., & Joy, B. (2013). Complexity thinking in PE: game-centred approaches, games as complex adaptive systems, and ecological values. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 18(2), 133-149. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17408989.2011.649721

Wilson, A. (July, 2017). Interface Theory vs Gibson: An Ontological Defence of the Ecological Approach. Retrieved from https://psyarxiv.com/zbkqd/

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