The Development of Distributed Expertise Across Physical and Virtual Worlds in a Teen Gaming Club

Deborah Fields, Yasmin Kafai

With the growing popularity of online games, discussions about their educational value have been initiated among researchers, practitioners, and policy makers (Glazer, 2006). There is an increased need to more fully understand these complex communities as promising models for learning and literacy (Gee, 2003). Though learning to participate in any of these multiplayer game communities can be quite overwhelming and confusing, there are only few studies of how newcomers get access to insider knowledge (Steinkuehler, 2006) and develop expertise within the gaming community (Squire, under review). When we started studying an after-school club where twenty-one 9–12 year olds came regularly to play in a teen virtual world called Whyville, we were intrigued with the ways that they helped each other to navigate the geographical intricacies of the site and how the participants subsequently appeared to become peer teachers in their own right (Ching & Kafai, in press). In addition, it became clear that learning took place in both online and offline locations as well as between club members and other players within the larger world of Whyville.

Gee (2004) argues that in affinity spaces, such as gaming communities, specialized knowledge is developed and distributed amongst participants in the space. With this in mind, we set out to study trajectories of expertise or specialized knowledge (Barron, 2006) amongst the youth of the club in two contexts. First, we analyzed how they found out about a secret command that could only be learned from other people (either online or offline). This was a very specific way to explore learning and teaching across online/offline contexts. Second, we investigated how peer-teaching strategies developed over time, using case studies to trace youth’s learning and teaching development in online and offline settings. Building on knowledge from the former analysis, this allowed us to form stories of how individuals developed specific expertise in socially valued areas over time.

In order to study the youth’s activities in the “multiple, simultaneous space-time contexts” (Leander & McKim, 2003) of the club and Whyville, we gathered and analyzed numerous types of qualitative data aimed to track the youth in the club over multiple spaces, including field notes, video data, interviews, and online tracking and chat data that encompassed all of the members’ Whyville activities and talk over the course of the club. After determining through analysis of chat data when and how youth learned a secret command from other people, we used that as a basis of relative insider status at the club. Following this, we chose four case studies of participants who had developed this knowledge at different time points and were also sought after for different types of advice/help. Findings of the full paper elaborate how each member developed some type of expertise within the contexts of both Whyville and the club. Our discussion includes reflection on methodologies for studying offline and online gaming communities as well as ramifications for facilitating the development of specialized expertise among youth.

Barron, B. (2006). Interest and self-sustained learning as catalysts of development: A learning ecology perspective. Human Development, 49, pp. 193–234.

Ching, C. C., & Kafai, Y. B. (in press). Peer pedagogy: Student collaboration and reflection in a learning through design project. Teachers College Press.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. New York, NY: Routledge.

Glazer, S. (2006). Video games: Do they educational value? Congressional Quarterly Researcher, 16(40), 937–960.

Leander, K. M., & McKim, K. K. (2003). Tracing the everyday ‘sitings’ of adolescents on the Internet: A strategic adaptation of ethnography across online and offline spaces. Education, Communication, Information, 3(2), 211–240.

Squire, K. (Under review). Open-ended video games: A model for developing learning for the interactive age. Paper under consideration for Salen, K. (Ed.), MacArthur Series on Digital Learning.

Steinkuehler, C. A. (2006). Massively multiplayer online video gaming as participation in a discourse. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 13(1), 38–52.

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