Playful Annotation in the Open

Note the Feb 21 update below, and read this page, at the dedicated URL and with Hypothesis, if you really want a playful learning experience.

Games and Learning turns one-month old today. Among many highlights from our first month, in this post I’ll discuss one of my growing curiosities – playful annotation in the open. And it looks something like this:


Curious about what’s happening here? Let me briefly sketch some context. First, INTE 5320 Games and Learning is an online graduate course at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Education and Human Development. Second, the course is designed so that student learning occurs across networked and open settings and practices; from our use of Twitter (follow #ILT5320), to student blogs (and this blog, too, as our public home), to our use of Hypothesis (an open annotation platform that we use for annotation-as-discussion of course readings). And third, I’ve begun writing about students’ deep dive into the practices of open annotation. As an antidote to the (dying) discussion standards of online education, most students readers have responded rather favorably to Hypothesis. One student recently wrote to me:

This format [Hypothesis] is much better for me as far as encouraging participation. With the old discussion format that listed all the readings then posed questions for group discussion, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the long responses people offered and had a hard time jumping into the conversation. With, I can offer my thoughts as I go, which I find to be much more effective in my assimilation of the information.

Like writing in the margins of a book, I too appreciate how easily Hypothesis allows me to author and share “my thoughts as I go” – and to do so for a broader audience (anyone who installs the browser extension), and through a greater range of expressive representation (including text, hyperlinks, and embedded media). In this sense, open annotation is a means for readers to share spontaneous, messy, and sometimes humorous responses. Given these technical and social affordances, students’ open annotation is be(com)ing playful. As I observe student playfulness – and because I’m a course designer, games and play researcher, and learning scientist – I am now interested in the following question:

What are the playful qualities of learners’ open and socially networked annotation?

Which brings us back to this post’s opening image, a screenshot of open – and playful – annotation. Last cycle’s course readings about affinity spaces and participatory culture included Reed Stevens and colleagues’ (2008) ethnography “In-game, in-room, in-world: Reconnecting video game play to the rest of kids lives.” The ethnography describes how a small group of children and youth play video games together, and through eight vignettes examines “how video game play is tangled up in other parts of kids’ lives, including their relationships with siblings, parents, schools, and their own futures” (p. 44). The fifth vignette focuses upon cheating and players’ use of designed “cheats.” At the mention of “cheat codes,” one Games and Learning graduate student, bjauw, added a rather unusual annotation (also pictured above, with my own added visual emphasis). Again, bjauw’s annotation in full:

↑ ↑ ↓ ↓ ← → ← → B A start

Look familiar? bjauw’s annotation is the Konami Code. The Konami Code is both a cheat and also an Easter Egg. As an annotation, bjauw’s Konami echoes Stevens and colleagues’ argument that game play activities are connected across multiple settings. Game play both occurs within – and is simultaneously connected across – the designed reality and co-constructed narratives of a video game (“in-game”), the material confines of a room where bodies and conversation circulate (“in-room”), and also realms of personal interest and meaning-making (“in-world”).

So, too, does bjauw’s Konami annotation operate across settings and meanings. We might say it is “in-text, in-platform, and in-world.” This cheat-as-annotation circulates in conversation with the ideas of Stevens and colleagues’ ethnography (“in-text”), within the open annotations mediated by the Hypothesis platform (“in-platform”), and also amongst a discourse in gaming culture about the importance of cheats (“in-world”). Like the Konami Code in a game, bjauw’s annotation is intentional, context-sensitive, and subversive; it is literally and conceptually playful.

Of course, not every open annotation authored by graduate students learners in Games and Learning is so expressly playful. And not every open annotation, even in a course about games and play, should be so playful. I welcome a conversation about the extent to which (online) discussion of academic literature should be playful, and how best to create the conditions for such playful learning.

What I am beginning to appreciate about playful (online) learning is that open annotation appears to be a very promising practice, and that Hypothesis is a particularly deft tool. In working to articulate the potential for playfulness afforded by open annotation, I’ll borrow a few concluding thoughts from Miguel Sicart’s profoundly wonderful Play Matters. Among the book’s strengths, Sicart distinguishes the practice of play from the attitude of playfulness. He observes: “Playfulness is a physical, psychological, and emotional attitude towards things, people, and situations” (p. 21). Later he qualifies this disposition, adding: “Playfulness assumes one of the core attributes of play: appropriation. To be playful is to appropriate a context that is not created or intended for play” (p. 27). Through open annotation, students in Games and Learning are appropriating contexts not designed for play – including graduate education, online learning, and asynchronous text-based discussion. And in doing so, students are beginning to deeply cultivate an attitude of playfulness towards things (like Hypothesis, games, and digital media), people (including their peers and networks), and situations (namely their own interest-driven learning).

And it appears the playful adventures of open annotation are just beginning:

Feb 21 Update:

When life gives you an annotation flashmob… well, best help advance the discursive meaning-making.

Yesterday I awoke to the pleasant surprise of some very smart people – including tellio, jeremydean, nomadwarmachine, dogtrax, and onewheeljoe, among others (those are Hypothesis handles, which in most cases are Twitter handles, too) – exploding this blog post via Hypothesis through a meta-conversation that served as an act of annotation-as-play. In the 24 hours since, many others have added their annotations, too (and thank you for doing so!). And while this has been pretty awesome, a useful (that is, a readable) representation of this impromptu, playful annotation about/atop a blog analyzing playful annotation didn’t appear possible. Terry Elliot (@tellio) give it a try via Storify (see his Saturday Morning Feldgang), but as he noted:

OK, we have all of it here, but it is so damned opaque. It doesn’t tell a story, it doesn’t feel open, it doesn’t feel curated. WTF. I want to make some kind of statement here about the road we walked together this morning. Part of me says not to worry. It’s a process with intrinsic value. Another part of me wants to blaze the damned trail so others can follow if they wish.

And then along came Jon Udell. As Terry noted, there is a desire “to blaze the damned trail so others can follow if they wish.” But how to show this “field walk” to other readers – especially interested readers who are not using Hypothesis, but who may be curious about reading open annotation outside the platform? And if that seems counterintuitive (why not just jump in?!), well, that’s another conversation for another day.

Jon (judell/@judell), who currently works for Hypothesis, created a visual representation and meta-layer of conversation titled Annotations on Playful Annotation in the Open. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that as of this morning, judell’s page now features various annotations-as-discussion, too. Here’s what annotation about annotation atop annotation is beginning to look like (and yes, I’ve added red text and arrows atop this image, yet another layer of annotation, as a further guide for readers new to Hypothesis):

annotation on annotation.jpg

A bit meta? Yes. Playful? Definitely. And as nomadwarmachine notes: “We can annotate the annotations, then annotate the annotations of the an notations, then …”

Happy trails.

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!