Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

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"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more

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Sporadic Learning? An ethnographic study of the user-generated content in Will Wright’s Spore


1.What is Spore?

“In an era of structured education and standardized testing, this generational difference might not yet be evident. But the gamers’ mindset – the fact that they are learning in a totally new way – means they'll treat the world as a place for creation, not consumption. This is the true impact videogames will have on our culture” (Will Wright, 2006)

“Society may not like subjectivities being produced outside the school-work-home nexus, but most of the game players do” (John Fiske, 1989, 84)

Spore is a computer game designed by Maxis Studios’ founder Will Wright, the creator of such milestones in computer gaming as SimCity (1989) and The Sims (2000), which I have investigated in the past.

Spore simulates the complete history and evolution of life. Officially revealed in March 2005 during the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, the game will be released in Spring 2007 for the PC. It has been described as a “teleological evolution” simulation: the player molds and guides a brand new species across many generations, growing it from a single-celled organism into a more complex creature, until the species acquires full intelligence. At this point the player begins shaping and guiding this species’ society, progressing towards a spacefaring civilization.

Spore's main innovation portends to be Wright’s use of procedural generation for many of the components of the game, providing vast scope and an open, flexible structure. Moreover, the game is a digital, interactive sandbox that will allow the users to create their own content and to share it on the internet. Wright calls this project a “massively single-player online game”. In a sense, Spore appears to be a powerful digital authoring tool masqueraded as a game. Using intuitive editors, the players will be able to customize every detail of the creatures and the objects of the simulated universe. In other words, Spore will allow the players to exploit their creative energies and learning about crafting a miniature world.

The creatures, vehicles, and buildings the player can create will be uploaded automatically to a central database (or a peer-to-peer system), catalogued and rated for quality (based on how many users have downloaded the object or creature in question), and then re-distributed to populate other players’ games.

As Galen Davis (2005) wrote,

"More so than in other games [Will Wright] explained, he wanted to create a sense of both ownership (of the unique creatures and civilizations the player creates) as well as mastery (over the interface, which becomes more complex as the game's scale increases). The goal is to give the player simple tools to make them feel like they have tremendous leverage on the nature of the game itself. The game, then, becomes what he called “a creative amplifier for what the player has done".

For these reasons, I will look at Spore not just as a game, but rather as a learning space, a socio-technical space almost entirely created by the players. I will also try to study if and how the player will modify the game in ways that the developers did not expect, as it happened in the past with many other cases such as Half-Life, Doom, Civilization, The Sims Online and so on.

2. Research Goals

The research seeks to understand the informal learning and social networks that will emerge within and around Spore. Specifically, the researcher(s) will investigate how the players create and share digital content for the game.

By examining the ways players interact with Spore, the research aims at understanding:

• The kind of technical, social and cultural competencies that can be learned from playing the game and producing new content, both within the game (i.e. gameplay] and around the game (e.g. websites, blogs, wikis, podcasts, message boards, machinima and other derivative works of art etc.).

• The dynamics of the social networks that will emerge around Spore, e.g. the groups that will facilitate the sharing of information regarding the game. I predict the emergence of a distributed, complex network of interactions, spread across multiple media and platforms.

• The complex relationship between content producers and consumers – for instance, it is well known that, for the industry, user-generated content has a commercially compelling appeal considering that the development costs of digital games are skyrocketing. At the same time, there are still unresolved issues, such as: who owns the user-generated content: the users or the game makers? I will explore this tension by interviewing both the players and the game designers. In particular, I will study how digital culture is created, exchanged, and eventually monetized by both creators and consumers.

The research aspires to create a rich ethnographic material on Spore and to document the players’ uses of the game, in terms of creative production in terms of cultural, social and economic capital. It aims at gaining an understanding of the complex interplay between creators and consumers in a digital, participatory culture (Henry Jenkins, 1992).

3. Methodology

Ethnography. Through participant observation the research seeks to understand the Sporadic universe and its communities through the perspective of those who participate in it. The ethnographic study will be focused on both the virtual and physical space, in order to understand how the two interact.

I also plan to interview the players to acquire additional information.

Moreover, I plan an extensive textual analysis of the user-generated content –it is crucial to examine the digital knowledge created by the users/producers of Spore.

The producers will be asked to supply statistical information regarding the kind of content that the players upload to Maxis’ central server.


Bittanti, Matteo & Mary Flanagan. 2003. The Sims. Similitudini, Simboli & Simulacri. Milano: Edizioni Unicopli.

Bittanti, Matteo. 2004. SimCity. Mappando le citta’ virtuali. Milano: Edizioni Unicopli.

Consalvo, Mia. 2004 “The Sims Online. A study of a virtual community”, in Matteo Bittanti (Ed.) Gli strumenti del videogiocare, Milano, costa & nolan.

Davis, Galen. “Will Wright Wows GDC with new Sim” GameSpot. March 11, 2005. []

Fiske, John (1989) Reading the Popular, London: Unwin Hyman.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers, Television Fans and Participatory Culture (Studies in Culture and Communication). London: Routledge.

Wright, Will. “Dream Machines.” Wired. April 2006