Playing ARGs

Conceptualizing Space and Place in Learning through Augmented Reality Games

(Part 1 of a two-part doctoral preliminary examination by John Martin, November 22, 2005)

Concepts of Space and Place in Learning

An interesting shift is taking place in the U.S. No longer a vast frontier to be explored and conquered, the land is fully mapped out, claimed, and is becoming increasingly valued — not simply as a commodity, but in terms less tangible than the dollar. Additionally, technological advances in media and trade have made the world a smaller place, opening up the scope of our understandings far beyond our immediate surroundings. We can no longer comfortably assume that what is true for our community is true for the rest of the world. As we become more aware of the experiences of others across the globe, we are beginning to pay more attention to the particulars of what makes our own places unique.

Ultimately, space and place shapes learning. Our education system, largely informed by a Western thought that has downplayed the role of space and place, has overlooked its importance. To adapt John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s metaphor of the ripple to learning: “we notice the ripple and take the lake for granted. Yet surely the lake shapes the ripple more than the pebble shapes the lake” (2000: 138). I believe that we must better understand how we are situated in particular places — for, as Clifford Geertz prompts, “no one lives in the world in general” (Geertz, 1996: 262). My task in this stage of my educational career is to work towards and shape this change in a way that suits my interests and abilities.

We have tools for this. Place-based technologies like GPS, Google Earth, Google Maps, and Google Local are feeding the need to better understand our relations to space and place, and are ushering in a world of place-based technologies that further situate us in our places in the world in a manner that respects and presents the spaces and places of others. Augmented Reality Games, or ARGs, offer another opportunity to interact with the places we live in.

Space and Place, and Paradigms

As with anything when studied thoughtfully, space and place do not neatly break down into easily digested categories. I would argue that there are few, if any “models of space and place in learning” at the Kuhnian (1962) level of paradigm the way, say, Newtonian physics did before it Einsteinian physics became prevalent. The one view of space and place — outside of Einsteinian considerations of space (not place) — that is major enough to be a paradigm is of space and place as a container or setting. This is a conceptualization offered in creation myths that has stayed with us through the millennia. Instead of paradigms, there are perspectives of space and place — strong impossible-to-isolate facets like temporality, power, identity, and embodiment, which are shaped and constrained by spatially based language. All of these are simultaneously tied to activity in such a way that in talking about place one is necessarily also talking about activity. To tease these components apart, if even possible, would be to decontextualize them into meaninglessness. Instead, I will let them overlap as I shift my focus on each.

In the following sections I will consider space and place through its relations to time, power, identity, and embodiment; specifying connections of each to the major paradigm of learning, what John Meyer (1992) calls the universalized school. I will then look to the role of space and place in sociocultural learning, and argue that augmented reality games offer a method to harness the power of place-based pedagogy.

Let me make a quick point about my use of the universalized school (Meyer 1992). Using Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) definition of a paradigm as a worldview to address “dominant paradigms of space and place in learning” I would be remiss to not begin with what I feel is the dominant understanding of learning. I will rely on postcolonial philosophers like Homi Bhabha who have demonstrated that one of the effects of introducing “the English book” to its many colonies was to hybridize powerful seeds whose offspring bears close likeness to its parent (Bhabha, 1994: 104-122). I will also let historians of education like Jurgen Herbst (1996), Herb Kliebard (1995), and David Tyack (1974) make the case that Western practices of learning are and have been largely influenced by the cultural trends of industry and state. So, while philosophical ideas have a certain ring in some realms, there are often much-different forces at work in the practice of schooling — forces that look remarkably similar across the globe. This is not to say that other models do not exist; they do, and I will argue for some of them later.

Space, Place, and Time

When asked about research on place and space in education, Jim Gee responded that in Western philosophy time trumps space; when we look at places and spaces, we tend to focus on the temporal activities that occurred in the spaces rather than the spaces themselves (2005, personal conversation). Gee’s statement resonates Emmanuel Kant’s (1788, 1923) idea that the inner intuition of time mediates the outer intuition of space that has foundationalized the preference of time over space in the structuring of human experience in Western thought. But it also gives a nod to activity as the structuring force of experience. Activity is also the focus of Bruno Latour, who weighs influence of time and space on experience according to the intensity of the activity (Latour, 1997). Jay Lenke (2004) takes another step away from Kant, insisting that both spatiality and temporality are the products of action. If activity produces these, it is also largely responsible for place. Human Geographer Yi-fu Tuan explains space and place this way: “What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value” (Tuan 1977:6). “Getting to know” space occurs through activity in it — either direct experience or through the communicated experiences of others. Place then occupies a sort of middle ground between time and space.

Perhaps it is the general discourse of formal education that inclines a predilection of time over space and activity — class periods, semesters, school years — there are limited hours, days, and years in which to educate a child. In a capitalist society the commoditization of time is also felt in the realms of education. Naturally there are disciplines that tend to focus more on space more than time — geographers, architects, designers, environmentalists, and military strategists put a great deal of emphasis on space and place. I will draw from some of these disciplines throughout this paper.

Space, Place, and Power

Casey (1997) documents that the legends of many cultures — from the Judeo-Christian Genesis, to the Dhammai, Hopi, Maori, and Zuni — position space as a void to be filled, or placed, and position place in terms of ownership. This touches on the power of naming and mapping space as an activity of owning or holding dominion (Tuan, 1991). Evoking Michel de Certeau (1984), Henry Jenkins tells us that cultures use stories to “explain and justify their occupation of geographic spaces” (Jenkins, 2001: 3). We see in the Judeo-Christian stories the banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden example after example of the power of displacement. Michel Foucault (1977, 1980) relates issues of space and place to questions of power and control scales from nation-states to institutions to the individual.

Peter Lippman (2003) draws parallels of power between the designs of school settings and prisons. The compulsory nature of education is one clear parallel, but issues of space and place such as surveillance in the design of the classroom, control of access and movement within the building, the claiming of tables in cafeterias, and even the “ownership” of homerooms, desks or lockers speak to the power structures of space and place in schools. It is no surprise that these issues also greatly influence the formation of identities.

Space, Place, and Identity

From the level of national identity down to the level of individual identity, place plays an important role. The bounding properties of mapping and naming geographical landscapes serve to identify nations, regions, cities and towns. And, as demonstrated in the previous paragraphs, Jewish narratives show how displacement can also identify a culture. The connection between identity and place scales down further still. Within a nation, Lisa Hennon (2000) contends that the poles of cosmopolitan and pastoral are qualities of place that play an important role in societal identity. Is one a country mouse or a city mouse? Within the city there are neighborhoods or turfs that identify.

The connection to sub-national identity, however, has been diminishing as the cosmopolitan swallows the pastoral. Casey notes that,

between Aristotle and Irigaray stretch more than two millennia of thought and teaching and writing about place — a period that includes such diverse debating partners as Iamblichus and Plotinus, Cusa and Bruno, Descartes and Locke, Newton and Leibniz, Bachelard and Foucault. Yet the history of this continuing concern with place is virtually unknown. … it has been taken for granted, deemed not worthy of separate treatment. (Casey 1997: x)

The quintessential question of Who am I, and why am I here? has often looked to the where of place. But the reason that place is being taken for granted may rest in Popkewitz and Bloch’s argument of the process of re-conceptualizing the self as a “self-administering soul,” a process begun in the Reformation:

the fabrication of the soul embodied a modern identity that we will call the ‘cosmopolitan self.’ No longer bound to a sense of identity built through geographical location and face-to-face interactions, the liberal-freedom inscribed an identity that could move among the more abstract, anonymous relations that characterized modernity. … Identity was no longer identified solely with place but with gesellschaft, the idea of the organic solidarity of society expressed in the modern notions of careers — roles — as well as theories of child development and family upbringing (Popkewitz and Bloch 2001: 89).

If the “here” of why am I here? is no longer important in the question who am I? then questions of place will be relegated mainly to philosophers. And for the most part, it has been, with the exception of aboriginal cultures such as the Western Apache and Hopi that Keith Basso (1996) studied. Michael Streibel joins Basso in resisting the notion that questions of place are unimportant for understanding oneself, holding that “true identity entails[s] a particularist conjoining of the physical and social worlds” (Streibel, 1998: 417). While I will not attempt to fully support it here, I would suggest that even national borders may be weakening as notions of cosmopolitan identities become more tightly tied to capitalist concepts.

As if to remind us that place and identity are impossibly intertwined, Charles Frake directs us to the “stock American get-acquainted ploy, ‘Where’re yuh from?'” (Frake, 1996: 233). The answer not only tags us to regional social generalizations (New York toughness, Minnesota niceness, Southern hospitality, British pomposity, German efficiency, Indian bureaucracy, etc.), but it also identifies us as physically spatial beings.

In schools, the ties between place and identity are eroding — especially at the higher grades. Classrooms that used to hold one teacher who taught all subjects for an entire grade, have, in many cases, become more generic as teaching becomes more specialized. Identifying with a room began to fracture, as students started moving from room to room for different subjects. The fracturing continues as more and more teachers lose a sense of home-association to a room, and like migrants, cart their materials across the school to the room of the hour. As will be argued later, identity may be well on its way to becoming more dependent on social groups than place.

Space, Place, and Body

We are spatially embodied navigators. J.J. Gibson points out: “One sees the environment not just with the eyes but with the eyes in the head on the shoulders of a body that gets about” (Gibson 1979: 222). The area of philosophy most concerned with this embodiment is phenomenology, of which Paul Dourish tracks the major theorists — Husserl, Heidegger, Schutz and Merleau-Ponty — adding in others like Gibson and Wittgenstein in order to summarize embodiment as “the property of our engagement with the world that allows us to make it meaningful” (Dourish 2004: 126). The meaningfulness of our places, Yi-Fu Tuan notes, is not immediately and fully realized, but “is the result of historical and social processes, built up over time by large and small happenings” (Tuan, 1991: 692).

Through the work of Lev Vygotsky and other sociocultural learning theorists, we understand that these large and small happenings are not ours alone (Vygotsky 1978, Wertsch 1991) but are adopted in part from the worldviews of the communities we are socialized in — both those communities that we physically reside in, and what Lave & Wenger (1991) call communities of practice. In other words, before us, our cultural ancestors were embodied in a very physical world of which they had to make sense, and part of our current understanding comes from their lived experiences. Communities of practice that do not share the same physical spaces may have different understandings, but many disparities are mediated by a common language and Discourse (Gee, 1999).

George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (1980) demonstrated that the English language, like most languages, is full of space-based words, meanings, and metaphors, but they had little idea in the pre-graphic-user-interface and pre-Internet era of that they wrote in, how computer technology and the Internet would take spatial metaphors to the pervasive levels of cyberspace. And yet, from the iconography of the desktop computer interface to chat rooms, to the simple idea of “going to” a home page on a web site, even in cyberspace, we are still spatial beings.

That our embodiment in space has perhaps the most fundamental influence on us may well explain the dearth of it in pedagogy. We focus on so many other aspects of learning, but merely attend to space. While primary, it seems almost an afterthought.

Space, Place, and Learning

Echoing Edward Casey’s (1999) characterization of place as taken for granted, Clifford Geertz offers its ubiquity as one probable reason: “it is difficult to see what is always there. Whoever discovered water, it was not a fish” (Geertz, 1996: 259). Michael Streibel noted a huge deficiency of research on place in learning and was led to argue, “that the concept of place is one of these deep theoretical assumptions that needs to be revisited in order to further our understanding” (Streibel, 1998: 416).

Regarding place in learning, David Orr notes, “other than as a collection of buildings where learning is supposed to take place, place has no particular standing in contemporary education” (Orr, 1992: 126). This leads, by default really, to questions of how time, power, identity, and embodiment played out in the dominant conceptualization of space and place in learning — the architectural form of the schoolhouse.

 Place in Learning: The schoolhouse

Over a hundred years ago John Dewey described the role of space and place in learning in a description that closely matches that of Meyer’s (1992) universalist school:

if we put before the mind’s eye the ordinary schoolroom, with its rows of ugly desks placed in geometrical order, crowded together so that there shall be as little moving room as possible, desks almost all of the same size, with just space enough to hold books, pencils and paper, and add a table, some chairs, the bare walls, and possibly a few pictures, we can reconstruct the only educational activity that can possibly go on in such a place. It is all made ‘for listening'” (Dewey, 1900: 31).

In the larger contextual picture of this excerpt, Dewey was looking for desks and chairs “at which the children may work” and may physically engage in the topics they learn rather than passively listen and absorb knowledge (Dewey, 1900: 31). This is a very different environment for learning than is and was typically expected in schools, with possible exception for the very young (and few) in a Froebel-style kindergarten (Brosterman, 1997).

Progressive education did have some impact in designs that focused not only on cost and fire-protection, but ventilation, and lighting; classrooms built prior to fluorescent lighting often featured large expanses of windows positioned at the left [so the right hand didn’t block the light when writing] (Zelle, 2005). Social Meliorism also influenced architecture, adding community rooms for scouting, PTA, dances, and the like (Zelle, 2005). In his history of American Education, Herb Kliebard (1995) tracks the trends and influences, noting as Michael Apple does, a distinct turn towards dehumanizing industry-modeled aims “to get different students from Point A to Point B quickly and efficiently” (Apple, 1990: 79). By the time Ralph Tyler cast his gaze to view “instructional program as a functioning instrument of education” (Tyler, 1949: 1), students took on the identity of a product, tracked through a system that shaped them. School buildings were already “largely based on solid precedent,” designed as “variations of the Collegiate Gothic and English Renaissance styles,” which were “nationally synonymous with public school and collegiate design” while the post-war baby boom spurred a surge of building “often without regard to the principles of the earlier composite plans” (Zelle, 2005: 30). Architect James Lackney laments, “for decades, educational leaders … have regarded the physical setting as an institutional backdrop deserving little attention” (1999). Adding further fuel, David A. Gruenewald calls for a reinvestment in place-placed pedagogies “so that the education of citizens might have some direct bearing on the wellbeing of the social and ecological places people actually inhabit” (Gruenewald, 2003: 3).

Place in Learning: Embodiment and Activity

While the design of learning space is still primarily the concern of architects, there is a growing interest in learning places spurred in part through a re-visitation of sociocultural activity-based learning theories such as Activity Theory (Vygotsky 1978; Leon’tev 1979; Engeström 1990, Wertsch 1998), Situated Action (Suchman 1987, Lave 1988), and Distributed Cognition (Flor and Hutchins 1991, Pea 1993). In his seminal study of the navigation of a ship, Edwin Hutchins (1995) socially situated cognition in a system of distributed beings and tools. While references to that work typically focus on the social distribution of knowledge, including socially designed tools, two facts are often overlooked. It is instructive to note that the system he examined was for navigating a ship through geographical space, and the physical places of the participants on the ship had much to do with options and possibilities available in those places — what Donald Norman (1993) refers to as affordances. Flor and Hutchins (1991) identify environment as a location of knowledge, and while Roy Pea (1993) focuses on tools and modes of representation, it seems clear to me that one’s physical setting, whether designed or merely repurposed, also serves as a tool or mode of representation.

This again leads back to Latour’s (1997) focus on the activity of the body in space and time, and to a field of study called embodiment. Paul Dourish outlines the ideas of embodiment of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Alfred Schutz, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and concludes: “embodied phenomena are those that by their very nature occur in real time and real space” (Dourish, 2001:101). And while time is currently understood as a rather fixed concept, the spaces and places in which the body can move and experience is rather malleable.

Among the researchers outside of Architecture interested in our interaction with space and place, Elizabeth Ellsworth examines museums, monuments, and other pedagogically charged environments outside of the classroom, maintaining that these open our aesthetic to teaching and learning in ways “largely unexplored by the official literature of educational research” (Ellsworth 2005: 9). Ellsworth argues that architects, designers, and museum curators offer spaces that “speak to and about pedagogy indirectly through design — a means that reaches beyond the limiting scope of language” (p. 10). As we move through “processural paths” through mediated environments, Ellsworth is interested in understanding new pedagogies of sensation in our experiences — not “as having bodies” but “as bodies whose movements and sensations are crucial to our understandings” (p. 27). This veers slightly from the work of embodiment researchers in cognition in that her focus is more on the environments than on the body.

One of the practical problems in creating powerful pedagogical places, Jay Lemke (2005) notes, is in the expense to do — so he looks to video games and digital space in order to create these places. Henry Jenkins and Kurt Squire argue that video game designers are doing exactly what Ellsworth is talking about, albeit with a different degree of physicality:

Game worlds are totally constructed environments. Everything there was put on the screen for some purpose — shaping the game play or contributing to the mood and atmosphere or encouraging performance, playfulness, competition, or collaboration. If games tell stories, they do so by organizing spatial features. If games stage combat, then players learn to scan their environments for competitive advantages. Game designers create immersive worlds with embedded rules and relationships among objects that enable dynamic experiences. (Jenkins and Squire, 2002: 65)

Place in Learning: Virtual bodies in virtual places

Building off of Latour’s (1997) focus on activity, researchers in Human Computer Interface (HCI) have looked to embodied activity as a way to make computer environments seem more natural. The result is virtual space — a seemingly limitless world of ones and zeroes that is mapped the moment its content is created. As we interact with virtual places and with each other through them, the meaningfulness and value of them increases. This gives rise to questions of the nature of these spaces, and to the nature of our interaction with them. N. Katherine Hayles (1999) looks to cybernetics for answers, suggesting that we have become posthuman in our behavior, operating beyond the geographical world, increasingly more comfortable in the waters of the digital age. And yet Donald Norman (1993) notes that our comfort with computers due to the foundational spatial metaphors that our interactions in these spaces are based upon. Lev Manovich calls this “navigable space,” explaining, “narrative and time itself are equated with movement through 3-D space, progression through rooms, levels, or words” (Manovich 2001: 245).

Regardless of their connections to geographical spaces, we are becoming increasingly immersed in virtual places. Kevin Leander (2002) argues that schooled space and identity is quickly expanding into virtual places, that the concept of “school” now extends far beyond the physical building that encapsulated it in the 20th century. Constance Steinkuehler (2005) looks at Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming as a new answer to Ray Oldenburg’s (1989) call for more third spaces — places to gather and socialize that are neither home, nor work.

Virtual and Augmented Space and Place

In the introduction, I touched on my interest in the growing ability of place-based technologies to better situate us in the geographical environments we inhabit, but expressed concern that the Western education system would be slow to adopt these learning tools. From the introduction of fluorescent lights in the classroom in the 1940s, and subsequent reduction/removal of windows, to the introduction and promotion of virtual schools in the 1990s, education seems set on further distancing physical space and place from learning. To many, this is troubling. Echoing the worries of parents whose children spend long hours online and immersed in video games, Michael Streibel notes the rise of virtual spaces and warns that we need to continue “to attend to our physical bodies, our physical settings, and our physical communities” (Streibel, 1998: 32). It is a concern that New Media critics like Lev Manovich are optimistic about:

It is quite possible that this decade of the 2000s will turn out to be about the physical – that is, physical space filled with electronic and visual information. (2002).

Augmented space and place is not so different from un-augmented space and place, except that information and meaning that one has about it is increased through information supplied outside of the mind. At its simplest level, a sign, guidebook, audio tour, or even a live tour guide helps to augment space and place. My interest is in the effect the augmentation of digital technologies like the Internet will have in situating us in the spaces we move through.

When we move through space, we often do so with a destination in mind that guides our navigation. However, our movement is also guided by the environment — both naturally occurring and designed artifacts. We move around trees, rocks, and other obstacles, are directed by pathways and roads; we stop or slow to look at interesting sites or activity. Essentially, as Lucy Suchman (1987) makes clear through the notion of situated action, it is the information that we encounter as we move that mediates our activity. The augmentation of physical space and place through digital technologies in essence modifies the place, restructuring and redesigning it. The redesign of physical place through digital augmentation can create the processual paths that Ellsworth (2005) seeks in pedagogically charged learning environments. But lest we leap too quickly into this space, David Roy warns, “putting computer technology “out there” beyond the desktop presents both new challenges and opportunities. There is a need to develop a vision and understanding that enable us to combine the real and the virtual into a coherent whole” (Roy, 1999: 7). One medium that is ripe for experimentation is games.

Learning with Games

There is a certain degree of latitude given to games. As a general rule, games are supposed to be fun. And for some reason the very idea of fun is seen as being incompatible with the word serious, as in serious education. However, as Jim Gee and others have demonstrated, there is a tremendous amount of learning that takes place in games, and educators could learn much about learning if they take a moment to examine them (Gee 2003, Kafai 1995, Turkle, 1995). This sort of research has led to the creation of Serious Games — a field for the study of games for non-entertainment purposes. Education, as a figurehead in the realm of all things non-entertaining, is prominently listed (Serious Games Summit 2005).

My proximity to researchers of video games in learning fueled my interest in games as a learning tool. A strong interest in place-based learning outside the classroom meshed neatly with Eric Klopfer and Kurt Squire’s (in press) MIT research using GPS-enabled handheld computer games in learning — Augmented Reality Gaming. These games seem to bridge the gap between online and offline worlds, offering the opportunity to interact with physical space in a non-typical manner due to the augmenting affordances of the handheld computer. If done well, this type of game could move video gamers outside, and get them interested and involved in the geographical and cultural landscapes that they inhabit — exactly what Streibel (1998) called for.

Defining Virtual and Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality is a troublesome term for me because it seems too specifically defined. Whereas virtual reality suggests an immersive and interactive, entirely artificial environment, augmented reality seems to be increasingly defined by a digitally processed alteration of our visual and aural field of the settings we inhabit. When we think of virtual reality (Figure 1) we tend to think of people standing in safe space within a room wearing wired helmets and gloves feeling like they are flying or swimming or otherwise interacting in an environment that may have no sensory parallels to the space they are actually located (except for temperature and smells — although this may soon change).

    Figure 1. Virtual Reality image from:

When we consider an augmented reality situation (Figure 2), we tend to imagine them walking around, still wearing helmets, visually and audibly aware of their physical space, but also noticing objects and events that are not physically occurring in those spaces.

    Figure 2. Augmented Reality images from:

    Figure 3. Playing Environmental Detectives

These understandings are more specific and specialized than the augmented reality gaming that I am interested in, which is gaming in augmented spaces — regardless of the level of technology. At this broader definition, a single sheet of paper could be all the technology needed for a good augmented reality game. Perhaps we need to consider another name, and leave the term “augmented reality” to the tech-heavy researchers, but that is an argument for a future discussion.

Augmented Reality Games (ARGs)

The general idea of an ARG, as our research group is using it, is built on the constraints and affordances of the MIT game available. The game engine was developed at MIT with a Games-to-Teach grant, and merges handheld computers (Pocket PC), with GPS (Global Positioning System) units. For the players, game space is real space, tracked by GPS and plotted onto the handheld computer. The space that they move through is somewhat familiar — they know it as a place with recognizable and culturally-familiar features — but the game reveals added or augmented content that is meaningful within the frame of the game. So, just as a tree might have the augmented meaning of a goal or safe area in a children’s game, a tree may be endowed with properties and meanings in these games, triggered by the GPS unit as they approach the tree in the game.

In some respects, my interest in ARG runs along this line of thinking: here is something that interests me, interests the kids who have played it, and seems to provoke resourcefulness and creativity in all those involved in it — how can we harness it for learning? I answer this question in part two.

Conclusion of Space and Place in Learning

In this first part of the paper, I examined and summarized four significant concepts that are inherently related to space and place — temporality, power, identity, and embodiment — and compared their manifestation in traditional education to the potential they could play in pedagogically-charged place-based learning environments. I ended by suggesting that place-based augmented reality games may provide forays into such learning environments. This has essentially been a mere review of the role of space and place, with only a hint of the promise of augmented reality games. In the second part of the paper I will build off this review, and further explore the potential of augmented reality games in a pedagogy of place-based activity using concrete examples of games, both in use and in development.


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