Abstract / Thesis Thanks

My PhD thesis is a ‘hybrid text’ consisting of written text, comics and other graphic content as a means of exploring theory and representing the ‘lived experience’ a group of children engaged in on and off-screen play during a Minecraft Club.

The full thesis is available to download here: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/15872/

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On Life / On Play

After a few weeks of seemingly non-stop conferences and talks (Sheffield Uni, Lancaster, Sheffield Uni again and finally Bristol, for the UKLA) I am finally back to working on my thesis, drawing things together and making plans to move on to other things. All busy but all good.

Apropos of nothing much, here’s a tiny, handheld extract…



Comic Strips as Data Representation

My prezi for my presentation on Monday, as part of a symposium on methodologies around Understanding Classroom Life, at Sheffield Hallam Faculty of Development and Society Research Conference.


Minecraft Play: Phantasmagoria, Paracosm and Subversion

‘Children’s play fantasies are not meant only to replicate the world, nor to be only its therapy; they are meant to fabricate another world that lives alongside the first one and carries on its own kind of life, a life often much more emotionally vivid than mundane reality.’ – Sutton-Smith, 2001

Sutton-Smith (2001) argues that rhetoric around play that positions ‘play as progress’ serves to undermine other more useful understandings of children’s play. One area he focuses on is that of child phantasmagoria, noting that in pretend play ‘there is often ludicrous distortion, exaggeration, and extravagance at times bordering on the bizarre.’ (Sutton-Smith, 2001)

There have been a large number of in-game incidents, events or episodes throughout the club’s duration that could be labelled as such: the horse funeral, throwing meat from a mountain, riding pigs, mass animal spawning, mass animal destruction… all examples that spring quickly to mind – play that Sutton-Smith refers to as ‘irrational, wild, dark, or deep play’.

Through this play, the children aren’t recreating their own lives as much as they are working to ‘fabricate another world that lives alongside the first one and carries on its own kind of life, a life often much more emotionally vivid than mundane reality.’ So whilst elements of the children’s Minecraft play sometimes seems to reflect the ‘real’ world,  it is not ‘based primarily on a representation of everyday real events….so much as it is based on a fantasy of emotional events.’ This focus on ’emotion’ feels important… 

Acknowledging the influence of affect on play, Sutton-Smith notes that ‘play is motivated primarily by feelings and not just by images of reality, and that children’s fantastic exaggerations are their storied interpretations of the world’. So the play is not just a result of the resources (material, virtual, immaterial) taken up by the children, but it also stems directly from the children’s feelings.

Sutton-Smith (2001) further suggests that solitary pursuit of video games can ‘lead to the standardisation of fantasy’ but can also ‘permit the promotion of internal (and therefore unpredictable) solitary fantasy’. Of course, in this context, the play in rarely solitary as it is carried out alongside others – meaning that the potentially internal solitary fantasy is made collective – a collective paracosm, made visible on screen – externalised – (and therefore standardised?) through Minecraft’s 8-bit aesthetics.

Sutton Smith also talks of ‘subversive play’, where the players ‘subvert the rhetorics of the adults by creating their own play as pragmatic rhetoric against those adults.’ Certainly, the children’s play in Minecraft includes a number of instances that could be considered subversive in a school context, and even in the more relaxed context of the club’s ‘create a community’ objective – the extent to which stealing each other’s horses or using TNT to destroy part of a hill actually contributes to a sense of community is up for debate.


Sutton-Smith, Brian (2001) ‘The Ambiguity of Play’, Harvard, London

London Marathon 2015


I am running the London Marathon on April 26th. I was lucky enough to get a place that isn’t dependent on raising a certain amount of money for charity, but it seemed like a good opportunity to try to collect a few pounds for a good cause anyway. So, if you would like to sponsor me, I am raising money for the mental health charity Mind – you can donate using the link below. Thanks!



On Telephone Interviews

20131208-132245.jpgI am fortunate to be involved in another literacy-based research project, aside from my own PhD. As part of this I have recently conducted telephone interviews with individuals in Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Mercifully for me, participants conversed in English as – to my shame – my foreign language skills do not extend beyond saying ‘hello‘ (invariably in the wrong language) and asking, in German, how to get to the railway station (‘Wie komme ich am besten zum bahnhof, bitte?’) – after which I would, no doubt, smile and nod uncomprehendingly at the response. Here, then, are some quick, personal reflections, based purely on this brief but valuable experience.

  • Interviews may provide an unexpected cultural, political or historical context to research. Although the questions themselves did not specifically seek this, it became obvious that participants were revealing interesting things about the countries’ attitudes to early literacy that would not necessarily come across in written literature or promotional materials. Known facts, therefore, gained greater significance when considered in context.
  • It is difficult to pursue a line of questioning that an interviewee is not enthusiastic about, or do not perceive themselves to have a secure knowledge of. This can swerve the interview away from the originally agenda. (My lack of ruthlessness here would clearly exempt me from employment at News of the World.)
  • Participants react differently to being sent questions in advance. Some people may use them to meticulously transcribe extensive answers to all questions. Others will not have had time to look at them until you call. And although the former approach may, on the surface, seem to be the preferable scenario for an interviewer, this can actually result in less opportunity for interaction and follow-up questions than the latter. Whilst there is clearly value in preparation, there is also something to be said for spontaneity. Both approaches present advantages and disadvantages.
  • People do not always know what you think they might know!
  • Telephone interviews do not, obviously, allow you to see facial expressions or body language. You only have tone of voice to help you gauge attitude, beyond what is being said.
  • People will give their time generously – for no evident or immediate personal gain. They enjoy talking about a topic that is important to them, and one that they have invested considerable time in – particularly if you show interest too.
  • The ability that some people have to converse in a language that is not their first is particularly impressive and somewhat humbling.
  • You will have no idea why you didn’t ask certain questions during the interview that seem obvious when you listen back to the recordings.
  • Listening back to your own voice on recordings is not a pleasant experience. You will cringe at your overuse of the word ‘excellent’ and a tone akin to a particularly patronising children’s television presenter from the 1980s.

Portal 2, Proxies and Boring Persistence

This post isn’t about using technology for learning. It’s about one of the things that stops us using technology for learning: the technological infrastructure in schools.

Valve now offer a full version of their game Portal 2 for use in schools. I now have access to 30 individual licenses for the game and I’m eager to start using it in the classroom. There’s significant potential for utilising it – along with the accompanying level designer – to develop problem solving and critical thinking skills. There’s also scope for some maths, literacy and science in there too. The accompanying site is here. Brilliant.


This picture shows the process a teacher is required to go through to install a simple piece of software on a classroom computer.

Or at least it would be brilliant if I wasn’t currently unable to use it in the classroom due to the frustratingly infrastructure-related issues in schools. Humour me while I explain the boring details in boring detail: To use the game it is necessary to install the gaming platform Steam on each laptop. Installing new software is always time consuming on multiple machines, but do-able. It involves logging in on each computer with the administrator username and password (which I can never remember), then repeating the download, install and login process for each laptop.

The problem is, in this case, Steam won’t fully install through the proxy server. Either that or it is blocked by our broadband provider – I can’t tell which, neither can our technician – it just doesn’t work. Searching the internet for clues I found this US based blog which outlines similar frustrations and a number of forums (largely inhabited by secondary-age children trying to get Steam installed in their school) suggesting that Steam doesn’t play well with Proxies. So the next step is to contact the regional broadband provider to request unblocking the relevant ports to see if that works. And if it doesn’t, I will try bringing the laptops home to install the software using my own broadband and then logging in in offline mode. This isn’t the first piece of software to present problems and it most probably won’t be the last.

There is usually a way – although it is invariably one that requires a boring amount of persistence. And considering the amount of time this all takes, it’s important to re-state the basic process I am trying to achieve: to install and run a piece of software. A free piece of software, aimed at schools. How, in 2013, when computers have been present in educational settings for the last 30 years, are we still in the situation where trying to install a piece of software to use in class feels like climbing a particularly annoying mountain? My aim is not to criticise or complain about anyone in particular but to wonder out loud about what, if anything, can be done?

Shaffer notes, ‘Computers have been in existence for over half a century and have been used in classroom for decades. Yet there has been no wholesale transformation of education as we know it.’ (p8, 2006) The infrastructure in school is perhaps the least intellectually interesting of many influencing factors, but one that surely has a disproportionate impact, particularly in schools or classrooms where teachers are yet to be convinced of the value of tech to ‘enrich’, let alone ‘transform’…

When I have finally got Portal 2 up and running, that’s when I can return to the familiar internalised wrangling over whether the skills taught by the game meet the requirements of a standardised, knowledge based curriculum. Until then, I’ll be developing my own problem solving skills in this less-than-inspiring way.


Burnett, Dickinson, Myers and Merchant (2006) Digital connections: transforming literacy in the primary school’ addresses technology use in terms of ‘enrichment’ and ‘transformation’.

Shaffer, DW. (2006) ‘How Computer Games Help Children Learn’ Palgrave Macmillan, New York.