Polycontextuality, spheres and headphones


Photo by Alex Alvarez on Unsplash

Space, including learning space, can be thought of as ‘spheres’ and ‘atmospheres’. Ash (2016) looks at the implications of this for studio studies. For me and my own interest in studio-based learning and my longstanding interest in the ‘digital voice’ as a space for learning, I pick up on one of the vignettes Ash uses in his chapter on video-game design studios. He considers the interference of game testing when headphones are not available to the game developer. My thoughts are about the consequent interference to immersion in the material space.-


Spheres and atmospheres

Spheres, as psychosocial spatial constructs, can be understood as being both material and ephemeral and they can be applied to human participants and non-humans (objects and material environments) (Sloterdijk, 2011). As Ash demonstrates in his own case study, the concepts are equally relevant in the digital domain; in his case video game environments. I would extend it to the media and the sensual stimuli that adds to a context. Atmospheres (Anderson, 2009) extend this idea by incorporating the significance of the affective. Ash explains, “An atmosphere is an open assemblage of elements that change when new elements enter or leave the scene. “ (2016 p. 94)

Metaphorically, spheres and atmospheres can be conceived of as bubbles of influence describing the effect of humans and objects on each other within a space. “Developing aspects of Anderson and Sloterdijk’s account, we can define atmospheres as the affects, forces and affordances contained and brought into being by the specific objects that make up a sphere, which in turn create the appearance of objects as being discrete and spatially differentiated from one another.” (p. 94) I summarise ‘affects, forces and affordances’ as ‘influence’, but he has chosen each of the ideas carefully. Affects acknowledges emotional and aesthetic influence, forces alludes to material interference and impact, and affordance suggests purposeful functionality or role.

The influence of spheres can be understood as emergent or dynamic, reflecting the interactive or psychological relationship between humans and other humans or non-humans. “Objects, spheres and atmospheres are therefore linked to one another in processes of co-emergence.” (Ash, 2016 p. 95). These ideas are also evident in Actor-Network Theory, the social theory that explains how humans and non-humans in the social and natural worlds exist in a constant flux of relationship networks (Callon, 2001).


Ash describes a video game design studio. Within this, he considers the use of headphones by members of the development team during their regular game testing episodes. He draws attention to the role of sound in the game environment to not only create a rich sense of context but to provide critical information. Specifically he notes how the absence of sound invalidates testing.

The focus on headphones is pertinent to understanding components in assemblage theory, objects in ANT, and spatial polycontextuality. Headphones encapsulate and represent these ideas of interdependent constellations graphically. Headphones, as an object, wrap around the human’s head with the aim of transmitting a sound space. Their dual purpose is to exclusively capture the individual’s sensual attention: their duality is to not only provide stimuli but to remove unhelpful or distracting stimuli. Headphones in the game environment isolate the listener from their sense of the material world to create a sense of game immersion.

While Ash discusses atmosphere within the game and the implications of not hearing it, for me, a more significant point is the isolation of the player from their material environment. First, it indicates how studio presence is multi-sensual. Second, it draws our attention to the real implications of the human and non-human relationships in the environment – in a learning environment we talk of ‘the built pedagogy’ for example. Third, headphones, as an obstacle with either intended or non-intended consequences, set the subject apart from the environment, human and non-human spheres of influence and atmospheres and the ‘actor-network’ is unhelpfully disrupted.

My concern (ironically given that I have written so much about their positive use to support orality in learning) is that that the incidental communal interplay of the studio, as in other aspects of our life, becomes unintentionally lost. The headphones are one of several modern-day ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs (others being phones, tablets, woolly clothing, hoodies, some footwear, and holding open books!). However, headphones are commonplace and pervasive and not only signal a desire to be ignored, but actually cut off communication channels. They become an obstruction to casual and incidental exchange; a fundamental quality of a co-operative learning space.


Does this suggest that higher education and advocates of studio-based learning need to develop spatial literacy as a part of academic literacy, not only in formal learning spaces, but in encouraging self and social determination in learning?


Anderson, B. (2009). Affective atmospheres. Emotion, Space and Society, 2(2), 77-81.

Ash, J. (2016). Theorising studio space: Spheres and atmospheres in a video game design studio. In Farias, I. & Wilkie, A., eds, Studio studies: operations, topologies and displacements. Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 73-89.

Callon, M. (2001). Actor Network Theory. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioural Sciences, 2001, pp. 62-66.

Sloterdijk, P. (2009). Talking to myself and the poetics of space. Harvard Design Magazine, 30.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
This entry was posted in Academic Innovation and Possibilities, Active Learning, Belonging, BYOD, Co-operative pedagogy, Digital Placemaking, Gamification, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Literacies and Intelligence, Media-enhanced learning, PhD, Polycontextuality, Scholarship and Research, Social Media for Learning, Studio and Studio-based Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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