Playing for Change event

Last week I went to ‘Playing for Change’ hosted by Scott Gaule (RIHSC, MMU) and Nic Whitton (ESRI).  It was the inaugural event of the Games for Social Change Network, funded through an AHRC grant (read more here).  The network’s website explains the potential of games/ play for change:

“Participation and involvement are integral to processes of social change. Play and games have a tradition of contributing to this type of work, notably through sport, routinely used as a tool to facilitate personal and community development as well as promote inter-cultural understanding.

Outside of the world of sport, the potentials of play and games as agents of change are seldom acknowledged and explored. However, the landscape of game making and playing is undergoing a radical transformation. Recent developments are highlighting the possibilities of game design in engaging wider social processes, aligned to activism, journalism, public pedagogy, interpersonal communication and community development, for example.

A key factor in this transformation is the growth of computer and videogame culture. In the last decade, changes have occurred on the edges of the mainstream game industry, whereby a variety of independent making communities are emerging.

These scenes are enabling more diverse people to get involved and this diversity is creating more experimental and nuanced play experiences and pushing the boundaries of what games can be used for. Many of these independent communities (e.g. Game Jam cultures) are actively engaged in the democratisation of game production, blurring the boundaries between playing and making, supporting gamers to get involved in designing and producing their own games.

This phase of maturation is helping to highlight the possibilities of play and games as significant cultural forms for personal expression, inter-personal communication and social commentary. It has also given rise to new forms of play. For example, mixed and alternate reality games (ARGs), played across virtual platforms as well as in physical locations, enable players to warp the boundaries between everyday and fictional realities. Far from being trivial, examples from this genre of play are pointing towards its potentials to supplement tool-sets for community practice.”

As might be expected the conference was full of thought-provoking games and activities. Manchester’s very own The Larks demonstrated their Super Political Street Fighter that uses the arcade game Street Fighter to decide which political idea is the best.

The Copenhagen Games Collective also ran a wonderful workshop that presented games with a common theme that varied through the utilisation of technology, from Turtle Wushu (I’m not even going to try to explain it – see here for details) to Oculus Joust (read this about Oculus and check out the picture).

Matt Adams from ‪@blasttheory gave an overview of the games (he was relaxed about what they actually were) that place people in immersive experiences such as I’d Hide You. An interesting issue emerging from Matt’s talk was the certain ambivalence to risk within the games.  In A Machine to See With individuals receive instructions via a phone that places them in a situation where they rob a bank, where the bank is not aware of the game.  So the crux is: do people rob the bank?

So all great stuff and lots of people enjoyed the day but what does it all mean for change, social change and society?  A running feature of the day was what do we mean by ‘play’, ‘games’, ‘social change’, ‘change’ and every other idea that everyone has numerous definitions and competing ideas?  There were some answers to these questions in Joost Raessen’s (Utrecht University) talk and I’ll link to the slides when they are available (here).

For me the most interesting question is why play/ games and social change now? I’m aware of the risk of turning up to an event and wondering ‘why now?’ on a field of research that’s being going for 15-20 years. The ‘now’ is my contingency. However, Matthias Fuchs (Gamification Lab, Leuphana University) noted that interest in games and play after economic downturns.  So in the 1930’s after the Great Depression there were examples such as Mary Poppins that instructed us,

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and SNAP! the job’s a game!

But in whose interests is it that we think of work as fun or a game?

Mathias focused on visual and ludic representations of “involuntary servitude” and “drudgery of play”, drawing on critical theorists Adorno and Benjamin. Adorno the “repetitiveness of gaming” is nothing but “an after-image of involuntary servitude” (Adorno 1970) and for Benjamin the gamer’s actions resemble those of the proletarian worker as they perform what is derived of all meaning: “drudgery of play” (Benjamin 1939). As a way of developing out of this, Fuchs gave examples of what Daphne Dragona calls “Counter-Gamification” the subversive potential of mini-games, videos or images to offer an alternative to the Californian Hurrahs on gamification as the general problem solver. An example of this sort of game is CAMOVER where anarchists in Berlin compete to destroy as many CCTV cameras as possible.

So lots of interesting stuff going on but I’m waiting to see what games/ play can do for the type of social change that I’m interested in, leading to more co-operative and democratic communities and societies. An indication of this might be the Variable State Network, which is,

"A cooperative media conglomerate located in the Rough Sedge region of Second Life. It has a weekly budget of L$300 dedicated to expanding the secret agenda of "another world is possible" within the most inclusive definition of North America, and particularly the NAFTA region (ergo its name). It was founded in Tijuana, Baja California, in december 2008 within the context of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle of EZLN, to be presented in Festival Mundial de la Digna Rabia, in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. Since january 2010 it has been temporarily located in Denver, Grand Lake, Krems, Los Angeles, NYC and Vienna.

The main project running under the co-orp umbrella is Spacebank, but there are other important initiatives under its sponsorship like Collective Intelligence AgencyEl ZorroFiction DepartmentMundo Posible,, Partido CyberPunkPossibleworldsRomaCondesa.comVariable Network State."

But describing that in detail is a whole other post.

James Duggan

Gyngyver Pataki interviews Geoff Bright, as part of ECER’s 20th Anniversary project

We post below the transcript of an interview of ESRI’s Geoff Bright by Gyongyver Pataki on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the European Conference on Education Research (ECER)

How did you become involved with ECER?

One of the most interesting aspects of my own case is the fact that I got involved in research after quite a long professional career. I came into research not as a young graduate or post doc but quite late on as a professional practitioner. I had been involved in teacher education for a long time and also been involved in social sciences within the sector in the UK that is called “further education”. In fact, I only recently completed my doctoral studies.

The reason that I first got involved in ECER was that one of my doctoral supervisors had got strong links with other European researchers. He was involved in another European funded project to bring together early career researchers and doctoral students across Europe. He recommended me to attend ECER. I first attended ECER in Gothenburg in 2009. Since that time I have maintained a strong relationship with the conference for a number of reasons. I have attended every one since except Cadiz. I could not get the funding to get to Cadiz last year. I got the Gothenburg conference, followed by Helsinki, followed by Vienna, followed by Berlin then I missed Cadiz, I went to Istanbul this year and intend to visit Porto next year as well. In my role as a researcher at the Education and Social Research Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University, I consider ECER probably the most important conference that I attend. I have developed a number of contacts over the years and, after Helsinki, became quite involved in network 19, the ethnography network. At the 2009 Gothenburg conference, the network 19 people – particularly Dennis Beach – were very supportive of my work. I became close to them and quite quickly became a network convenor for network 19. I’ve now got a strong relationship to that particular network and that supports my research objectives at my home institution, Manchester Metropolitan University. We are currently keen to get involved with European funding streams. Indeed, they are now more important to us than ever before. The contact that I have in Europe is considered to be very important in my research institute.

In Gothenburg, I had a paper accepted for the main conference but was fortunate also to attend the early career researchers’ conference before the main conference. So I actually arrived in Gothenburg before the other people from Sheffield Hallam University (my institution at the time). So I had the pleasure of travelling to Gothenburg on my own. Gothenburg is a gorgeous city, in my view. I very quickly made some friendships with some people who were out at the early researchers’ conference and have maintained those friendships ever since. The university itself was attractive, too, and the events that were laid on in Gothenburg were wonderful. There was a really nice party one night. A band was playing and the catering was superb. I had a very memorable time. The fact that I found people who were interested in my work was encouraging and I loved the very open feel of the city. ECER won me over. The research is of a good standard, and the social and networking side is very important. There is always both a personal and a professional aspect to ECER.

What particularly attracts you about ECER?

For me the scale of ECER makes it fascinating. It is a large conference and I enjoy its size. There are colleagues from all over Europe, of course, but there are also participants from Australia, America that I know as well. Basically, although it is a European conference it is linked to global networks. I think that is a point that worth emphasizing. ECER doesn’t only place you at the heart of European networks but can link you into global networks as well. So the scale of it is impressive. I enjoy everybody being around during the conference week. There is always social life around you and one feels that one is part of a European community of researchers. I regard myself as a European. That is quite important to me because sometimes the UK feels like an insular little island. I am interested in the history of Europe and its varied identities. Being at that conference, I feel as if I am part of Europe rather than a ‘Brit’. It is always possible to make new friends at ECER. Though I sometimes give the big organized events a miss, there is always a chance possibility to join people in all the really lovely, informally convivial spaces that the conference seems to cultivate.

If I may discuss a particular case, I’d like to mention how one particularly significant research thread has developed for me in Network 19 and still continues to generate collaboration and partnership. Indeed, it’s the thread that you, Gyongyver, were involved in when you came to the Space, Place and Social Justice in Education seminar that we held in Manchester in 2012. That seminar originated very directly from a conversation after a Network 19 presentation in Helsinki in 2010. Some people came along to a presentation. I cannot remember who gave the presentation any more, but we were debating questions on the nature of ‘field’ and ‘site’ in ethnography. We had some conversations about how space related to ethnography. A couple of geographers came along and said: “ We do not really think that you ethnographers fully understanding the question of space and place”. It was quite a provocative conversation and we really got into it over a coffee. We said: why don’t we try and do something about this? Why don’t we try to organize an event? Basically, from that conversation I organized the Manchester event a year later. In fact, another year further on, I have just guest edited a special issue of the journal Qualitative Inquiry. It developed some of the papers that were at the Manchester conference. I am also preparing another research bid related to those topics. So there was one conversation over a coffee in ECER in Helsinki in 2010 and research is still continuing three years later. This is one specific way in which the ECER networks have helped my work. It is also worth mentioning that two ECER networks (19 and 7; Ethnography, and Intercultural Education respectively) provided network funding to support researchers from the low GDP countries of Europe – such as you – to attend the conference in Manchester. This is a really important story of how ECER is much more than just a few days in a foreign city. The impact of ECER travels well beyond the conference itself.

Of course, as a conference ECER primarily offers formal spaces in which to present papers and I have to say that I value very much the feedback and concrete support that I have had in developing my own work through that process. But as I’ve said, the informal spaces at the end of sessions around a cup of coffee can also germinate ideas. The EERA structure, particularly through the networks, helps to respond to those ideas. I am still a network convenor, which allows me to participate in reviewing papers for ECER each year, which extends my knowledge of what is what happening in my own research field.

What does your attendance at ECER mean for your institution?

Well, ECER not only gives access to the European audience for one’s research work but also potentially to European funds. Issue related to economic crisis and migration have sharpened in the last five years and Europe is consequently an important place to bring together a progressive education research community. There are very significant questions of inequality, mobility that are very pertinent at this moment. They are potentially politically dangerous and certainly the changes occurring in Europe require great thought. The way the educational community in Europe responds to current questions seems to me to be of enormous significance. ECER can help to bring about very important and timely discussions. It is no longer possible for us in the UK to pretend that we have nothing to do with those issues. What is happening in Europe economically clearly impacts on UK education and UK educational research. We need to have a voice in Europe. Secondly, participating in ECER is important in terms of gaining access to EU funding streams which will allow us to go on doing research. The European contacts and projects are a bread and butter issue. They allow us to keep doing what we do. If we can maintain our links with colleagues in Europe we can actively apply for European funding. In fact, I would say ECER as a conference is now more important than it ever was because Europe is in crisis. It is undergoing massive changes and what collaboration among educational researchers can provide in that situation is important. ECER is a top priority conference for me in this respect.

What interaction do you have with the various organisational levels of ECER?

I do not have much interaction with other levels of the organization beyond my home network. I know the council is there, I can see what they are doing and I can see its impact on the network structure. Consequently, I can understand the EERA structure though the network lens but I do not really understand or know much about the operation of the structure as a whole. I do not even feel that I need to. On the other hand, the network structure is vital to me. Being part of the European network on ethnography makes a very significant contribution to my professional life as a researcher. As a network convenor, doing the reviewing which I always enjoy has helped me get the feeling of what is happening across Europe. It gives me the feeling for the standards of research and the differences in research cultures. I have got a greater knowledge what is happening in the field, and I have developed a greater knowledge of the themes that preoccupy people. I think there is a sense of collaboration where people are prepared to work with each other. Senior academics across Europe clearly welcome quite junior academics on an equal basis. That is what I have found at ECER all the time. People genuinely seem to wish to support each other and to develop ideas. There isn’t an off-putting  sense of competitiveness as can be the case at some conferences.

In general, I tend to stay around my own network. I feel that my primary practical responsibility during ECER is to support the discussions and processes around the network that I am closest to. I think it is a bit of a double-edged thing. Sometimes I might see a very interesting presentation in another network but feel I have to be loyal to discussions within my own network. There might be a young researcher starting out and I feel that it is really necessary to be in my own network, to be available to support and encourage them. Educational ethnography is my primary professional identity. So I am committed to try to ensure that ethnography as a methodology flourishes in European research. Therefore I feel that the best thing I can do is both to listen to research done by experienced people within my network but also extend our network hospitality to those presenting ethnographic work for the first time. So I stay around my network and I feel comfortable with that. That seems ok with me.

In the broadest sense, what are the benefits of ECER?

For me, the benefits of ECER are many but there is one aspect that I haven’t really developed in our conversation yet. As I said, attending ECER enables me to think of myself as a European. What I mean by that – and this is a deeply personal aspect – relates to the fact that my father fought against Nazism in France in the Second World War and was a prisoner of war for three years. His brother, my namesake, was killed in action in the Netherlands. They both fought for a civilized, democratic Europe in which lives are lived in peace and mutual respect and the scourge of fascism is removed. The fact that I am able to call myself European and think of my research as European research rather than just British research is really important because it links what I do to the sacrifices that my father and his brother (and many millions of others) made. Europe means a great deal to me, and the fact that I am a European researcher working with colleagues from across Europe helps me make sense of those painful losses.

Boundary Work, Education and Design

Following on from my last post on Political Design and Social Change I wanted to write something about doing or at least planning interdisciplinary research. I recently participated at a conference on interdisciplinarity at the University of Manchester so I’ve been thinking about disciplinarity and cognate terms. Although, apparently the new thing is trans-disciplinarity and the mixing and melding of different disciplines to produce new approaches to research and knowledge.  Also, Sylvie Allendyke asked me to share my experiences of my interdisciplinary entanglements, and it didn’t feel too much like homework, so…

I guess a first thing to admit is that I don’t really have a discipline. My undergraduate degree was in psychology (apathy and torpor), and since then I’ve done degrees in development studies, politics and then in education. So I don’t really have a firm grounding to multi/ inter/ trans from.  My lack of grounding means that I’m not working towards a complete mastery of a specific domain or sub-domain of knowledge – indeed if that is possible – and so I have the constant anxiety of not having read all the books, not having done all the required/ assumed reading.

In my recent engagement with exploring social design, I’ve found the usual benefits of working across boundaries. In this post I’d like to focus on the recurrent findings in tensions and omissions in knowledge work.  As an example of these tensions I draw on Robert Cox’s and Max Horkheimer’s delineation between problem-solving and critical theory. I’ll blog about this another time but the basic idea is that the purpose of problem-solving theory is to accept and operate within the parameters of the problematic that serve the hegemonic interest. The purpose of critical theory is to question the parameters and produce a ‘perspective on perspectives… from which the problematic becomes one of creating an alternative world’ (Cox 1981). The interesting thing for me is that in this distinction is that there are a whole host of jobs performing particular problem-solving functions that work with the sectional interests of the hegemony, from accountants and economists to academics and potentially designers.

I see the 15 Below Jacket as illustrative of the potential problems of design becoming a problem-solving technology when applied to complex social problems. A collaborative project between Steve Mykolyn and Lida Baday, the 15 Below Jacket is a solution to people sleeping rough in cities such as Toronto and dying due to the cold.  The jacket is designed so that its lining can be stuffed by newspaper as a cheap and effective solution to make a sufficiently insulating coat.  The product of the trendy and the fabulous the project is funded by a celebrity auction with a stellar set of luminaries from REM to Heidi Klum and the cast of the Jon Stewart Show.

Screen shot 2014-02-04 at 16.26.16

It is important to recognise that this is something that will save lives and do a lot more for homeless people than I ever will. Also, the makers of the coat are clear, “Our approach to solving problems – of any sort – has always been to question convention. This won’t eliminate homelessness, but it can make a lot of people more comfortable.” (Paul Lavoie, co-founder, chairman, and chief creative officer of TAXI)

The project feels more problem solving than critical ‘theory’ or engagement to me.  Again, a life saved is a great thing but where does it take us?  Should we be happier when it’s safer for people to sleep rough in the bitter cold?  Perhaps more importantly, what happens when we stack up the many attempts to redesign services for the elderly, disabled and poor?  No doubt these improve people’s lives and well being, providing measurable improvements on patient satisfaction questionnaires.  The smart and focused projects for, for example, tele-health or expert patient schemes are no doubt impressive and attractively marketed but are these “the type of change we need?” (TradeMark) Does this shift all causes into a market place where the cute, niche and marketed oust the standard, boring and everywhere social issues we face?

There are people working in design who are interested in using design practices in line with critical purposes, such as Blyth and Kimbell 2011,

We argue that Design has to reclaim the value that it places on making social problems visible, understandable and graspable, reminiscent of the stance of earlier generations of designers such as Victor Papanek who saw their work as a kind of social activism. This refocuses Design from being principally about problem-solving, to being involved, crucially, in how problems are framed and shared. In a context in which designers are now being invited in to help solve complex, messy problems with high social impacts, this means Design has the potential to play an important role in making issues public.

It is this type of design that we hope to explore in the Political Design and Social Change project.  The interesting thing in design for me is the recurrent challenge of how to engage, to change things for the better?  There is much we in education can learn from design practices, especially those of us who prefer to critique and add questions rather than seek to improve by 1 or 2% a particular metric of learning within the existing framework. So if we seek to engage perhaps design is something we can learn from.  Design is however in effect the quintessential problem-solving technology, whether this makes it necessarily problem-solving theory in the Coxian sense is not so cut and dried but I would think so.

I’ve been influenced by a quote that I thought was Bertrand Russell but I can’t track it down so who knows where it came from? It is, if you keep the [analytical] categories then you maintain the status quo.  Thus if you are seeking to improve or change something then you have to account for both the lineage of your thinking and the stuff of that which you are engaging with.  I think the issue with design is that there is a potential for it to keep much of the biases, assumptions and lenses from its industrial origins and within the technologies, processes and organisational relationships that it is seeking to change.

Bit of a damp squib ending but I need to think more about this.

James Duggan


Challenging the Tyranny of No Alternative – Martin Mills

On January 22nd Prof Martin Mills (University of Queensland, Australia) gave a fascinating insight into Australia’s educational system that for the most part was all too recognisable. The title of the talk was ‘Challenging the “tyranny of no alternative” and students working towards socially just schooling.’  After a mention of Margaret Thatcher’s TINA (There is No Alternative), Martin explained how in his research he seeks out alternatives and uses the voice of teachers and students to provoke discussion on the potential of really existing alternatives to the system.

Alternatives to…? What Pasi Sahlberg calls GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement) and the neoliberalisation of educational systems.  Accountability systems and various metrics are used to compare like schools with like and Australia with other countries through PISA and Timms.  League tables and comparisons instil a competitive mind set in which we seem to fight for our rank rather than re-considering our position, a distributive rather a re-distributive lens.  The consequences are familiar.  The hang ‘em and flog ‘em mentality gets applied equally and without contradiction to failing teachers, permissive social workers, uneducable children and feckless parents; leading to boot camps and troops for teachers rather than considering how societies assign resources or organise service?

It is in this context that we see a rise of interest alternative educational provision. We are all used to the stories in the UK where academies exclude pupils to improve their figures (see for example here here here here here).  The removal of pupils from mainstream to alternative education has rightly been seen as a hugely problematic practice.  Martin described how teachers and head teachers of non-mainstream schools labelled the excluded children as ‘rubbish’.  Drawing on Bauman, Martin linked the labelling and removal of pupils as rubbish in terms of the waste production in technical processes where waste is the bi-product and the product is shipped out of the front-door in lorries with corporate logos and the junk is taken from the back door at night.  Schools in a similar way have posters affixed to fences that advertise the number of 5 A-Cs achieved to prospective parents but the number of excluded pupils is forgotten.  The removal of the problem children is unremarked, as they are pushed out into other more suitable provision.

All of this we know. The hope that keeps many of us going is that there is an alternative yet we’re not quite sure of what this might be.  Martin along with Becky Francis attempted to produce a special issue of educational alternatives but found that authors struggled to identify what these alternatives might be. (Read the special issue here.)  Mills sees this work as part of a strategic response to the ‘dictatorship of no alternative’ (Fielding and Moss 2011), statements of realistic utopianism (Fraser 2009) or envisioning real utopias (Wright 2010).

The rest of the talk focused on Mills’ work exploring alternative school provision – flexi-schools and democratic schools – drawing on Nancy Fraser’s three forms of injustice: economic, cultural and political. None of these institutions were perfect.  There were fee-paying democratic schools that provided political inclusion to pupils but (at least in principle) excluded on the basis of economic injustice and the inability to pay. What they seemed to share were the principles of flexibility, respect, relationships, curriculum, extra support, and a commitment to social justice.

Lovely as it was to hear of alternatives to mainstream education, many in the audience were uncomfortable about particular dimensions of alternative education.  Was excluding pupils from mainstream to alternative education a way of maintaining the problems of the mainstream?  What kind of alternative did these schools enable pupils to enjoy when these were still were still essentially schools that in the main aimed to prepare students for work?  As Martin commented, these schools are for the disengaged pupils but we should think of these children as disenfranchised and failed by a system that needs wide-scale reform.

I’m always intrigued when politicians justify privatisation by saying something like ‘we will take the public sector’s skills in probity and the private sector’s flair for innovation’ presenting the view that there is no contradiction. In Martin’s talk we heard that as you make schools like businesses – within the context of systems of performance, accountability and competition – then they treat children as the focus of the industrial process and product. One of businesses great ‘successes’ is the internalisation of profit and the externalisation of social and environmental costs onto society. Here we see schools celebrating the achievement of getting some children good grades, and bravo, but the ones that are not performing are treated like rubbish, removed and pushed out like pollution onto the community and society. The curious fact is that the places these kids go to seem so good.  The issue perhaps then is not the children that are excluded but the ones that bump along in mainstream schools, suffering from an unreformed system but not experiencing, at least in Australia, a supportive environment in which they can flourish.

James Duggan