Total Play!: Exploring participation and play in higher education

John Lean

My PhD research connects the concepts of play and participation in the context of higher education. Education is often treated as a metaphorical game by students and educators; my thesis takes this metaphor seriously and asks how people actually play it.

Drawing upon a Deweyan pragmatist epistemology, and using a conceptual model incorporating Lave and Wenger’s (1991) ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ and Huizinga’s (1938) ‘magic circle’, I develop an understanding of play and participation as complementary situated concepts, which I then use to analyse the ways in which students and educators participate in HE. Through my research, I develop the idea of ‘Total Play’ as a utopian vision of what HE participation could be; democratic, appropriative and empowering for both students and educators.

My methodology is exploratory and playful; I used a combination of student interviews, teaching observation and autoethnographic to try and capture the different ways that participants play in the university. Though the use of games in education is increasingly common, I move away from approaches that understand games as a tool to be used for learning, and instead treat play as a mode of experience that contributes to both learning and our understanding of learning. In this way, my thesis makes a theoretical contribution to the philosophy of higher education, as well as a practical one around the use of play in the university.

My PhD project was supervised by Dr Cathy Lewin, Dr Mark Peace and Prof Nicola Whitton, and incorporates my experiences of teaching on Man Met’s Foundation Degree in Education. I am a member of Man Met’s Manchester Games Studies Network, and contribute regularly to its blog. Links to some of these contributions can be found below.


Lean, J., Illingworth, S., & Wake, P. (2018) Unhappy families: using tabletop games as a technology to understand play in education. Research in Learning Technology, 26.

MGSN Blog Entries

Games Lab: Games and Participation (1/3/19)

Book Review – 'A Play of Bodies: How we perceive videogames' by Brendan Keogh (18/7/18)

'Eat Who I Eat': Assassin's Creed Discovery Tour (22/3/18)

Podcast: Drawn to the Flame (15/6/17)

Book Review – 'Hacking the Curriculum: Creative Computing and the Power of Play' by Ian Livingstone and Shahneola Saeed (16/5/17)

Exploring the transactional nature of language and knowledge with Mysterium (15/12/16)

Conference presentations

Games and Participation. Manchester Games Studies Network Seminar (February 2019)

What Would Dewey Play?: Pragmatist Play and the Future of Higher Education. Philosophy of Higher Education Conference, London (September 2018)

Playing with Participation: Learning, Teaching and Research as Playful Activities in Higher Education. Association for Research in Post-Compulsory Education Conference, Oxford (July 2018)

A Completely Inconspicuous and Normal Human Playtest. (with Ash Darrow) Playful Learning Conference, Manchester (July 2018)

Play and Participation in HE: Insights from the Field. ESRI Student Conference, Manchester (June 2018)

How game jams can help your students to learn. (with Dr Matthew Crossley) ALT-PLSIG Meeting, Leicester (May 2018)

Playing with What We've Got. Playful Learning Conference, Manchester (July 2017)

Analogue approaches to digital universities: Exploring university participation through play. Centre for Higher Education Futures Invited Talk, Aarhus University (March 2017)