Play in Dark Places

Alex Moseley (@AlexM11) is the Head of Curriculum Enhancement at the University of Leicester and a National Teaching Fellow; he is also a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Higher Education Futures, Aarhus University. We were delighted when Alex agreed to keynote at Icepops 2018 and even more delighted after he delivered an excellent presentation and a hugely success games hack during the afternoon. But, for anyone who wasn’t able to attend the day, or just wants to relive the experience, Alex has written us the following blog post linking his specialism of adult play in education with the broader topic of copyright literacy more broadly…

“voluntarily overcoming unnecessary obstacles” – a description Bernard Suits (philosopher) coined in 1978.

It could have described my acceptance of an invitation to keynote at Icepops earlier this month. Whilst I’ve touched on the use of copyright in course materials both as a teacher/researcher and in my current role as Head of Curriculum Enhancement, I couldn’t claim to be a practitioner – even less an expert. But, voluntarily, I accepted the challenge to overcome this particular obstacle.

Fig 1: A playfully ‘low risk’ image I created for my keynote.

Suits’ description is actually a succinct definition of what makes a game; and it’s one that’s been used by many game scholars and designers since. When I sat down to think about my keynote, it struck me that the definition would also work well as a description of copyright literacy – with the addition of parentheses:

‘voluntarily overcoming (un)necessary obstacles’

As teachers and researchers, copyright and IP seem designed to put barriers in the way of our work. We can’t use that image in our slides now that they’re being shared online; we can’t use that source in our latest journal article. So what do we do? We take risks and hope the chances of litigation are low (hence the ‘(un)’necessary above – it’s a grey area), or we find work-arounds – images or sources that aren’t quite the same, or paraphrasing/redrawing them.

At the heart of this convoluted process, we’re working around obstacles or constraints, and we’re taking calculated risks. Here, as a researcher of game design, I’m on familiar ground. Many games use these two elements to set up problem solving and tension: and as players get better at the game, they learn to overcome the obstacles, and take more calculated risks for success. That could be a description of Chess, or Mario Cart, or Who Wants to be a Millionaire…

And this is where copyright literacy suddenly becomes interesting, from a playful perspective. The teacher is no longer looking through endless websites for a sub-standard image; we’ve set a challenge. There are constraints, in the form of Google Images’ ‘Labelled for reuse’ filter for example; and there is risk: how likely is the copyright holder to find and take action against its use?

Fig 2: The Google Image ‘Labeled for reuse’ tool

Epstein (1977) considered the role of risk in gambling-based games, noting that where there is no risk (complete certainty) there is no game, and players lose interest. Where there is too much uncertainty, the outcome is completely unknown and also not interesting to players beyond the short term. In the middle, though, is risk at a quantifiable level. This is the realm of compelling gameplay: the player has a fairly good idea of the level of risk, and can make judgements based on that.

Although not an expert, it strikes me that most use of source material in higher education falls into this realm; and that copyright literacy could therefore be described as a game itself. Certainly, my fellow Icepops keynoter Ronan Deazley made a compelling case for playfulness in his own approach to the use of source material – his work has deliberately explored the riskier edge for greater impact.

Certainly, next time I need to find an image for my teaching, I’ll be looking forward to the challenge!


Epstein, R. (1977) The Theory of Gambling and Statistical Logic. Revised ed., Academic Press, New York.

Suits, B. (1978) The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Univ. Toronto Press, Toronto.

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