2 comments on “Take some time in 2019 to play with yourself”

Take some time in 2019 to play with yourself

Many people will be dusting off their old box of New Year’s Resolutions from 2018 today, acknowledging how unsuccessful or successful they were and planning some new ones for 2019. The trouble with New Year’s Resolutions is that they are often incredibly virtuous, a bit unpleasant, and too hard to keep up year-round. So to help you make your 2019 a little bit more fun, I’ve created a few videos to help you be your own coach and cheerleader. And you can do it in less than an hour a week – by playing with lego (or a similar brick-related toy product).

Play Along: the Skills Build

Part 1 – Technical skills

Part 2 – Using bricks as metaphors

Part 3 – Telling a story

Once you have completed the skills build, you are ready to move onto the self-coaching part of the process. This involves a repeatable 30 minute activity.

Self-coaching with LEGO Serious Play materials

Commit to regular play

Advice for self-coaching

Coaching yourself is much more difficult than being coached by someone else, but it can still pay off! You simply need to ensure you commit to regular sessions, and promise yourself to be honest.

Basic Coaching Questions

WHAT and WHY and WHAT. Getting great results is often about asking great questions. These question words help orient you towards a goal, understanding your current situation and considering your path towards change. What do I want to change? Why is it a problem? What can I do to make a difference? Finally, HOW will help you focus on your actions towards change.

To model your current satisfaction, fill out the Life Satisfaction Wheel

Keeping Track

The most important way to keep yourself motivated and bring about the change you aim for is by keeping track – but it doesn’t matter how you do it. You can keep a diary or bullet journal, build it using a LEGO diagram or calendar chart, or make a vlog. Just make sure you give yourself 15 or 20 minutes every fortnight to reflect and review your progress – and be playful!

Let’s make 2019 a year of serious fun. Play along!

0 comments on “Are we Homo Ludens? Huizinga’s 5-point definition of play.”

Are we Homo Ludens? Huizinga’s 5-point definition of play.

Homo Ludens is a text frequently cited yet less often read with respect to games and culture. Establishing the concept of the ‘magic circle’, many subsequent studies of games use this work of historical analysis to convey authority and gravitas to the field, and Huizinga’s key message is still a compelling one: that to play is necessary to human life and culture.

This post will shortly be available as a video on the Seriously Learned Youtube channel, meanwhile you can hear Laura talking about Huizinga on BBC Radio 3 here.

Who was Johan Huizinga?

Johan Huizinga was a linguist and historian based at Leiden University when he wrote Homo Ludens in the 1930s. He was particularly interested in the behaviours of courtly life in the medieval, renaissance and late baroque periods, and noted their tendency towards play. However, in scholarly circles in the Netherlands he was a controversial figure and branded a detached recluse for concentrating on telling tales of a beautiful and idealised past, rather than addressing the contemporary dangers of Fascism and Nazism. Nonetheless, anti-Nazi actions he had taken in the 1930s and later criticism of the occupation of the Netherlands had him detained in 1942 and he was subsequently refused permission to return to Leiden. He died in 1945.

Colie (1964) was instrumental in foregrounding Huizinga’s contribution to English-speaking scholars in the post-war period. She highlights that Homo Ludens is not a theory of games, but rather a theory of the function of play in human culture. Colie implies that Huizinga’s work on play is important for recognising that as social beings we don’t only come up with rules to get along together, but also allow for spaces where we can break those rules in order to explore alternative ways of organising.

What is play?

In Homo Ludens, Huizinga points out that Ancient Greek culture distinguished between paidia – lighthearted or child’s play, and agon – sport or games, but to the Romans, all was included in the term ludus – play. By exploring the challenges and contests in Greek sport and identifying the linguistic approach to play in Germanic and Romance languages, as well as Sanskrit, Sinitic (Chinese) and Native American (Blackfoot), Huizinga sides with the Roman characterisation of both types of activity as the same. He identifies that play incorporates descriptions of nature and human action, pretence and limits, freedom of movement and of competition. Most frequently, Huizinga identifies play as comprising a pledge to undergo some kind of risk and tension, even to the degree of deadly seriousness as in violent sporting matches.

The 5 characteristics.

Huizinga outlines five characteristics of play;

Play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life”

1. Play is voluntary

The voluntary nature of play is in contrast to the involuntary nature of the things we must do for survival. This is obvious in tasks such as washing or tending crops but less obvious when we start to consider ‘playful’ activities such as craft or artistry which require toil or training. Huizinga debates this in the distinction between the musical (arts) and plastic (crafts) to argue that while performance is a type of free play which may rely upon expertise and training, the training or crafting of skill or a piece of art is work. In this distinction, the showing of a painting might be play, but the production of it is labour.

2. Play is Rule Ordered

When we enter into play, we agree to play by explicit or implied rules, which are often different to those we normally follow. These rules are rules of behaviour as well as of material significance. For example, the idea of taking turns, and that everyone shall have a turn to act or speak is a frequent unwritten rule of most conversational games. The use of physical tokens to represent action is another frequent rule, along with details such as how many tokens a player has and how actions through them may be performed.

3. Play happens within fixed boundaries: the ‘magic circle’

The setting aside of play as a distinct practice is closely related to the understanding of the specific order and binding rules of play. When we agree to the restriction of rules, we also agree that these restrictions will only apply for a time and/or place. We allow ourselves the freedom to step outside of that space or time, whether loser or victor, and return to a different set of rules of behaviour. Those who breach the boundaries are contemptuous, spoil-sports or barbarians, and are swiftly excluded.

4. Play is different

When we play, we are distinctly aware that what we are doing is not ‘ordinary life’, though we might mimic everyday activities. We inhabit a different ‘mental world’ where there might be consequences to what we are doing, but those consequences usually adhere to different rules. This is one of the main reasons why play can be so satisfying, as we sometimes need to enter a space where the rules are different to everyday life – fairer or more clearly specified, in order to explore why some practices have been successful or unsuccessful.

5. Play is not useful or in a material interest

One of the important elements of play is “what is at stake”. Although gambling and risk-taking are identified by Huizinga as key to understanding the tension and excitement of play, play is nonetheless non-purposeful. Huizinga compares professional and amateur sports in this respect, highlighting that once the playing of a game is subservient to a material interest it no longer can be understood as pure play. However, in conjunction with the concept of the magic circle, it remains possible to identify play as having serious and material consequences without necessarily invalidating its status. Importantly, although satisfaction is key to play, Huizinga’s definition does not rely solely upon a psychological perspective of play as producing a ‘feeling’ of engagement (or flow) as a definitive factor.

Play and Culture

Huizinga explores a wide range of social activities in Homo Ludens that we might not identify as play. These include ‘sporting’ activities such as duels to the death or verbal ‘battles’ such as public debates. He also points out the importance of play to ceremony and performance. Both dance and music are play performances, though we would not often think of these as we do games.

Gifts: Conspicuous consumption and destruction

A significant type of play identified in Homo Ludens is drawn from Mauss’ work on gift-exchange, which shares similarities with Veblen’s work on conspicuous consumption.

one proves one’s superiority not merely by the lavish prodigality of one’s gifts but, what is even more striking, by the wholesale destruction of one’s possessions just to show that one can do without them.

This highlights how the practice of giving away high-value items conveys a message regarding the wealth and virtue of the gift-giver, and places an obligation on the receiver to reciprocate, or in the case of the destruction of property, to compete.

This type of competition compares with boasting or slanging matches, and is labelled a ‘squandering match’ by Huizinga. The expression of excessive politeness is a comparable reversed game to that of the boasting match, in which each participant strives to be more courteous than the other.

Knowledge: play to learn

Just as there are forms of contest based on chance, dexterity or physical ability, Huizinga points out the common occurrence of knowledge contests in history and myth. Knowledge contests also remain so central to contemporary life we don’t even recognise them as such – though we call them ‘tests’ and ‘qualifying exams’! In Homo Ludens, Huizinga focuses on the role of wordplay and riddles in schooling particular types of thinking or expertise.

The answer to an enigmatic question is not found by reflection or logical reasoning. It comes quite literally as a sudden solution – a loosening of the tie by which the questioner holds you bound. The corollary of this is that by giving the correct answer you strike him powerless. In principle there is only one answer to every question. It can be found if you know the rules of the game.

While this resembles being quizzed in front of a class, the riddle-question can also push the limit of knowledge by motivating participation in the challenge. Huizinga presents the example of the ‘superlative question’ game, such as “what is sweeter than…” where each answer become the next question. To answer “I don’t know” is to lose the game, so it motivates scholarship. If we take a different version of this question, such as “what is smaller than…” our eventual result today would be to study advanced mathematics or particle physics!

Law: the courtroom as a ‘magic circle’

the lawsuit can be regarded as a game of chance, a contest, or a verbal battle

When we consider the seriousness of a court of law, Huizinga’s assertion that we can identify law as a type of play seems an extreme one. It relies upon the recognition of  historical and cultural approaches to justice which rely upon the setting aside of a context in which a trial may be fairly conducted. The pursuit of justice must be set apart from other social activity in order to establish principles of fairness, and as such it utilises the characteristics of a play contest. This setting-apart of the courtroom also applies to the judge and other roles within it – as these individuals must set aside personal attitudes and concerns. This presents some explanation, Huizinga suggests, for the peculiar use of costume or regalia in the legal profession.

Play and War: worlds apart?

Its principle of reciprocal rights, its diplomatic forms, its mutual obligations in the matter of honouring treaties and, in the event of war, officially abrogating peace, all bear a formal resemblance to play-rules inasmuch as they are only binding while the game itself – i.e. the need for order in human affairs – is recognized.

If we look to ancient civilization it is not difficult to find a link between violent sports and the training of skills for war. From ancient strategy games to contemporary computer games, the theme of warplay is a popular one. Unlike the moral panics which propose that warplay encourages violence, Huizinga proposes that the limiting rules of play are fundamentally necessary to distinguishing between human engagement in war, an aggressive combat between equals, and animal violence in the pursuit of survival.

Implicit to Huizinga’s writing on this seems to be the proposal that war without limitations is a challenge to all human civilisation; war without limitations is not an activity that may be claimed by homo sapiens without placing that very categorisation in jeopardy.

We might, in a purely formal sense, call all society a game if we bear in mind that this game is the living principle of all civilization.

Is everything play?

Since Huizinga, other influential scholars have presented definitions of play which make different distinctions. Caillois’ Man, Play and Games (1961) reintroduced the distinction between ‘play’ (imaginative fantasy) and ‘sport’ (skill-based games), while some psychologists have proposed a definition of ‘unstructured’ play as the individual experience of creativity or improvisation.

Purposeful play, or the appropriation of play-like characteristics to activity which is not different to “ordinary life”, for Huizinga, is false play. In the final chapter of Homo Ludens, Huizinga expresses concerns about the use of play to conceal political or social agendas or to promote ‘barbaric’ tendencies such as the infantilisation, subjugation or oppression of others.

Overall, Homo Ludens highlights how many cultural activities incorporate play-like characteristics, and also indicates that new cultural practices can emerge from playing with existing norms and formats. Yet Huizinga makes no assumption about the quality of play activity; suggesting that it can be debased to meaningless repetition, or can be elevated to ritual or sacred status. Where play offers scope for development and improvisation of culture, it may be seen as a productive force. Yet some characteristics of play may be employed to inhibit the development of collective culture, and the victories achieved through play are empty ones.

0 comments on “Is LEGO seriously good for business?”

Is LEGO seriously good for business?

The LEGO® Serious Play® Method (LSP) was developed in the late 1990s by Professors Johan Roos and Victor Bart from the Institute for Management Development, Switzerland. It might seem childish at first, but it utilises three very powerful ideas from social science to be effective;

  1. intrinisic motivation
  2. constructive learning
  3. hands-on creativity

These can have huge transformative impacts on real business challenges. Read on to learn how.

Intrinsic Motivation through Play

Play offers us the opportunity to develop competence and mastery, and in the ‘sweet spot’ of a challenge that is achievable but stretches our abilities we are completely absorbed. Csíkszentmihályi described this as ‘flow’, which we often experience in sports and leisure activities.  But it’s rare to feel it in business meetings! By introducing serious forms of play such as LSP, companies can engage employees’ intrinsic motivation to create ‘leaning in’, or direct and active engagement in the present problem or objective.

Constructive Learning

Human beings are natural experimenters, building new solutions out of previous successful and unsuccessful experiences. This experimental attitude is the basis for problem-based learning and relies on a constructivist theory of learning, that we build knowledge rather than absorb it from others (there’s an in-depth post on learning theory here).  Papert expanded on this in the 1990s with constructionism, arguing that learning is most effective when we create a meaningful product as part of the process. By thinking about learning as building, it’s clear that we don’t learn directly from simply listening to other people’s talk of their experience or understanding –  that would be like ordering some flat-pack furniture and waiting for it to build itself! Instead we combine what we already know (previous assembly) with resources (screwdrivers), stories (instructions) and feedback from others (“It doesn’t look straight, honey”) to build something new. It’s even more effective when we collaborate within a community and learn together.

This model of learning also applies to organisations; as individuals learn and adapt they pass the knowledge on to others. However, it can be very difficult for managers to ensure this process if productive, visible and effective when dealing with more abstract challenges. The building practices of LSP focus on creating visible representations of ideas that can be a focus for collaboration. Using LSP or similar processes, businesses can learn from changing environments to enhance services, strengthen teams, and develop and revise strategy more effectively.

Hands-on Creativity

Although an area which is still undergoing detailed research, the creative potential of physical building activities (‘think with your hands’) is widely praised. Neurological research into creativity suggests that activating parts of the brain which are not usually connected can be a requirement for creativity, as can the release of dopamine (which may be stimulated by play). So having an enjoyable experience such as building LEGO models can help promote a creative mindset suited to improving services, innovating new products and collaborating on visions for the future.


Follow this blog or add me on twitter @srslylearned to get the next instalment on games, creativity and innovation!

Learn more about LEGO® Serious Play® Workshops

Selected academic sources

Pichlis, D et al.(2015) “Empower a Team’s product Vision with LEGO® Serious Play®” in the Proceedings of the 16th International Conference on Product-Focused Software Process Improvement 9459:210-216 https://tinyurl.com/y9ookxb3

Primus, DJ & Sonnenburg, S (2018) “Flow Experience in Design Thinking and Practical Synergies with Lego Serious Play” Creativity Research Journal https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10400419.2018.1411574

McCusker, S (2014) “LEGO®, Seriously: thinking through building” in the International Journal of Knowledge, Innovation and Entrepreneurship http://www.ijkie.org/IJKIE_August2014_SEAN%20MCCUSKER.pdf

James, A (2013) “LEGO Serious Play: a three-dimensional approach to learning development” in the Journal of Learning Development in HE http://journal.aldinhe.ac.uk/index.php/jldhe/article/download/208/154

0 comments on “Play It Smart: what we can learn from games (and why they should be used to teach us)”

Play It Smart: what we can learn from games (and why they should be used to teach us)

Along with two other members of the Games Research Network, Dr Chloe Germaine Buckley and Dr Paul Wake, I was privileged to be part of the “Play it Smart” panel discussing the educational possibilities of games at Tabletop Gaming Live on Saturday 29th September. For those who couldn’t make it, you can enjoy the (slightly clearer) synopsis below.

0 comments on “Migrations LARP and the value of play”

Migrations LARP and the value of play

After our run at The Smoke in January, earlier this summer Dr Chloe Buckley and myself ran a small LARP workshop as part of the Manchester Gothic Festival, during the International Gothic Association Conference. This game was open to the public and offered participants the opportunity to experience a gothic-style narrative from the inside, as characters. Inspired by the world of HP Lovecraft’s novels and its surrounding mythos, Migrations aimed to introduce participants to the feeling of being trapped and suddenly ignorant of the basic rules of the world – a common enough experience for characters in Gothic novels.

The scenario for this game, a university talk gone wrong, builds on participant’s existing knowledge and experience of university activities. From unreliable powerpoint slides to disorganised lecturers, we began the scenario with the usual ‘gone wrongs’ that can reliably be encountered and understood. However, drawing on the mythology of Lovecraftian tales, a whole other dimension of ‘gone wrongs’ were about to unfold.

For our participants, the foolish actions of one character caused the entire group to be suspended in a trapped no-space, between our world and another one, one in which ‘magic’ through appeasement of ‘gods’ flourished though threats abounded. Participants had to make sense of the magic and perform it in order to craft their own escape; or refuse and accept their inevitable doom.

In previous and forthcoming research, we have outlined how the construction of experiences in live roleplay games rely on a range of preconceptions based on participant’s experiences, and also on participant’s learned ability to focus on what is relevant. Many experiential games which are now popular share this feature with LARP, such as escape rooms, yet these games are usually a challenge of competence and mastery. In most such games, the environment is highly controlled with game components clearly separated or distinguished, A particular set of skills, usually including pattern-recognition, spatial and numerical problem solving, with a little cultural knowledge, will help you emerge from an escape room as a ‘winner’.

However, in Lovecraftian narrative there are rarely, if ever, any ‘winners’. In LARP more generally, a play-to-win attitude will rarely offer the best experience. In our recent Migrations LARP, participants all to some degree aimed to ‘win’ through survival of the scenario. To strive to understand and to thwart the unknown mystical forces which were effectively ‘counting down’ their last moments. Only a few participants considered or embraced a narrative of loss; whether by abandoning their known world and home or through individual failure in the hope of collective success.

On reflection, we propose that this game experience foregrounds our attachment to ‘known unknowns’. From participants feedback we are aware that most identified the workshop as a bit of fun, the sort of entertaining activity that might be part of a conference social programme or festival. With most participants never having played in a LARP before, the very workshop itself was an unknown quantity. Yet as a learning experience, we would suggest that participants reflect upon their attachment to the known, and consider what the Gothic form can teach us about the barriers, of comfort and success, that must be breached to extend our knowledge.

0 comments on “SCOS 2018 Tokyo”

SCOS 2018 Tokyo

This summer I was privileged to attend the Standing Conference on Organisational Symbolism to present the collaborative work I have been developing with colleagues elsewhere in Europe on how the playing of games support learning in entrepreneurial communities. The broader theme of the conference was Wabi-Sabi, or the Japanese aesthetic philosophy which privileges imperfection, impermanence and restraint. This aesthetic is most commonly associated with the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, yet is also significant throughout Japanese culture.

A number of presentations explored how this particular aesthetic manifests in an interest in setting aside differences in power and position in the interests of employee well-being, whether through the promotion of particular values or activities which might often be excluded from everyday business. The long association of Japanese manufacturing and lean production methods might initially seem to contradict such messages, and a range of scholars explored how contemporary types of organising often focus on extreme mechanised and documented perfection, enforced by technological surveillance systems. However, AGILE methodologies were also questioned as unsuccessful revolutions in employee management, too successful to live up to the romantic aspirations of their founders.

As yet, there are few conclusions to the questions provoked by these cultural conundrums. However, the range of studies presented there are likely to contribute towards ongoing theorising about the impact and potential of cultural awareness in both the practical organising of business and the study of its operations. If I took away one useful message from this event, it was that thinking about how cultural business practices can be represented by artistic themes can be highly thought provoking!


0 comments on “Team Culture is a powerful enabler”

Team Culture is a powerful enabler

There is really no better time than during a top sporting season for a healthy reminder that in business, as in sport, team culture is incredibly powerful. But as recent analyses of Southgate’s managing style have pointed out, it’s not just a matter of bringing the boys together.

Positivity in managing a collection of footballers has been key to the England team’s success in the World Cup so far, and sports psychologist Dr Pippa Grange’s contribution has had a huge impact. Reporting in the Guardian, Emine Saner sums up her 5 top tips:

  • Don’t fear failure.
  • Reframe emotions: you’re not “nervous”, you’re “excited”
  • Positive thinking is unhelpful if you’re simply fantasising. Focus on the steps that could get you to your goal.
  • Treat your employees as individuals rather than a homogenous group. Different approaches will work for different people.
  • Kindness, listening and empathy will take you further than barking orders. Use praise to motivate people.

Creating a positive and productive environment can certainly help any team’s performance. But we should also remember that compared to business managers, Southgate has it easy. Managing business culture may well be an impossible task. Few businesses can keep their employees together 24/7 to keep that culture of positivity going, and trying to do so can even be dangerous! Plus employees are often much more diverse in age, background and experience than England’s football team. But business culture can be inspired by popular culture, and perhaps these tips can be applied to the harder task of business success. Here’s some translations of Pippa’s advice for managers;

  • Promote a culture of positive learning from setbacks and mistakes, not dressing-down.
  • Listen, and trust emotions as feedback. In a trusting environment teams can explore disappointment and other negative feelings to find and share the positive passions that inspired their work in the first place.
  • Be kind, not nice. Etiquette and politeness have their place but can support cowardly management, prevent open dialogue and acknowledging challenges. Allow friendly dissent!
  • Generate regular positive sociality routines, through old traditions or new ones! Games and play provide a safe environment and teams can face tough challenges when they have used shared experiences to build rapport.
  • Celebrate! Recognise success wherever you find it. Don’t make your employees leave their joys at the door: encourage sharing of diverse personal victories and as well as professional ones
  • Be humble and accountable. Regularly review and revise goals and productive practices to avoid unattainable fantasies, paying closer attention to individual steps. Don’t forget that you and your team are in this together.

Southgate’s job is a difficult one, but there’s a clear goal in sight. Managing your business is harder, as those goalposts will just keep moving. But supporting a positive team culture means you don’t have to get there alone.

0 comments on “Can you really gamify learning?”

Can you really gamify learning?

In an older post on learning theories I outlined two different theoretical approaches to learning; behaviourist (conditioning) and cognitivist. In this post, I explore what this might mean in terms of a the types of learning activity which can be ‘gamified’. As a key mechanism of learning, this post concentrates on how gamification tackles a simple activity; asking questions.

Publicly asking questions, whether of staff in a meeting or students in a lecture theatre, is often unsuccessful or embarassing. This is because we culturally associate this activity with roles which lack competence (eg the novice, the child) and because it is also associated with the challenge of a test. Questions can also make assumptions about the sorts of investigation we need or the type of solution we expect.

Because asking questions can be so embarrassing and uncomfortable, a lot of people don’t like to ask – and this can lead to more than ignorance, but to all sorts of problems including errors or malpractice. So many training organisations have turned to gamification in an attempt to solve the problem of awkward asking.

Successful Q&A

Teacher: What is 12 x 167 Watson?!

Pupil 1:  it’s 1,674 sir!

Teacher: Wrong Watson! Hobbes?

Pupil 2:  is it 1,694 sir?

Teacher: Correct! You may have a gold star and 15 house points.

In behaviourism, questioning like the example above is a form of conditioning (this example is a simple version of classical conditioning). In conditioning, correct behaviour is encouraged through positive reinforcement – an immediate reward. In a wide variety of mobile gamification applications, the same principle applies. Rewards (and penalties!) might not even be obvious, as it could be an animation, sound effect or vibration of your device.

In the example above, the questioning clearly establishes a hierarchical relationship, whereby the powerful teacher ‘tests’ the pupil for sanctioned responses. Teaching of this sort, however, is mainly the province of Victorian TV dramas. Even from a behaviourist point of view, this model rewards the ‘correct’ answer, but does not necessarily encourage the appropriate method of arriving at that answer. It therefore operates only as a memorization exercise. While the design of apps offers a more sophisticated form of gamification, many rely on memorisation or the completion of a ‘recipe’ of steps in order to achieve the desired goal.

Cognitivist Questioning

Questioning in a cognitivist approach draws on Bloom’s taxonomy of learning. Mentioned in the previous post on learning theory, Bloom’s taxonomy outlines a hierarchy of learning, with description or memorisation at the bottom and evaluation or creative knowledge production at the peak. In this hierarchy, the least productive sort of question encourages mimicry, and the most productive sort of question is one that tasks the learner with evaluative problem-solving.

While these type of questions can also be tied to rewards in a behaviourist style, it’s much more difficult to incorporate analysis, synthesis or evaluative problem solving in a gamified application. However, that doesn’t make it impossible.

Excellent examples of gamification focusing on crisis events and applying simulation strategies can engage with a cognitivist approach. These often foreground the open question (explicitly or implicitly): “What are you going to do?”. Utilising dramatic storytelling or simulation, such approaches foreground problem solving through carefully incorporating relevant information in a more subtle way, requiring the player to investigate and analyse the situation.

Using a ‘branching’ story structure, these types of games don’t communicate immediately if you have found the ‘right’ answer. Instead, they put the player in a dramatic story with limited action to produce different outcomes and rely upon observation of details from the narrative to provoke an analytical approach towards player’s response. These approaches also engage empathy and replayability to encourage learning.

So what can be gamified?

These learning principles emphasise that the best type of learning objectives for simple gamification is memorisation; such as the communication of new compliance criteria or familiarisation with a new system or process. The approach is ideal for training large collections of people across the organisation in new information.

More complex problems rely upon dramatisation, storytelling and simulation to facilitate a problem-solving approach. Using these methods it is possible to enhance training and offer a broader range of scenarios for potential application to the learner. However, such approaches can be less effective than simple gamification or face-to-face training and mainly provide an advantage for reaching a wider pool of learners, or as part of a blended learning solution.

0 comments on “Neoliberalising HE – Part II”

Neoliberalising HE – Part II

Part II

In Part I of this short series, I briefly outlined the features of neoliberalism as it appears as a general ideology and it’s associations with managerialism. That post detailed how the growing conception that all organisations can operate under the same processes and be managed by the same techniques has been a creeping feature of public sector services management in a range of sectors including education. This instalment will pick up where the last post ended, in exploring the connections between that broader context and the direct experiences of staff and students working within contemporary HE institutions. This will directly identify links between ideologically driven marketisation and specific mechanisms of management control.

2.1 Marketisation

An important feature of neoliberalism (in the economic definition) relies on the expectation that market exchange of equal commodities leads to a more efficient distribution of resources (‘goods’) in society. However, as organisations are often dissuaded from operating under fair and equitable exchange some state intervention is necessary in order to facilitate marketisation. In other words, state intervention should not be in order to produce certain outcomes, but rather to encourage individuals and organisations to act more like an ideal marketplace. This represents a notable shift in the location of responsibility for outcomes; from the collective actions of the state (or organisation) towards the individual citizen-worker-consumer. Thus, any failure in the equitable distribution of goods is characterised either as a market failure (the operations do not sufficiently resemble free market exchange) or individual failure (the individual has not correctly identified the utility or value of the product).

If HE was to be modelled as a market, it would not be a single market but a combination of markets for students, for research funds, for workers, for donations and so on. While the most obvious state intervention to remodel HE on a market premise has been the introduction of student fees, the introduction of external evaluation mechanisms such as the National Student Survey (NSS)-linked Teaching Evaluation Framework (TEF) serves to de-differentiate between programs of study and at the same time introduce information which will encourage consumer-students to differentiate between university learning ‘products’ on the basis of price. Similar rankings and propositions, such as the ranking of university undergraduate programmes by graduate salaries, are further examples of attempts to ‘marketise’ HE through encouraging student-consumers to select their preferred product in relation to it’s likely performance as an investment in their future career.

2.2 Surveillance and Responsibilisation

This surveillance of past graduates and accompanying idea that the student-consumer is responsible through their ‘free’ choice of university program for their future success is an extension of the neoliberal ideology through an increased responsibilisation of the individual. Such a point of view is not only a particular way of viewing our actions in the world, but it seems may also be a damaging one as indicated by the increasing incidence of mental health struggles experienced by students at university and in an increasingly pressured examination-driven education environment at younger ages. The supposed meritocratic neutrality of these measuring mechanisms only adds to the weight of responsibility felt by the individual in determining their own future success. These student experiences are matched by those of would-be academic workers in the HE labour market who are subject to extensive mechanisms of surveillance concentrated on individual performance, despite many outcomes being linked to factors dictated by choices on institutional or project resource allocation (such as class sizes, length of research projects et cetera). Gonzales, Martinez & Ordu (2014) explore this in relation to the concept of ‘academic capitalism’ in a US university to show how this manifests in everyday work pressure whereby individual academics are ‘engulfed’ by work time infiltrating all aspects of life and a competitive drive for ‘hyperprofessionalism’. That one of their participants is quoted these work conditions and expectations as ‘inhumane’ perhaps highlights why the similar stress and sickness epidemic is prevalent in contemporary UK HE institutions (We are Higher Education 2018)

Uncertain yet perpetual surveillance is a preferred neoliberal technique of control in organisation precisely because it emphasises responsibilisation. While management in the form of supervision of work indicates responsibility for outcomes rests with the organisation and its techniques or strategies, management by surveillance instead encourages the individual to bear responsibility for outcomes. The use of short-term or insecure work contracts further communicates this uncertainty and individual responsibility, as rather than managing performance, the organisation can instead aim to substitute any individual considered insufficient with an alternative worker. Responsibility thus becomes one-sided with the employee bearing the obligation and responsibility for outputs and the organisation concentrated on monitoring rather than active management.  

2.3 Individualization and the human resource

While many aspects of work performance are undoubtedly linked to individual strengths and attributes, the strength of collective effort is often more than the sum of its parts. By coming together in organisations rather than working as individuals, the difficulties faced in periods of being less able to work through sickness or other challenges are a burden shared in the knowledge that such events are a risk faced by all individuals. However, a focus on the human ‘resource’ as an individual measured unit, encouraged by neoliberal thinking, obscures the benefits of collective endeavour.  

Individualization is a concept tied to neoliberalisation in that it describes the increasing responsibilisation of individuals as the authors of their own life narrative (see Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 2002). In sum, the individual is held to be responsible for their outcomes in life over other factors such as luck or prevalence/lack of opportunities afforded through regional development, wealth, economic and social change, social support networks and so on. This process is highly evident in the assumptions behind the majority of evaluative frameworks applied in HE, and while there are plenty of examples among the surveillance of  academic workers, this is also evident in the uncertain contractual circumstances often faced by workers in support services (where workers are often held to be individually responsible for re-aligning their skills with new roles, to undertake training in their own time and so on).

In the contracting out of services and the reduction of facilities for staff (for example, the closure of common rooms previously available to cleaning and maintenance staff where they could store personal possessions when on shift and socialise during breaks), workers in HE have been increasingly modelled as functionaries towards whom the university has no responsibility beyond their working hours, and this same perspective is the one which acts as the foundation for the current dispute over pensions.  

2.3 Organizational mimesis

Given that there has been substantial media coverage of Vice-Chancellor’s salaries and expenses and other ways in which top managerial staff in organisations affiliated with HE have been seen to profit substantially as individuals within this (public) sector I have curtailed the lengthy segment which I had originally intended to write here (see resources below and in Part I for further reading). Suffice to say that the pursuit of efficiency in HE through techniques appropriated from managerialism in the private sector including responsibilisation, technologies of surveillance, outsourcing, zero-hours or short-term contracts have served to justify the expansion of administrative and managerial roles.

The case of pensions relates specifically to comparison with the private sector, given that in the majority of private sector occupations the availability of defined benefit pension funds has been dramatically reduced as the risk of investment performance for savings has been increasingly shifted to individuals. Due to the increased tendency in recent years for individuals to shift occupations fairly frequently, the move towards an individual focus on pension provision on the surface makes sense (for reasons of transferability). However, this shift results clearly in higher risk not only for individuals but also for the state, in a climate where increased living costs (primarily in housing, but also in loan repayments) is building a generation of workers with few capital assets on which to rely in retirement. The pensions issue itself is detailed and complex (see Grady & X for further details), and the governance of UUK fund management has also come under scrutiny in the course of the dispute.

Pursuit of financial efficiency and a market-driven consumer focus has encouraged universities to more closely mimic commercial institutions (and each other) in a way which is now being questioned by universities themselves following the UCU 2018 Pensions dispute (Toop 2018). Proposals regarding the ways in which these management methods, priorities and structures are undermining the democratic functions of universities and their accountability to the public as sources of public good rather than as providers of degree-products are being tabled and discussed and in this regard there is a drive towards revisiting the obligations and responsibilities a university has to it’s community including it’s students and employees. It remains to be seen whether this will result in a shift away from CEO-style vice-chancellors and a race to the bottom in the casualisation of employment.   


In the final installment in this series, I will outline some of the proposals and actions that have been raised in the course of the 2018 UCU Pension dispute, with the aim of resisting the production of students and employees as neoliberalised subjects.



Academic Articles

Joel D Aberbach and Tom Christensen (2007) Citizens and Consumers, Public Management Review, 7:2, 225-246, DOI: 10.1080/14719030500091319

Louise Archer (2008) “The new neoliberal subjects? Young/er academics’ constructions of professional identity”, Journal of Education Policy, 23:3, 265-285, DOI: 10.1080/02680930701754047

Stephen J. Ball (2009) Privatising education, privatising education policy, privatising educational research: network governance and the ‘competition state’, Journal of Education Policy, 24:1, 83-99,DOI: 10.1080/02680930802419474

Stephen J. Ball (2012) The reluctant state and the beginning of the end of state education, Journal of Educational Administration and History, 44:2, 89-103, DOI: 10.1080/00220620.2012.658764

Taylor C. Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse. (2009). Neoliberalism: From new liberal philosophy to anti-liberal slogan. Studies in Comparative International Development, 44(2), 137–161.

Roger Burrows. (2012). Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary Academy. The Sociological Review, 6(2), 355–372.

Bronwyn Davies and Peter Bansel (2010). Governmentality and Academic Work:Shaping the hearts and minds of academic workers. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 26(3) pp5-20

Rosemary Deem, Sam Hillyard and Mike Reed (2007) Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Managerialism: The Changing Management of UK Universities Oxford University Press https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=45cXWj4M0acC&printsec=frontcover

Willard F Enteman (2007) “Managerialism and the Transformation of the Academy” Philosophy of Management 6(1):5-16 https://link.springer.com/article/10.5840/pom2007612

Heather Fraser and Nik Taylor (2016) Neoliberalization, Universities and the Public Intellectual Palgrave Macmillan London

Henry Giroux (2002) Neoliberalism, Corporate Culture, and the Promise of Higher Education: The University as a Democratic Public Sphere. Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 72, No. 4, pp. 425-464. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.72.4.0515nr62324n71p1

Leslie D. Gonzales, E.Martinez and C. Ordu (2014). Exploring faculty experiences in a striving university through the lens of academic capitalism. Studies in Higher Education, 39(7), 1097–1115.

Leslie D. Gonzales and Anne-Marie Núñez. (2014). The Ranking Regime and the Production of Knowledge: Implications for Academia. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(31). http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v22n31.2014

Thomas Klikauer (2013) “What is Managerialism?” Critical Sociology 41 (7-8) pp1103-1119 https://doi.org/10.1177/0896920513501351

Chris Lorenz, “If You’re So Smart, Why Are You under Surveillance? Universities, Neoliberalism, and New Public Management,” Critical Inquiry 38, no. 3 (Spring 2012): 599-629.


Kathleen Lynch (2006) “Neo-liberalisation and marketisation: The implications for Higher Education” European Educational Research Journal 5 (1): 1-17 https://doi.org/10.2304/eerj.2006.5.1.1

Mark Olssen and Michael A. Peters (2007) Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: from the free market to knowledge capitalism, Journal of Education Policy, 20:3, 313-345, DOI: 10.1080/02680930500108718

Hugo Radice (2013) “How We Got Here: UK Higher Education under Neoliberalism” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 12(2)  [NB A radical publication and not all work is blind-reviewed]

Jeff Rose and Dan Dustin (2009). The neoliberal assault on the public university: The case of recreation, park, and leisure research. Leisure Sciences, 31(4), 397–402.

Cris Shore (2010). Beyond the multiversity: Neoliberalism and the rise of the schizophrenic university. Social Anthropology, 18(1), 15–29

Sandra Smeltzer and Alison Hearn (2014) Student Rights in an Age of Austerity? ‘Security’, Freedom of Expression and the Neoliberal University, Social Movement Studies, 14:3, 352-358, DOI: 10.1080/14742837.2014.945077

Philip A. Woods, Glenys J. Woods & Helen Gunter (2007) Academy schools and entrepreneurialism in education, Journal of Education Policy, 22:2, 237-259, DOI: 10.1080/02680930601158984

News, Magazine articles and social media publications

Jana Bacevic (March 14th 2018) Life or Business as Usual? The lessons of the USS strike (personal blog) Available online at: https://janabacevic.net/2018/03/14/life-or-business-as-usual-lessons-of-the-uss-strike/

Simon Baker (March 12 2018) “Admin and management staff costs rising the fastest, suggest data” Times Higher Education  https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/admin-and-management-staff-costs-rising-fastest-suggest-data

Jennie Bristow (Mar 5th 2018) “This strike reminds us what universities are for” Spiked! http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/this-strike-reminds-us-what-universities-are-for/21184?utm_content=buffer3b3c4&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer#.WqFABijFJaR

Martin Henegan, Jo Grady & Liam Foster “Women to be hardest hit by proposed university pension scheme changes” UCU Sheffield blog http://ucu.group.shef.ac.uk/women-to-be-hardest-hit-by-proposed-university-pension-scheme-changes/

The Guardian (12 March 2018) “Accountability and UK University Governance” Letters https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/mar/12/accountability-and-uk-university-governance?CMP=share_btn_tw

Sophie Inge (March 6th 2018) “UK Universities rely on casual staff ‘fur up to half of teaching’ Times Higher Education https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/uk-universities-rely-casual-staff-half-teaching

Katy Sian (March 14th 2018) “We’re drawing the line’: Our fight against university marketization is about more than pensions” Ceasefire Magazine https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/were-drawing-line-fight-university-marketization-pensions/ 

Ned Simons (Feb 28th 2018) “Vice-Chancellors Accused Of Pocketing An ‘Eye-Watering’ 227% Increase In Financial Benefits Since 2010” Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/vice-chancellors-have-pocketed-an-eye-watering-227-increase-in-financial-benefits-since-2010_uk_5a96befce4b0e6a523039e82?ncid=tweetlnkukhpmg00000001

Aisha Thomas-Smith (Mar 13th 2018) “Why are University Lecturers on Strike?” Weekly Economics Podcast https://soundcloud.com/weeklyeconomicspodcast/why-are-university-lecturers-on-strike (see 12:45 onwards for discussion of marketisation).

Stephen Toope (16th March 2018) “The future of UK Universities”  Vice-Chancellor’s Blog, University of Cambridge website Available at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/news/the-future-of-uk-universities-vice-chancellors-blog 

UCU (Mar 6th 2018) Edinburgh University under fire over plans to try and break pensions strike with out of date recorded lectures https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/9386/Edinburgh-University-under-fire-over-plans-to-try-and-break-pensions-strike-with-out-of-date-recorded-lectures#.Wp5-DX9TSNw.twitter

We are Higher Education (Feb 17th 2018 ) The staff stress and sickness epidemic occurring in Universities across the UK https://wearehighereducation.org/2018/02/17/is-the-higher-education-sector-in-crisis-the-staff-stress-and-sickness-epidemic-occurring-in-universities-across-the-uk/