1. Semiotic Domains

Starcraft IITwo toss, 1 Random and 1 Terran against 2 Zerg, 1 Random and myself, toss. Levels seem ok. When the game starts the usual “gl hf” messages pop-up the screen, followed by a “rush?”. My team mates answer with “yeah”, “sure”. That means I have to go 4 gate, and hope they won’t rush us or use reapers. I hate reapers, they always mess with my building strat. This would be a typical Starcraft 2 multiplayer game. Once the game starts all problems of the ‘real’ world disappear and are replaced by the problems within the domain of the game. These problems are contained: if you solve them, you win, if you don’t, you lose. The game provides a domain with associates to fight with and enemies to fight against. A lot of language seems gibberish for an outsider, but once within the semiotic domain it is all turned into situated meaning and thereby provides motivation.

Semiotic domain, affinity groups and situated meaning are an integrated triangle. It is difficult to describe one of the three without mentioning the others. The semiotic domain is “an area or set of activities where people think, act, and value in certain ways.”(WVGTLL, p. 19) Within the semiotic domain you have the affinity group, “which is the group of people associated with a given semiotic domain” (WVGTLL, p. 27). The affinity group gives situated meaning, which is “situate (build) meaning for that domain in the sorts of situations the domain involves” (WVGTLL, p. 26). These three create the learning environment not only within a (video) game, but in almost any field of interest, like sports, hobbies, political parties and academic areas. The jargon in which the domain’s members talk is called the design grammar, which includes the mores and socially accepted behaviour of the domain’s members (gibberish like ‘gl hf’, ‘toss’, ‘rush’ and ‘4 gate’ in the introduction). This chapter will mainly be concerned with the semiotic domain, though the other two corners will be incorporated as well.

triangleSemiotic domains have always existed in human history. Its foundation lies in the fact that people have an inclination to be part of something; a sense of belonging. Whether big or small, belonging creates meaning. If you love a music band you can find belonging in concerts and forums. You often share the affinity group’s lifestyle. A game of football is not merely getting a ball into a goal and cheer for it. It is a semiotic domain where supporters of a football club feel at home, and outsiders not participating with the affinity group don’t understand what the fuzz is all about. In history armies had distinct colours, because you were to proudly present your country. The country became the semiotic domain to which you had an obligation and were willing to die for.

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Video games have thereby not invented the semiotic domain, but created a platform for the domain to evolve. With video games you have different layers within the semiotic domain. First we have the domain of video games themselves. Whether you play PC games or console games, you are a video gamer[1]. Next you have the semiotic domain of either the different game consoles, PCs and even smartphones (although a lot of gamers participate in multiple machine-domains). Next you could have the game semiotic domain, like World of Warcraft players, Minecraft players, League of Legends players etc. Again, players could participate in multiple semiotic domains or shift easily. Finally you could have the alliances and clans within those games, having very tight or loose rules for participation.

A fictional though very striking example of a semiotic domain with a sub-semiotic domain is the school of wizardry of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter-series (a place envied by a lot of children). In the first movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (The Sorcerer’s Stone in America) Harry Potter walks into the great hall for the first time to take part in the sorting hat tradition. The new students enter the hall with all the different Houses sitting at their tables; they enter the semiotic domain of Hogwarts. The role of the teachers is to be guardians of the domain, the supreme beings who make sure the rules of the domain are enforced (in computer games this would be the algorithms that set the boundaries of the game). The Houses are the subdomains, with each their strengths and their weaknesses. The Houses give meaning to Hogwarts, and Hogwarts offers a platform for the affinity group. It is here Harry Potter can add meaning.

Traditions take place within the domain by the affinity group and only has meaning within that domain. Tradition enforces the bond within an affinity group, it encourages pride, and pride gives a sense of belonging. In the story of Harry Potter it is overly clear Harry is bullied outside of Hogwarts (which would actually continue later on in Hogwarts). However, in the world of Hogwarts he has an affinity group to fall back to and fight for: Gryffindor. The sorting hat tradition is meant to awe new members: this is where you really want to belong to. It is also a welcome party for new members as the Houses welcome new members heartily.

The benefit of creating a semiotic domain for an affinity group like a class can be achieved in many ways. In 1994 a teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School created an affinity group with a domain for her formerly reluctant students by having them write about their own lives. By writing they discovered they had a lot in common. The class became an affinity group, the class room the domain. Many will know Freedom Writers, which is probably a pimped version of the real story. However, Erin Gruwel, like Ron Clark in The Ron Clark Story, not only created an affinity group, but had the class room as the domain for that group. Within that domain you respect the affinity group, your goals are clear and you are rewarded for your merits: situated meaning is created.

The problem with secondary school is that, although attempts can be made to strengthen the affinity group at a school level, classes move from one class room (that is, in the Netherlands) to another making it difficult to create a physical domain. In that case you have to create an imaginary domain where the affinity group equals the domain. One of my tutor classes (14 year olds) wanted to go to an amusement park, so I said that if they would have to organise it, I would sign any document that needed to be signed. The students called the amusement park for reductions and arranged a bus to bring them to the park. They asked parents to come along for the needed adults. In the end they had a great day and could be proud of what they, as a class, had achieved. Of course, this has more to do with the affinity group than the semiotic domain, but the school served as the physical domain and my tutor class became, apart rom an affinity group, the imaginary domain.

Video games ask for responsibility within the semiotic domain and responsibility for the affinity group, whether being a video game fan or a clan member. That responsibility gives situated meaning. Once you set foot into the domain, you enter a world where achievements have direct results and meaning is visible. Before you can create situated meaning for a student and motivate him or her in mastering skills and knowledge, you have to create this platform on which the student is able to play the game of education. For situated meaning needs a domain to be meaningful. The distant future goal of university or even the exams is too far away to create such meaning. As a teacher you should be aware of this need for situated meaning and encourage the existence of a semiotic domain in order to let Gamification succeed.


[1] You could say that on top of the video game domain you would have the ‘game’ domain, including board games and card games. However, things might get blurry as the relation in the affinity group ‘gamer’ is quite loose.

This article is part of the What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy series:

  1. Introduction
  2. Semiotic Domains
  3. Learning and identity
  4. Situated meaning and learning
  5. Telling and doing
  6. Cultural models
  7. The Social mind
  8. Stories
  9. Conclusion
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