Co-Presence, Situatedness, and Mobile Game-Enhanced Learning

The great power of mobile smart devices is that they can connect us with people, ideas, and places with which we do not share the same physical space, and conversely, they allow us to share our selves, ideas and places with those remote others. Location dependent technology can connect us to the world around us, but we can also connect to things anywhere, at any time, from anywhere. In the wider scheme of things, however, sometimes the consequences of instant accessibility are not always positive. If, to gain freedom of time and space, we connect more through our networks than we do with things that are actually in our physical proximity, we may lose the benefits of immediate (meaning “un-mediated”) experience. Even as we gain knowledge, social intimacy, or pleasure when losing ourselves in a website, chat, or game, we may also be losing an awareness of co-inhabited place that can potentially ground and center us.

Artist Eric Pickersgill captures the potential consequences of being connected more to the remote than to the immediate in his photography series “Removed”—powerful images of what it really looks like, in his words, to feel “as connected to someone on the other side of the planet as to the person on the other side of the couch.” His images hint at the loss of co-presence. For those of us who were adults before the age of ubiquitous devices may remember, being co-present with other humans, objects, or places offers the potential for experiential and situated learning precisely because that space cannot be escaped so easily by connecting to somewhere else. Co-presence enhances situatedness—contextual involvement at cultural, historical, social, and cognitive levels—which is a key component of learning. Paradoxically, mobile device technology—the ability to be anywhere, anytime—can both diminish and enhance physical situatedness.

Well-designed mobile digital games have the potential to re-connect people to the immediate world around them and help establish situatedness. Insofar as the world around us is culturally and historically mediated by language, mobile games have real potential for enhancing situated second or foreign language learning (as evidenced by the many examples in this blog). Games like Mentira make use of mobile technology to involve Spanish learners in local cultural and historical contexts and help them make connections between the sometimes abstract content of the language classroom with the situatedness of the real world. Inspired by Mentira and other ARIS games, I was recently involved in a similar application to develop mobile games for educators of Indigenous American Indian languages—in this case, the Mojave language once spoken widely around the Colorado River in northwestern Arizona.

My colleagues and I were inspired by anthropological work by anthropologist Keith Basso, whose work “Wisdom Sits in Places” explains how some Indigenous languages and cultures in the southwestern US are highly interconnected with the physical landscape, so that the learning of everyday wisdom and knowledge is literally situated in the histories and mythologies of ancestral places. Though it was modest, our game ‘Analy Nyuwiich, developed with Mojave educators, sought to teach environmental and cultural knowledge about the mesquite tree, which has a central place in Mojave culture. The game was situated around an actual tree on the schoolgrounds where it would be played by high school age learners. Our website describes the project and offers educators of other Indigenous languages resources for developing their own, similar games.

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Fig. 1: Screenshots of ‘Analy Nyuwiich 

For learners of languages like Spanish in Albuquerque, or heritage learners of Mojave in northwestern Arizona, a well-designed mobile game can be a highly effective means for situated, experiential learning. For languages not used historically in or near the location they are being learned, however, a slightly different approach may be required.

In designing such a game, the challenge becomes how to situate and engage learners in a location where they simply cannot be physically. Inspired by ARIS games like Terri Nelson’s Paris Occupé, Kayo Shintaku at the University of Arizona designed a game that is heavily reliant on the map feature of ARIS, and requires students to navigate maps in Japanese in order to play, even though they are in a classroom in the US. In the game, players navigate the streets of Hiroshima and Miyajima Island, Japan, taking trains and ferries, interacting with a variety of people and animals, and ultimately completing a quest initiated by an A-bomb survivor. Key to creating a sense of place were realistic conversations and dialogues, images, videos, and sounds, and choices that were consequential to the game outcome. Also key were well designed supplementary pedagogical materials that directed students to make connections between the language, culture, and history that they encountered in the game and their own understandings, and that compelled them to practice the new language and engage with the new content in meaningful ways.

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Fig. 2: Screenshots of Shintaku’s Hiroshima Game

Games that must be played in a certain location, or that must be played with other learners and a teacher, accompanied by supplemental materials, may in some ways seem antithetical to the idea that educational games should promote autonomous, independent learning, and should perhaps therefore be self-contained and “teacher-proof” to a certain extent. In truth, however, a game has meaning to its player only within its context of play (see Sykes & Reinhardt, 2012, p. 73)— and an involved teacher can help shape that context by drawing attention not just to the language and culture of study, but to how one can and should learn with mobile games, and why one should play critically. The immediate co-presence of a teacher and other learners can be leveraged to help situate mobile game-mediated learning and raise critical awareness, both with games that require players to be in a physical location, and those that have students imagine themselves to be in one. Bringing learners’ attention to how their smart devices can remove them from their immediate linguistic, cultural, and environmental landscape, with all its potentials for learning, by showing them how their devices can be used instead to ground and center them to the landscape, is crucial to effective mobile game-mediated learning, and key to critical learning.

-Jon Reinhardt, University of Arizona

2 thoughts on “Co-Presence, Situatedness, and Mobile Game-Enhanced Learning

  1. Dave Malinowski

    Thank you for this piece! The point near the end, about how the immediate co-presence of the teacher and other students can help situate and contextualize the game and learning experience, is really helpful, partly since it’s counter-intuitive, as you point out. I wonder, do any games even require or encourage other people (classmates, interviewees, etc.) to manipulate a single mobile device together as part of game-play, to create new opportunities for local interaction?

    1. Games2Teach Admin Post author

      Hi Dave,

      Thank you for the thoughtful reply! I have reached out to Jon Reinhardt to see how he would respond to the question you have raised, so look forward to that shortly.

      In the meantime, I can say from my own experience that several of the games that I have designed using an online game editor called ARIS (Augmented Reality and Interactive Storytelling) were purposefully designed to promote learner interaction and critical thinking either using one mobile device as a group or several individual devices for each student. One of our games titled Ecopod: Survival is a location-based story that has players progressing through a post-apocalyptic narrative that changes depending on the items that they have collected, the locations that they have gone, and the decisions that they have made. Their overall success in the game is determined by whether they made it to the conclusion or not and what choices they made to get there. As players reach those crossroads, they are encouraged to critically think about their decisions as a group in order to progress further in the game and to share their mistakes if they made a bad decision and had to start over. While manipulation of a single mobile device was not built in as a part of game-play, the opportunity for local interaction is encouraged due to the co-presence of the students at specific locations.

      If you want to take a look at ARIS for yourself, click here! Thanks again!

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