Case 4: Negotiating Roles


    While much learning in the 5th Dimension happens as undergraduates and kids work together to interpret task cards and to play educational games, there is another level of interaction, around how to participate in the 5th Dimension club as active citizens, which is also a crucial part of the learning in the 5th Dimension.  Often this takes the form of negotiations between kids, undergraduates and the site coordinator on how to follow the maze, whether they can get special privileges on a game, or what they need to do to become a Young Wizard's Assistant (YWA). 


    As described in the site descriptions, different sites have adapted the notion of the maze and YWA in different ways.  For example, the Whittier site has two different "transformations" and then a "super maze" of special games for kids that have made substantial progress.  At the Solana Beach site, where we conducted our research, the club relies on a single status change to YWA when completing the maze, after which they are given access to special games, and are also responsible for teaching others.


    This case study looks at a veteran of the 5th Dimension, and highlights some of the negotiations that happen in the 5th Dimension around citizenship issues, what it means to help others, and what it means to be a YWA.  These ongoing negotiations with adults and other kids are key aspects of participation in the 5th Dimension.  They also help children work out issues that arise through the process of developing and understanding their own roles and identities inside and outside the 5th Dimension. 


    "Ian" is a nine year old YWA, who is a game expert, especially at SimCity 2000.  Much of his motivation for becoming a YWA was to be able to have unlimited access to SimCity 2000, which is reserved for YWAs.  While Ian understands that his new role involves teaching others, it is often a challenge to get him to let others to play the game.


    The scene opens with Ian sitting in front of a computer, working on a well-developed city marked by an enormous airport and a layers of waterfalls in a pyramid formation.  He is surrounded by a crowd of onlookers, including at least three kids, two undergraduates, and the graduate student videotaper behind the camera.  The audience fluctuates as people move on and off camera, but at least four others are always present.  As "Mark" and "John," two other kids, settle in behind Ian, there are some negotiations over who gets to play.  Ian explains that he gets to play because he is a YWA.  The graduate student, who is videotaping, asks if he has an undergraduate to work with, and he again points out that he is a YWA.  The videotaper demurs on this point.  Over the course of the next five minutes, as Ian works on his city, they establish both that Mark can't play because he doesn't have a pass and he is not a YWA, and that Ian is teaching both Mark and John how to play.  When an undergraduate interrupts to ask John if he wants to play, this understanding becomes explicit:


UG = undergraduate;  M = Mark;  J = John;  I = Ian

UG: [John], do you want to play this? Do you want to watch some?


M: He wants to play with him.

J: He's teaching me how to play.

UG: Oh, he is?

I: It ain't going to do nothing.

SIB: Will you play with him?

UG: You want to play with him?

I: Yeah. I was going to teach [John].

M: And me!

UG: And you're going to teach [Mark] too?

I: Yeah, but that means you're going to need (unintelligible).

J: You have to go on the far side. I have a free pass, but I don't know what to do with it.


    After this brief interruption, Ian returns to his focus on the game, and does not respond to John's confusion about having a free pass.  He goes on to work on the public transit system, with his many onlookers making comments and contributing suggestions, which Ian responds to, but may or may not incorporate into his design.  A few minutes later, an undergraduate, "Anna," appears in the background, expressing some interest in the game.  Shortly after, Michael Cole, the site director, interrupts Ian's game play:


SD = Site Director;  I = Ian;  M = Mark;  A = Anna;  GS = Graduate Student; SIB = someone in the background

  1  SD: [Ian] you're about 5 minutes over the 3:30 mark here. How long do you want to go for?

  2  I: What do you mean?

  3  SD: Because you're not going to be sitting here all day just doing it by yourself. So other people watch you, it's not fair to other people.

  4  M: No, we, we, we, we're not supposed to be able to play. We're not supposed to play.

  5  SD: Why aren't you supposed to play?

  6  I: They're not.

  7  M: If you're not a young wizard's you can't play this.

  8  SD: But if you're a Young wizard's assistant and you're not teaching anybody else the game then you can't play it either.

  9  M: (unintelligible)

10  I: (unintelligible) said I could

11  SD: OK good, alright, check it out then.

12  I: Anybody ask me any questions.

13  GS: She just asked you what game it was.

14  I: SimCity 2000.

15  GS: Uh-huh, and what's the purpose of the game?

16  SIB: To build a city.

17  GS: You're like pulling teeth.

18  A: OK.

19  SD: What I'm going to do [Ian].

20  I: Yeah. (Budget window comes up, and I closes it)

21  SD: Your name is?

22  A: [Anna].

23  SD: [Anna], right. I'm going to, [Anna] is my student, right, OK, so when you're all done today, I'm going to ask her what she has learned about doing SimCity, and what you've taught her. Alright?

24  M: Uh-oh, two trains are going to crash.

25  SD: And I'm not kidding either and [Anna]'s grade depends on what you teach her. So you better do a good job teaching her.

26  I: OK.

27  SD: (unintelligible) check in with the wizard.


    In this segment of activity, we are able to see not only how roles in the club are defined -- the roles of YWA, university students, 5th Dimension citizens, site director -- but also how these roles are negotiated by the various participants in the 5th Dimension system.  At the beginning of this segment, the site director begins by invoking the 5th Dimension norm of cooperative learning, that Ian should "not to be sitting here all day just doing it by yourself" (line 3).  Mark, who is observing Ian's play, explains to the site director that " No, we, we, we, we're not supposed to be able to play. We're not supposed to play" (line 4) because they are not YWAs (line 7), and Ian concurs (line 6).  The site director counters by invoking the YWA responsibility to teach others: "But if you're a Young Wizard's Assistant and you're not teaching anybody else the game then you can't play it either" (line 8).  Ian, as his history in 5th Dimension documents, was motivated to become a YWA precisely to be able to play SimCity 2000 as he pleased.  He is, at the same time, apparently aware of the 5th Dimension accountabilities to community service.  In response to the site director, Ian seems to claim that he is indeed being a proper YWA, or at least that he had gotten permission to play, and the site director is momentarily appeased (line 10).  Further, he invites anybody to ask him any questions (line 12), making explicit his role as an expert as well as a teacher.  The graduate student jumps in, pointing out that he had not answered Anna's previous question. Ian answers tersely, and then turns back to the game.


    The site director then interjects again to draw out his responsibility to teach others, by seating the undergraduate who had been observing, and asking Ian to teach her.  "And I'm not kidding either," he stresses, "[Anna's] grade depends on what you teach her.  So you better do a good job teaching her" (line 25).  Ian agrees, The site director backs out of the scene, and Ian and the other kids continue to play as before, with Anna now also contributing occasional comments to Ian's game play.  While Ian continues to control the mouse throughout the day at site, he eventually starts a new city for Anna, and incorporates her wishes into the city design.


    This segment of tape, recording the negotiations between the site director, Ian, Mark, the graduate student, and Anna, is one small cut on how the social fabric of the 5th Dimension is knit together by ongoing negotiations between kids and adults regarding roles, norms, responsibilities, and accountabilities.  Both kids and adults are agents in these negotiations.  Neither Ian nor Mark are shy about talking back to and negotiating with the site director, and in fact, Ian is able to pursue his agenda of playing SimCity 2000, while also making subtle but important accommodations to the 5th Dimension activity system -- working with an undergraduate, positioning himself as a SimCity 2000 expert and teacher, and working out a vocabulary for being a community citizen.  In this moment, the 5th Dimension emerges as not simply a brain child of the site director, nor, at the other pole, simply an instance of kids playing together on a computer game in an incidental setting.  The 5th Dimension emerges as a site where both The site director and Ian can emerge from this encounter with their social agendas incompletely but largely intact, and enlisting the attention and concern of other kids and adults.


    This activity displays a common interactional dynamic in the 5th Dimension, which is related to the persistent and productive tension between authority and subordinate codes and agendas.  The adults, the site director, and the graduate student display a concern for 5th Dimension community definitions of responsibility, and Ian uses the same materials to place himself into a YWA teaching positioning while maintaining access to his game.  The social resources of the club become the materials with which children and adults can negotiate relations with each other and with such normally touchy topics as mastery, showing off, responsibility to others, and having fun.