For me, as a college writing teacher, paying attention to the ways in which people embody learning means

  • refashioning the "personal writing" assignment in first-year writing (specifically, the Literacy Autobiography) to make the most of this kind of participant research
  • trying to locate supplemental readings that students can use to analyze their descriptions of learning. On this page, I consider the relevance of research in Human Development and Game Theory for the broad question: what does it mean to embody learning? and the more specific question: how does practice become pleasurable?

One prominent thread in Human Development concerns "constructivist" education--essentially, classroom situations in which students are encouraged to be active co-creators (rather than passive receptacles or mimics) of "knowledge." A central term in this research is Experiential Learning (“EL”), a pedagogy that involves students in a "direct encounter with the phenomena being studied rather than merely thinking about the encounter, or only considering the possibility of doing something about it" (Smith 2005). The EL approach attempts to balance expert and novice contributions to understanding by giving more emphasis to students than to information:

The process typically proceeds as follows:

  • Doing and/or observing something
  • Returning to the experience to record significant details
  • Becoming aware of personal feelings - "this has two aspects: using helpful feelings and removing or containing obstructive ones" (Smith 2005)
  • Evaluating the experience - "this involves re-examining experience in the light of one's intent and existing knowledge etc. It also involves integrating this new knowledge into one's conceptual framework." (Smith 2005)

Though not designed to be linear, the EL process, by virtue of beginning with activities and ending with abstraction and (see above: non-emotional) reflection, does seem to construct knowledge within an Enlightenment “rationality,” a narrow conception of what it means to make sense of the world. As Tara Fenwick explains, the way the written reflection is often structured in EL pedagogies

reifies rational control and mastery, ignores the role of desire in learning, and sidesteps ambivalences, vicissitudes and multiple internal resistances in the learning process. [This] view that experience must be processed through reflection clings to binaries drawn between complex blends of reflection/action, doing/learning, implicit/explicit, active/passive, and life experience/instructional experience. From a feminist perspective, Michelson (1996) observes that emphasis on (critical) reflection depersonalizes the learner as an autonomous rational knowledge-making self, disembodied, rising above the dynamics and contingency of experience. The learning process of "reflection" presumes that knowledge is extracted and abstracted from experience by the processing mind. This ignores the possibility that all knowledge is constructed within power-laden social processes, that experience and knowledge are mutually determined, and that experience itself is knowledge-driven and cannot be known outside socially available meanings. Further, argues Michelson (1996), the reflective or constructivist view of development denigrates bodily and intuitive experience, advocating retreat into the loftier domains of rational thought from which 'raw' experience can be disciplined and controlled.

While there is obvious value in giving students “something to do” besides be passive spectators/note-takers, the downside to EL, as Fenwick explains, is that in some applications it “depersonalizes” the learner and “decontextualizes” the learning, leaving the focus where it has always been in traditional schooling: on what students (conceived uniformly as apprentice thinkers) can do with disciplinary knowledge.

It is useful to think of embodied learning (“M-BOD”), as Gee conceives it, as a dimension of EL since the pedagogy constructs learning as active and interactive, but it would be a mistake to conflate the concepts. M-BOD is a framework, a set of principles, for understanding how people become motivated to engage and re-engage cognitively challenging tasks--to "practice" at something--but this is not thinkable as an operation of (again in Fenwick's words) an "autonomous rational knowledge-making self, disembodied, rising above the dynamics and contingency of experience."

Condensing and simplifying some of Gee's ideas, I came up with the hypothesis that practice is pleasurable when it involves people in making choices that reward them somehow--choices about

who to be: (imaginative projection: some participation in story-telling or drama)

what the rules are (game recognition: the mental labor of identifying problems and how to solve them)

how to adapt (or improvise on) the rules to suit a particular context (game elaboration: some kind of recoding of some elements of the game)

EL, as the following illustration shows, does pose opportunities for people to make rewarding choices.

In general, people "embody learning" in the institutional setting of school by fitting into social relationships (hierarchal differences) and knowledge paradigms (what counts as useful contribution, evidence, beauty?). EL pedagogies are sometimes really effective at demystifying those relationships and paradigms so as to make a little room for students to find their own creative and critical agencies, to embody learning in the particular way that Gee discusses, but too much empahsis on "applying" expert knowledge to fledgling experience ends up reassigning everyone their proper place.

A considerable part of the experieinces in literacy and learning that students arrive in the colege classroom with are shaped by primary and secondary school contexts (whether they tend towards TS, EL or M-BOD), but there's more to the story and the subjectivty of learning and literacy than school. Ludology, the study of games, offers valuable insights on where/how/why challenges become (i.e, are designed to be) engaging.

Many studies of play tend to approach the subject developmentally--as an index of a child or civilization's maturity. Parten classifies play according to social involvement: onlooker play, solitary play, paraellel play, and group play. Piaget identifies different stages of play appropriate to different ages: functional (physical), pretend/make-believe, and games with rules. Caillois suggests that the development of a child's play parallels the advancement of a civilization, with babies and primitive cultures practicing paidia (disruptive and pointless frolick) while older people and advanced socieites finding their enjoyment in ludos (the mastery of "conventions and techniques" in games). Lever finds that boys and girls play differently in a number of ways that seem to codify or reinforce gender dichotomy:

  • boys play out of doors more often than girls
  • boys play more often in large and age-heterogenous groups
  • boys play competitive games more often and their games last longer
  • boys enjoy the legal debates [surrounding the rules of the game]
  • girls appear more tolerant in their attitudes towards rules, more willing ot make exceptions, and more easily reconciled to innovations (Gilligan)

The sociological or anthropological approach to play is useful for theorizing learning because it reveals that playing is as much about relating to others (experiencing an interdepednent identity) as it is about shaping outcomes (making decisions). It is important, however, not to oversimplify the social implications of play, to construct it either as a complete break from, or rehersal for, what is presupposed to be ordinary life/culture. One of the most famous theorists of play, Huizinga, assigns play a radical subjectivity:

Play only becomes possible... when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos…(3). To our way of thinking, play is the direct opposite of seriousness (5). It is an internmezzo, an interlude in our daily lives (9).

A recent cultural critic, Pat Kane, echoes Huizinga's notion of play as counter-culture in his manifesto, The Play Ethic,

Play isn't leisure, or indolence - that's the 250 year ruse perpetrated by the Puritan tradition, 'the soul's play-day is the devil's work-day', as the old 18th century reformers put it. The linguistic root of play is from the Indo-European -dlegh, meaning "to engage, to exercise oneself". So action, self-directedness, and sociability are at the very heart of the word - not sloth and idleness.

The player submits their entire life to the basic test of play: can this be changed? Why does this have to be this way? Can we try something different, more fulfilling? Can we put this, literally, into play?

It may also be valuable to leave aside developmental categories and social generalizations of play in order to focus, as Jesper Juul argues, on games rather than "the players who play them" (11). For exmaple, if we approach children playing games expecting to find gender inscribed into every aspect of the play, then we tend to see all decisions as driven by emotional proclivities. People have taken Caillois' categorization of games into agon (compettion), alea (chance), mimicry (make-believe) and ilinx (vertigo) as the basis of understand why girls' games tend towards mimicry and boys towards agon, but Juul observes that many games present not choices between agon and mimicry (etc) but rather varying design principles that include competition, chance, etc (10). Much has been made of the fact that most video games "encourage demonizing the opponent" (Koster) and if we've already decided that this is a stereotypical masculine way of relating/playing, then we might ignore, as Stephen Johnson argues, that "its not what you’re thinking about when you’re playing a [video] game, it’s the way you’re thinking that matters” (4). He continues:

Far more than books or movies or music, games force you to make decisions. Novels may activate our imagination, and music may conjure up powerful emotions, but games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize. All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding…. Those decisions are …predicated on two modes of intellectual labor that are kept to the collateral learning of playing games. I call them probing and telescoping (41)

Probing: you have to probe the depths of the game’s logic to make sense of it and like most probing expeditions, you get result by trial and error, by stumbling across things, by following hunches (42-3)

Telescoping is managing…simultaneous objectives… you can’t progress far in a game if you simply deal with the puzzles you stumble across; you have to coordinate them with the ultimate objectives on the horizon...Telescoping is about constructing the proper hierarchy of tasks and moving through the tasks in the correct sequence. It’s about perceiving relationships and determining priorities (54-55).

What Johnson describes here the "collateral learning of playing" others call "gameplay". Juul explains:

The most famous one-line description of [gameplay] describes it as hinging on challenging choices: "A game is a series of interesting choices" (Meier). What is an interesting choice? Meier describes three criteria for interesting choices:

  1. No single option should be the best
  2. The options should not be equally good
  3. The player must be able to make an informed choice.

In Meier's description, an "interesting choice" is one that is mentally challenging (strategic rather than skill-oriented) (92).

Game theory encourages us to approach the question of how practice becomes pleasurable by attending to both gameplay (which Meir explains in terms of choices that result in different outcomes and Johnson explains in terms of the problem-solving modes of probing and telescoping) and participatory culture, what Jenkins defines as a social environment

  • with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  • with strong support creating and sharing one's creations with others
  • with some type of informal mentorship whereby what is know by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  • where members beleive that their contributions matter
  • where members feel some degree social connection with one another

In the following analysis of my son's card game, I draw on the broad conclusions I've reached in situating M-BOD in relation to EL and Game Theory, but my focus is on how the game illustrates several of Gee's learning principles.

Case Study of Oliver


Works Cited




One: Situating Embodied Learning

Two: Case Study of Oliver

Three: Implications for the Literacy Autobiography Assignment

Works Cited