The Communal Nature of Tabletop Gaming Complicates Understanding Play

De Koven’s concept of play is predicated on the idea that play, as a purposeless act, is the means through which we can build community and move closer to living better lives. He ultimately moves away from the idea of playing games and towards a purer idea of play beyond games, play as mastery over nothing in particular (De Koven 2013). For De Koven, games are at best a means to an end, a way to encourage an initial sense of playfulness; at worst, they are a controlling aspect over play, something which can corrupt play by enabling cheating, competition and overreliance on reified rules. It seems that ‘true’ play occurs when a game’s rules are changed to the point that the game itself is no longer required. This vision of play could perhaps be seen as a utopian ideal. It is clear from our experiences of the Playful Learning session and of playing games as adults that, though some adults are more playful in their approach to life than others, many people need encouragement to play a game (and to play with a game once they are playing it). Play does not just happen, regardless of whether it should, and games provide an impetus for play to occur. We agree with De Koven that, once established, play is a free (and freeing) activity, but again this leads to issues; play means different things to different people, and even within a group of players there may be very different conceptions of what it means to play. De Koven acknowledges that it can be frustrating to deal with players who are more focused on the rules than you, or those who want to abandon the rules and indulge in flights of fancy. Part of the process of playing, then, is negotiating what play even means; games at least provide a structure around which this negotiation can take place. The implication of this for education is that even the most passionate ‘gamers’ will need persuading to work in a different context and with different people; indeed, this thought can be extended for educators using games in their classes, who need to consider not just the utopian ideal of a class that plays but also the potential reality of one that will not.


Play, when treated as a mode of experiencing games, allows us to understand that ‘playing by the rules’ and ‘playing playfully’ are not mutually exclusive ways of playing but merely part of the process of experiencing the game in different ways. A more playful mode of experience requires something to be played with, even if this object becomes less of a focal point for the experience. When play is seen in this way, it seems almost inevitable that it will occur within the context of games, but what actually occurs and is experienced becomes more difficult to describe because of the diversity of experience. Frustratingly, this communal aspect of play, which makes play such a fascinating topic for study, and such a potentially powerful tool for learning, is also what makes it so difficult to categorise and understand. The only ‘given’ is that players will (by definition) play; beyond this, what they do within (and with) the space of story and rules is unpredictable. Ultimately, it needs to be acknowledged that this unpredictability implies that games cannot be seen as a guaranteed solution to educational problems such as engagement, although they can be incredibly powerful when players make them work. Instead, when trying to understand the role of digital and tabletop games in education, we should consider the different ways in which the experience of play may affect the social interactions that take place in the classroom.


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 Unhappy families: using tabletop games as a technology to understand play in education
Periodicals>Journal Article:  Leana, Illingworth, Wakec (2018), Unhappy families: using tabletop games as a technology to understand play in education, Journal: Research in Learning Technology, Retrieved on 2018-07-27
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  • Folksonomies: education gaming