Originally posted on the Connected Learning Research Network blog, 7.20.12.
When I first started playing LittleBigPlanet2, a Playstation 3 game created by the company Media Molecule, I was both excited and frustrated. I was excited because the graphics, characters, and story of the side-scrolling platform were stunning and engaging. I controlled a character named Sackboy, an adorable humanoid creature made of fabric, as he navigated puzzles and dispelled baddies on the way to saving his home planet, Craftworld, from an evil inter-dimensional vacuum cleaner. But I became frustrated as I discovered some of the more creative and challenging features of the game, including the level design editor. I tried to design the simplest elements of a level — such as creating fireworks — and failed miserably. My fireworks didn’t look like fireworks at all, and I felt as though I was a disappointment to my Sackboy and the Craftworld universe.
After spending more time in Craftworld, I discovered that many other players just like me were creating levels and sharing them with other players. Players were creating all sorts of levels, including similar side-scrolling games, remakes or remixes of old games like Tetris or The Legend of Zelda, and creating music videos or producing their own movies. To my surprise, I found a level created by a user who had not only figured out how to do fireworks, but assembled an entire recreation of the Disney fireworks display. I was in awe. Reinvigorated by not only the potential of the game but also of my peers, I desperately Googled to find out whether other players had shared information or guides, so that I could learn more about how to use the editor. It was then that I discovered Sackboy Planet, and both my appreciation of the LittleBigPlanet2 and engagement with the level editor have never been the same (1).
The over 1,000 active members of Sackboy Planet (23,000 have registered since its launch several years ago) collectively produce and curate in-depth tutorials and informational YouTube videos for new learners. Moreover, sections of the website are devoted for “feedback to feedback,” or users reciprocally providing assistance to others as they work through issues with their designs. The editor provides a low barrier to entry by making basic level creation as simple as dragging a paintbrush across a canvas. However, it also allows for incredibly complex creations using logic, math, spatial relations, sophisticated camera control, and musical composition, resulting in a very high ceiling for achievement. In this way, LittleBigPlanet2 provides an academically-oriented context for players. Moving back and forth between the game and Sackboy Planet, players engage in production-centered level design and share their creations both in the game and in forums on the Internet, such as Sackboy Planet. They can earn publicly visible badges for creating popular levels.
My research interests in peer-supported contexts make LittleBigPlanet2 and Sackboy Planet ideal environments through which to study learning. For the past 9 months I’ve been conducting ethnographic fieldwork on LBP2 creator communities, centered on Sackboy Planet. After just a few short weeks of hanging out on Sackboy Planet, I became acquainted with a major community ritual: contests. The first time I visited the contest section of Sackboy Planet I was stunned by its level of activity. There are routinely hundreds and sometimes over a thousand responses to contest threads soon after they are posted. The most popular contests provide opportunities for community members to submit original level designs created through the game’s level editor. Contest judges select a theme that must be used in the submissions, such as recreating an old video game or developing a unique movie production. As the contest continues, submitted levels are played by not only the judges but also the entire community. Peers provide supports through comments that say “Great job!” or “Try to improve this part of the level”; contestants often revise their levels as they receive feedback from community members before they are evaluated by judges and the winner is announced. Rewards for winning also vary, and have included badges and small gift cards. However, a primary motivation behind the contests is the opportunity to share creations with an engaged community which supports players’ hard work at improving their craft.
Sackboy Planet embodies an interest-powered learning community, and provides a number of exciting mechanisms, such as contests, for learning and improvement through a shared purpose. Together, LittleBigPlanet2 and Sackboy Planet provide the tools, contexts, and supports needed to develop a shared culture and purpose through peer interaction.
(1) All group and individual names have been changed to protect the identity of respondents.