Authority in games: Too little or too much?

In week 3’s readings, Spolin argued that we’ve grown up seeking approval from authority. This quest for approval becomes “a way of life” and consequently “the investigation and solving of problems becomes of a secondary importance” (Spolin, 8), which inhibits play and personal expression. A director of students must try to avoid falling into a student-teacher relationship. Games have similar goals of creativity and play as improv, so what role does authority play in serious games that try to impart lessons from authority figures? Authority in games may inhibit play and engagement, but “serious” game design in a classroom setting may require an authority figure to motivate participation.

The negative effect of authority in games is recognized in Kaufman and Flanagan’s paper, as the game designers recognize that authority may try to promote certain conduct but have the opposite effect. Kaufman and Flanagan cite a study that demonstrates how anti-littering PSAs resulted in more littering. A game that tries to assert its authority might also be less persuasive, inviting transgression instead of encouraging good conduct. This is one of the reasons that Kaufman and Flanagan chose to take an “embedded” approach when designing games, in order to make the games’ lessons more subtle and persuasive.

While authoritative games might not be effect, some classroom games need the authority of a teacher to encourage participation. The students engage in the game as they seek the approval of their teacher, which contrasts with Spolin’s ideal conditions of play and self-expression. For example, in Booth’s ARG class that focused on play as a concept, students played an ARG and designed ARGs themselves. They later had to play the ARGs designed by other student teams, to mixed results: “the actual gameplay was unmonitored and students seemed unmotivated to follow-through each other’s teams” (Chess and Booth, 11). When giving tips for other instructors, Chess and Booth suggest: “Play the games with the students. Students become more engaged with the material when the instructor demonstrates an interest in the subject. Not only can your expertise be drawn upon to solve more difficult puzzles, but also students will want to participate (even if only for visibility and class credit)” (Chess and Booth, 14).

The ARGs were student-designed in Booth’s class, so they might not have been designed to be the most engaging or effective games. However, the need for authority to encourage participation still points to an interesting tension between play and learning. A game with an overly authoritative voice may decrease engagement. Yet educational ARGS need an external authority figure to motivate play. Educational ARGs are supposed to make schoolwork more engaging, so if a student only participates in a game “for visibility and class credit”, does that defeat the goals of an educational ARG? Perhaps it places educational ARGs in a middle ground between playful improv spaces without authority and solemn traditional classrooms with an authority figure.

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