Affinity Spaces: What Video Games and Virtual PLNs Can Teach Educators About Informal Learning

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On any given night, you can find my children (grades 5 & 9) along with millions of others, playing video games. From Fortnite, to Minecraft, to Roblox; many hours are logged in these virtual spaces playing… and also learning. The learning taking place is not necessarily organized by specific disciplines but instead, a collective intelligence which blends content knowledge, creative problem solving, design thinking, along with collaborating and communicating with peers around the globe.

This informal learning is similar to my own when I think about jumping on Twitter to connect, consume, and share with other passionate educators, my virtual PLN. So what can we learn from video games, #EdChat, and other virtual spaces? All of these spaces include similar characteristics that James Paul Gee calls Affinity Spaces. While technology has led to an explosion of these spaces, they are possible to replicate face to face although it is difficult because, “institutional constraints, pre-existing status, geographical boundaries. A Classroom where students did not choose to be there and the teacher grades everyone.”

As educators, the goal is not for everyone to use video games in the classroom, but instead, understand the features of Affinity Spaces and work towards creating similar conditions in our classroom.

 15 Features of Affinity Spaces (by Gee)

  1. Organized around a common passion – A common passion, not race, gender, or socioeconomics, is primary and respected by all in the space.
  2. Not segregated by age – Older people can be beginners and younger people can be veterans. Passion, skill, and learning are respected
  3. Common space shared by all (Newbies, Veterans, Masters, etc.) – Everyone is accommodated in the same space. Newbies are not segregated from those that are considered masters of the game.
  4. Everyone can consume and create – Affinity spaces allow everyone to consume not only game-based creations but those created by players in the space. Consuming and creating are encouraged to allow everyone to build if they choose to.
  5. Content is transformed through interaction – The content is not fixed and constantly is transformed through interaction.
  6. Development and pooled broad, general knowledge as well as specialists – People are enabled to create and share knowledge and skill within the space.
  7. Individual and distributed knowledge encouraged – People are enabled to gain individual knowledge and share and spread specialized knowledge.
  8. Use of dispersed knowledge is encouraged (hacking and smashing to gain the desired product) The use of onsite and outside resources and tools is encouraged and supported to gain the creations people seek.
  9. Tacit knowledge is used and honored – Affinity spaces support people to learn by doing rather than memorizing tutorials or reading lengthy directions.
  10. Many different ways to participate – Participation in the space is varied and on multiple levels.
  11. Multiple ways to gain status – People can gain status, if they want to, in many different ways.
  12. Leadership is porous and leaders are resources – There are no bosses. People can be both leaders and followers.
  13. Roles are reciprocal – People sometimes lead, sometimes follow; mentor or be mentored; ask questions or answer them. The bottom line is there is always more to learn.
  14. Learning is individually proactive -Affinity spaces view failure as a means to success. Help is available, but individuals are still responsible for own learning.
  15. Encouragement from audience and feedback from peers – Feedback is welcomed from others interacting with your creations, while peers play an important role in providing critical advice to move individuals forward.

While all of these features are not required, an Affinity Space has most of these features. And upon reflection, most of the popular video games that our students play have these features. That is why we have students, and in my case children, who play hours on end. I, too, see some of these features in the spaces I spend my time as an educator. It is time to pay attention to attributes that make this type of learning successful for students and ask ourselves how these features can be reimagined in our own classrooms. Education is not merely producing consumers but those that can create and produce for the betterment of their space.

Source: Gee, James Paul. Literacy and Education. New York: Routledge, 2015.

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