Playful Annotation in the Open: Part 3

This post is the third in an ongoing series about playfulness in open web annotation. Here’s Part 1 and Part 2. Hope you enjoy. – Remi

A central observation in my previous post about open web annotation was that through playful expression – such as a reader’s experimentation and sarcasm – it is possible for the practices of digital annotation to appropriate (con)texts. That is, through open annotation an attitude of playfulness can imbue a context not intended for play (like a graduate course or asynchronous online discussion) and also a text not intended for social annotation (such as a video or medical research). Moreover, such playful appropriation creates something new – a (con)text, or a liminal and hybrid space:

somewhere between social networking and academic inquiry, somewhere between close reading and distributed commentary, somewhere between content consumption and media(ted) production.

Since writing last week about two qualities of playful annotation (experimentation and sarcasm), I’ve had – and no surprise here – the pleasure of furthering my own learning about open annotation. I’ll begin by sharing two complementary perspectives on open annotation. I will then utilize these perspectives to share two additional qualities of playful annotation in the open that I have experienced as graduate learners in INTE 5320 Games and Learning annotate their course readings.

A Play on Appropriation

In describing open annotation I have made repeated reference to Miguel Sicart’s (2014) qualification of playful as an attitude that results in the appropriation of a context not intended for play. Sicart’s definition prompted this Hypothesis annotation from Enkerli, quoted in full:

My own (playful) pun, which I’ve been using for a while (long before this interview), is that appropriation is about making something our own and making it appropriate in a context. Was told (by an English teacher) that it wasn’t “what appropriation means”. Been prefacing it more since then. But it’s a way to distinguish the concept from the negatively-loaded “cultural appropriation” while keeping the same principles as drivers for a different kind of change. Been especially interested in technological appropriation, overall, and now in technopedagogical appropriation.

Enkerli’s playful pun seeks to (re)frame “something” – an action, someone’s speech, perhaps a comment in the margin –  descriptively; appropriate is now an adjective. Here, appropriate describes a “something” that is suitable and relevant within a given context. For example, Gene Kelly signing and dancing in the rain is behavior that not only appropriates a street at night (a context not designed for play), it is appropriate given his character Don’s experiences (falling in love with Debbie Reynolds’ character Kathy – “From where I stand, the sun is shining all over the place.”). Irrespective of the police officer’s condescension – his stern gaze brings this improvisational playfulness to an end – Kelly’s actions are (to him, and to us as viewers!) entirely appropriate.

Consider another aesthetic example, though one with a bit more bite. The street artist Banksy not only appropriates contexts (such as buildings, streets, and parks) with provocative visual commentary, the content of this art further underscores a subliminal argument – it is appropriate, perhaps even necessary, to reimagine the Queen, or to resist occupation, or to reconsider where (and how) dreams come true.

In contrast to stereotypes of play as superfluous and inconsequential, Enkerli reminds us that playful activity – like open annotation – can appropriate (con)texts, and that in doing so such activity may be entirely appropriate (if not imperative) across those (con)texts.

Annotation as Social Reading

In the past week I have also seen open (that is, web and/or digital) annotation referred to – and on multiple occasions – as social reading. First, my friend and colleague Noah Geisel referred me to his blog post about Authentic Student Collaboration Through Social Reading. Noah’s post reviews three annotation platforms (Subtext, Ponder, and Genius), with a bent toward pedagogical affordances for K-12 classroom teachers. Preferring the term uptexting to social reading, Noah concludes:

all of three of these tools (and others that surely exist or soon will) offer teachers and students a valuable communication device to share with parents, colleges and employers. Student’s annotations can be displayed as a part of their portfolios, serving as powerful artifacts that are the evidence of a child’s learning.

And earlier today, Mia Zamora wrote for DML Central about Reading as a Social Act. As I have done with this blog, Mia highlighted the open annotation platform Hypothesis and noted the ease with which Hypothesis “invites communities of readers into an extended (and asynchronous) close reading conversation.” Whereas Noah discusses the specifics of pedagogy, Mia attends to the political implications of open annotation-as-social reading. As she observes in her conclusion:

A collaborative reading environment seems to me a fair foundation for dynamic and thoughtful interaction, which, in turn, holds the potential to mirror the kind of rich and complex dialogue we aspire to in a working democracy.

Two Additional Qualities of Playful Annotation

So what happens if we mash together Enkerli’s playful pun with Mia and Noah’s concern for social reading? And how do these perspectives help to identify – and explain – additional qualities of playful annotation? If open annotation appropriates (con)texts, then certain annotation qualities, like sarcasm and experimentation, are not only appropriate, they are socially acceptable among a given community of practice.  I’ll now discuss two additional and socially acceptable qualities of playful annotation that I have seen appropriate – and emerge across – (con)texts associated with the teaching and learning activities of INTE 5320.

1. Uncertainty

Open annotation appropriates (con)texts through uncertainty. It can be terrifying to publicly acknowledge uncertainty or ignorance – and whether for kindergarteners, graduate learners, or educators (including professors!). In the too-frequently sanitized forums that pass for the trappings of interactive online discussion, learners rarely – if ever – admit to public not-knowing. Because so many online discussions rely upon a question-and-answer-with-evidence format, a recognition to one’s learning community of confusion is an admission of defeat. “Go ahead,” such a response would read, “Subtract this week’s points.” And what a wasted opportunity. Why not learn more about people who are learning? Why not grapple with emergent not-knowing? Why not embrace ambiguity and curiosity?

And yet uncertainly can – and does – emerge as a distinctive quality of open annotation. The last INTE 5320 cycle examined two topics related to games and learning – GamerGate and neuroscience. Having previously shared examples of sarcastic and experimental annotation atop GamerGate texts, I’ll highlight an example of uncertainly associated with Bevelier and colleagues’ (2012) lauded article “Brain plasticity through the life span: Learning to learn and action video games.” In a passage that explains the elements and demands of a player first acquiring and then adapting her “neural architecture” to successfully play a game (like soccer), two INTE 5320 learners – bjauw and Hoffmaca – voice their uncertainty about “representations that are invariant to irrelevant internal limb motions.” Yes, it is a wordy – and confusing – passage:


bjauw begins by offering a “translation,” suggesting this means a player is learning how others are moving during game play. And then bjauw qualifies – in parentheses, as if distancing and yet still owning – the contribution: “I think… I might be wrong on this one.” This public uncertainty elicits Hoffmaca’s response, equal parts interpretation and skepticism: “I’m not really clear on the ‘internal’ part. Otherwise, I’d just say that they’re cutting out some of the ‘noise’ with mental models, yes?” Rarely have I seen such close reading as candid confusion shared in the threaded discussion forums of an LMS.

Hoffmaca and bjauw’s social reading – their conversation with one another, with Bevelier and colleagues, and publicly before their peers – interjects uncertainty as an appropriate response to the playful appropriation of (con)texts.

2. Honesty

Open annotation also appropriates (con)texts through honesty. Annotations have – at times and under certain circumstances – expressed candor atypical of more prescriptive (online/asynchronous) course discussion. I wonder if the honesty present in playful annotation reflects the fact that I am not formally assessing learners’ annotation. As I have previously written in response to questions about assessment:

…no, I have not mandated a quantitative frequency for annotation – whether of a given text, or throughout a two-week reading cycle. And no, I did not create an a priori rubric to assess either a single annotation, or a reader’s annotation practice… And no, I had little expectation about the emergent semiotic qualities of annotation.

Maybe it is this lack of summative assessment that motivates, in part, instances of honesty in open annotation. Or maybe not. Whatever the case may be, I appreciate those moments when honest commentary serves as both annotation means and end. One example appeared as a complement to our reading of Ian Bogost’s article Gamification is Bullshit. In response to Bogost’s claim that “gamification is reassuring,” LisaDise and SusannahSimmons participated in a conversation about the connections among gamification, faculty professional development, and digital badges. Here’s the exchange, also pictured below:


To summarize, LisaDise is discouraged by social and technical limitations associated with the use of digital badges in faculty professional development activities that she helps to facilitate. SusannahSimmons’ question – “Do you think the faulty sees the badges as meaningful?” – identifies core concerns with gamification, like internal versus external motivation, the role of rewards, and whether meaning-making is possible or even valued through such learning. The forthright question elicits a revealing response from LisaDise: “Honestly? I don’t think they care.” This exchange utilizes honest questioning and assessment to appropriate the (con)texts of:

  • Course annotation-as-discussion, given SusannahSimmons’ role as the annotation facilitator;
  • Gamification, as the text content and a familiar (and critiqued) strategy; and
  • Faculty professional development as the site of LisaDise’s professional practice (and a context not intended for play).

I hope this observation of honesty is not misrepresented as conveying naïveté about the role and prevalence of honest conversation in learning – whether in a classroom, online, as guided by various pedagogies, and as critical to many fields of study. Rather, I am pleasantly surprised that open annotation as social reading so seamlessly affords honest expression as acceptable.

And so I’ll leave it there, at least for now. Open annotation, as a form of social reading, can be playful. As playful learning, open annotation appropriates (con)texts not designed for play – whether neuroscience research, GamerGate media, or faculty professional development. And various socially acceptable qualities describe such playful annotation in the open – including sarcasm, experimentation, uncertainty, and honesty.



Cycle 3 Readings

Since our course began a month ago, graduate students in ILT5320: Games and Learning have read and openly annotated game-based learning literature from leading scholars in the fields of digital media and learning, games studies and play, and situated learning (see our Readings for additional detail). These researchers and learning scientists have shared important insights with us; the following synthesizes a few key ideas:

  • Game-based learning is both situated – in social and cultural practices – and also ecological – that is, games and play spans settings and contexts.
  • Games and game play may be understood as socially accomplished, as influenced by cultural and expert practices (including those of formal academic disciplines, as well as pop culture), and as reliant upon contingent (and sometimes improvisational) configurations of tools, routines, and interactions.
  • The cultural expressions of games – including fan communities and affinity spaces, more generally – exhibit distinct patterns of participation, and these patterns contribute to individual and collective identity development and knowledge generation. Game play is one means of fostering a more participatory culture through networked media, people, and ways of being.
  • And any discussion of games and game play surfaces related conversations – and concerns – about equity. Who has access to networks and knowledge – and who doesn’t? How are people differentially supported in participating – or prohibited from participating? What skills and identities are developed – and honored – through play?

As we move through our course’s third two-week cycle we turn from the descriptive toward the dynamics of design. We have read authors who describe learning theories, the characteristics of affinity spaces, and media literacy skills. Now, we begin to read authors who are also concerned with design – from the design of games, to the design of meaningful learning experiences and environments through game creation and play, to the design of playful everyday experiences.

Some of our readings this cycle are expressly critical, with authors demonstrating a healthy skepticism about the ways in which games are designed, as well as the purpose for playing (and learning) in the first place. Consider the idea of gamification. Too frequently are points, leaderboards, levels, and boss challenges superficially slapped onto some experience. Moreover, should routine aspects of our everyday be “played” as if we’re all immersed in some big life-as-game? Posts by Bogost (@ibogost), and the highly recommended reading from Heller (@nathanheller), offer useful criticism. Alternatively, the article from Nicholson (@snicholson) and video lecture by Werbach (@kwerb) suggest ways that gamification can be more meaningful in the contexts of education and business. Moving away from the contested practice of gamification, learning scientists like Peppler (@DrPeppler) and Kafai (@katyaskit), as well as Games, identify diverse learning environments and practices that support youth creation of games as a means of learning specific skills and principles. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we have much to learn about the design of game-based learning from those who research learning.

As always – here’s our usual reminder reading links, websites, and PDFs can be found on the course Readings page.

Cycle 2 Readings

As the first cycle of Games and Learning readings wrapped this past Sunday, I wrote at length about our course’s emerging and open annotation-as-discussion practices. I observed how certain types of annotation both transcend and also echo social practices found in more traditional LMS-based discussion forums. Just as annotation may support peer-to-peer questioning – a routine familiar to many who facilitate online learning – so too can annotation express the playfulness and personality of readers. I’m curious about how our annotation-as-discussion practices will continue to grow and change this cycle. What norms will subsist? What annotation practices will diminish? And what will emerge?

This post is less analytical and more administrative as I introduce readings for our course’s second cycle focused on affinity spaces and participatory culture. Students in Games and Learning will soon begin their semester-long affinity space project – an opportunity to join, observe, and participate in a games-related space of their choosing. This cycle’s readings provide a number of theoretical and empirical entry points for learning about affinity spaces, addressing questions like: What are affinity spaces? How is knowledge and expertise generated, and circulated, in affinity spaces? And where and how can students begin participating in the social and cultural practices of such spaces?


  • Gee & Hayes (2008) introduce the concept of affinity spaces within the context of game-based learning. They provide over a dozen features that distinguish how these spaces support learning, social cohesion and development, and the “nurturing” of expertise. Students will likely revisit this reading throughout the semester as they join an affinity space and analyze their own participation and learning.
  • Jenkins and colleagues’ (2006) seminal MacArthur report articulates what has become a theoretical pillar in the broad field of digital media and learning – the idea of participatory culture. Students are encouraged to read at least the report’s first half (from the “Executive Summary” through the section titled “What Should We Teach? Rethinking Literacy”), and to then focus on other sections based upon personal interest (for example, one or more of the “Core Media Literacy Skills”).
  • Stevens and colleagues (2008) present a highly-regarded ethnography of “everyday cognition” and social interaction, illustrating how children’s game play spans multiple settings and types of activity, with consequences for their divergent identity and skill development. The chapter is included in Salen’s (2008) edited volume The Ecology of Games.


  • The interview with Jenkins (2008) delves more deeply into fan communities and affinity spaces.
  • The piece from Squire (2006), and accompanying video, previews the importance of design within game-based learning, a topic that our course will explore in greater detail during Cycle 3.
  • And the short video from Gee attaches a personality to one of our course’s central authors.

Here’s another reminder that links to reading websites and PDFs can be found on the course Readings page.

Annotation in the Open: Part 1

INTE 5320 Games and Learning is structured by seven iterative cycles of reading and annotation-as-discussion – each cycle building conceptually upon previous resources and ideas, and each spanning approximately two weeks (see our Readings for a calendar). As our first cycle’s introduction to games and learning comes to a close, so too does our collective “first draft” of reading and then annotating in the open. As shared previously on this class blog, we are using the open annotation tool Hypothesis in lieu of LMS-based threaded discussions. The design rationale for this shift included moving:

  • From the privacy – and primacy – of LMS (specifically Canvas) discussion forums to the public “playground” afforded by Hypothesis;
  • From the formality of pre-determined questions (which can privilege the scope and purpose of reading) to open-ended and less formal (re)action and exchange; and
  • From an instructor’s authority to center and control textual discourse to a de-centering of power through a fracturing of attention, interest, and commitment.

These course design and pedagogical goals demand regular – and, appropriately, public – reflection: What are students’ experiences reading and then annotating in the open? How do the affordances and limitations of Hypothesis inform students’ experiences with a text, and with each other? And how – if at all – might annotation in the open align with a course whose content (i.e. games, play, learning) shares complementary practices, such as social collaboration, exploration, and divergence?

A few days ago I asked Games and Learning students – via Twitter, of course, as we also share and learn in the open via #ILT5320 – to informally assess their experiences with Hypothesis, open annotation, and our course’s approach to annotation-as-discussion:

And students began to share their thoughts:

One exchange even resulted in a Hypothesis developer (our thanks @robknight_!) assisting with a technical glitch:

While these responses are generally favorable, the usual caveats apply: The comments were shared by a handful of the course’s students; perhaps other students did not want to publicly critique an instructional decision (such as using Hypothesis in the first place); and – of course – we’re just beginning to hammer with this tool and our initial perceptions may very likely change. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that some students appreciate the open, engaging, and even “playful” qualities of annotating in the open.

In addition to these students’ experiences, what am I noticing about our emerging and collective annotation practices? I’ll begin with some brief framing for readers who are either not enrolled students or are less familiar with our course. This first cycle featured four readings – selections from two seminal games and learning books (by Katie Salen Tekinbas and James Paul Gee), and a brief essay written by one of my earliest game-based learning mentors (Fred Goodman). I served as the first cycle’s discussion facilitator (a task that students will subsequently lead); as such, I read and then added my annotations (i.e. I highlighted text, added comments and questions, hyperlinked resources, and made note of subsequent course readings and activities). And as the first cycle began students accessed our four readings, replied to my annotations voluntarily – that is, as driven by their interest, not directed by my priority – and added their own annotations, too. (For the sake of this post, I’ll set aside students’ engagement with – and debates about – the readings’ content concerning games and learning theory.) Within this structure, what annotation-as-discussion characteristics surfaced as both distinctive and noteworthy?

In welcome contrast to the formality of LMS-based discussion forums, annotations included in-the-moment expressions of students’ personality and divergent thinking. Rather than sanitize discourse, Hypothesis helped illustrate the coffee cup stains and inkblots that are seldom (if ever) embraced in the transition from everyday academic materiality (and messiness) to (the supposed) efficiencies of online distance education. For instance, the introduction to Gee’s Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling opens with a playful contrast between the “alienating” jargon of academese and the book’s inviting commentary about games and learning. And yet, when Gee asks facetiously, “You don’t really want to hear a lot more technical information about naked infinitives and headless relatives, do you?” tntesreau responded


At first glance this annotation may appear irrelevant to the stated instructional goals of our course. However, a games and learning course should – in and of itself – be(come) a playful learning experience for students. Here, tntesreau “overlays” (per the conventions of annotation) both playfulness and personality onto the very first page of the very first course reading. Given the phrasing of Gee’s question (“do you?”), tntesreau’s “Oh, but I do!” is a conversation with Gee and his text that we – as peers, as participants, as observers – become privy to; we are now a privileged and more knowledgable reader of tntesreau’s interests (naked infinitives, apparently) as well as humor and affect. As a designer and educator, this brief remark raises some provocative questions; among them, what are the playful qualities of open and socially networked annotation? How can these qualities be encouraged and sustained? And how might such playfulness in annotation evidence students enacting a more ludic orientation towards their learning about games?

I’ve also observed a variety of peer-to-peer exchanges similar to that which is expected in LMS-based threaded discussion. The following example features three students discussing a passage from the beginning of Gee’s fifth chapter in Situated Language and Learning. Here, Kirklunsford, SusannahSimmons, and Tedy parse the concept of a “good video game” utilizing discursive norms typical of more traditional online discussion.


Kirklunsford’s initial annotation is mostly a series of questions that concludes, “What are some recent examples of good games you’ve played and how do you measure it’s quality?” The first response, from SusannahSimmons, affirms this inquiry-oriented approach, shares additional commentary and questions, and also features a few instances of hyperlinked text. Tedy continues the thread and, like SusannahSimmons, references personal game-based experiences (in Tedy’s case, decisions about parenting and her child’s game play). All three annotations also feature the tag “ilt5320” so as to help filter our course’s use of Hypothesis.

As noted, all of these annotation-as-discussion features – curiosity, affirmation, personal experience and opinion, hyperlinks, tags – can (and, to varying degrees, do) appear in LMS-based threaded discussions. What, then, are the advantages of using Hypothesis? Is the caliber of this discussion greater than that which passes for the tried-and-tired required forum response (especially at the beginning of a course)? Is the more casual, perhaps more personable, voice a welcome change for students, even if the patterns of their discussion remain (largely) unchanged? What are the pedagogical – as well as content-specific – benefits of moving familiar discursive patterns out into the open?

Among my commitments to open pedagogy this semester in INTE 5320 Games and Learning, I’m eager to observe and debate questions about annotation-as-discussion. As such, it certainly won’t come as a surprise if readers leverage Hypothesis to annotate this post (as, indeed, people have from the start of this experiment!) – or comment via Twitter and #ILT5320 – adding their reaction and useful suggestion to our evolving conversation.

Introducing Cycle 1 Readings

The following briefly summarizes readings for our course’s first cycle, a general introduction to games and learning. Links to websites and PDFs can be found on the course Readings page.

Required readings:

  1. From James Paul Gee’s (2004) Situated Language and Learning we’ll be reading the first chapter (“Introduction”) and also chapter 5 (“Learning and Gaming”).
  2. From Katie Salen’s (2008) edited volume The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning we’ll read her introductory chapter “Toward an Ecology of Gaming.”
  3. And from Fred Goodman (2010), his essay “Games, Gods and Grades.”

Recommended readings and other media:

  1. For students less familiar with games and gaming terminology, consult Katie Salen’s (2008) “Glossary” (pages 267-273 of The Ecology of Games).
  2. Bedwell and colleagues (2012) is an illuminating example of an empirical expert study. Note the detailed descriptions of game categories and attributes that begin on page 739 through 743.
  3. And from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (2013), Games for a Digital Age: K-12 Market Map and Investment Analysis includes a “Game Taxonomies” section (beginning on page 15 through 23). This is a useful summary of commercial digital/video games.

A Hub for Annotation-as-Discussion

The alternative title for this post may very well be, “And thank goodness, yet another reason to do away with the dreaded discussion forum.”

Like the lecture, discussion forums are too frequently a presumed feature of the graduate education landscape – particularly in online education. And while a discussion forum does afford certain learning practices – just as there are necessary “times for telling” – INTE 4320/5320 Games and Learning looks beyond the expected and seeks to embrace more dynamic, and more improvisational, approaches to teaching and learning. Such playfulness is elemental to a course that both studies games and learning, and also infuses a lusory attitude – or more gameful approach – among teaching and learning activities. As with the difference between telling and showing, Games and Learning errs toward showing, and is designed to do so through practices that are participatory, risky, and open-ended.

Given this course’s emphasis on reading, discussion, and debate, a primary means of our playful – and public – learning will be mediated by the annotation platform Hypothesis. As the good folks at Hypothesis have created “an open platform for discussion on the web. It leverages annotation to enable sentence-level critique or note-taking on top of news, blogs, scientific articles, books, terms of service, ballot initiatives, legislation and more.” Watch the following for a useful introduction to the platform:

As an alternative to discussion forums – and as an experiment identifying the benefits and limitations of new media platforms for teaching and learning – Games and Learning readings will be accompanied by the practices of social and networked annotation. This course is neither the first to embrace public and collaborative annotation, nor is it among the first higher education efforts leveraging Hypothesis. In fact, Hypothesis already features many useful resources to support educators in using the platform. Check ’em out. This blog is a hub for annotation-as-discussion. It is here that students, visitors, and collaborators can access all course readings and resources, and then jump into the back-and-forth discourse of mediated annotation.

So how to begin? A few practical steps for students – and others – interested in using Hypothesis for annotation-as-discussion.

  1. Use Google Chrome as your browser
  2. Visit Hypothesis and select the red “Install” button (mid-page)
  3. When prompted, select “Add Extension”
  4. Follow instructions in the newly opened tab – create a username and password, and voila!
  5. Also, at note how you toggle the annotation menu via a button in Chrome’s location bar, as well as the types of annotation – notes, highlights, and replies – that you can create.

Complementing these steps, the Quick Start Guide for Teachers is also quite helpful, and relevant to students in Games and Learning (for example, please tag annotations with ILT5320, similar to our hashtag #ILT5320).

As Games and Learning experiments this semester with annotation-as-discussion, it is likely we’ll take some risks, encounter frustrating limitations, and develop our own set of meaningful norms. A pro tip from the start: tag all annotations with ILT5320, similar to our #ILT5320 hashtag on Twitter. In other works, our annotation-as-discussion will be playful. Forward!