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Social Learning and Games

farmville sheep

In this final look at how each of the major learning theories relate to games, we explore the ideas behind social learning.  In the social and contextual approach to learning, the outcome is for the learner to become socially accepted and to be an effective member within a community.  This is what is commonly referred to as learning in a community of practice (COP)[1],[2].

In the Social and Contextual approach, learning does not occur solely within the learner, but in the group and community in which they work.  Learning is a shared process which takes place through observing, working together and being part of a larger group, which includes colleagues of varying levels of experience, able to stimulate each other’s development.  In this view, rather like cognitivism, individuals only learn from more competent others but the emphasis is now on being part of a larger system.  Crucially, this system includes the learner, other people around them, the equipment they use, the technologies they work with, the procedures they work with and the overall culture of the workplace.

Whether they are conscious of it or not, groups, and individuals within them, learn mainly through social interaction.  This happens through discussion, observing and sharing.  Again, the role of the practitioner is one of facilitator who needs to help focus discussion to maximise key learning points rather than just letting a group tell irrelevant anecdotes.

Vygotsky in his Social Development Theory[3] coined the term “scaffolding” to describe the various forms of support that educational providers can offer learners.  It might include verbal assistance, questioning, suggestions and directions all aimed at extending a learner’s activities where the learner cannot accomplish this alone.

For Vygotsky, learning from others more competent in culturally appropriate skills and technologies was the capstone to his educational theory.  Vygotsky suggests that children or students can be guided by explanation, demonstration, and work, and can attain to higher levels of thinking if they are guided by someone who is more capable and competent – a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO). This conception is better known as The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).  The Zone of Proximal Development is the gap between what the learner can achieve on his own and what he can achieve with the support of others. The ability to attain higher levels of knowledge and understanding depends upon interaction with other, more advanced, peers.  This unequal interaction facilitates and encourages learning.  Through increased interaction and involvement, students are able to extend themselves to higher levels of cognition. Vygotsky defined the Zone of Proximal Development as,

“the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under the guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.”

The ZPD is the difference between what students can accomplish independently and what they can achieve in conjunction or in collaboration with another, more competent person.  The Zone is created in the course of social interaction.

The term “social game” has become very popular of late.  Farmville is perhaps the commonly thought of social game (although many don’t think it is a game at all) because to succeed requires the active participation of other players: collaboration is essential to progress (that or using real-world payments to short-circuit the process).

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMORGs) like World of Warcraft are better examples of social and contextual games because they are dependent on multi-layered teamwork.  In these circumstances, players improve their performance through the observation, imitation and modelling of others.

Social learning also occurs outside the game world but in related ‘spaces’ such as forums.  The associated activity of leader tables, message boards, hints, tips and cheats all represent instances of social encouragement, support and scaffolding.



[1] Lave, J. E., & Wenger, E. , (1998), Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

[2] Castro, M. C., (2006), Communities of Practice: Layers and Levers of Motivation, http://colmanmcmahon.com/sites/colmanmcmahon.com/files/u1/Castro%20-%20Layers%20and%20Lever%20of%20Motivation.pdf

[3] Vygotsky, L. S., (1962), Thought and Language, Wiley, New York

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  •  so the difference between what students can accomplish independently is?

  • I guess the difference is to do with Vygostsky’s theory of Scaffolding and the Zone of Proximinal Development. It say that by working with a more knowledgable other, we can do more than we can do on our own.

    The other aspect of the social learning is the increased motivation we achieve by collaborating with our friends.

    It’s a good question – thanks for the comment!

  • WhiteRose_Rain

    So in other words, the social and contextual approach is connected to Lev Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory or these two are the same?