The Interdisciplinary Game

This summer I am part of a teaching discussion built around the book Good Video Games and Good Learning by James Paul Gee. By luck, during our first meeting in a common space of the student union, we started discussing World of Warcraft. None of us were experts there, but a student overheard us and came up and introduced himself. Turns out, he was a guild leader. He subsequently joined the group, providing plenty of gaming insight.

We had our second meeting yesterday, and our WoW student made the following point: in video games, there is progressive learning, so that you are still using some of the same principles in the end game as you learned in the beginning. These principles often extend throughout the differing domains and challenges of the game. Oftentimes, the repeated iterations and feedback of the game help the gamer develop an ever firmer grasp of those principles. But in most learning, students don’t get that sort of feedback—they get one or two shots, and then they move onto the next thing.

Some of us responded how, as teachers, how we’ve incorporated feedback and revisions and the like into our teaching strategies. And I said that, in principle, faculty in departments do sit down and discuss some of the basic core capacities they want students to have, and create a progression of expertise from introductory to high-level classes. But I was struck at the same time how difficult this same process can be for people attempting to create interdisciplinary approaches.

There is the obvious institutional side—disciplines have histories and sets of standards and expectations, and people who have gone through the process of formation themselves, and the ability to set their own agendas of teaching and learning. Any interdisciplinary effort works against all those social and intellectual structures already in place. However, institutes like the New Humanities Initiative can help provide a critical institutional space to help get people in conversation.

I was struck yesterday that the cognitive or learning challenge is the greater of the two. Institutes are easy to create. But a coherent set of learning principles that can be applied from introductory to expert situations, with a set of individuals who can agree on how and what needs to be debated to get students properly trained in a new type of thinking? Wow, that’s difficult—and a distinct challenge to anything we might try to propose here at Neuroanthropology.

As I’ve discussed previously, most people will come to the interdisciplinary conversation ready to defend the value of their specific piece of turf, their tree in the forest, their particular side of the debate. They won’t sit down to discuss the basic learning principles that they want students to get. They won’t come together to design a new game.

And that’s a problem, because without doing that, they won’t create the framework to generate a new social history. They’ll remain with an institute or a program, but not make a new discipline with history and people and expectations.

I am not sure what the learning principles and core expertise of neuroanthropology would look like, or how I would design it as a game. Oh, I have some familiar themes, such as “experience, behavior, and context” and a changed sense of individuality, which also require changes in concepts about evolution, psychology, and culture. Or a similar four themes outlined recently using New York Times articles. But my wending piece is probably a better representative for where I am at, piecemeal, in a space between, with some direction but plenty of confusion. As Dave Matthews sings:

The Space Between
The wicked lies we tell
And hope to keep safe from the pain

But will I hold you again?
These fickle, fuddled words confuse me
Like ‘Will it rain today?’
Waste the hours with talking, talking
These twisted games we’re playing

We’re strange allies
With warring hearts
What wild-eyed beast you be
The Space Between

If I had to try to design it like a game, maybe I’d turn to my analysis of Grand Theft Auto (which, in the end, had nothing to do with the game, just with my way of thinking about the world): gameplay matters, a story and a convincing world matters, a set of problems and challenges matters, and getting that all to work together matters.

What’s the gameplay? I happen to like synergistic mixed-methods ethnography focused on people and experience, behavior and contexts. On getting the data to at least know what your problem is.

The story? Perhaps I was closest in Cellphones Save the World, with people-drive processes, or everyday, relevant anthropology (via Maurice Bloch).

Problems and challenges? For me that’s addiction, and more broadly behavioral health. For Greg sports and related endeavors. And the challenge is getting theories oriented to themselves (evolution, culture, biology as mechanism) to come to play with us.

And all together? Well, the facile holism of anthropology doesn’t quite do the trick. At the very least I need more people to play with, that helps make it real—we create our own stories and meaning and syntheses.

So those are some of my ideas about the game of neuroanthropology. And yours?

2 thoughts on “The Interdisciplinary Game

  1. It’s hard work. I spent a year (we had food breaks, etc :-)) discussing the meaning of the word “cognition” with a biologist. I’m a psychologist. His starting point was, something like, it’s rubbish. It was hard work. I hope to write up the thing one day, but for now all I’ve managed to do is dump four representative quotations from the literature in my blog. (My favourite explanation comes from Neisser but I also love how LeDoux spells out the problem.)

    Words are trivial, etc, etc, but it’s amazing how coming to some kind of understanding about the meaning of these terms, how they’re used, makes it much easier to communicate.

    Oh, also I’ve been trying to keep a list of… hmmm I called them explanation postulates, but that’s not quite right. Anyway, they’re over here. Point 5 is probably relevant.

    Sorry this is all a bit hand wavy, but thought I’d say hello!

  2. Pingback: Months of the Year: Neuroanthropology 2008 « Neuroanthropology

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