Of Playing and Learning

The reason I am competent at using computers these days is because I was lucky enough to have my very own computer from age fourteen. It was not an expensive machine, nor was it powerful, but it was mine. Having it was liberating, because it means if something went wrong with the software, only I suffered. That meant that I had freedom to mess around. Play with settings, see what happened when I changed things, tweak hardware. I installed and uninstalled whatever I wanted. This is also how I encourage others to learn computers. Its not that I am lazy, I just honestly think they will be better by trying it themselves J

In this post I will give three examples of where playing with computers has lead to a deep understanding of a variety of different tools.


Example One – Networking

When people these days meet up to network together (in a computer network sense), they will usually do it where there is Wi-Fi or internet already available. This is because to find such a space is not a difficult task. Schools, cafes, homes all will have some sort of networking set up and ready to go. This was not however always the case.

Computer Club - Year 2000 ish.

Computer Club – Year 2000 ish.

Back when I was learning the ropes of ‘modern computers’ (modular systems with mouse and keyboard) one of the things that were very important was the network card. These days it is mostly incorporated with a motherboard, but back in 1999 they were individual units, albeit easy and cheap to buy. The network card was important only if you were meeting up with friends (you would use a modem for the internet), and they came in a few different flavours:

In computer club we started (age fourteen) with the former and ended with the latter (four years later). We had to build our own network based upon which network cards we had. Sometimes we used one type, sometimes another depending upon who had shown up that week.

I learned the intricacies of how this all worked and why when I was about fourteen years old. I had no teacher except my friends of the same age. There was no Internet connection at computer club and so we did rely on each other to learn. I learned this same knowledge again, eight years later on a senior honours computing course at the University of Edinburgh. Through necessity, and because of the outcome we wanted (usually to play Quake II) we learned university level material in our spare time without a teacher. It wasn’t simple, but we were motivated to do it.


Quake II

Out of that same necessity we also learned how to tweak windows and install hardware into our computers, because computer shops were (and still are) expensive and we could only afford to buy the hardware. We did all software installations and tweaks ourselves for similar reasons. Essentially we had learned a professional skill at the same time as trying to shoot one another in Quake II.


Example Two – Recording my hobbies

The biggest gaming time sink of my life has been World of Warcraft (WoW). WoW is an MMORPG (Massively multiplayer Online Role Playing Game). It is part of a genre of game which have enormous open worlds where you do whatever you want. My favorite part of WoW was raiding, where you needed anywhere between 10 and 40 players to defeat a being of great power. The video below demonstrates this.


To bring you that video I learned how to use Windows Movie Maker and FRAPS Screen Recorder. It was my first Youtube! upload. I learned a little about what is good and what is not so good in video production. I did it for no reason other than it might be fun, and I really only used those skills again one or two times since. I know however if I need to make a video, the basic process of doing so.


Example Three – Music Sharing

The last example I will give, I have no idea where and how it started. Somehow, in the early days of media sharing with applications such as Napster, I heard of an American musician called Weird Al Yankovic.

Weird Al Yankovic

Weird Al Yankovic

To this day I listen to Weird Al, and my Weird Al Yankovic fan site was one of my first serious websites that I ever made. Here, the internet was my guide. The ability to play and explore the online world lead to interests I still utilize today in my professional life.


All of this was just me and my friends messing about with things we got interested in. Learning was a byproduct of us trying to reach a goal, and I suppose we didn’t really think of it as learning like we would have done in school. The points made in the MacArthur Foundation paper about messing about with computers all end with children learning – however inadvertent. To reach the goal or nurture the passion they learn from the internet, on their own through trial and error, or by asking their friends.

When I try to put this concept in the context of my own classroom I wonder if the same outcomes I expect can be learned just by students doing. I do struggle with how Newtons Laws can be taught in a similarly invested way to a mixed class of 20 students. Possibly the right stimulus is not there yet. This will form the basis of my course one project, and in the coming weeks I will start to develop my mechanics module for teaching during August (A link to the blog post for course one project will be here!).

2 thoughts on “Of Playing and Learning

  1. You make some great observations about play and learning. I am on a bit of a play and learning vision quest myself. After attending the Learning2 conference in Poland this year I have been reading a number of different articles about play and learning and how it facilitates making connections in our brains. Check out a few of these articles if you get a chance. https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0ByKHug11jiCBN1hCbWpVTFhaRWc
    The Spielgaben comparison is particularly interesting.

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