Time, Play, and Literacy

1.What’s in this title?

Three key words. Three words which means our first stop on this literacy journey is Richard Ohmann.

  1. Why is time so important?

Ohmann takes his reader on a journey back in time: “By coincidence–or maybe not–the term ‘literacy’ came into use roughly at the beginning of the epoch of monopoly capital. A word about the transformation I have in mind: in the mid- and late-nineteenth century, competitive capitalism ran its energetic course, building a huge industrial system with unparalleled speed.” (702)

This idea of speed and time surfaces again in Gifford Brooke’s “New Media” chapter in A Guide to Composition Pedagogies: “Making space in our classrooms for this kind of work [new media] requires us to negotiate among the different pace implied by our institutions and our technologies, and this can mean preparing our students to move with ease from ‘class time’ to ‘Internet time'” (182).

This idea of time is further expanded (or is exploded a better metaphorical term here?) by Anne Frances Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola in “Blinded by the Letter: Why are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?”:

“Begin here, in a linear flow of text that suggests a flow of time, by imagining what                 literacy might be if we conceived it primarily as a spatial relation to information. Although literacy has long been bound up with spaces (consider the geopolitical stories in the bundles we discussed above/earlier, for example), literacy changes profoundly if we choose to prioritize space over time.” (731)

“In one way of looking, then, this is not just about privileging space over time, but  about time and space collapsing into each other…and if we can work as though times does not ration out what we can do, then we can work as though space doesn’t either: with new communication technologies, space, like information, can become less something we experience and more something we simply work with/in, making creative connections and reconnections.” (733)

“Making creative connections and reconnections” is perhaps how I have always tried to define writing. I like to write because I like to make connections, and I have heard myself tell many classes, “As a writer, your job is to connect the dots, whatever the dots may be.”

For me, writing has (mainly) been a fun challenge, an opportunity to play (with language, with ideas). And I think this foundation of play is why I, despite my complicated relationship with technology, am continually drawn to the field of Computers and Writing.

Last semester, I was in a group project where we presented on the field of Computers and Writing. The idea of play kept coming up over and over and over in the literature.  Thus, in the spirit of play, we decided to use Twitter as our presentation medium to reflect that play. (If you want to learn a little more about the field from some non-experts from last semester, check out the report by starting at #GradScholFieldReportCW)

  1. Who can play?

First, an excerpt from my Graduate Scholarship paper from last semester:

“In Play, Playfulness, Creativity, and Innovation, Patrick Bateson, an expert on the development of behavior, and Paul Martin, a behavioral biologist, maintain that play leads to creativity, which in turn can lead to innovation, although it is not necessarily a natural progression. Bateson and Martin explain, ‘Creativity is displayed when an individual develops a novel form of behaviour or a novel idea, regardless of its practical uptake and subsequent application. Innovation means implementing a novel form of behaviour or an idea in order to obtain a practical benefit which is then adopted by others’ (3).”

Second, “innovation” seems to be a ubiquitously popular buzzword lately, or at least in the education articles I am reading.  However, I cannot help but wonder who is allowed to play. Who gets to experiment in the classrooms? This question reminds me of Ann Johns article when she talks about experts in a discourse community pushing back and of Peter Elbow “Inviting the Mother Tongue” into the classroom and finding his students wrote adventurously (which I read as they played with norms, with conventions).

But again, I ask the question, who gets to play? Who gets to innovate? Who has that access?

  1. What does literacy mean?

Anne Frances Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola  ask their readers to think critically about literacy and all the “bundles.” In an early “bundle” from a small sampling of literacy promises, they noted: “It is thus a large but not unruly bundle that comes with ‘literacy’: John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, the taming of the U.S. west, democracy, an upgraded workforce, less welfare dependency, our forms of production and social organization, science, and philosophy” (720).

Literacy sounds like the answer to the world’s problems from that angle. But is literacy the answer to the world’s problems?  Doubtful. (Although most assuredly helpful in the process)

What is literacy even?

In a conversation in a teacher’s lounge halfway across the state a few years back, I remember having a conversation with my former colleague who had just been to a conference.

“What did you take away from the conference?” I asked.

“Today’s literacy,” she said, “is to be able to learn, unlearn, and to learn again.”

That sounds a little (or a lot) like play to me.

Bateson, Patrick and Paul Martin. Play, Playfulness, Creativity, and InnovationCambridge:   Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.


7 thoughts on “Time, Play, and Literacy

  1. Also, I would note, based on my readings for my master’s paper, play is quite dangerous activity. Why might that be the case? I started from play as fun, but the more investigation that I conducted on the topic, the less fun seemed to factor into my thoughts about play. Especially once play enters the realm of the Real (yes, capital ‘r’).

    For example, I have been considering the role of “hackathons” because they figured prominently in the latest issue of NY Times Education Life: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/education/edlife/the-hackathon-fast-track-from-campus-to-silicon-valley.html?ref=edlife&_r=0

    I find what makes play dangerous is the ease with which the activity can be appropriated. Play tends toward competition, as the hackathons demonstrate. What starts as “screwmeneutics” — to use Stephan Ramsay’s expression for ‘screwing around to learn’ — can devolve into pressure (time) driven experiences.


    For example, most of my computer skills were honed (and often ‘exposed’) in programming competitions. Most of my work experiences involved an internal competition among project teams. Play as a pretext for vetting individuals. The motif is quite common, right? Hunger Games. Ender’s Game. Battle Royale. The Glass Bead Game. The Master of Go. Summer Wars. Ready Player One. I could continue — Luka and the Fire of Life (the novel for my master’s paper). Need we venture into NCAA athletics as well?

    If we read Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster, we find the motif started with ‘homo ludens’ as proposed by Johan Huizinga: people at their best when immersed in activity separated from the quotidian. But, when we read Jesper Juul and Half-Real or most Ian Bogost writings, we notice the vulnerability people have to drift toward consumption only — for the nerds reading, always a player never a dungeon master; for the sports fans, always the athlete never the coach (not the best analogy…). I am suspicious of play.


    • Your suspicion is duly noted and warranted but can we perhaps push back against the conflation of play with competition? Now I’m thinking of Pandemic, the game of collaborative problem solving. I think the warping ever toward competition may be part of our patriarchal culture, as competition is highly masculinized (which is not to say that women cannot be or are not competitive but rather that men are persistently and even perniciously socialized to competition. But I take Erica’s play to be a more benign and open kind of play that is about openness for as long as we can keep it. That said, I don’t think “innovation” as a touchstone is about play in our culture. That one’s about competition.


      • I find it interesting that Pandemic has alternative win conditions designed for individual characters within the team, which contributes to the epidemiology motif in certain ways — we work together but incentives exist for my character to approach the problem in this manner, how do I min-max that approach given the group configuration.

        Players v environment is quite common in many game experiences. I find it interesting how aggressive the environment (the spread of diseases, the changing of the board, the growth of a dragon, the introduction of another attacking wave of creatures) is often portrayed. I realize that mechanic is necessary to propel activity in the game but I find the more arbitrary the mechanic, the more collaborative the game, and the more structured the mechanic, the less collaborative the game. I wonder if this design has something to say about our response to uncertainty. For competition to work, strong structures (not necessarily fair, balanced ones) are necessary — this premise (deterministic systems) is what permits game theory to exist as a field of mathematics. I need to re-visit some of the writings about cooperation in those systems. This is intriguing for me.


    • Matt, thanks for an alternative view of “play.”

      Three things come to mind after reading your comment:
      1. “The dangers in life are infinite, and among them is safety.” -Goethe

      2. It is good to be critical of anything taken to the extreme. Balance (coupled with reflection) seems to be a key. However, I keep coming back to the idea that perhaps people take “play” to the extreme because it is so stifled/squelched in institutions.

      3. I am a fan of having boundaries. Certain limits are healthy, and play does definitely need limits.


      • In regards to (1), it seems Goethe is more libertarian than I recall, I always thought the bargain showed that regulations were devilish, or some such allusion. That, or he anticipated the financial instruments to ‘guard’ against market volatility — which resulted in the crash of 2008. If the danger is everywhere, we’re safe if we allocate risks across investments then re-pack them with mortgages, thanks Black and Scholes and Merton! (congrats if you follow the allusion without searching on Wikipedia). Safety is a fantasy. Find how you can be anti-fragile — crack but not break, and know how to perform regular maintenance rather than find patches.

        I think (2) has some interesting possibilities. How would you expand on “However, I keep coming back to the idea that perhaps people take “play” to the extreme because it is so stifled/squelched in institutions”. Are you purposefully (or inadvertently) alluding to the differences between rules and affordances? I never quite understood the distinction but your comment sent my thoughts toward the debate which seems to be more than equivocation.


  2. Erica’s discussion of play brings me back to the realm of fanfiction, as seems to happen more and more often lately with the readings and blog posts for this class. I’m thinking in particular about “Why Heather Can Write: Media Literacy and the Harry Potter Wars” by Henry Jenkins, an article that highlights consumer participation in the Harry Potter franchise through writing fanfiction. Perhaps this article comes to mind because of the ever-looming term “literacy” in the title, “media literacy” no less. Potentially problematic term aside, Jenkins’ article focuses on the usefulness of play (outside of traditional education) to help students/young writers better hone their literacy skills in relation to writing itself as well as reading, media usage, and more.

    In this case, Jenkins would likely argue that ANYONE is allowed to play, to get back to one of Erica’s questions. I find it likely that he would also say that literacy (however loaded the term may be) means becoming acquainted with any form of communication. He would likely define it in this way because much of his work is focused on media and technology literacy which, I would definitely agree, are both closely linked with the concept of play. So Jenkins would quite possibly qualify literacy as play, just as Erica has in this blog post.

    Before reading this blog post, I can’t say if I would have agreed that literacy can be defined in such a way. However, after taking into account Erica’s original post and the resulting discussion (particularly thinking about Pandemic as play and considering the various forms of literacy are required in order to play such a game effectively), I believe play is an excellent metaphor for literacy. This metaphor seems to fit in with the reconception suggested by Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola, which is “about figuring out how we all are where we are, and about how we all participate in making these spaces and the various selves we find here” (735). This new definition they come up with seems to fit in with the idea of play quite nicely.


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