Learning Sketch

Learn to make a mark on the world

Three: The distraction and gaming

As a student, I find it hard to survive in the online world described by Rheingold and the other authors presented. As a young kid, the doctors diagnosed me with attention deficit disorder. For years, I took amphetamines to counter-act my “day-dreaming.” I struggled—still do—with paying attention. Given a machine that grants my wondering mind infinite access to all sorts of media, games, and other wonderful distractions, I struggle sometimes. I feel like the “captive” Rheingold references in his first chapter.

As I began reading, I kept shaking my head in astonishment. Rheingold (2012) asks, “When you are online, how often do you control your own focus—and how frequently do you all it to be captured by peripheral stimuli?” (p. 41).

I felt like the author was talking directly to me at this point. Part of the reason I have a passion for instructional design was the struggle I had with traditional “sage-on-the-stage” learning. I found inspirational instructors, mentors, and persuasion artists (a.k.a retail co-workers) who helped me realize there is much more to learning than just chalkboards and lectures.

There is hope, and apparently, I’m not alone. There was a time when I could have even used Rheingold’s words when I started school. Clearly they appear in the book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Rheingold explains skills and gives advice that could have spared me anguish in my earlier college years. I wonder if my distraction would have been less had I read or met Rheingold at a much younger age.

Or maybe, I just grew up at the wrong time? Looking now at the communities of learners and the ways online gaming and other trends do command attention, I realize that I can focus—when it becomes critical to do so, or I have an intrinsic motivation. I think this is what Rheingold (2012) identifies when he says, “Only you can know your goals, and only you can determine which stimuli are relevant at any moment” (p. 42).

I’ve always struggled with paying attention unless I’m doing one of two things. The first is drawing. I lose myself when I draw. The other is when I am gaming—especially tabletop gaming. I can reach that level of distraction Rheingold describes about the story from Cathy Davidson when I am in a small group of five to eight people. Online gaming isn’t quite so consuming because I do get a bit bored sometimes. However, when researching online, documenting, or digging through Galileo, I find it hard to focus. That’s why the words of Rheingold ring true when I see others with the same problem, “Gaining control of your attention while you are online requires, first of all, intention.”

This is where the challenge begins with our goal as instructional designers and course developers. How do we prime our instructors and trainers to motivate their audience, as I am when I am tabletop gaming? Shirky (2008) states, “Human being are social creatures—not occasionally or by accident but always” (p. 14).  Tabletop players generally meet face-to-face, or at least in a virtual synchronous format. This connection helps to deal with social side of our human needs to interact while still maintaining our attention on a focused goal of playing the game.

Many people think that total strangers meeting together with all their digital devices would  be distracted. I would think I might be, but instead, tabletop gaming has yet another advantage pver many of the interactions including learning can be found. Turkle (2012) voices her concern that, “People text or do email during corporate board meetings. They text and shop and go on Facebook during classes, during presentations, actually during all meetings.”

During tabletop sessions, everyone is too busy listening to the story, or looking up rules, or making sure they’ve got their part of the game ready. I’m sure a lot of you reading this now are wondering, “What does gaming have to do with learning?” Some of you may know the questions. The latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons has a relatively streamlined set of rules. These rules have already been taught to thousands of players, and the game has only been out a few months. How and why? It’s interesting. Its engaging, and, it is difficult to do anything other than focus on the material when you sit down to play.

While with all my excitement of how effective and easy it is to teach one of my favorite games to new comers, there are still lessons to be learned. In the classroom, brick and mortar or virtual, we have to heed the words of Rheingold (2012), “If you want to make mindful use of media, however, you’ll need to train yourself to recognize and withdraw attention from activities unrelated to your intended goal of the moment” (p. 43).

We need to find the right balance of stimulus, engagement, and community. People will teach themselves anything especially online, including the rules to D&D, but only if they are motivated to do so. This is the challenge I still face: Identifying how distraction can detract, but motivation and social connection can benefit learning.


Rheingold, H., & Weeks, A. (2012). Net smart: How to thrive online (Kindle ed. p. 41-43). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Shirky, C. (2008). Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations (Kindle ed., p. 14). Toronto, Canada: Penguin Group.

Turkle, S. (Actor). (2008). Connected but alone? [Online video]. Retrieved October 5, 2014, from https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together/transcript?language=en

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