In Chapter 2, I discussed the state of the art in the academic study and understanding of games. In particular, I illustrated how the game studies community is wrestling with what its fundamental concepts, ideas, and theoretical models should be. One of the consequences of the newness of the field is that there really isn’t a consensus on what it means to understand games and what it means to be games literate. In this chapter I explore these questions. I will present a definition for games literacy together with a lens for exploring what it means to understand games. My definition for games literacy is grounded in Jim Gee’s notion of literacy (2003), and the lens for understanding games is informed by the issues, questions, and problems explored by game studies, as seen in Chapter 2. I will use this lens for understanding games to contextualize some of the challenges of learning about games (Chapter 4) and the results of my work supporting learning about games (Chapters 5 and 6). Since literacy and learning are inextricably tied together, this chapter concludes with an overview of the theories and research on learning that inform my exploration of issues surrounding how to support understanding and learning about games. Thus, the goal of this chapter is to answer two questions: (1) what is games literacy and (2) how can what we know about learning inform our support of it?
Early definitions of literacy focused on the ability to encode (write) and decode (read) written text at a level adequate for communication (Kirsch et al., 2002). The notion of literacy has been extended far beyond its original use in the medium of writing. As early as 1986, Spencer introduced the notion of “emergent literacies” in describing young children’s media-related play (Spencer, 1986). Since then we have seen discussion around the notions of visual literacy (Moore and Dwyer, 1994), television literacy (Buckingham, 1993), computer literacy (Hoffman and Blake, 2003), procedural literacy (Perlis, 1962), information literacy (Bruce, 1997), and digital literacy among others (Gilster, 1997). One of the arguments given for an extended view of literacy is that communication in different media, such as television, film, and videogames, requires new forms of cultural and communicative competencies (Cope and Kalantzis, 2000).
As described by Buckingham and Burn, making the argument for the need to think about videogames in terms of literacy requires considering the possibilities and limitations of games literacy (2007). In particular, it is important to address some fundamental questions. For example, there is the implication that “games can be analyzed in terms of a kind of language – that they make meaning in ways that are similar, at least in some respects, to written language. It also implies that there is a competency in using that language that is gradually acquired” (Buckingham and Burn, 2007). However, the notion of game literacy also implies that the medium of games is distinct enough to warrant its own literacy. So, how do we define the characteristics of games as a cultural form? How do we differentiate them from other media? How do they create, or make possible, meaning and pleasure? Finally, how do players make sense of them and learn about them? As described in Chapter 2, many scholars have explored the characteristics of games as a cultural form and what differentiates games from other media. More recently, we have begun to see the kinds of meanings that games can create. In his book Persuasive Games, Bogost argues that games are a unique medium because they present a new form of persuasive rhetoric (2007).
Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy argues that literacy, as a way of understanding and producing meaning, needs to be situated in the context of a semiotic domain. Gee defines semiotic domains as any set of practices that recruits one or more modalities (e.g. oral or written language, images, equations, symbols, sounds, gestures, artifacts) to communicate distinctive types of meanings (Gee, 2003). If we take a sentence such as “The guard dribbled down the court.”, and ask what it means to “read” it in the semiotic domain of basketball, at least two things are necessary: (1) the ability to decode the text, and (2) the ability to understand the specific meanings of each word in the sentence with respect to the semiotic domain of basketball. So, in the case of the above sentence, it is important to recognize the letters and words in addition to understand that “dribble” does not mean “drool”, “court” does not have to do with legal proceedings, “guard” refers to a player in one of three standard basketball positions, “down the court” probably means that the player with the ball was moving towards his opponents side of the playing area, and so on. In addition to the need for understanding meanings in semiotic domains, literacy requires the ability to produce meanings, in particular to produce meanings that, while recognizable are seen as somehow novel or unpredictable (Gee, 2003). From Gee’s perspective, literacy requires:
1. Ability to decode
2. Ability to understand meanings with respect to a semiotic domain
3. Ability to produce meanings with respect to a semiotic domain
So, by this definition, what does it mean to be games literate? Gee argues that videogames are essentially a family of semiotic domains (Gee, 2003).2 For simplicity, we can consider videogames as a singular semiotic domain. The ability to decode is analogous to the ability to access the “content”. For games, being able to decode is thus analogous to being able to play. Gee’s second element, understanding meanings with respect to a semiotic domain, becomes understanding meanings with respect to games, and the third, produce meanings with respect to a semiotic domain, can be expressed as the ability to make games. Thus, games literacy can be defined as:
1. Having the ability to play games.
2. Having the ability to understand meanings with respect to games.
3. Having the ability to make games.
It is arguable that playing precludes understanding, which in turn precludes making. However each part of games literacy is related to, influences, and is influenced by the others. These interrelationships can be complicated, especially when we consider additional literacies. For instance, the ability to play a game can often encompass more than just knowledge of the rules, goals, and interface of a game. Playing a game can also include the ability to participate of the social and communicational practices of play. As Steinkuehler shows in her analysis of inter-player communication in the massively multiplayer online game Lineage, playing this game requires, among other things, knowing the specialized language used by the players3 and the social practices they engage in4 (Steinkuehler, 2006).
These issues notwithstanding, the focus of my work is on the second component of games literacy: supporting the ability to understand meanings with respect to games. For simplicity, when I refer to understanding games, it is implied that I mean understanding meanings with respect to games. Sometimes, such as when I discuss how the inability to play poses challenges to understanding games (Chapter 4), I will refer to the ability to play. Similarly, I will not focus on the ability to make games though, as others have suggested (Salen, 2007), supporting game design education might be a productive way of supporting games literacy. Issues of the ability to make games will, however, be discussed in the context of learners who are interested in game design, or are taking courses where the
2 Gee’s argument for multiple semiotic domains is due the distinctiveness of different genres of videogames. This is something that will come up when I explore some of the issues that arise when we consider students as “videogame “experts in Chapter 4.
3 Ex: “afk gtg too ef ot regen no poms” = I’m not at my computer, I have to go to the Elven Forest to regenerate. I’m out of mana potions.
4 Ex: The player’s are involved in a “pledge hunt”, which requires certain coordination, commitment, and group expectations.focus is on design (Chapters 4, 5, and 6).
What does it mean to understand meanings with respect to games? In the following sections, before describing the educational underpinnings that inform how I will support understanding videogames, I will provide a definition for understanding games. This definition is informed by the essential problems and questions of game studies as covered in Chapter 2, and also illustrates what it means to understand games in the semiotic domains sense that Gee refers to.
In Chapter 2, I provided a broad overview of the current state of the art in the academic study of games. From this overview, and by looking at how the game studies community has explored, and is currently exploring games, it is possible to synthesize a definition of what the ability to understand games means. More specifically, I can look at the game studies work that has explored the meaning and context of games together with the work that has studied games as artifacts in and of themselves. Thus, I define the ability to understand games as the ability to explain, discuss, describe, frame, situate, interpret, and/or position games:
1. in the context of human culture (games as a cultural artifacts),
2. in the context of other games (comparing games to other games, genres),
3. in the context of the technological platform on which they are executed,
4. and by deconstructing them and understanding their components, how they interact, and how they facilitate certain experiences in players.
I will consider each of these parts of the definition a “context” for games understanding. Thus, understanding games in the context of human culture, is the first context of games understanding, the context of other games is the second, and so on. Each of these contexts synthesizes some of the essential questions and problems that have been part of the game studies literature. For example, the ludology vs. narratology debates I referred to in Chapter 2 were essentially concerned with exploring games in the context of human culture (first context of games understanding). What kind of culture are games? Are they narratives? If not, what place do games occupy in the ecology of cultural artifacts? This work, together with our understanding of affordances of the computer as a medium, have led to the exploration of the technologies on which videogames are implemented, and how these technologies afford certain kinds of interactions and experiences (third context of games understanding). Also, a lot of the work done in defining games has also dealt with the similarity, or lack of, that certain games may have with others (second context of games understanding). How are games related to each other? Finally, exploring the question “How do we create better games?” has led to game studies work that focused on deconstructing games and indentifying the components that make them work (fourth context of games understanding).
From a games literacy perspective, the ultimate goal is for students to be able to engage all of the contexts for understanding games I describe and possibly others as well. As I will show in Chapter 4, these fours contexts generally cover the spectrum of what is taught in most game studies courses.
First Context for Understanding Games: Games as Cultural Artifacts
Understanding a game also means understanding its relationship, and the role it plays, within culture in general. A game is an artifact that occupies a place in a broader cultural context that includes other artifacts that aren’t games. The meaning you can make from a game depends on understanding these relationships. Since cultural context can be quite broad, I will only discuss this issue from three complementary perspectives. The first perspective refers to the relationship that exists between games and other media. The second refers to relationships that can exist between games and certain media genres and/or artistic movements. Finally, a third perspective looks at how games can relate to certain cultures or sub-cultures in a broader sense.
Games often include references to and from other media such as print, film or television. Bolter and Grusin explain that “no medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces” (1999). For example, understanding a game such as Peter Jackson’s King Kong would probably require explicating the relationship the game has with King Kong, the movie directed by Peter Jackson, and in turn, the relationship with the earlier movies also released under the same name. In another example, the single-player game The Thing promises, and indeed delivers, the opportunity to play with and within the most memorable elements of John Carpenter’s 1982 science fiction film The Thing (Crogan, 2004). The game is conceived as beginning shortly after the point where Carpenter’s film left off.
In some cases, the relationship between a game and an artifact from another media may be primarily one of remediation, or representing one medium in another. For example, a game would remediate a movie if it allows the player to participate in the events depicted in the movie while maintaining the same narrative, characters and setting. Thus, understanding who the characters are and why certain events occur in the game is largely dependent on what is established in the movie. On the other hand, the relationship between game and movie could be complementary. Henry Jenkins describes transmedia storytelling as a “process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience” (Jenkins, 2007). For instance, a game could offer a novel experience that enriches and extends on the fictional universe of King Kong by allowing players the opportunity to control Kong and learn about the giant ape’s motivations and existence before the story in the movie takes place. While the experience of playing the game would be self-contained, it could not be fully understood without understanding its place in the broader ecosystem of media artifacts that together bring King Kong’s fictional universe to life.
Games can also share aesthetic, thematic, compositional and structural elements from established artistic or expressive genres or movements. For instance, certain games have been described as sharing in many of the aesthetic and thematic qualities of noir film and literature (Davis, 2002). Understanding Max Payne as a game requires situating many of the decisions made in the design of the game with respect to the noir genre (both film and fiction), understanding what the conventions of the genre are, and also recognizing when adaptations or exceptions have been made. Davis’ analysis of the game Max Payne describes how “Max Payne’s noir elements are clear. But much of the reason they are clear is because the game makes a concerted effort to make them obvious. Its self-referentiality is understandable when looking at the rather overt nature of the features of noir narrative in general, particularly the visual elements. Max Payne’s self-referentiality makes up for its contemporary setting, which admittedly hinders its noir-ness.” (Davis, 2002) Similarly, understanding the game Rez, designed by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, requires knowing the artistic ideas of the Russian painter Kandinsky. In the end credits of the game, the game is dedicated to Kandinsky (Byron et al., 2006). Rez is a game whose carefully designed abstract visuals, highly layered musical soundscapes, and rhythmic pulsing feedback from the game controller all contribute to lulling the player into a mild trance that is evocative of Kandisky’s ideas of synesthetic vision. In Rez, the perception of space and sound seem to become indistinguishable from each other as the player progresses, enabling the player to explore individual layers of tracks, add sound effects, and have it all blend effortlessly into a seamless whole (Kücklich, 2007).
Finally, games can also be understood as part of a broader culture or subculture where the aesthetics, language, music and other elements are those that are understood and valued by certain cultures or subcultures. For example, the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series of games are a relevant part of urban skater culture. The music in the games, the language used, the names of the characters, and even the locations available to the players can be significant to skater culture. The discoursive practices of skater culture are reflected in the game, and making sense of the game requires an understanding of the broader discourse. There are other cases when these relationships are less evident and perhaps more complex. The historical simulation game Civilization, designed by Sid Meier, allows the player to nurture and guide a civilization from the Bronze Age until the Space Age (or more precisely, the year 2100). The game can be described as a historical simulation where the player chooses to control one of a series of authentic civilizations (i.e. Aztecs, Indians, Romans, etc.). However, the game assumes a Western (Eurocentric) perspective of history. For example, the game requires that “in order to pass from the Ancient to Middle Ages, you must develop monotheism, monarchy, and the alphabet- whether you’re China or England” (Chen, 2003). Regardless of the civilization you control, the player is forced to follow a linear progression of developments similar to those of the nations of the Western world. Thus, understanding Civilization implies realizing the relationship between what the game models and represents as a particular understanding of history, in particular that of the Western world. Another subtle example can be seen in Animal Crossing: Wild World. This game is ostensibly a “animal village simulator” where the player controls a human character in a village inhabited by kind animals (Stang et al., 2006) and can be understood in the context of Western capitalist and materialist culture. An important part of the game’s gameplay is purchasing and collecting furniture and other virtual items with which to decorate their home. The only explicit measure of the player’s success in the game is determined by the quality (rarity) of the “stuff” owned, whether or not the player has completed collections of items, and how they are organized within the player’s home. Players quickly find that their homes are not large enough to store all the items they own and are invited to take out loans to expand their homes. The tension between using money earned to pay off home debts or acquiring desired items resonates strongly with the issues of credit, consumerism and debt in modern capitalist society (Bogost, 2007).
Table 1: Examples of ways of situating games as cultural artifacts
Game could be a part of a transmedia storytelling ecology
Some Star Wars videogames extend the universe and story beyond what is seen in the movies.
Game could remediate a cultural artifact from another medium
Some videogames are adaptations of comics, books, or movies.
Game could share in the thematic and aesthetic qualities of a broader media genre
Some videogames share the dystopian world-view and grim world outlook of a science fiction genre called cyberpunk.
Game could be part of a broader artistic movement
Surrealism, a cultural movement, uses games to provide inspiration as well playing games as a method of investigation.
Game could share discoursive practices of a subculture
Some videogames are part of hip-hop culture.
Game could share values and viewpoint of certain cultures or societies
Many videogames set during World War II assume the perspective and values of the Allied nations.
Table 1 summarizes some of the different ways we can understand games as cultural artifacts. In summary, games exist in a broader cultural context, and it is important to use this cultural context in order to help understand a game and vice versa.
Second Context for Understanding Games: Games in the Context of Other Games
Understanding a game also means understanding its relationship to, and the role it plays within, the landscape of other games. In addition to videogames, there is a wealth of games such as boardgames, card games, collectible card games, strategy games, wargames, role-playing games, sports, and so on. Many modern videogames are influenced or derive from non-videogames. Some obvious examples include remediated traditional board and card games like chess, poker, and solitaire. However, there are other videogames whose non-videogame legacy is less apparent. For example, the genre of videogames known as real-time strategy games (RTS) came from strategy games, which in turn owe much to strategy board games and their brethren wargames (Dunnigan, 1992; Crawford, 2003). Computer text adventures, including the original Colossal Cave Adventure (later renamed Adventure), computer role-playing games, and massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) all share common ancestry with paper and pencil role-playing games (RPGs) that first appeared in the early 1970’s.
Understanding the conventions and design decisions in many of these games requires making the connections to the original games, genres and creators. For instance, “experience points”, “hit points”, and “character classes” are all mechanics adopted from traditional paper and pencil role-playing games that are prevalent in many computer role-playing games today (see Table 2 for definitions of these). Explaining the design rationale behind the decision to use “hit points” often requires balancing the historical legacy owed to other games with the fact that particular mechanics used will be familiar to players. In other cases, the adoption of certain mechanics from one genre to another can be explained by looking at the role they play, and then adapting them to the needs of the other genre. For instance, the use of “character classes” was first introduced in the paper and pencil role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). D&D is a collaborative game, and the use of character classes encourages collaboration by bestowing different abilities and responsibilities upon the players (Zagal et al., 2006). Modern team-based first-person shooter games such as Team Fortress, Battlefield 1942 and Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory that rely on collaborative gameplay have arguably adopted character classes for similar reasons.
Table 2: Sample influential game mechanics from paper and pencil RPGs
Experience points (xp) are used as a meter of player progression in a game. They are usually awarded for accomplishing certain tasks. When enough xp are collected, the player controlled character is awarded with increased powers and statistics. The rewards for obtaining experience points are usually increasing and discrete. For example, the character might “level up” or get rewarded when obtaining 100xp, then 200xp, 400xp, and so on.
Hit points (hp) are a numerical indicator of how much health a character has. The idea is that attacks made upon the character will cause a certain amount of damage, which is then subtracted from the characters current hit points. The more hit points a character has, the more “powerful” he is due to the increased amount of damage he can withstand before dying or passing out
Character classes are a game mechanic generally used for arbitrating the skills, abilities and aptitudes of different characters in a game. For example, a character who is a “Mage” might be able to cast magical spells while characters who are “Warriors” are not allowed to. Different games often define their own classes and usually a character cannot belong to more than one class at a time.
Another way of understanding games in relation to other games refers to the relationship between games that share a common pedigree, either in terms of their creators, shared characters, sequels and prequels, or all of the above. The relationships between sequels can be complicated. For example, the first-person shooter Quake II is officially the sequel to Quake. Both games were created by the same company, iD Software. However, despite the similar name, the sequel has nothing in common with the original game other than the basic gameplay and similar technology5. Quake II is set in an entirely different fictional setting and was named a sequel of Quake due to trademark issues and to leverage the popularity of the original (Connery, 1998). Other games, such as the real-time strategy game Warcraft and
5 The technology used in Quake II was based on that developed for Quake. the massively-multiplayer online game World of Warcraft might share the same characters and setting, but vary significantly in gameplay. In the case of Half-Life and its expansions Half-Life: Opposing Force and Half-Life: Blue Shift, the creators decided to maintain the same gameplay and allow the player to experience the same story from three different perspectives. In Half-Life, the player controls a character who tries to escape from the Black Mesa Research Facility after a laboratory experiment goes awry and the center is invaded by monsters followed by military personnel intent on containing the incident. In Opposing Force, the player controls a soldier charged with, among other things, neutralizing Gordon Freeman, the protagonist of the original game. Blue Shift presents a third perspective of the Black Mesa disaster, this time through the eyes of a security guard. Both expansions share events and locations with the original Half-Life, and the player gains access to places that are “behind the scenes” in the original game while also catching fleeting glimpses and references of Gordon Freeman’s exploits. Finally, to make things even more confusing, it is often the case that games released simultaneously, yet on different hardware platforms, might share the same name but be completely different in terms of gameplay. For example Rayman Raving Rabbids was released in mid-November of 2006 on Nintendo’s Wii and Game Boy Advance (GBA) platforms under the same name. The characters and visual design, technical constraints permitting6, are largely the same. However, the Wii version of the game was ostensibly a collection of short mini-games, while the GBA version is better described as a platforming adventure game with occasional mini-games (Navarro, 2007).
In summary, to understand a game, it is often important to understand its context with relation to other games as well as gaming conventions and mechanics that might be common across multiple games.
Third Context for Understanding Games: Games in the Context of Technology
Understanding a game in the context of the technology and platform on which it is executed means situating the game in the context of the platform on which it is played and understanding the role that platform may have on the design and play of the game. Technological platforms both limit and afford the implementation of certain kinds of applications. The case of videogames is no different, and the restrictions imposed by limited memory, bandwidth, processor power, and storage capacity have, among other things, shaped and determined the kinds of games that are created. For example, the video hardware of the Atari 2600 only allowed for two sprites (two-dimensional images that are integrated or composited
6 Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance is a hand-held machine with a smaller screen and lower resolution and color depth than the Wii.onto a larger scene), thus limiting the number of moving objects that could be shown on screen. Although programmers were able to squeeze extra performance through clever technical tricks, the end result is that the video hardware still severely limits what Atari 2600 games can look like. The resulting visual style of these games, in particular the “stripe-colored” sprites, is a trademark of Atari 2600 games (Bogost and Montfort, 2007). While hardware can limit, it can also offer new possibilities. For example, localization technology available in many mobile phones has enabled the design of location-based games that use information of the player’s location in the real world to affect gameplay. BotFighters is an action game with a robot theme. In the game, players must locate and shoot at each other using their mobile phones. Mobile positioning is used to determine whether players are close enough to each other in the real world to be able to hit each other in BotFighters virtual world (Dodson, 2002). Novel interface hardware often broadens the design space of games by allowing for novel gameplay and interactions previously unimagined. The motion-sensing capabilities of the controllers for Nintendo’s Wii game console are but a recent example of how hardware innovations can broaden the possibilities for new types of games.
In summary, videogames are implemented on technological platforms that shape the form and functionalities and experiences they can offer. It is often important to understand the technological platform and its relationship to a particular videogame in order to better understand it.
Fourth Context for Understanding Games: The Structure and Components of Games
Understanding the structure of games is akin to being able to identify the different components that make up a game and how they interact with each other. If we go back to Gee’s notion of literacy, this means understanding the design grammars of semiotic domains (Gee, 2003). In other words, recognizing and understanding the principles, patterns and procedures to the construction of games. What are the underlying models? What choices and actions does the player have available to him or her? What are the core elements of gameplay? What are the basic patterns of the game and how are they combined or recombined? For example, understanding most of the games in the Legend of Zelda series includes understanding the cyclical nature of the activities the player is required to accomplish. The player is usually required to (1) find the entrance to a dungeon, (2) enter the dungeon, (3) discover a treasure, find keys, a map, and a compass, (4) defeat a monster at the “bottom” of the dungeon, and (5) obtain an item or power necessary for the next challenge. Usually, the item or power obtained at the end of a dungeon will be required to locate or gain access to the location of the next dungeon. In the beginning of most Legend of Zelda games, the player has no items and very few possibilities for action. Progress in the game depends on finding new items (the first item found is usually a sword that allows the player to fight enemies) and using them to gain access to new locations. As more items are obtained, the player must figure out how to use them in combinations that become increasingly more complex. By the end of the game, the player is usually quite adept at figuring out what item to use and when. As Gingold describes, “a key property of games is recombining familiar elements into novel configurations” (2003). In this sense, identifying what those elements are is an important aspect of understanding games structurally.
In addition to being able to able pick out elements of a game’s design, it is important to understand how the interaction between these elements helps create a certain experience for the player. Understanding a game from this perspective is akin to being able to articulate why playing a game makes the player feel a certain way. From a game designer’s perspective, this sort of insight and understanding is crucial when trying to map the design goals (I want the players to have this kind of experience) with a means of achieving those goals (I will use these elements, in these ways). Schell and Shochet describe how they designed Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold so as to provide an engaging five minute experience that was exciting to play, culminated in a climactic battle, and made players feel in control of their destiny (2001). Pirates, an interactive theme park ride based on the classic Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland, allows four players to man a ship and attempt to defeat enemy pirate ships, forts, and monsters while collecting as much gold as possible. One player steers the ship, while the other three man six cannons used to defeat enemies. The designers used numerous elements, such as “special” enemy ships, sneak attacks, and architectural “weenies7” to guide the players towards the islands where “the coolest action takes place” (Schell and Shochet, 2001). Toru Iwatani, designer of Pac-Man, describes how the AI routines for each of the enemy ghosts that chase the player were designed so that the ghosts would get closer to Pac Man in a natural way and avoid discouraging the players by having them feel that they are constantly under attack (Mateas, 2003). Additionally, the ghosts alternate between chasing the player and dispersing, allowing the player some room to breathe, thus providing an experience of greater tension as the ghosts “attack” more frequently. In order to really understand Pac-Man, to understand the player experience and the player interpretations supported by the experience, requires a detailed understanding of the AI of the ghosts (Mateas, 2003).
In summary, to better understand a game it is important to understanding its components, how they interact, and how they facilitate certain experiences in players.
7 “Weenies” are, as coined by Walt Disney, a technique originally used to guide stage dogs in movie sets. A classic architectural “weenie” is the castle at Disneyland which provides a reference point for park visitors as well as drawing the eye, and with it the visitor.
Learning Theory and Supporting Games Literacy
In the preceding sections I have described what I mean by games literacy, and more specifically, what I mean by understanding games. I argued that we can deconstruct the meaning of understanding games by analyzing them in four contexts: (1) games as cultural artifacts, (2) in the context of other games, (3) in the context of technology, and by (4) deconstructing them and understanding their components, how they interact, and how they facilitate certain experiences in players. However, I have not yet explored how learning theory will support the approach I take towards supporting understanding and learning about games. In the rest of this chapter, I will describe, using what we know about communities of practice and knowledge building, the educational perspectives that will inform how I will support understanding games among students who are learning about games.
Games for Learning
Umberto Eco argued that “if you want to use television to teach somebody, you must first teach them how to use television” (Eco, 1979). His argument about television can be applied equally to the domain of games and videogames. However, when people think of games and learning, what comes to mind most often is thinking about the use of games for learning and education. Educational research has a relatively long tradition of examining the use of games for education, in particular thanks to the prevalent view that play is a crucial method through which we test ideas, develop new skills, and participate in social roles (Piaget, 1962; Vygotsky, 1978). Recent technological advances, coupled with a better understanding of the medium of games, have led to a renewed interest and advocacy for the use and design of game-based learning enviroments (Gee, 2003; Shaffer, 2006; Dipietro et al., 2007; Barab et al., In press; Ketelhut et al., In Press). However, as I have explained earlier, this dissertation will not address the issues surrounding the use of games for learning.
One of the contributions of this dissertation comes from turning the question of How do we use games for learning around, and asking instead, what do people who play videogames know and learn about videogames? This is a research area that has largely gone unexplored and I argue that by looking at the difficulties involved in learning about games we can gain insight into the issues faced when using videogames for pedagogical purposes. Studying games and learning how to design them is a relatively new domain of study in higher education when compared to other domains such as mathematics, science, or literature. Studying students learning about games provides a unique context that is largely unseen in traditional educational research: learners usually have extensive personal backgrounds and experience with games, they are highly motivated to study and learn about them, and they have strong emotional and personal connections to games. From this perspective, many of the traditional “big problems” in learning research, such as lack of motivation and lack of connections to learners “real lives”, are minimized. So, what insights might be gained with respect to learning in this particular context? For example, in what ways will their knowledge and skills from games transfer to higher education?
Contrary to educational research in other areas, such as science or writing, there isn’t a clear idea of what it means to understand videogames in general, or even what it means to a understand a particular videogame. If we consider the issues of learning about something as specific as, say, the physics of light, the educational community has established what it means to understand, what typical issues a learner may be confused about, what naïve understanding looks like, and so on. For example, there is extensive research suggesting that middle-school students often interpret “light” as relating to light sources or lighting effects, rather than as a form of energy propagating through space (Guesne, 1985; Feher and Rice, 1988; Brickhouse, 1994; Shapiro, 1994) . We know a lot about what a learner goes through when learning about the physics of light and can thus design and develop socio-technical systems to better support them and assess whether or not they have achieved the necessary level of understanding (Linn et al., 1998). This is not the case for learning about games. Also, save for a few exceptions (Holopainen et al., 2007; Salen, 2007), the question of how do we learn about games, what skills and knowledge should novice game designers and scholars develop, and what challenges do they face has also been largely unexplored by the game studies community. Bringing an educational point of view to the issues of studying games is another of the contributions of this dissertation.
Given these issues, what learning theories and pedagogies should we consider to better understand and support learning about games? Answering this question depends, to a large degree, on what exactly will be studied and what the unit of analysis for this will be. For my research, theories and pedagogies whose strength lie in explaining cognitive processes in an individual are not the most appropriate. The reason for this is that my focus is not on studying individual learners as they play a particular game or set of games, and then exploring what they may or may not have learned about games from that experience. Rather, I concern myself with the social and collaborative aspects of learning and how to support reflection and participation through the use of collaborative learning environments. My focus is also on studying people who are interested or curious about pursuing careers that somehow revolve around, or include games. These are people who might be interested in working in the games industry or engaging in games research. Many of these people see games as playing an important part in their lives and identify themselves with a broader community for whom games are important professionally. Finally, as was seen in Chapter 2, we are currently in a period where much knowledge is being created surrounding games, what they are, and what they could be. The current state of the field of game studies is but one example of this. From this perspective, the people I have studied will have to not only engage in learning about games, but also in defining and articulating new ideas and concepts.
In the case of my research on supporting learning about games, I have chosen to focus on theories and pedagogies of learning that focus on the social aspects of learning, and collaboration, particularly those that consider learning in the context of a broader community and its practices, and the processes through which learning, new knowledge, and understanding are created. The following sections will describe communities of practice and knowledge building as two perspectives on learning that I have used both to guide the design of the online learning environments I designed as well as to understand their use (see Chapter 5 and Chapter 6).
Communities of Practice
Lave and Wenger (1991) proposed the term “communities of practice” to highlight the importance of activity in linking individuals to communities, and of communities to legitimizing individual practices. A community of practice involves a collection of individuals sharing mutually-defined practices, beliefs, and understandings over an extended time frame in the pursuit of a shared enterprise (Wenger, 1998). Roth (1998) suggested that these kinds of communities “are identified by the common tasks members engage in and the associated practices and resources, unquestioned background assumptions, common sense, and mundane reason they share”.
The literature on communities of practice holds that learning involves participation as a way of learning – of both absorbing and being absorbed in – a “culture of practice” (Lave and Wenger, 1991). Answering the question “what does it mean to understand?” can be viewed, from this perspective, as an issue of identity and awareness of one’s role within the context of a broader community. Understanding goes hand in hand with the process of “becoming”. If you are looking at a specific individual and want to gauge their understanding, you can explore how they identify with the community. Do they see themselves as members of that community? What role do they believe they play within that community? Do they share of the goals and ideals of that community? Do they know and engage in the practices of that community?
By exploring the practices of an individual and the meaning and role they have with respect to a broader community, we can begin to get a sense of the “understanding” of that individual. Lave and Wenger describe the mechanism of “legitimate peripheral participation” (LPP) as a crucial part of learning in a community of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991). Initially, a member will participate in activities that are important (legitimate) to the community, but are perhaps not the central focus of that community’s practices. In their example of the Vai and Gola tailors of West Africa, the novices participate legitimately by sweeping the floors of the tailor shop, but peripherally with respect to the manufacture of articles of clothing. However, they are provided with the opportunity to observe the practices and engage in the beliefs of the community. It is important to note, however, that while peripherality can be a position where access to a practice is possible, it can also be a position where outsiders are kept from moving further inward (Wenger, 1998). Lave and Wenger propose that an extended period of legitimate peripherality provides learners with opportunities to make the culture of practice their own (Lave and Wenger, 1991).
As described previously, education and learning, from a communities of practice perspective, involves “ ‘taking part’ and ‘being a part,’ and both of these expressions signalize that learning should be viewed as a process of becoming a part of a greater whole (Sfard, 1998).” From this point of view, individuals who identify with a community and engage in the beliefs and practices that are important to the community demonstrate a greater degree of understanding. Individuals who participate in the periphery can be presumed to be those with a lesser degree of understanding in contrast to those who are central members.
LPP and communities of practice, as an analytical viewpoint on learning and understanding, is especially useful in learning situations that have strong social and community-oriented characteristics. In the case of learning about games, the question then becomes one of identifying the community of practice within which “understanding” will be considered. In my case, I will refer to the community of practice of game scholars and of game designers, and thus, a student’s degree of understanding should be contextualized with respect to the beliefs and practices of these communities as they are currently understood and defined.
Knowledge building is a process by which ideas that are valuable to a community are continually produced and improved. For example, doctors who work on finding ways to cure cancer and engineers learning to design better engines, are all knowledge builders engaged in knowledge-building communities. Their collective goal is to advance the frontiers of knowledge as they perceive them. As they report their findings to each other and discuss their implications, they create and modify (as a community) public knowledge about their field. The result of knowledge building is the creation and modification of public knowledge-- knowledge that lives “in the world” and is available to be worked on and used by other people (Scardamalia and Bereiter, 2002).
One of the central notions of knowledge building is that knowledge is not static and certain but can be improved over time (Hill et al., 2003). Since knowledge building is a collaborative effort of multiple members of a community, it is important that participants also work on defining their shared values and goals. In particular, knowledge building is guided by a the following principles (Hill et al., 2003; van Aalst and Chan, 2007):
• Working at the cutting edge
– Problems emerge from conflicting theories, models and findings that require further explanation
• Progressive problem solving
– Reformulate, re-investigate and deepen understanding
• Collaborative effort
– Importance of working on shared values and goals
• Identifying high points
– Meta-cognitive understanding is needed for knowledge building work
However, knowledge building is not easy to achieve. In the context of traditional learning environments, for example, Bereiter (2002) points out that the main difficulty with conventional education is that students focus on understanding what has already been understood by others rather than contributing new ideas to the world. Also, the medium of knowledge building discussions may be important to achieving knowledge building’s goals. It may be harder to achieve knowledge building in face to face discussion since conceptual discussions are easily left “in the air”, and it is harder to use authoritative resources (Cummings, 2003). However, online discussions, in particular those that are threaded, can also be problematic since they have no systematic way of promoting convergence of ideas (Stahl, 2001). Another example of the difficulties of implementing a knowledge building environment lies in the fact that most communities require a certain critical mass of people, and knowledge-building systems require a critical mass of articulated ideas before they become useful.
Scardamalia and Bereiter explain that knowledge building is driven by discourse (1994). In particular, knowledge-building discourse focuses on problems and depths of understanding. For knowledge building, explaining is the major challenge. There must be encouragement to produce and advance theories through using them to explain increasingly diverse ideas and observations. Knowledge-building discourse is also decentralized with a focus on collective knowledge. The knowledge of those who are more advanced does not circumscribe what is to be learned or investigated while novices push discourse towards definition and clarification. Finally, knowledge-building discourse should interact productively within more broadly conceived knowledge building communities. For example, the knowledge-building that occurs in a high-school classroom should interact with that which occurs in a research institution.
In the context of games, the knowledge-building perspective highlights the importance and the characteristics that a learner’s discourse should have with respect to gauging his level of understanding. Understanding can also be gauged by exploring the evolution and change of that discourse.
In this chapter I have outlined what games literacy is and defined the specific aspect of games literacy that I will support: understanding games. I have also discussed the education research literature that informs how I may support learners understanding games. However, what I have described so far assumes that people interested in learning about games aren’t games literate. It is reasonable to assume the opposite. After all, as I mentioned in the opening of Chapter 1, games are culturally important, and videogame playing is virtually a commonplace among those that are in a formal education environment (e.g., school and university). Are game players, for the most part, games literate? By definition, game players play games (first component of games literacy), and we can safely assume that not all of them make games (third component). However, do game players understand games (second component)? This raises the need to answer the first two questions I posed in Chapter 1: (Q1) What are the challenges of learning about games? Then, if there are indeed challenges, I can follow up with: (Q2) How do we characterize a naïve understanding of games? These questions will be explored in the next chapter. The answers to these questions will suggest further educational research literature. This literature, combined with the definitions of games literacy, games understanding, and the educational approaches I outlined in this chapter, inform the design and use of the online learning environments I will describe in Chapters 5 and 6.