Video games as a recruitment and training tool

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Chapter 3: ‘Communities of Practice


Part one of the analysis of the literature elaborates on Wenger’s (1998) conceptualisation of ‘communities of practice’ introduced in the Conceptual Framework (Chapter 2) and considers in detail the aspects of that concept that have greatest application to the present investigation.
The centrality of the ‘communities of practice’ concept to the conceptualisation of this project, and the very research questions being explored, means that the aspects of Wenger’s (1998) work that have particular application for this investigation need to be identified, and an explanation given as to the reasons for the selection of these features in particular. This was deemed to be an essential step before the concept is explored in context of video gaming and masculinities because this level of conceptual meaning is central to the analysis of the data collected for this project. Included in this discussion is consideration of Foucault’s notion of knowledge/power relations to explain how and why certain knowledge becomes privileged in a ‘community of practice’. Additionally, ways in which the concept has been applied in organisational settings such as the New Zealand education system, and the limited critique of the concept, will be discussed.

Wenger’s (1998) conceptualisation of ‘communities of practice’

The popularity and often cited ‘usefulness’ of Lave and Wenger’s (1991) and Wenger’s (1998) conceptualisation of ‘communities of practice’ has tended to mean that the majority of literature referencing the concept is in relation to its application and use, and far less frequently an exploration and critique of the concept itself. The research focus tends to be on ‘how to’ or ‘how well’ an organisation puts the concept into practice (eg Wenger, McDermott & Snyder 2002) rather than a deconstruction or critique and redevelopment/reconceptualisation of the foundation thinking. Consequently, this analysis leans heavily on Wenger’s (1998) seminal work Communities of Practice: Learning meaning and identity as there has been relatively little challenge, much less modification by others to the conceptualisation of the ‘communities of practice’ concept. What modifications have been reported, or at least recommended, tend to be context specific and related to the very nature of the theoretical discipline of the researcher adopting the generalised concept and applying it to a specific social learning environment (eg the sociolinguistic approach of Tusting 2005, or the gender and masculinities focus of Paechter 2003a). Although this investigation considers the application of the concept, it is not application in an organised setting like an educational institution or a workplace, but to explore the usefulness of ‘communities of practice’ to conceptualise informally organised aspects of people’s social worlds, that is, boys and video gaming. It needs to be noted that although Wenger’s earlier work with Jean Lave, titled Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation (Lave & Wenger, 1991) establishes much of the social learning-related foundations for the development of the ‘communities of practice’ concept, it is Wenger’s (1998) subsequent work that has provided far greater detail of understanding the concept, making it the more useful work on which to base this investigation.
Repeated readings of Wenger’s (1998) work identified a number of essential passages of text that formed the core of the conceptualisation for this project. As the ‘communities of practice’ concept is central to the research questions, it is important to establish the reason for these selected passages and what they are taken to mean. Affording higher priority to these passages, to help connect various aspects of video gaming and boys worlds, has meant significant passages of material have been bypassed, but within the scope of this project, it was a decision that needed to be made.
Wenger (1998) positions the ‘communities of practice’ concept within the broad and diverse framework of social learning theory which makes it an attractive prospect for exploring the world of boys and the pastime of video gaming. Social learning theory places learning ‘in the context of our lived experience of participation in the world’ (Wenger 1998, p3). With this understanding, learning is not seen as a separate activity to be done only in organised settings like schools, it is integral to everything people do. This means that ‘communities of practice’ are everywhere and Wenger considers that they are ‘so informal and so pervasive they rarely come into explicit focus’ (p7). To paraphrase Wenger (p4), as social beings people cannot help but learn through social interaction, the knowledge they learn is a consequence of what is deemed to be valuable to know in relation to any given human enterprise. Knowing is a function of actively participating in such enterprises, consequently peoples’ experience of the world and engagement in it is meaningful. In other words, making meaning is the outcome of learning. This means that the knowledge created is not (necessarily) the sort that can be found in scholarly texts, but the sort of knowledge that has meaning for people in their day to day lives. What boys learn about being a boy through social interaction, and what they may learn from the practice of video gaming is helping build the sort of knowledge that makes their day to day experiences meaningful. However, the diversity of understandings offered by social learning theory is too broad a construct to work with for the purpose of carrying out research hence it makes more sense to refine the focus to one concept within this theoretical framework, that is, ‘communities of practice’.
The phrase ‘communities of practice’, by which all of Wenger’s work seems to be referenced, is actually only part of his conceptualisation. That it is the mostly commonly cited and applied aspect of the concept is the first and most obvious reason for the selection of this part of Wenger’s work. Wenger (1998) notes that the notion of ‘communities of practice’ is more a point of entry into a much broader framework, but to engage with these broader aspects in their entirety would exceed the practical constraints of this project. To unpack the meaning of the concept in preparation for application to this investigation requires looking to the very meanings of the words and phrases that make up both the name of the concept, and the components of the concept.
‘Community’ ‘is way of talking about the social configurations in which our enterprises are defined as worth pursuing and our participation is recognizable as competence’ (Wenger 1998 p5). Whereas common place meanings of ‘community’ might focus more on people living or working together, or people with a common background or shared interests within society, Wenger’s notion of community places emphasis not just on the ‘doing’ or ‘being’ (part of) such a social structure, but draws attention to the very nature and meaning of the valued activities of a community, and what is important to know and be able to do, to belong to (or be a member of) such a community.
Adding to this, ‘practice’ according to Wenger, is ‘a way of talking about the shared historical and social resources, frameworks and perspectives that can sustain mutual engagement in action’ (p5), which again, emphasises that ‘practice’ is not just about ‘what’ people do, it is also about why people do what they do to sustain the business or enterprise of the community. In saying that ‘practice’ is not just about ‘doing’ an activity, but it is about ‘doing’ in a historical and social context it gives structure and meaning to what people do. In other words practice is always social practice. Doing can be both implicit (what is not said, or what is passively assumed), and explicit (what is said and done). Practice is what gives a community coherence, it is the reason for its existence.
‘Community’ adds to ‘practice’ to take the meaning beyond just the doing of an activity or the existence of a social organisation or structure, or culture. ’Practice’ is what holds the community together, expressed by Wenger as being about mutual engagement in a shared enterprise using a common repertoire of resources and it is these three features that define a ‘community of practice’. When the ‘communities of practice’ concept is applied to the workings and business of institutions and organisations, it is these features that repeatedly dominate and give shape to claims about the institution or organisation functioning as a ‘community of practice’ (eg Lai et al 2006). It is at this level of understanding that the concept becomes more manageable for the purpose of research and analysis, and the reason for the emphasis given here. The meanings of these three mutually defining features used for this investigation follows.
Membership in a ‘community of practice’ requires mutual engagement which is about being ‘engaged in actions whose meanings are negotiated with one another’ (Wenger, 1998, p73). Reflecting the previous meaning of ‘community’, ‘mutual engagement’ is not so much a function of social allegiance or social relationships, social status or belonging to an organisation, nor is it defined by who knows who and it is not bound by geographic proximity (mutual engagement could happen, for example, in a virtual video gaming community). That said, mutual engagement does build relationships between people and by its very definition implies that these interpersonal relationships are sustained over time. However, it is the emphasis on the negotiated meanings of the actions of the community that are critical to this understanding, especially when considered in conjunction with the next feature of a ‘community of practice’, that of joint enterprise which Wenger, (1998) states ‘is the result of a collective process of negotiation that reflects the full complexity of mutual engagement’ and it is ‘defined by the participants in the very process of pursuing it’….. ‘it is not just a stated goal but creates among participants relations of mutual accountability that become an integral part of the practice’ (p77). Again the idea of negotiated meaning surfaces:
‘Negotiating a joint enterprise gives rise to relations of mutual accountability among those involved. These relations of accountability include what matters and what does not, what is important and why it is important, what to do and not to do, what to pay attention to and what to ignore, what to talk about and what to leave unsaid, what to justify and what to take for granted, what to display and what to withhold, when actions and artifacts are good enough and when they need improvement or refinement. (Wenger, 1998, p81).


Chapter 1: Rationale for the study
Why social learning theory?
Why video gaming?
Why boys?
Definition of terms
General aims of this research
Overview of chapters
Chapter 2: Conceptual framework
Communities of practice
Addressing the challenges and limitations of other possible theoretical frameworks
Summary of the conceptual framework selected for this investigation and the overall research questions
Chapter 3: Communities of Practice
Wenger’s conceptualisation of ‘communities of practice’
Foucault on knowledge/power relations
Wenger on identity
Application and critique of the concept
Challenges arising from application of the ‘communities of practice’ concept
Chapter 4: Video gaming
The gamer revolution
Setting the scene – the statistics
Gender issues
Video games as a recruitment and training tool
Challenges to the moral panic
Seeing the good
The (special) case for MMORPGs
Alterative conceptualisations
Chapter 5: Masculinities
Connell on masculinities
Paechter on masculinities as ‘communities of practice’
Gender (and) identity
Illustrating ‘communities of masculinities practice’
Chapter 6: Methodology
The researcher
The age of the research sample
Ethical considerations
Methods overview
Quantitative method
Development of the instrument
Administering the data collection process
Analysis of the quantitative data
Qualitative methods
The qualitative data collection sample
The qualitative methods – overview
The qualitative methods – the ‘lesson’
Analysis of the qualitative data
Credibility and trustworthiness of the qualitative data
Chapter 7 Results – Quantitative
Category (1) Describing the sample
Category (2) Video gaming practice
Category (3) Being male
Chapter 8: Results – Qualitative
Category (1) ‘Play your friends to see who’s better’- where is the sense of ‘community’ in video gaming?
Category (2) ‘Play strategically and think like a soldier, take any chance’- video gaming as ‘practice’?
Category (3) ‘It’s a boy thing and it’s very exciting’- hegemonic masculinities in a video gaming world
Category (4) ‘Geeks often play mind games rather than action and fighting’- less-hegemonic masculinities in a video gaming world
Chapter 9: Discussion
Part one: General overview – diversity of the research sample
Part two: Video gaming – a ‘community of practice’?
Part three: Video gaming in relation to ‘communities of masculinities practice’
Part four: Strengths and limitations
Chapter 10: Conclusion and recommendations
Significance of the present study ad implications of the findings
Recommendations for further research
Closing statement – ‘It’s a boy thing and it’s very exciting’
Conceptualising Boys (and) Video Gaming: Communities of Practice’?

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