This week at the Games+Learning+Society conference, Local no. 12 (Colleen Macklin, John Sharp, Eric Zimmerman, and Mike Edwards) made a game called Backchatter. I will post more thoughts on the game later on, but Eric asked me to say a few words about why I thought the game is meaningful to those of us at the conference. I noted a few of these things during the awards ceremony but here’s what I wrote up in preparation for those oral comments.
Backchannels are a term from psycholinguistics, referring to the sounds or gestures people make when they’re in conversation or listening to others. “Mmm hmm,” “yes,” “yeah,” “ok,” “right,” etc. Nodding, acknowledging. However, they are popularly known as subversive– like passing notes in class.
In games, backchannels take place as “whispers” (in MMOs) or asychronously as forums or boards.
The backchatter game, however, by giving us rules and play, has had the effect of creating an collaborative narrative about an event, in real time. As the story unfolds, we are able to decide as a group what’s important, what’s interesting, and, to play upon a Seinfeld reference to a woman’s contraceptive device, what’s “tweet-worthy.”
Backchatter also instantly placed us all in the perspective of what it’s like to be a novice or student in a land of experts. Those who were new to Twitter and those who’ve been using Twitter for two long years or more– all of us played with the system and customized it for our needs as players and writers of the story of this conference. We didn’t just listen, talk, and experience. We wrote the story of it.
Teachers often worry (for good reason, sometimes) that backchannels are subversive, but I would suggest that subversiveness with backchannels and backchatter can also be good. Some systems *ought* to be subverted, and I think Julian did a great job of taking us through how that might work for good. But he also pointed out that subverting a system can, over time, take on a pernicious quality, doing harm over the long term even when it’s intended only to have a short term effect. That’s definitely true. It’s the difference between a flash mob and a smart mob, for example.
Backchatter can be seen as “doing it for the lulz.” But I think it’s more than that. It gives people a safe, low-cost, informal way to care about participating in an event in real time. By doing so we write the story of the event and immediately decide whether it’s a success, whether these conversations and ideas are worth sharing in the first place. In that sense, Backchatter has played a part in developing a culture around our thoughts and ideas about games, learning, and society. Through our play, we think together.
Backchannels It gives us a chance to run simulations, to test out what we are passionate about, to see whether those passions have any traction with others who share our interests. Those are the seeds of social change.
We were rewarded for active participation, yes. But even more, we were rewarded for caring. Backchatter developed an occasion to share our personal stories and be invested in the social and public need to do so. It helped us articulate the “grit” of our passions, giving them traction and, hopefully, persistence beyond these few days together.