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

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This paper is the first in a series presenting findings from a yearlong mixed-methods study of the University of There (UOT), a player-run distributed learning community within the online graphical 3D world There.com. 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? - 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? The study found the following: - Play creates forms of affinity, commitment and attention, three factors which, according to Nardi, enhance collaboration. - Staff and faculty reported that their volunteer contribution to the UOT was a source of happiness. Personal relationships, creative activities, and a love of learning were other motivating factors. - The play context provided staff and instructors with a framework in which to play with teaching, resulting in experimental “folk” methods, many of which reflected well-studied theories of learning in games. - In addition UOT’s being a peer-based constructionist learning community, the study concluded that There.com’s “culture of constructionism” makes it a learning environment by definition, since players must learn in order to create.