Problematizing Epistemology in Computer Games Research

Problematizing Epistemology in Computer Games Research

Adam Mechtley (Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/IJGCMS.2015040104


Epistemic frame theory has guided research using epistemic games, which are computer games focused on rich professional enculturation. Among other things, this theory characterizes communities of practice in terms of their epistemologies, which encompass the standards communities use to justify claims or actions. By drawing on contemporary perspectives in the subfield of research focused on epistemic cognition, this piece argues in favor of disambiguating enacted and professed epistemic cognition in epistemic frame theory, as well as attending to more nuances of the contexts of players' actions. These factors affect how we model communities of practice in games, how we assess players' capabilities, and what types of data we might include in our analyses of players' activity. By integrating with the epistemic cognition scholarship, games researchers could enrich their own work, while also leveraging some unique advantages of game-based learning to support broader goals in the scholarly community.
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Epistemic frame theory (EFT) is a productive way to understand and assess how people learn in epistemic games, which are those that pair novice learners with experienced mentors in simulations of “authentic professionalism” (Shaffer, 2005, 2006a, 2006b). While such games are generally designed to help players internalize ways of thinking and acting like enculturated members of some community, and to see themselves as members of that community, EFT does not explicitly account for how epistemology can be both enacted and professed (Louca, Elby, Hammer, & Kagey, 2004), nor how it may vary across specific situations. Consequently, it can easily become unclear what things we might expect learners to do to provide evidence of thinking in specific ways, much less to determine what it means to think like a member of a certain community in the first place. By refining EFT to explicitly account for these modes of expression, and by revisiting the ways in which contextual nuances might influence them, the design of such games and their assessment methods could give us greater insight into learners’ capabilities in terms of both constructing and evaluating knowledge in contexts where the knowledge has “situated meaning” (Gee, 2003).

In EFT, epistemology is the component of a community’s epistemic frame—its cultural grammar—which encompasses the warrants deemed legitimate for making certain claims or justifying taking certain actions (Shaffer et al., 2009; Shaffer, 2006b). It establishes what counts as knowledge according to a social group’s standards and, consequently, informs desired learning outcomes for players of epistemic games (Shaffer, 2005, 2006a). As such, EFT could benefit from greater conversation with the broader epistemic cognition (EC) scholarship. This subfield of work—previously referred to widely as personal epistemology—has, over the last four decades, broadly examined non-specialists’ ideas about knowledge, knowing, and/or justification (see Chinn, Buckland, & Samarapungavan, 2011; Greene, Azevedo, & Torney-Purta, 2008; see also Hofer & Bendixen, 2012; Hofer & Pintrich, 1997 for historical reviews). For example, researchers studying EC might investigate how and why learners think they know things, whether they have coherent beliefs or just loose ideas about knowledge, and/or how thinking about knowledge affects their activity in different situations.

Most past approaches to EC treated epistemology as a personal theory (i.e. a set of relatively consistent beliefs or commitments potentially specific to certain academic disciplines or semiotic domains). However, some scholars have pointed to equivocal findings in the empirical literature to suggest that the epistemic thinking which emerges in particular situations depends upon a host of contextual variables, rather than on stable beliefs or traits (Hammer & Elby, 2002; Elby & Hammer, 2001; see also Sandoval, 2012). For example, the apparent criteria students may use when constructing knowledge could depend upon their perceptions of the purpose of an activity, their instructors’ use of particular analogies, and/or their level of experience with disciplinary content, among other factors (e.g., Berland & Hammer, 2012; Rosenberg, Hammer, & Phelan, 2006). Moreover, the extent to which epistemic thinking is related to the activity in which it is embedded has further led some to distinguish between enacted and professed epistemologies (Louca, Elby, Hammer, & Kagey, 2004; see also Sandoval, 2005; Hogan, 2000). For example, the epistemic norms embodied in some of the practices of an individual or group may not always correspond to the beliefs which that individual or group espouses when prompted to do so. The consequences for games designed to elicit and assess EC are manifold, particularly when such games model real-world communities of practice.

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