Is this a workshop you would race to attend? What interests you? What does it lack? How do you react to it?
Virtual Community, Collectives, and Play:
The New Culture of Learning
The Reverend Clint Schnekloth
ELCA Youth Extravaganza
New Orleans, February 2012
At the beginning of our time together, I invite you to enter an imaginative space with me. Consider this possibility, that participation in the Extravaganza, and in this workshop, in fact even participation in the ELCA Youth Ministry Network, is a form of gaming. Consider.
First, the network itself is an example of “crowdsourcing.” Crowdsourcing is inviting a large group of people to cooperatively tackle a big project… outsourcing a job to a crowd. The network has as its goal to empower and strengthen adult youth ministry leaders in service to Christ. It does this through networking youth ministry leaders serving and supporting each other. As one example, I’m here of my own free will, non-stipendiary, to conduct this workshop. All the other workshop leaders have also been crowdsourced. As have a majority of the youth leaders who plan the Extravaganza and serve in various volunteer capacities with the ELCA Youth Ministry Network.
Second, and this is more a psychological theory, when you came to this Extravaganza, you came as an avatar. You are in all likelihood not exactly the same person you are in other contexts—with your youth, in your church, in your family. Here at the Extravaganza, you are the avatar you have selected to represent yourself in this social constructed environment, in New Orleans, at a conference with other youth leaders. Some of our avatars are quite a bit like the avatars we put on in other places. Some others of us “present” quite a bit different here than elsewhere.
Third, our whole system of workshops is itself a complicated form of gaming. You had a map, and a schedule, and you are finding your way around this hotel seeking out workshop experiences that will gain you experience points you hope will level you up to new levels of ministry when you return home. Attend the right workshop, and you’ll go from being a level 12 youth leader to level 14. Level 14 comes with a brand new cross bow and extra healing spells.
Within this particular workshop, we are gaming according to certain rules. Some workshops have an open, Minecraft-like feel (build whatever you want, wherever). This particular workshop is more directed. You have some imaginative freedom, but I’ve selected a lecture format to walk us through some new territory that, Myst-like, might be difficult to navigate if left to the complete discretion of the whole.
The Extravaganza is a good game world. It attracts a large number of participants because of the play area (New Orleans), the various collaborative and networking possibilities, and its existence as a kind of “built environment” with lectures, worship, meals, and workshops. The E also has good game mechanics, with variety and flow and open space to roam and explore and chill. Aspects of the E allow for great control over the environment, such as the early Intensives on offer. The mechanics could be improved if there were some kind of real pay-off for attendance, like earning academic credit hours… but perhaps that is available and its simply a part of the game mechanics I haven’t discovered yet. Finally, the E has (and this is its greatest selling point) great game community. There’s plenty of space for positive social interaction and a meaningful context for collective effort.
Early drafts of this lecture began with arguments for why youth workers and church leaders should game. I thought winsome and compelling narratives of the difference gaming makes might draw you into the gaming world. I assumed, “Youth workers are missionaries. They’re up for being sent into new cultural contexts and venues.” In addition, my early lecture plans included the goal of disabusing hearers of their patronizing and ill-informed judgments against virtual worlds and the gaming culture. Think of this as a dual strategy of invitation and attack.
Then I started inviting people to participate with me in daily prayer on Second Life. To date, the only person I’ve successfully convinced to create an avatar and meet me at St. Matthew’s-by-the-Sea for Compline is my brother, who I think, though in some ways curious, participated under a bit of filial duress. Over time, I’ve learned that very, very few pastors and church leaders inhabit digital virtual worlds, and in fact most pastors and church leaders have some rather obdurate and steadfast reasons for not inhabiting those worlds (not enough time, boundary issues, not tech savvy, not a high priority, just don’t get it, that’s silly, it’s not real community, and so on).
All of which forced me to reconsider my opening gambit. Since I am convinced, radically convinced, that ministry in digital virtual contexts is an essential next step in pastoral and youth ministry, I had to find some way both to attract participants to a workshop on the topic, and keep you here and interested for an hour. Even more radically, I’d like to build a cohort of ELCA youth leaders who would entertain the possibility of doing cooperative ministry in some of these virtual frontiers.
Hence the World of Workshop imaginative meditation I made use of at the beginning… If the likelihood of convincing you to travel to virtual digital worlds is slim, the next best inception I could accomplish is to come game in your real world and make you doubt, at least a bit, whether your reality is as real as you think—even better, to convince you that you are gaming all the time, whether you recognize it or not. You inhabit an avatar, you inhabit various avatars, you put on different skins for different virtual worlds, and then you play in that world and with that character. I’m not taking you to the game. I’m bringing the game to you.
If I can convince you of at least this much, then I have brought virtual community out of its cave and into the every day, and perhaps that will mean by the end of this lecture you might entertain the (admittedly still foreign notion) that digital virtual worlds are not nearly as far away and strange as they seem, and they are much more every day than we might think.
Here’s how we will proceed. I am going to walk us through four popular and accessible games, and after describing the game briefly for those unfamiliar with the game, I will draw out one or two key insights into the new culture of learning indicated by these games. All four games are digital, virtual worlds. There are so many games out there that I had to limit this survey, so I followed the rule that I was aiming for massively multiplayer environments that are played by a wide variety of players, games I am personally familiar with, and games people I know personally play. I will walk through these four games in approximately the order of age group that plays them. Minecraft is popular with younger (though not exclusively younger) youth. World of Warcraft is more a high school and college age phenomenon. Second Life is especially a world of young adults transitioning into middle age. Everybody is on Facebook (which isn’t a game—and yet it is).
I. Minecraft (Shared sandbox):
II. World of Warcraft (communal norms and narrative):
III. Second Life (Worship):
IV. Facebook (???)
[mine bibliographic resources, see below, and weave key concepts into the analysis of each game]
Blascovich, Jim and Jeremy Bailenson. Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New
Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA:
The MIT Press, 2010.
Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From Production to Produsage.
New York: Peter Lang, 2008
Burgess, Jean and Joshua Green. Youtube: Online Video and Participatory Culture.
Cambridge: Polity. 2009.
Campbell, Heidi. Exploring Religious Community Online: We Are One in the Network.
New York: Peter Lang. 2005.
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York:
W. W. Norton. 2008.
Detweiler, Craig. Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God. Louisville, KY:
Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Doctorow, Cory. Makers. New York: Tor, 2010.
Estes, Douglas. SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World. Grand Rapids, MI:
Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy.
Second Edition. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Gibson, William. Distrust This Particular Flavor. Putnam Adult, 2012.
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York
University Press, 2006.
Thomas, Douglas and John Seely Brown. A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the
Imagination for a World of Constant Change. Self-published, 2011.
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from
Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
Games Mentioned in this Lecture
Minecraft. http://www.minecraft.net A quirky low-res environment that seems almost like an exact mashup of Second Life and Legos. The building process is like Legos, the gaming is like the openness of Second Life. Like a big digital sandbox (with a bit of World of Warcraft tossed in)
Second Life. http://secondlife.com (accessed January 16, 2012). A completely open virtual world created by its users. Not exactly a game, it is an actual virtual world. Always free to play, but you need to purchase Linden dollars if you want to own real estate, etc.
World of Warcraft. http://us.battle.net/wow/en/ (accessed January 31, 2012). Still the largest MMORPG on the web, a vast gaming universe with over 12,000,000 active subscribers (who pay a monthly fee of about $15 to play the game on-line). Free to play to level 20, with some limitations.
 For an approach to Wikipedia as a gaming environment, which is the inspiration for this introduction, see Jennifer McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin Press, 2011), 230.