Collaboration, Creativity and Learning in a Play Community: a study of The University of There

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Collaboration, Creativity and Learning in a Play Community: A Study of The University of There

Celia Pearce

Digital Media Graduate Program

School of Literature, Communication and Culture

Georgia Institute of Technology

686 Cherry Street NW

Atlanta, GA 30232-0165

Special Thanks to Graduate Research Assistants:

Pauline Chan

Katherine Mancuso


This paper is the first in a series presenting findings from a mixed-methods study of the University of There (UOT), a player-run distributed learning community within the online graphical 3D world UOT is both a large-scale collaborative project and a learning environment within a virtual world originally designed as a social play space. The study employed in-world participant observation, in-world and face-to-face interviews, analysis of player-created virtual artifacts, study of extra-virtual and supplemental media (such as web sites, videos and forums), as well as a survey instrument, to understand the dynamics of this distributed, collaborative learning community.

The study centered on the following research questions:

  • How does distributed play motivate creative collaboration and learning?

  • How is creative collaboration in game communities sustained over time? What motivates players to maintain engagement in both the long and short term?

  • How does the game software itself support or hinder collaboration and learning? How do players exploit, subvert or augment play software to support these activities?

  • What interaction tools and methods do players use to undertake creative collaboration and support learning and teaching? Real-time, in-game interaction? Asynchronous web communication through mediated artifacts such as forums and wikis? Augmentation of existing software with additional communication tools, such as voice-over-IP? Face-to-face interaction?

  • What can practices of both collaboration and teaching within the play-driven context of the University of There teach us about distributed collaboration and learning in general? Can these principles be translated into other contexts?

Figure 1: The University of There’s virtual campus inside the

This paper will discuss preliminary findings of this study, describing the collaboration and teaching culture of the UOT.

Keywords: Learning Communities, Play Communities, Distributed Collaboration, Distributed Learning, Virtual Worlds, Online Games.



The study builds on previous research that identified the phenomena of “emergent authorship” (Pearce, 2002; Poremba, 2003) and “productive play” (Pearce, 2006): Contrary to prior assertions that play is inherently “unproductive” (Caillois, 1961; Huizinga, 1950), these studies found that highly engaged players, especially those inspired by a strong connection to their communities, could transition into a mode of creative productivity (Pearce, 2006, 2009). Thus engaged in a process of cultural production, players were motivated to embark on often complex and challenging collaborative, creative endeavors. Castronova (2001) and Yee (2006) and Poole (*) present similar notions around the concept of labor in games, but with less of an emphasis on creative practices. Nardi’s recent research in World of Warcraft, focusing on the dynamics of social interaction, learning, and gender in modding communities [*], as well as Poremba [*] and Hayes [*] studies of Sims modding and skinning communities also uncovered similar patterns of creative production, the latter in particular looking at how women develop IT skills through creative modding practices.


The mixed-methods study was conducted over a one-year period, starting in the summer of 2008 and concluding in the summer of 2009. The research team operated from a field station provided by the UOT on its campus. (Figure 2) Research methods included in-world participant observation, in-world and face-to-face interviews and an online survey instrument. The PI (Pearce) and two graduate assistants (Katherine Mancuso and Pauline Chan) conducted fieldwork by attending staff meetings, classes, UOT events, informal social activities, and other gatherings related to the UOT. Data collected by the research team, including field notes, chat logs, e-mail correspondence, forums and web sites, was compiled into a Filemaker Pro database. Accompanying screenshots complemented the textual data. The survey instrument was still in progress at the time of this writing, although some preliminary findings are presented here.

Figure 2: Georgia Tech team’s field station at the UOT.


Overview, typically referred to simply as “There,” is a persistent, 3D virtual graphical world that was founded in 2003, the same year as Second Life. It is virtual home to a an estimated 1.8 million players (according to’s marketing manager) from the United States, Canada, Europe, South America, Southeast Asia, and other regions. Thereians (as they call themselves) range in age from 13 to 70 years old, and 53% percent of them are female. is a classic example of a “social world” or “metaverse,” in which players engage in a wide range of both structured and unstructured social interactions, creating their own environments, communities, events and content.

The PI has been studying emergent cultures in since 2004 with a particular focus on the effect of game and software design on emergent behavior. has some distinct characteristics that are important to understanding the UOT’s culture. This section will touch briefly on relevant aspects of’s economic structure, its software affordances, its governance and its culture, as well as some of the terminology that will be used in this paper.

Directory: ~cpearce3
~cpearce3 -> The Role of Micronarrative in the Design and Experience of Digital Games Jim Bizzocchi, Michael Nixon, Steve DiPaola, and Natalie Funk
~cpearce3 -> Assassin’s Creed III and the Aesthetics of Disappointment Jonathan Church
~cpearce3 -> Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Online Games and Virtual Worlds
~cpearce3 -> Part IV: Being Artemesia: The Social Construction of the Ethnographer
~cpearce3 -> Chapter 4: an imaginary homeland: a polyphonic cultural history
~cpearce3 -> Part III: Playing Ethnography: Research Methods
~cpearce3 -> How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gamer: Reframing Subversive Play in Story-Based Games Joshua Tanenbaum
~cpearce3 -> From Generative to Conventional Play: moba and League of Legends Simon Ferrari
~cpearce3 -> The Relationship between Player Involvement and Immersion: an Experimental Investigation Laura Herrewijn
~cpearce3 -> Nostalgia in Retro Game Design

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