• Connectivism and Affinity Spaces: Some Initial Thoughts

    Photo Composit: All the colours of the rainbow
    Credit: Photograph by Jake Rome (jakerome) under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

    Image: Photograph composited from pieces of many other photographs: a visual affinity.

    James Paul Gee introduced the idea of affinity groups in his seminal What Video Games Have To Teach Us about Language, Learning, and Literacy (Gee, 2007). It is defined as the people associated with a given semiotic domain. That basically is a domain in which people use particular symbols or language to communicate and interact. We’re already well used to the concept, even if we don’t realize it. A given academic discipline, for example, will have its own vocabulary and, in that context, use language in a particular way, even if others use it differently in another context. It’s all about situated cognition and situated meaning. Games and their communities will have their own semiotics and constitute a semiotic domain. Members of an affinity group will have a way to recognize others who belong and to assess what counts as acceptable or recognizable within that semiotic domain.

    The key problem he perceives is that we attempt to a label a group of people and then have issues about who is “in” or “out” of the group. This comes about in particular because:

    • Community implies belonging, which may not always be the case, especially in classrooms and workspaces.
    • Community brings the idea of people being members, related to belonging, but also to shared goals or a collective purpose that may not be in force.
    • Community of practice has been applied to all manner of things, possibly “missing the trees for the forest.”

    Starting the notion of spaces, rather than community, he argues, can give us an analytical lens with which to examine classrooms and the activities that occur within them without the baggage that community of practice brings with it. “In affinity spaces people ‘bond’ first and foremost to an endeavour or interest and secondarily, if at all, to each other.” (Gee, 2007 p.98)

    Spaces (general) have the following features:

    • Content, both design content and interactional content, i.e. how people play and how they organize their behaviours, beliefs, values and actions around the content. Design content is created by content generators.
    • Organization of content and interactions. Content organization arises from the design of a game. Interactional organization comes from interactions on and with the space and the people in it.
    • Portals, which are entrances into the space, e.g. a website to discuss a game, the game disc itself, wikis, etc. Some of these become content generators in their own right.

    I believe guilds in World of Warcraft are examples of a community of practice in many cases, because they do exhibit shared goals, joint enterprise, and mutual engagement. Not all guilds will be possibly, but those are probably also the guilds that don’t manage to live that long. Ducheneaut et al (2007) found that in a 6-month period, out of 3000+ guilds, 54% had disappeared. One question Dave White (2007) posed in his GLS 3 talk was how long does it take to form or seed a community? That is a good question. One of the problems with adapting the community practices in WoW to higher education (online or otherwise) is that guilds do take some time to evolve, especially if they involve people who were previously unknown to each other. This is perhaps where Gee’s idea of affinity spaces comes into play. Affinity spaces, Gee says, have the following eleven characteristics:

    • Common endeavour, not race, class, gender, or disability, is primary.
    • Newbies and masters and everyone else share common space.
    • Some portals are strong generators.
    • Content organization is transformed by interactional organization.
    • Encourages intensive and extensive knowledge.
    • Encourages individual and distributed knowledge.
    • Encourages dispersed knowledge.
    • Uses and honours tacit knowledge.
    • Many different forms and routes to participation.
    • Lots of different routes to status.
    • Leadership is porous and leaders are resources.

    Reproduced from (Gee, 2007 p. 98-101).

    A space can be more or less of an affinity space and can possess degrees of the characteristics. It is not a binary, prescriptive list. The theory then is that if we incorporate these ideas into our educational environments, we can help forge more cohesiveness, autonomy, and, in the end learning. Many of these characteristics are also shared by communities of practice and foster digital literacies. Those are the characteristics of dispersed and distributed knowledge, which may be generated by the students themselves, who become portals in their own right. Autonomy is forged by individual knowledge and content organization being transformed by interactional organization—which bears a striking resemblance to Downes and Siemens’s ideas about connectivism (c.f. Downes, 2007; Siemens, 2008). The last two can also be artefacts of digital literacies or encouraged by a connectivist paradigm: the tools used allow many types of participation. Some people may participate in wikis or make videos, while others may only post on forums. Others may take on roles within the game. My partner “Basil”, for example, in Eve Online does not have a lot of time to play with his guild because of a time zone difference. He is, however, extremely active in their forums and became a valued member because of that. He is participating in the Eve affinity space but also belongs to a community of practice within Eve.


    Downes, S. (2007) ‘What Connectivism Is’, Half an Hour, blog entry posted February 3, 2007. Available from: http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html (Accessed July 25, 2011).

    Ducheneaut, N. et al. (2007) ‘The Life And Death of Online Gaming Communities: A Look at Guilds in World of Warcraft’, in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (SIGCHI 2007), San Jose, CA, United States, April 28 – May 3, ACM. pp:839-848. Also available from: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1240624.1240750.

    Gee, J.P. (2007a) What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. 2nd edition. New York, NY, United States, Palgrave Macmillan.

    Gee, J.P. (2007b) ‘Affinity Spaces: From Age of Mythology to Today’s Schools’, in Good Video Games + Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning, and Literacy, New York, NY, United States, Peter Lang. pp. 87-103.

    Siemens, G. (2008) ‘What is the Unique Idea in Connectivism?’, Connectivism, blog entry posted August 6, 2008. Available from: http://www.connectivism.ca/?p=116 (Accessed July 25, 2011).

    White, D. (2007) ‘Cultural Capital and Community Development in the Pursuit of Dragon Slaying’, presented at Games Learning and Society 3.0, Madison, WI, United States, July 12-13. Also available from: http://tallblog.conted.ox.ac.uk/index.php/2007/07/30/cultural-capital-and-community-development-in-the-pursuit-of-dragon-slaying/ (Accessed July 26, 2011).