Assemblage Theory digital rhetoric Games Teaching

augmented reality, serious games, and pedagogic secrets

I was reminded earlier of Don DeLillo's White Noise and the scene early in the novel where Gladney visits the "most photographed barn in America" and his friend observes that, of course, no one can actually see the barn. It's an observation that summons Baudrillard's precession of the simulacra. 25+ years later, seeing the same barn through an augmented reality lens (e.g. layar on a smartphone), what might we be able to say that we see?

My response has been that all subjective experiences (all the things we see) are mediated and directly material, that all mediations are material. And by material, I mean that all mediations are comprised of objects and forces that are actual and virtual in a Deleuzian/post-Deleuzian sense. As such, in the sense that we think about the "withdrawal of objects" (as a term of art) and the limits of human cognition/epistemology, our consciousness can only ever sense our exposure to the exteriorized relations in the assemblage that include us and the barn. Augmented reality, then, changes the assemblage to which we are exposed. I don't know if we can say we are exposed to "more data" through AR, but we might say that we are exposed to more information if we define information as a subjective, value-laden evaluation of data (i.e., information is data we value). On the other hand, another person might find the AR data interferes with the experience/information s/he's looking for. Either way, though, we have the same chance (i.e. none) of seeing the "real" (as in unmediated) barn. But we can be exposed to the barn (and AR) through an assemblage of exteriorized relations that are material (virtual/actual), real but abstract, and that's what we need to deal with.

Anyway, that's just a brief philosophical prelim to thinking about AR and serious/educational games. I'm directly involved in a game development project right now, and it has me thinking about these issues on a general philosophical level that I feel comfortable sharing here.

The first thing that strikes me about serious gaming is the fundamental disconnect between the rhetorical stances of games and schooling. Here are a few key ones. Generally speaking, schooling is compulsory and transactional. The discourse is rational and formalist. For example, you go to school and the teacher says, "we are going to learn about the American Revolutionary War." You get no choice in the matter. The teacher gives you a series of assignments, and you do them. And through the teacher's lectures, the school textbooks, and the student assignments the primary goal is clarity: to make available any and all knowledge about the war that is requisite for the curriculum. Rhetoric is simply a matter of style-correctness.

Games obviously present a different set of conditions. I'll circle back to the questions of compulsion and transaction in a moment and deal with the question of gaming discourse first. Obviously there are many kinds of games. However, I would suggest that in all games (video or otherwise), there are secrets. All games come with rules of play, but the rules do not, cannot, tell you how to play the game. The discourse is both hermeneutic and heuristic. That is, one must recognize patterns to discover the secrets of gameplay, but then one needs to turn that knowledge into inventive action. Games hide things from players; winning a game means discerning hidden things (e.g. the cards your opponent is holding, the next pitch to be thrown, whether the defense will blitz, the weakness of the boss creature at the end of a level, etc.). Often such discernment is intuitive (it cannot be reduced to rational thought) and draws upon an assemblage of data that we cannot fully account for in our conscious minds. 

As such, while such gaming exchanges are transactions, they cannot be reduced to the zero-sum game of rational exchange (i.e I do a, b, and c, and you give me an "A, B, or C."). And here is where I think we uncover the "compulsory" experience of schooling. The negative compulsion of schooling is its demand that we reduce our experience to rational exchange. One could suggest that this insistence on rational exchange is intended to condition students for the exploitative, vampiric exchange of labor for capital (i.e. the hourly wage), but I'l just gesticulate in that direction.

In any case, the question I see serious games posing to schooling is "can schooling accept learning as a nonrational, irreducible experience?" Obviously, it's an open question.

So now let me reintroduce AR as part of a particular kind of serious gaming environment. Here is the player, mobile device in hand, interacting with a physically proximate object and receiving augmented data in relation to that object. In schooling discourse, the AR data is rational and transactional; there is a compulsion that it be reducible to some set of objectives about "what we are supposed to learn here." In short, the AR data rationally informs us about the otherwise secret/inaccessible knowledge about the object we are compelled to know by curriculum. However, we (ought to) know (by now) that AR does not "reveal" but rather alters the assemblage to which we are exposed in our relations to this object. Furthermore, in a game, we know the key knowledge is not plainly visible. In fact, the key knowledge is often intentionally obscured. As such, in an AR serious game, the data presented to the game player contains secrets that must be discerned and may even be potentially misleading in some regard. That is, something is missing that must be figured out and then acted upon in an inventive way.

When we win the game, it is fair because we all play within the rules, but it is unfair in the sense that the winner acted on knowledge she discerned that others did not (unless it's a game of pure chance, but that's not for today). In schooling discourse it would be akin to a test that asked questions that "weren't in the textbook or lectures." Supposedly that's not fair, even though all students take the same test. On the other hand, in reality, I know students who succeed in a composition class often do so because they are better writers coming in through the door. Is it fair that my kid is a math genius and yours maybe is not?

All this should really tell us something about schools, right? Though, ideologically, they operate according to a transactional, rational rhetoric, their claims to reveal knowledge must operate by simultaneously hiding other data and information. As most students eventually figure out, school is a game, but it is a cynical game because the rules are unevenly applied. As such, it is like all the mind games we play in life. Winning the school game means discerning the hidden curriculum and recognizing that the information presented to you ("learn/do a, b, and c and get an 'A, B, or C.'") is just legerdemain, that the winning tactics are not simply rational, and that what can be valuably learned is irreducible to the crap in the printed curriculum. 

One can see this taking place in the little game where students come to you and ask "how can I revise this paper to get an A?" Maybe this is a naive question of someone with faith in the transactional rationality of pedagogy. But maybe it is gameplay. However the professor's office isn't the place to find the cheat codes or the walkthrough. If I tell you how to win the game, then you aren't playing the game anymore, right? But the secret is that you can't do a, b, and c to get an A. How do you get an A on your paper? How do you serve an ace in tennis? Hit the ball hard enough, in the right place. How do you do that? It's a secret that you can't be told but must interpret and invent. In school that seems unfair because of this illusion of rational transactions, but in almost any other context we understan
d this implicitly. You don&#
39;t walk up to a beautiful stranger and ask them how to convince them to have sex with you. We reject the implicit terms of the car salesperson who asks "what do I have to do to get you into a car today?"

This may seem far afield from AR and serious games (ok it is). But I think my underlying point here is that the study of AR and serious games ought to be able to tell us some things about the schooling pedagogies that emerged in the context of industrial capitalist culture. Serious games give us a real opportunity to rethink education in a way that might lead us back from the brink of absurd instrumentalism on which we totter.