Module Title: Dissertation
Summer term, 2007

Julie Thrasher

Videogame Literacy – an investigation into what constitutes videogame literacy Word count (number of words): Student evaluation submitted: Copy posted on FirstClass: 21754 Y Y

Report/Dissertation submitted in part fulfilment of the requirements of the MA Media, Culture and Communication Degree of the Institute of Education, University of London

This dissertation may be available to the general public for borrowing, photocopying or consultation without the prior consent of the author.

Name of Supervisor: Andrew Burn Month and Year of Submission: August 2007



Abstract 1. What is media literacy – a critical framework 2. What is game literacy? 3. Games Skills Cognitive Skills 13 Visual 14 Actions 18 Physical Skills 24 Game Specific Skills 27 Learning to navigate game space 28 Identifying and using objects in game space 30 Surviving the game space 33 External Source Skills 37 Reading Videogames as texts 39 Summary of Skills 41 4.Critical Literacy is situated The context of the individual 45 The context of prior knowledge 47 Context of Situation 48 The context of Play Space 50 The context of Groups 52 5. The problems of games in the context of schools Power to the people! 54 Who’s in charge here? 56 All animals are equal but some are more equal than others 57 Playing! This is school and anyway, ‘it’s not a proper subject’ 58 Games to learn 58 Forget how we actually teach this…who actually teaches this? 61 6. Some thoughts on identity, ideology and play 7. Videogames in the curriculum 8. Some concluding remarks Bibliography 2 4 6 12



63 69 70 73




For the purpose of this study, I have looked almost exclusively at one of the three tenets from the BFI’s Charter for Media Literacy; ‘understanding’ (rather than ‘access’ or ‘create’). I have focused on the domain of videogames, working on videogames as an inclusive term although I may be supposing ideas that are only true for certain genres of videogames. I have looked at a range of skills, those learned in videogame play and those required to be a competent videogame player and have tried to create a kind of framework that might underpin the notion of videogame literacy. I place games and players in context as well as briefly addressing how this might be taught in schools, some of the problems this might cause and how this affects and/or relates to curriculum and schooling models we currently use in the UK.



The Charter for Media Literacy was launched by the BFI and the UK Film Council in collaboration with many bodies across Europe in Sept, 2006, the aims being to promote media literacy across Europe.1 The charter challenges outmoded notions of literacy saying “reading and writing are no longer enough to achieve the internationally agreed literacy objectives, which are “to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate in society” (OECD 2003)”2. This charter finally made policy that which many academics had already posited was the ‘true’ nature of media literacy.

J P Gee3 proposed various learning principles in videogames, of which there were five basic principles, all very similar tenets to those in the charter. D Buckingham has also put forward his thoughts in his writing about media literacy4 and these ideas have been keenly developed in his latest work “Beyond Technology”5(which elaborates, in a much more detailed and reflective way, a very accurate overview of the main arguments about media literacy, this latest book based in no small measure on the plethora of further study by many academics in the fields of game and literacy studies and, of course, Buckingham’s own extensive work6 that has taken place since the publication of his first book on the topic). He advocates a new media literacy that is closely mirrored in the Charter and on whose theoretical framework I have based my research.

1 Full text available at and through the BFI website. 2 From BFI release on the charter ‘ Is Europe Literate?” available at, accessed 18/03/07 3 J P Gee, 2003: “What videogames have to teach us about learning and literacy” 4 D Buckingham, 2003: “Media Literacy” 5 D Buckingham, 2007: “Beyond Technology” 6 For more on his work, visit


ThrasherDMCC07.doc These central ideas, ‘challenges’ as I initially intimated, cluster around three main concepts in respect to media literacy: cultural access, critical understanding and creative activity. Green and Durrant call these three stages ‘operational’, ‘cultural’ and ‘critical’. Operational literacy is where a person can ‘operate’ in a discourse and equates to ‘functional literacy’. Cultural and critical levels of literacy take this ability beyond this bland notion by ‘contextualising it, with due regard for matters of culture, history and power” (C Beavis, 2001: p7). Gee interestingly expands this by virtue of giving it all a different twist. He talks of being active and immersed in semiotic domains. For him these are situated in contexts, deeply social and have differing levels of engagement: 1. Active learning – experiencing the domain; potentially sharing within the domain with other users; preparation for learning and problem solving in the future (within the domain) 2. Critical Learning – “the learner needs to learn not only how to understand and produce meanings in a particular semiotic domain that are recognisable to those affiliated with the domain, but in addition, how to think about the domain at a ‘meta’ level as a complex system of interrelated parts.” (Gee, 2003: p23)7

Whichever theory you use from the plethora of ‘new(er)’ models, they all posit the primacy of situational context, of the importance of social context and the ideological and political implications of literacy albeit to varying degrees. Some older theorists, Prensky for example, don’t take context or content into account at all.

7 Gee goes on to say that learners should innovate but I think this is going to far – one can be entirely embedded in a domain critically without necessarily having to innovate.


ThrasherDMCC07.doc For the purpose of this study, I have looked almost exclusively at one of these three ‘common’ tenets, ‘understanding’ (rather than ‘access’ or ‘creativity’). I have focused on the domain of videogames and I have worked on videogames as an inclusive term although I may be supposing ideas that are only true for certain genres of videogames (‘sub domains’); put another way, I may make generalisations about the hypernymic where I am really talking about the hyponymic. In considering the results of my research, I will also address briefly how this might be taught in schools, some of the problems this might cause and how this affects and/or relates to curriculum and schooling models we currently use in the UK.

My observations are drawn from several forms of actual play that took place between Jan and March 2007. I have used AS and A2 students of both genders at St Bartholomew’s School, Newbury, UK and my own experiences of game play. The game play has been video taped and recordings have been made of the talk amongst players. The play took various forms from single player to multiplayer, both collaborative and competitive. A variety of game genres have been observed. I have also undertaken focus group work with players, including two “expert” players of the MMORPG World of Warcraft. Videogame diaries have also been completed by two classes of year 12 students over a period of three months.

Firstly, what do I mean by ‘videogame literacy’? For a start, I am only investigating what is means to be able to use the discourse of videogames in the sense – ‘what can a competent player of videogames do?’ This links with the notion of ‘understanding’ in the charter. Clearly I have ignored the issues surrounding access and creating. I am therefore looking at what skills and knowledge a player brings and develops in game 6

ThrasherDMCC07.doc play. However, this does include social and situational contexts of literacy. As Patricia Marks Greenfield stated as early as 1984, games are about more than just hand-eye co-ordination (Greenfield, 1984: p6).

I have chosen to focus very closely on the player rather than the text primarily because so little seems to have been written that focuses on the player as player and of the player being of primary importance (Livingstone, 2002). Certainly much has been written about the player as a learner or as a fan but not much looks at them in the process of play. Academics tend to think of videogames as texts to be studied or as potential conduits for learning. The work on games as texts tends to separate the text and the ‘reader’, using old models of analysis, adapted from models from other disciplines, such as literature and film studies for example, linguistics and narratology.

There are a plethora of approaches that have been applied to videogames but most, including ludologists, tend to treat games as being a ‘text’, separate from the player whereas I do not see the player and the game as being entirely separate. In fact, I would go so far as to assert that without a player there is no game. Rather like the Web 2.0 debate which focuses on the collapse of the text producer/audience divide, I would argue that for games, the divide between text and player has never really existed or at least has always been artificial – a game cannot be ‘analysed’ unless you play it. Interactivity has brought about “the radical shift in the positioning of the player – from the third person to the first…the reader has become a performer’” (Livingstone, 2002: p231, 2nd quoting, Skirrow8).

8 Skirrow G, 1986, “Hellivision: an analysis of videogames” in MacCabe (Ed), “High Theory, Low Culture: analysing popular television and film”, pps 115-142, Manchester, Manchester University Press, (Skirrow in Livingstone, 2002)


ThrasherDMCC07.doc Rather like a play there is in many senses, no play until it is acted out – there are traces of the text in the script and in the many writings of the critics and fans but how is this different from videogames – traces of them also exist in the writings of critics and fans, in their fictions and their re-workings? Videogames, like plays, are a kind of performance. Film seems to be half way between performance texts and written texts as there is a fixed text in existence, albeit a ‘text’ one has to screen and thus perform, but it does not need a viewer to exist per se and the performance does not change each time. It can be interpreted differently by the audience each time (and indeed different readings may be made by the different audience members) but essentially, the text itself does not alter – there is no ‘procedural authorship’9 or creating of the narrative ‘in spatial exploration and episodic play”10. However, film does in some sense incorporate an echo of performance whereas with written texts the sense of performance is diminished. Writing about videogames which looks at them in terms of performance is refreshing, fruitful and, therefore, more accurate.

Indeed, much of the work done by Jenkins, Murray, Ong, Levy and Burn support, and highlight the importance in their work, of the idea of performance for example Burn addresses this when he likens games to oral narratives (Burn, 2006). However, they are all quick to mention the constraints upon the player to act only within the space allowed by the game’s design. Thus, whilst games may be a ‘liminoid space, like that of the theatre, offering a threshold experience in which we can temporarily escape reality”, games only give vicarious kinaesthesia (‘the sensation of appearing to have mobility and agency’) (Carroll, 2002: p134). Like Ong’s ‘second orality’, the player can embellish and sometimes reorganise but at the end of the day, they only have the same elements

9 Murray, 2000 in Burn, 2006: p30 10Jenkins, 2004 in Burn, 2006 p30


ThrasherDMCC07.doc and ‘adventures’ to ‘perform’, the same ‘material’ with which to (re)work (Ong in Burn, forthcoming: p20).

In fact this ‘collapse’ can be problematic if taken too far. As Kline et al point out, ignoring the machine in the Player – Machine – Text model (which is what this blurring can do) causes what they call the ‘disappearance of technology” (Kline et al, 2003: p19) and this is important because just as one cannot ignore the content of a videogame in looking at learning, one cannot ignore the very technology that delivers the games: the various gaming platforms are not neutral spaces or machinery with no meaning or affect on the player or the text they ‘perform’ – they are indeed ‘mediating’ machines after all; here I partially agree with McLuhan “the medium is [a crucial part of] the message” (McLuhan, 1964: p7).

So coming back to media literacy, this, for me, problematises the notion of (critically) ‘reading’ the game text. I see the need for an ability on behalf of the player to be able to critically engage with the game (as per the literacy charter) but as I don’t see the text without a player, (or without context): it is not the same as ‘reading’ in the sense of literacy = reading and interpreting a separate text because there is no text to stand apart from. There is a sense that because the game doesn’t really exist until it is played, there are many ‘versions’ of the game and each exists rather like a performance of a play text (as I have outlined). However, I will show how I think a player can be literate in terms of ‘critical understanding’ despite this apparent lack of (potential) critical distance. This distance is also inadvertently problematised by Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow Theory” (Burn, 2006: p57)11; if one is completely immersed in the game, can one be critically distanced?

11 Csikszentmihalyi M, 2002, “Flow; the classic work on how to achieve happiness”, 2nd edtn, London, Rider in Burn, 2006.


ThrasherDMCC07.doc Before beginning to analyse gameplay, it needs to be said that, in terms of critical frameworks to apply in analysing games, whilst definite alignments can be made with various critical models from within the English disciplines such as reader-response criticism, post-feminism, post-Marxist critiques and linguistic frameworks (such as narratology and systemic functional linguistics) I don’t think games study has anything to do with English or its theory and I will return to how this might affect the study of games and its place in the curriculum later in my paper.

There are skills involved in being game literate that are ‘transferred in’ and some which are learnt within game play and the diegesis of the game world. Therefore, I have been interested in beginning to construct some ideas about what it might be to be game literate as a separate discipline to being ‘literate’ (capital L (i.e. print literacy)), or even ‘media literate’, even if some experiences and skills involved in this game literacy are ‘imported’ (and which in no way weakens the argument). I will be looking at the literacy for the semiotic domain of videogames (hypernym) as well as those literacies which belong in other ‘domains’ but cross-over.

Finally, I am also neither aligning myself with the arguments that analyse games as texts (as separate to the player) or the research that seeks to understand how games might be used to educate in the classroom (although I may borrow from or cross-over with them). I am looking at games in the same way that one might look at whether a pupil is able to use the ‘discourse’ of the semantic domain effectively (and here specifically of “videogames as play or performance events”). I will propose a need for a new set of critical frameworks for videogames which will in turn allow for players to achieve the meta level of understanding of the domain, the state of ‘critical understanding’ proposed by the charter and, for me, defined by Gee.



Oliver & Pelletier (2005)12 pointed out this discernible difference in approaches13 to game study and wanted, also, to look at how players learnt within games. Their view was to look at the effectiveness of training modules in games and to identify better ways to design games. I want to use their distinction between ‘learning’ and ‘transfer’ and to look at play in action. The skills necessary to be game literate are legion; some cognitive, some physical, some which are imported from a player’s experience elsewhere, and not from other games, and some which are learnt whilst playing the game. This does not include skills and knowledge that a player brings from his/her experience of playing other (non video) games.

This previous experience is crucial in identifying game literacy (and in the debate about education but I will come back to this later). Oliver and Pelletier’s work is refreshingly different and useful if one wants to look at how players play and learn. They developed excellent models for analysing and recording game play and I believe more research of this kind needs to be done in order for game literacy to be analysed effectively and empirically so that more concrete models of specific domain literacy can be formed.

Notwithstanding the dearth of established critical frameworks for analysing gameplay, I have endeavoured to assess what exactly is taking place in gameplay and what skills and competencies are being employed when competency is demonstrated. These have come from different methods and different levels of player, all with their own inherent weaknesses of approach. As with most Masters’ level work, there is much more research to be done in order for any of this to be validated.

12 Martin Oliver & Caroline Pelletier, 2005, “The things we learned on Liberty Island: designing games to help people become competent game players”, From DiGRA 2005 Conference proceedings, Changing Views – Worlds in Play Downloadable source from 13 Between textual analysis and games as educational tools.




First it is important to mention the work done by others in this area. Several academics have also investigated what is happening when players play video games. Their work often generalises skills and abilities whereas I have tried to locate these skills specifically in game play examples. For reasons of space I will not map out each academic’s framework against each other’s to see where they crossover although this may be a worthwhile activity.

These are some of the theorists I have considered: Prensky proposed ten characteristics of young people whom regularly and persistently play games. J P Gee proposes not game specific skills but what he calls ‘learning principles’ that underpin well designed games. Whilst these principles do not specifically relate to the abilities of players in his argument, there are clear links between his principles and the skills of the players who learn through them and I have endeavoured to point out links to his principles wherever possible. Finally, Grodal has also proposed various key skills which he proposes are focused around motor and cognitive skills and I have used a similar breakdown between motor and cognitive skills. None of these give much weight to contextual issues and I will add these. However, in this section I will cover reading games as texts. I will expand the issues of context in sections four and five.

There are many cognitive skills that seem to be required to be game literate but I will try and isolate some key instances. Motor skills, some transferred in, some learnt in other games, are also a very obvious and central part of being proficient in gameplay. Reading multimodalities semiotically is also a key skill. The motor aspect of being 12

ThrasherDMCC07.doc ‘literate’ is interesting as it doesn’t really relate to or equate with the ‘writing’ aspect of literacy; It is vital and logically might equate to being able to physically write something like handwriting - but in fact writing is the creative aspect of traditional literacy whereas the physical manifestations of gameplay are not (that aspect would better fit with game designing). I also want to posit some key game specific literacy skills.

The notion of game literacy, whilst obviously including the kinds of game specific knowledge, must also include issues that come from external sources. These aspects of play are usually social and come from context, both of play and of the individual player. Of course no game or game player exists in a vacuum and these contexts are a very key part of game literacy. However, in this section I will focus on the actual aspects of what it means to be game literate where ‘literate’ means possessing the skills and knowledge required to “use the discourse”. Later I will return to the issues of context; personal, social and educational and this will place my findings into a more fully explored context.

Cognitive Skills

Players need to develop certain skills that could be collected together under the category “cognitive skills”. These are generally skills that are transferred. That is to say that the skills are ‘learnt’ elsewhere and honed in game play.

There seem to be two types of skill; those that involve building and interpreting “visually” – using conceptual spaces and visual signs; like building conceptual ‘maps’ of the game space and those that involve deciding which actions to take.



Visual When navigating through game space, a player begins to build a map of the game space in their head. For some games this is vital (e.g. Halo, Tomb Raider, Rayman & Myst), for others it is not as necessary as the game map is so complex (or not so important to the game itself) that the player’s activity revolves less around constructing a ‘map’ of the game space and more around how to navigate within it (or smaller parts of it). Grand Theft Auto, a good example of one of these complex games, comes with a printed map. Other games that are as cartographically complex as this often show a small icon showing where north is or where the player is in relation to the space immediately surrounding the avatar. Games where maps aren’t important might include platform games and arcade style games where the navigation through and around a space is not a part of the game that is controlled by the player.

This building of a conceptual map takes place in the mind of the player and is most often not written or drawn. The map is constructed as the player experiences the game space, exploring nooks and crannies, rooms, avenues, objects to name a few. Therefore, in some ways the player’s map is constructed rather like our own geographical maps used to be – through exploration. The navigational devices in games such as maps embedded in the program and visual icons to aid navigation are rather different. They are more like our modern way of constructing maps, that is, by photographing aerially or by satellite and drawing up a map from above. This is not developed from an experiential process and does not give the same rich texture to the player.


ThrasherDMCC07.doc This ability to hold a detailed conceptual image of a game space is a key skill required in many game genres and is a skill that is transferred. Games are not the only spaces where the ability to build conceptual maps is developed or necessary and an ability to do this well will help a gamer be more effective.

The monitoring of the game state and multiple screens is a vital part of game play and can take many forms. A player can still only focus on one point at a time and so decisions have to be made by the player about when to focus on which information or screen and when not to. Often in fight sequences, evidence suggests that game players only glance or keep a ‘weather eye’ on their strength or health status. Sometimes instructions on how to beat an NPC or complete a task are shown on screen and these often attract attention, mostly because of their extreme usefulness (so they are designed to be noticed and the player’s survival often depends on noticing them). Due to the complexity of some sequences and the degree of immersion required to complete them, game designers have recognised that players will be too immersed and engaged to absorb other information. Sometimes it simply will not fit on the screen and so players need to cycle through huge amounts of data. This is usually ‘dressed’ as the contents of the avatar’s bag, as their belongings or as information held on a PDA for example. Because of this complexity, games will often allow the game to be paused so that the player(s) can assemble and assimilate data, change weaponry or simply take a break. It is worth mentioning that in some games, time is a commodity that can be controlled and tasks reward success with the ability to manipulate time, for example Timesplitters and Blinx.


ThrasherDMCC07.doc The following example (Fig.1) shows how designers have included much of the information required by the player into game ‘bags’, “PDA’s and ‘Weapons Screens’. (Fig 1 – typical inventory page, Hitman 214) The top right box shows all the weapons in the player’s inventory and the top left hand box show all the items the player possesses. The detail in the centre of the screen shows the detailed information about an item.

The player can move to any item and view this kind of detailed information, demonstrating the degree of complexity a player is required to assimilate.

Looking at Fig. 2, this is fairly typical of an inventory page. In this screen grab, again from Hitman 2, one can see the giving of instructions for the mission, the giving of the next objectives. This is done by the text on screen and by a woman’s voice. The objectives are clearly shown and are controlled in terms of speed of delivery by the player. This also demonstrates how the texts rely on simultaneity and multimodality. The player must listen and decode as well as read the visuals on screen and decode.

(Fig 2 - mission objectives from Hitman 2)

14 “Hitman 2” – here on XBOX



There are also detailed multiplayer screens that the players have to assimilate. Here is an example, chosen because it shows a variety of modes pertinent here: sheer amount of information bombarding players, to show how players in collaborative mode see each other and to show how players in competition see each other. (Fig 3 – Information bombardment in Halo 215 in multiplayer mode)

What the player has done Where gun is aimed Targets in range Scope of location and any others in area

What the player needs to do to obtain target Amount of ammo left Amount of grenades Health Current Weapon

In addition, each player in Fig. 3 is looking for the other players in order to kill them and needs to monitor where they are in relation to each other, how much ammunition they have and whether or not their weapon has enough range to reach them, whether they are being targeted currently by another of the players, what activity is in their location etc. This is indeed a complex cognitive activity. It is rather like building a cognitive map of the game space but delivered here via multiple screens and it is much more multiply detailed. The more experienced game player gains advantage in the practised ability to monitor multiple screens as well as through experience of game play. However, when

15 “Halo 2” here on XBOX


ThrasherDMCC07.doc discussing this game with the experienced players after this battle, they explained that actually they didn’t read all the screens at once and that they really focused on their individual screen. They occasionally looked at the others’ screens but they had to be highly selective about what they looked at and when. This ability to select is a very important game skill.

When navigating in the game world, players are often have to map what is effectively a two dimensional space into a three dimensional space. In some games this is less relevant – in a platform game, like Donkey Kong, the action takes place down and across the screen. The element of a third dimension is not as relevant. In a full RPG game such as Lara Croft -Tomb Raider, or Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End, the play space is much more three dimensional and the avatars have to move, play, solve puzzles and fight in three dimensional space. Therefore, the player must learn to quickly adapt what they see as 2D into 3D, in addition to reading the other multimodal signs.

Actions The cognitive skills required to decide on which decisions to take within the game world can be synthesised into hypothesis testing and developing strategies. Hypothesis testing involves the activity of ‘trial and error’. This manifests itself in every game in one sense and that is whenever a game ends, the player’s restart indicates a re-trial. This continual repetition of game play builds competence and experience. Thus, the player improves and progresses further into the game world each time. This is a core element in videogames and a key expectation of game play both on the part of the experienced game player and the designers. J P Gee has called this cycle of learning through hypothesis testing the ‘probing principle’ (Gee, 2003: p107). Of course, the ability and need to repeat, rehearse and test are not skills only required in game play and thus the 18

ThrasherDMCC07.doc skills are transferred rather than game specific skills. Nevertheless the skill is core. Gee has successfully argued that this is a learning principle embedded in videogames.





Fig 4 – Gee’s Probing principle represented visually

Examples of hypothesis testing can be seen in most activities in game spaces. This is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of players don’t read the instructions but progress straight to play (Beavis, 2001). In fact it is a primary ‘rule’ of games that players will have to undertake actions repeatedly in order to make progress. Sometimes the game resists the player’s correct attempts at a task until the player has achieved sufficient skill. This has been called the ‘regime of competence’ by Gee and is closely associated with his “practice principle’ and ‘on-going learning principle’ (gee, 2003: p71 & p107). Sometimes it is clear to gamers what needs to be done – e.g. in Rayman when you come to a bridge with a part missing and a pulsing object on the other side of the bridge, it is no great mental leap to presume that the expected path is to jump across. Sometimes the game informs the player what they should be doing and so the player keeps trying various things to complete that offer or demand. For example, in Pirates of the Caribbean – at World’s End the game engine only allows the Captain Jack Sparrow avatar to proceed along set paths (unlike Lara in the Tomb 19

ThrasherDMCC07.doc Raider series who can fall off any ledge or path!) and whenever he gets to a place where an action is required to move on to another surface in the game or information is available, a circled triangle appears at the middle bottom portion of the screen, indicating to the player that they should press the matching triangle button. This makes the game simpler to play – it is always clear what to do – but at the same time it takes some of the fun out of the game by not making the player find out what to do next.

At other times, videogames are not clear beyond a general objective what one should do. This is obvious in games like Tomb Raider and Beyond Good & Evil. In these game spaces, you have objectives and sometimes the game gives you hints, however, you have to work out where and when and how to go – in Tomb Raider Legend, Lara has to collect items and push rocks, swim in the water and swing across from rock to rock. For a reasonably experienced player, these are pretty obvious, however, suddenly the only way out for the Lara Avatar is to begin climbing the rock face which initially appears as a boundary to the game space. All of these moves involve trial and error and require the player to try a variety of actions, repeat them to check, repeat them to improve and to achieve goals; to try various strategies and to think laterally and try completely ‘new’ things. Often experienced players will try something that appears unsuccessful several times because they believe strongly that an action is correct but know that it is not going to work for their first few attempts. Thus the player is interrogating the game by trial and error, testing hypotheses and developing strategies. Part of game literacy is knowing which types and/or kinds of action to take (or that one could take) but I have considered this in the game specific section of literacy. With trial and error and hypothesis testing, the player decides when to give up and when an action is no longer viable. This is also a key part of their competency and not one easy to quantify – it’s a kind of experientially gained wisdom!


ThrasherDMCC07.doc Taking and evaluating risk is another cornerstone of competency in the videogames discourse. It is happening hundreds of times a minute in normal game play although there are some periods of relative calm, a player is frequently and rapidly assessing a risk, either taking it or declining it and then re-strategising as a result. An example from game play might be taken from Tomb Raider Legend. You (as Lara) need to swim across a lake to get to a ledge which you then go along, push a rock (which initially looks like a wall) into a gap and jump across. You then climb up some vines to another level of ledges where you swing across from one to another using a rope and jumps. All of these actions require an assessment of risk and then a taking of that risk; the kinds of questions (related to risk) you ask yourself are ‘can I climb up there? If I do, where should I go? What will I do next? Will the vines take my weight? Where will I fall if I try it? How far back do I need to set off from to grab that rope? Will I be able to grab the rope? Will it swing me across the gap? Will I die if I fall? Each of these questions requires attempts at the actions to gain answers. Several attempts may be required and, if Lara dies, the level has to be started again which makes the whole process very time consuming. These risk strategies are related to manoeuvring within the game space but can be related to interaction between the avatar and other NPCs and PCs (player characters) and to strategies related to progressing in the “narrative” or dealing with the situation. The screen grab below is from my group of student players playing Hitman 2. The avatar has just killed a postman and taken the flowers from him in order to impersonate him to gain entry to the fortified building. The game has already told the player/avatar that “postmen don’t carry guns” (implied instruction – don’t take the gun but here very much a hidden offer) and now points out that he will have a much better chance of success if he hides the body. What happens in the play sequence with this particular player is that he is about to move away from the body when he is ‘told’ by the game


ThrasherDMCC07.doc that he should hide the body so as to improve his chances of not being discovered. The player then stands still for a moment (fig. 5) (reading the offer, thinking it through, evaluating) and then ‘he’ moves back to the body and puts down the flowers to pick up the body. Then he picks the flowers back up (following a previous game instruction) and then begins to carry all three objects (fig. 6). This pause is obvious but fleeting, showing the rapidity with which the player processes the information and demonstrates as clearly as it is possible to, the cognitive processing of risk, evaluation and decisionmaking based on the results.

(Fig 5 Assessing Risk – from Hitman 2)

(Fig 6 Acting on decision – From Hitman 2)

These decision making processes also involve predicting what might happen in a given situation but this is linked with a wider game experience (knowledge of gaming and perhaps a game genre (as sub domain)); a transferred skill (of prediction and hypothesis testing) mixed with a more critical level of knowledge about games (knowledge of genres). This is a key part of game literacy – watch a complete novice and you’ll see how they completely fail to accurately ‘read’ situations. They often don’t know what to press, how to anticipate events or how to get the most out of an environment. For example, in Pirates of the Caribbean – at World’s End (which I have already explained is very explicit about its instructions to players) there are many hidden treasures such as food, weapons and actual treasure in the various wooden 22

ThrasherDMCC07.doc cases lying around the environment. Jack has to ‘swash-buckle’ the cases with his sword to get to the treasures. Unlike the other explicit instructions, this is not explained to the player and neither is it obvious – why engage in swordplay with a box? Experienced players try these apparently ‘illogical’ actions as they know from experience that these kinds of behaviours often yield rewards. ‘Newbies’16 don’t know this and aren’t enticed to try these actions by the game. In addition, in Pirates many of the cases don’t contain anything and so one could try smashing the boxes and gain nothing. An experienced player will continue this action, even if there is no obvious immediate benefit. This illustrates not only the importance of an understanding of game play gained from experience but also the principle of trying actions repeatedly, even if they appear not to work at first.

The player is also engaged in other skills that are transferred such as monitoring the game state and reading multiple screens and these are also linked with experience of games in that, knowing how to read the screens, what sort of information to expect to find there and how to make decisions using that information are directly game related skills. However, these skills can be developed outside of games although I would argue that they are relatively ‘new’17. This development outside of games can come from many of the other multimodal texts we all encounter everyday; even the news on the BBC is delivered in a multi-screen and multimodal way from its integration of previously separate media such as Internet sites with video and audio files embedded in the pages, RSS feeds and downloadable content to the News itself, previously a presenter reading from a teleprompt, now a ‘show’ with VT, animated graphics, insets of reporters with VT or Graphics running to support the report or, in the case of BBC News 24, Sky

16 17

“Newby” as an explicit position (Wenger, 1998)

New in the sense that multiple screen reading has only been required of man in the last few decades whereas problem solving, risk taking and decision making have been a part of man’s repertoire as long as he’s been around!


ThrasherDMCC07.doc News and other satellite sport channels, multiple screen views with a RSS style ticker tape constantly running the headlines.

Thus a game player has already experienced and developed skills in the ‘real world’ that will be utilised and adapted in game play. For some this adaptation may be harder, Prensky’s work on ‘digital immigrants’ and ‘digital natives’ (Prensky, 2006) would suggest that for those who are older, and therefore ‘digital immigrants’, this transference of skills from the external context may be more difficult precisely because Prensky’s ideas would predict that they would have had more difficulty acquiring these skills initially. I find the generality of Prensky’s argument to be acceptable but in the details there seem to be significant exceptions and it does not necessarily follow that skills that may have been harder to acquire are used less well than those acquired easily. Equally, ‘native-ness’ is not necessarily related to age – some ‘older’ people are very computer (and videogame) literate to the degree that Prensky describes as ‘native’ and many younger people are not ‘native’ or skilled in computer or game spaces at all.

Physical Skills
The physical skills involved in game play are those that relate to the external – the relationship between the player’s body and the machine with the game world. The majority of ‘game literacy’ models I have looked at (proposed by various theorists such as Gee18, Prensky19, Grodal20) have consisted of lists and explanations of cognitive skills achieved by the player. Here I outline some physical abilities. Even though they may seem obvious, they are nevertheless a vital part of a player’s competency (and therefore in my model, literacy).

18 Gee, 2003 19 Prensky, 2006 20 Grodal, 2003 in Emri & Mayra, 2005



The physical abilities required cluster around hand-eye co-ordination, speedy manipulation of controllers and gauging how actions in the real world map onto action in the game world. Hand-eye co-ordination is probably the one skill everyone would associate with game play; player and layman alike. The continual play of particular videogames no doubt improves hand-eye co-ordination as the player has to watch and respond manually. I am not producing any empirical evidence to back this up21 but it is clear that this ability is fundamental. There are games that do not have this skill placed so centrally to their core, such as strategy and point and click games.

In some games, this mapping is more demanding than others; games that require one to accurately hit a target (a), execute complex fighting (b) or body movements (c), navigate particular obstacles (d) are obvious examples. Other games allow for more ‘error’ on the part of the player, perhaps the design means a player cannot fall (e) or only has to press a button for an action to occur(f).
REF A B C GAME Halo/Halo 2 Buffy the Vampire Slayer Tomb Raider series SKILL The player has to accurately target and then shoot characters Buffy has to learn combinations of complex moves to beat certain enemies Lara has the ability to climb, jump, swing, and combinations of these and other moves. The game requires that Lara executes these with a fair degree of accuracy D E Tomb Raider series Pirates of the Caribbean – at World’s End Chasms, rivers, walls – all these have to be mastered Jack can only walk along the bridges and paths that are set for him – you can’t jump off or walk off the path (although there is some leeway for walking less straight than normal down some of the staircases and game play areas). F Pirates of the Caribbean – at World’s End As described previously, the player must press the triangle button when prompted on screen for Jack to do certain actions such as unlock jail cells, swing on ropes and climb up and down ladders.

Fig 7 – skill sets in games

21 I could not find any studies on this particular issue although there are doubtless many available within the domain of psychological studies.


ThrasherDMCC07.doc Rapid pressing of buttons and pulling of triggers is a requirement in many games where combat or racing is involved and players are usually required to respond quickly to changing situations. For example, in fighting various guards in Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End, the player has to rapidly press the X key22 to engage in swordplay and kill the guards. However, the guards rapidly proliferate and emerge from differing directions so Jack has to move around, changing the direction he faces before using his sword against his foes. Thus the player is rapidly swiping at enemies (pressing X), moving to face different guards (moving the analogue joystick in swivelling movements) and moving into and away from various targets (pushing and pulling the analogue joystick). In order to be successful, Jack has to move into and away from the guards, fighting first one and then another and this requires hand-eye co-ordination, the pressing of multiple buttons and the response to rapidly changing stimuli.

One final point worth mentioning is the matter of gauging the sensitivity of controls. For many games, this is not a particularly important skill in the sense that pressing the button or pushing the analogue stick is pressing the button and pushing the analogue stick. However this is not always the case. In some games, the degree that you press, push or pull a key or stick is important and sometimes crucial. For example, when playing Tomb Raider Legend, when manoeuvring Lara across the chasms by swinging on a vine rope, the speed at which Lara runs towards the rope before grasping it effects how far she swings and, as a consequence, the success of the move and so the degree of pushing the analogue stick is vital. When Lara is climbing along the vines on the cliff face or even just walking along surfaces, the player must accurately control her or she will fall/fail. She is one of the most adaptable avatars a player can play and her environment is nearly infinitely explorable but the price the player pays is that she is a

22 This was played on the Sony Play Station 2


ThrasherDMCC07.doc ‘precision machine’ and the minute adjustments that afford her flexibility also mean that she must be expertly handled.

Lara is not the only avatar that has this level of sensitivity and neither is the Role Playing Game the only genre in which sensitivity of the controls is important. In most car chase and rally programs, for example, the degree to which one pushes the button directly affects the on-screen action – cars go faster, steering is ‘touchy’ and slowing down can be done on a sliding scale.

Game Specific Skills

In the next stage of my proposal as to what skills constitute videogame literacy, I move onto thinking about skills that are specific to games – things that one needs and learns only in games. Whilst I do not dispute the skills I have found are related to games, whether these are ‘games only’ skills remains to be argued. These game specific skills cluster around four main areas – the player’s overview of the game, learning to navigate game space, objects in game space and surviving in the game space.

Before looking at these in detail, it is important to mention that generally players of videogames tend not to spend hours reading the rules and manuals before they start playing. In fact, Gee cites this habit as an underlying factor for some of his learning principles, and one in particular, namely the “Explicit Information On-Demand and Justin-Time Principle” (Gee, 2003: p138). He observes that players tend to just start playing. Although this might seem an ‘alien’ way to approach a game to players used to more traditional games, it is the natural way in videogames; “the rules are built into the programming, and you learn them by trial and error as you play” (Prensky, 2006: p66). He goes on to explain that this means that because games have the learning process 27

ThrasherDMCC07.doc built in, they make good models for learning design as well as good vehicles for learning.

Gee argues that learning whilst playing is absolutely essential for videogames’ design as it concretises and situates knowledge that otherwise would be useless. Un-situated knowledge would literally have no meaning for the player. For him, learning (of all kinds) must be situated in a context as it is in videogames and on this part of his point I agree with him; it is no good reading the ‘rules’ of a videogame beforehand, it doesn’t become clear until one starts to play. Then one goes back to the book to find out particular information or clarification. In games it seems it is ‘de rigueur’ to learn by experience.

Learning to navigate game space

Moving around the game space is obviously of primary importance. This involves various competencies that are related to games. Players have to know where to go, how to proceed and when to stop trying. Game spaces are complex environments that are often not mapped. The only maps that exist are those that are either available in special guides printed by the manufacturers, those created by expert fans and available on-line, mini maps available to the player on-screen and those compiled by the player in their head as they play. Whilst a player struggles to map the space in their head, a lot of repetitive behaviour is exhibited - rooms are visited and revisited, steps are ascended and descended and ledges swung from and to many times.

The ability to map a game space in one’s mind based on the experience of playing the game is a game specific skill – although one has to bring in an ability to spatially map 28

ThrasherDMCC07.doc from a domain outside of videogames, the specific knowledge about game space terrain and spatiality is game specific. Try getting a non-gamer to orient in a game space and you see what I mean.

Players learn how to ‘read’ the game space: they develop, through experience, an understanding of semiotic signs in games. Therefore boxes and barrels are not just part of the scenery, they are objects to smash open as they probably contain information, goods or extra power for the player. Walls are no longer the confines of the game space but surfaces to be punched, kicked, searched, climbed. Gaps are to be jumped – looking up is very important – often the player is truly operating in a virtual and fully three dimensional, encompassing world. Objects and barriers are often to be walked into or kicked, objects are there to be combined to enable the player to progress in fact, things are rarely just as they seem – the world of semiotic signs from ‘Real Life’ is turned on its head. In Tomb Raider – Legend Lara must run around the space, looking behind rock and in crevices for dragon statues. Under the water is another place where these treasures are found. The dead end of the passage is really blocked by a rock that she must push into a chasm, turning it into a bridge, the final walls are to be climbed via the undergrowth. In The Da Vinci Code, one has to search the walls for a very small crevice that holds a coin which contains the next clue.

These skills I have grouped together as an ability to navigate game space. It is not just spatially mapping from experience but re-reading a space and the signs within it in particular ways – videogame ways. Thus players begin to instinctively develop the ability to successfully and increasingly fruitfully navigate games. They know that walls and spaces are not always as they seem: they know that you can and often should smash objects and walk into walls. They also know when to stop trying these things


ThrasherDMCC07.doc even though they also know that the game may have built into it some programming to resist the first 20 attempts they make. From experience, an adept gamer knows when to stop trying, knows that trying things that would seem ‘senseless’ or ‘bizarre’ in real life are viable, even possible, in the game world.

They also begin to recognise patterns and types of scenarios – judging spaces and placing them into categories – is the space a trap? a maze? a dead-end? a fruitful ‘culde-sac’ where ‘treasure’ might be found? just a puzzle? They also know how to apply this same kind of topsy-turvy semiotic knowledge to objects.

Identifying and using objects in game space

Some aspects of this section may have been covered in the previous section but it is worth reiterating. Objects take on new meanings in game space and an experienced player will know this. Sometimes the game keeps to a fairly close semiotic coding system to the one in the real world – in Grabbed by the Ghoulies the health objects are food cans, in Tomb Raider the medical packs to restore health look like army issue mini bags with a red cross on and in Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End the health objects are roast chickens. All of these objects are represented by objects that are semantically close in the ‘real world’. In Lego Star Wars II – the original trilogy, money is (unsurprisingly) represented by Lego blocks but these blocks are gold in colour linking meaning in the game world’s semiotic system with the real world’s semiotic systems.

Sometimes objects are recognised for their value by the player based purely on their experience within the domain of games. However, it is in the interest of games’ designers to include elements that are readable by beginners, enabling all players to be 30

ThrasherDMCC07.doc able to play (otherwise there wouldn’t be the broad appeal, and therefore sales, that games require to exist). Therefore, games designers do add in clues to enable players to navigate the space and identify the objects within it. The ability of games to keep players of all abilities interested is discussed at length by Gee and he has some interesting things to say about how he feels game designers achieve this. However it is done, objects often indicate their importance. For example, in Blinx important objects that you must ‘hoover’ up pulse which is similar to Grabbed by the Ghoulies, where objects in each room that contain the hidden ghouls you must catch with your magic lantern in order to progress from room to room (level to level) pulse when you get near to them. That way the designers ensure that all players stand a good chance of completing each room. Advanced players may exhibit an element of ‘snobbery’ about such games, dismissing them as ‘bad’ games, ones that are too easy. However these games serve an important role in the world of videogaming; they provide easier spaces for relatively inexperienced players to gain more know-how as well as providing more friendly and fun play spaces. Indeed, some of these complex games may be hugely amazing in terms of design and amount of skill and game hours required to complete them but sometimes players just want to get on quickly to the experience of play. This simplicity accounts for the huge success of games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Hello Kitty and Lego Star Wars II (the original trilogy).

Players have to understand about value that is not just (or always) intrinsic such as money for trading, for buying bigger and better guns or for buying boats and other advanced equipment. Sometimes, the player needs to pick up objects that are necessary to unlock doors, or solve puzzles later. Knowing this kind of value can be attached to strange objects is another game specific skill. For example, in The Da Vinci Code you have to keep the soap to put the transmitter in so you can throw it out of the


ThrasherDMCC07.doc window to evade capture and throw the police off the scent. You also need to keep a small coin that you later put into the box by the statue to gain another vital clue. However, the player can be confused by this; in The Da Vinci Code the player can only hold one item at a time. The player must search for a coin in a wall. Having found this, the player also encounters a useful metal spike like object (which actually holds up the dividing ropes). From the player’s experience in the game so far, the player knows that this is needed to beat guards. When the player encounters the box, the player has to work out that the coin is needed (and not the spike) to gain the secrets held within the box. The player has to put down the spike as only one object can be held at once. However, if the player does not pick the spike back up, then they are killed in a surprise attack just as they are exiting the level, just when they might think they are safe and about to ‘level up’. This is an important lesson in the game and in games generally – objects are part of the game economy and so therefore frequently have particular value. Knowing that these objects have value is a skill (as I have stated) but so is knowing when to use something, when to keep something and when to let go. This is like gaining an understanding of offer and demand in the game. Some things have to be done and others are just possible if you want them to be. (This is also seen in game designs - some have side missions you can complete that add nothing to the overall mission other than the joy and experience gained from playing them – they have no value in the overall game mission’s economy as such.)

Summarising, players have to learn that objects often represent values that are representationally contiguous rather than denotative and sometimes the representation is semantically very tenuous. Objects’ values can vary and change and often do not relate to ‘real life’ logic. Some objects are necessary to complete the game (and are therefore more demand than offer) and others merely enhance game play experience. These ‘objects’ are often not obvious to non-gamers but hold a kind of logic across the 32

ThrasherDMCC07.doc epistemic frame of gaming and experienced gamers can usually recognise the ordinary objects with no value from the ordinary objects with game value (or at least the objects with potential values).

Surviving the game world

Surviving in the game world is obviously vital: if you die, the game ends. Games offer various different solutions to this problem. Some give the player more than one life, some allow one to restart where the avatar or character died (at least for a limited amount of times), some allow one to return at the point the player last saved and others force the player to redo everything from the last time they levelled up. These differences mean that players have to be able to identify which kind of game they are in (and usually this is stated in the game guide that accompanies the disk) and (most importantly) adapt their game play accordingly.

For example, in a game where you have to return to the beginning of the level, a player will have to be more careful when formulating strategies as game death is not desirable! Players will also need to allocate more time to the play session – if one has to complete a whole level for a save to take place, then one has to allow long enough to get through the whole level. Admittedly, games like this tend to have shorter levels (such as The Haunted Mansion). If the game returns the player to the moment of game death, it is very important to save at the right moment. Learning to do this is vital and usually stems from having made this mistake once before. A player I interviewed, Nick, explained how he saved at a moment in Lara Croft - The Last Revelation only to find that he was unable to complete the level (which he was right at the end of) because he had saved at a moment when Lara had to make one last leap from a ledge across a chasm but he had not used all the medi-packs and so Lara did not have enough 33

ThrasherDMCC07.doc strength to complete the jump. He was unable to go back and so was caught in an impossible position. He had to replay the whole level again. As noted, this is usually a once only mistake. Once a player has learned to be careful when saving, they have to develop a sense of when it is a good time to save and this comes from experience – reading clues and the environment effectively and accurately predicting where they are in the game sequence.

Players need to know how to fight and/or defend themselves in many genres and these are the kinds of skills that combine dexterity and combat experience (although each game has different flavour and style in combat). Game fighting can be about speed, accuracy and/or movement. Games can combine these in different ways and can prefer one or other or both. Battles can be fought close up or at a distance. Really all games are different. What is also important, in addition to understanding how to move the avatar with competence and engage in effective combat, is to understand the role of conflict in a game. All of these things combine to improve a player’s chances of survival.

Players learn how to read each game individually but there is a sense of similarity to combat that crosses the domain. Direct attack with weapons, direct attack with fighting moves (such as kicks and punches), indirect attacks with guns, lasers and other weapons of distance, dodging fights, stealthily moving, tiptoeing past guards – all of these are relevant strategies. The more players play, the greater their repertoires and therefore chances of staying ‘alive’. This is often down to their ability to combine these strategies – both within a fight/combat sequence and across a whole period of play.


ThrasherDMCC07.doc In Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End, Jack has to fight several guards in the prison. However, when he emerges he faces his first difficult foe. To get to him, he has to beat at least 25 guards – a whole swarm – and to do this he has to turn, attacking each guard a bit at a time, moving in to beat them and away again to avoid being hit badly, all the while moving from one guard to another. After this, he should eat (the way to improve health status in this game) because a few moments and steps later as he emerges from the prison, he encounters a much more complex foe. If he doesn’t eat, even if he moves in and out in his attack moves here, he will die. This illustrates not only the need for complex inter-working of combat and movement skills but the incremental principle proposed by Gee (Gee, 2003: p137), where a well designed game cultivates moves and knowledge in the player (just) before they are needed.

The ability to monitor the current game state is another skill the competent player has. The player needs to keep a ‘weather eye’ on this because, as explained earlier, if their health gets too low, despite having the requisite skills, their character may not have sufficient health to complete a sequence and they die. The ability to focus on a screen with many different pieces of information on it means that an adept player must be able to selectively choose what to focus on from multiple ‘feeds’, most likely employing ‘continuous partial attention’23 and be able to rapidly process important changes in the information being fed to them, acting on it accordingly. However, ask any game player (as I did) and you will find that at times of particularly rapid and immersive game play, they are not focussed on anything but the game itself. Games often employ multimodal signs to warn the player, thus sound is used in addition to visual guides for this very reason. For example, in Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End, the health of Jack is indicated by an on-screen heart. This is accompanied by a number to indicate strength.

23 Linda Stone (in Johnson, 2005: p 61)


ThrasherDMCC07.doc When battling the numerous foes, if Jack’s health goes down, the game employs sound in addition to visual cues to warn the player; his heart starts to pulse and the player hears an increasingly loud heartbeat above the battle sound. As his health declines, the heart rate increases. Therefore a competent player can read a multi-feed screen quickly and accurately, read multiple modes effectively and adjust their actions and strategies accordingly. They are effective at multi-tasking, reading multiple modes and telescoping.24 These are really skills that are ‘transferred’ in from sources (or at least not specific only to games) but they are practised and honed in game play and I will move on to those skills next. It is worth mentioning finally that the skills I have mentioned here map very closely to “Prensky’s ten characteristics of ‘new cognitive abilities’ generated by young people’s ‘regular and intensive’ game play”25

Play does not often happen alone and when observing play it is interesting to note the plethora of voices urging the person controlling the avatar to “go under the bridge” or “watch out – the one behind you’s not dead!”. Just as with the multiple modes that the game engine utilises to communicate with the player, the player is often bombarded by multiple instructions. Sifting through these, assessing them in light of the player’s own abilities and strategies, weighing their relative merits, disregarding them if necessary, all has to take place as well as physical game play. This just adds to the level of skill required of players in that they are processing and sifting even more information than a look at a game text alone would suggest is the case.

24 Telescoping – this is what Johnson calls the holding of multiple objectives ‘within’ each other in their operational order and managing them by adapting them as new information becomes available. (Johnson, 2005: p54) 25 Prensky in (Beavis, 2005: p 4)



External Source Skills

It is worth mentioning that competent and expert players learn to appreciate some other characteristics of game play; as they begin to develop a more ‘meta-level’ understanding and overview of games in general as well as, perhaps, a game they prefer specifically, players not only develop a bigger repertoire to draw upon in play in the domain, there seems to be a greater understanding that perhaps includes ‘appreciation’. This often means that players engage more with the back-stories of games and thus the value of cut scenes and engage in other fan activities. Perhaps this is because the mechanics of game play have been mastered to a certain extent and a deeper engagement with the text is more possible and desirable. However, this is not a ‘skill’ or component of game literacy per se, just an added dimension. Players bring their own cultural and textual understandings to games, naturally just as there is no such thing as a private language, there is no such thing as a private epistemic frame or schema. However, players do have individual experiences, individual ‘accents’ in their game play, they all have differing ‘games played’ histories (although they all draw from the same repertoire) and so they all cross-reference in different ways. This is vital to the creation of communities of practice or affinity groups (Gee, 2003: p27). This effectively creates a hive mind or, as Levy puts it, a Cosmopedia26. These communities allow players to access more knowledge than they themselves hold individually which can open up further possibilities to them in the game worlds they inhabit as player; cheat codes and walkthroughs are just the beginning; players can eventually be the walkthrough writer themselves or at least act as a guide

26 Jenkins, ‘Interactive Audiences? The ‘collective intelligence’ of media fans’, available at (accessed 05/11/2006)


ThrasherDMCC07.doc or instructor to less experienced players in on-line forums or in their own real life social circles.

Players develop identities for themselves as game players. This can affect the way they play and certainly will affect the way they project themselves in game-related ‘fan’ spaces. They will begin to develop a position or identity within the groups they belong to. This will affect the ways in which they play and is particularly important in MMORPGS and MUDs. In a way, players seem to ‘learn’ how to be part of the game playing ‘fraternity’. They move from being the ‘newbie’ to increasing levels of expertise which allows them to take their place in the community. This isn’t a game playing skill as such but is a direct consequence of being and/or becoming competent.

This in turn is like the ability of a competent player to see themselves as more than one identity. As Gee puts it, there is a real world identity, a virtual identity and a projected identity at play (Gee, 2003: p54); players have to be able to see themselves as individuals in the real world, as characters in the game and as an emerging character or identity in the affinity group. Gee names the third identity as ‘projected’ but I think there is another fourth identity – the identity of the player in the fan world or play space. Consequently, players can move from being able to ‘talk’ in one way to (multiple) others – they might move from “how do I..” to “I’ve just modded a new level – check it out guys” or “Help – I’ve just died and need to find my body…”

Seeing oneself as having more than one identity is a useful skill; one could argue that we are all multiple identities or versions of ourselves e.g. J Thrasher the teacher, J Thrasher the best friend, J Thrasher the gamer. However, to what extent does gaming raise one’s consciousness of one’s (capacity for) multiple identities?



Reading videogames as texts
Players are immersed in game play that is mediated through a range of modes – sound, visuals, letters, writing. They have to be able to understand all the signs to be expert, reading them semiotically. This can take two forms, the representational and the game play oriented. Game play oriented forms can include the clues in the game which alert the player to what is happening/about to happen and aren’t usually just visual. Obviously the visual is primary but players must also learn to read other signs. Music can indicate a change in pace, pulsing objects and glowing often indicate importance and other game activity may need to be decoded. In the scenario below, the player failed to recognise that the sudden proliferation of energy cans meant that a big fight where these would be needed to prevail was about to come up and they failed to make use of this energy and consequently died. This is a fairly standard type screen indicating game state and this is a good example of having to read ALL modes in order to become expert. The player could have averted such an early death if they had read the signs and prepared for the inevitable battle.

(Fig 1 – reasonably typical screen info from Grabbed by the Ghoulies27) Amount of ghouls collected What the immediate danger is Heart indicates life/health and indicates where player can get more energy for the battle.

27 “Grabbed by the Ghoulies” – here on XBOX


ThrasherDMCC07.doc Videogames are mediated via representations and filmic conventions. Cut scenes particularly utilise these. However, the whole of game play works on continuity editing principles. Sequences are put together via differing camera angles, high angle, low angle, mid shots and close ups. Most games allow only a little control of the movement of the camera angle but it is fairly common. When a game fixes the angle it can cause problems – for example in Pirates of the Caribbean – At World’s End when the avatar, Will Turner, is beating a particular enemy, if he fights her too far in a particular direction he cannot see her and therefore cannot accurately defend against her. As he has limited energy and cannot control Jack (as he is ‘locked’ at this stage), he must push her three times into the cauldron and any blows she inflicts on him whilst he is at this ‘black spot’ on the screen are fairly fatal as he cannot easily avoid her blows.

The outcry against games focuses on two main areas, one of which is usually surrounding the violence they depict. However, cartoons are violent too and this research is not a study of the media effects debate. The difference is the agency the player has. This needs to be taken into account, although clearly players generally recognise the difference the between games and real life.

The other key area that is largely the focus of such discussions is that of representation. It is true that a lot of what is represented may be problematic – the masculine themes and predominance of military games, the valorisation of fighting and the problematic depiction of non-whites and women (particularly in games like the Grand Theft Auto series) - but these are only problems if the player is not able to ‘read’ these images. This is where the frameworks from Media and Cultural Studies become so important – they provide the critical framework through which players can ‘read’ (as in critically read) these texts. This provides yet more reasons for videogames to be


ThrasherDMCC07.doc taught in schools through the lens of media and cultural studies. The ability of the player to read ‘visual’ texts has therefore been largely assumed in my research as has been the ability to read semiotic signs. This does not detract from the importance of the issue. A detailed breakdown has not been included here, primarily due to the scope of the research but the coverage of such reading skills has been explained in detail in many other academic texts and there are some examples of players reading semiotically throughout the paper.

The context of the player and the games are more fully realised in the following discussion.

S u m m a r y 28
By way of a recap, here is a summary of the skills I have been discussing:

Cognitive Skills
The main processes seem to be: i. ii. iii. iv. v. vi. vii. viii. ix. Taking and Evaluating Risks – A29 Building Cognitive Maps - V Hypothesis testing - A The persistent use of trial and error - A Developing strategies - A Prediction – A Managing multi-sensory information - V Reading and using multimodal ‘texts’ – V Orienting and negotiating within 3-D ‘cognitive’ space (akin to spatial manipulation and spatial awareness) - V

28 These lists are not exhaustive or complete! They just represent my attempt at beginning to solidify the skills required to be a competent game player. 29 Visual/Action based – explained in ‘cognitive skills’ section



Physical Skills
The main processes seem to be: i. ii. iii. iv. Gauging sensitivity of controls Gauging responsiveness of external controls within game world Hand eye co-ordination Rapid hand movements and response to stimuli

Game Specific Skills
These include: i. ii. iii. iv. v. Learning the rules and learning how to learn in games Playing without knowing the rules in advance Knowing when you can and when you should save Knowing and understanding game space time (frames) Knowing the difference between offer and demand within the game environment vi. vii. viii. ix. Understanding Objects and their value(s) Knowing when to stop trying something Knowing where to go, climb, collect etc Knowing that walking into (often seemingly innocuous or inanimate) things, kicking them, lifting them etc is a worthwhile and necessary pursuit x. Understanding cut scenes, their value and place within the gaming experience xi. xii. xiii. xiv. Understanding levels and levelling Understanding about Health and restoring health Understanding about game death and the cyclical nature of game life Knowing game space types (“is this a maze? A puzzle? A trap?” etc) 42

ThrasherDMCC07.doc xv. xvi. Understanding conflict Knowing where to find, and why one should find. Information on game state.

Skills from external sources
These include: i. ii. iii. Bringing of prior knowledge of games and video games to games Bringing of prior knowledge of particular game genres to games Bringing of cultural, educational and other individual aspects to a game (a kind of idiolect) iv. v. Knowing the difference between real life (RL) and game world (VR) The ability to see oneself as more than one identity, some of which may be virtual vi. Listening to multiple voices, leading a group of voices by being decision maker vii. viii. Being a contributor to multiple voices, assisting other players Understanding competition and collaborative modes and their differences

Reading Games as texts
This includes: i. ii. iii. iv. Reading semiotic signs Reading moving image Multimodal literacy Seeing patterns in texts (genre)


ThrasherDMCC07.doc Games and Contexts are discussed in the following chapter.

The New London Group has posited some theories about what they call “New Literacies” and their arguments are hugely persuasive. There are some minor problems with what they propose but on the whole they make sense. They argue that “Literacy is always and everywhere situated and, what is more, literacy is inseparable from practice” (Pahl & Rowsell, 2005: p3). They further say that New Literacy is cross mediums and modes and is primarily multimodal. They argue that the social context and social background of the person is that context – importantly the place of ‘reading’ is crucial in their proposal. They argue that literacy is tied to “belief systems, languages, values, goals and technical skills. Literacy is also tied to community values and groups” (Pahl & Rowsell, 2005: p3-5).

Arnseth (Arnseth, 2006) has looked at work done by academics in respect of games and education and highlighted some important issues. He picks up on the differences in approach by different academics in terms of underlying approaches. He says that academics have tended to look at games in two ways either as playing games to learn or as learning to play games. For him, the first model focuses on how game play influences ‘cognition, emotion and behaviour’30 and is based on a ‘simplistic model of communication’31 and may ‘lead to a reintroduction of transfer and implementation models’32. In this model, things are transferred into the mind, not necessarily unfiltered, and may ‘resurface’ later to affect behaviour33. He points out that these approaches tend to treat context and cognition as separate. On the other side of the ‘dichotomy’,
30 Arnseth, 2006: p2 31 ibid 32 ibid 33 ibid


ThrasherDMCC07.doc research into learning to play games should ‘include the social, material and cultural contexts for learning’34. However, Arnseth is still placing his argument in terms of using games in or for education and I am attempting to produce a kind of framework surrounding what constitutes game playing competency rather than games as learning vehicles. Arnseth dismisses this kind of compilation of ‘generic knowledge and skills’35 as foolhardy as it de-contextualises the game play from its situation. However, in my model, the skills I propose are broadly generic and I argue that the contextualisation of knowledge is central to competency (and thus literacy). This in turn can cause problems in school or educational contexts but this does not change my literacy model.

For me, placing players (or play) of video games in context falls into five categories: the context of the individual, the context of prior knowledge, the context of situated action, the context of play space and the context of groups. I will look at each context individually and briefly, outlining their importance to videogame literacy.

The Context of the Individual

The game player brings with them a naturally individualised set of experiences – ways of reading, ways of knowing, ways of intertextualising. A player is a product of their culture, their gender, their age, their sexuality, their previous game experience – in fact a whole host of individualities. Thus they can read, understand and play texts differently. Vygotsky states that play is the imaginative transformation of individual resources36 and this seems to encapsulate and prioritise the notion of the importance of individuality; players rework what they know and ‘play’ with it – perhaps turning values
34 ibid p4 35 ibid p6 36 Vygotsky, mentioned in University Seminar, A Burn, 27/10/06


ThrasherDMCC07.doc upside down ( a liminal and safe space to act out anti-social behaviours perhaps?) or to mix up values in their real lives (such as playing the opposite gender). Not a lot of research has been undertaken on individual gamers as much academic work has so far focused only on games to educate or as “Effects Theory machines” - conduits of violence and other socially undesirable behaviours and their influences on players. Research has often ignored the activity of the player and their agency.

Selfe & Hawisher have edited work together which represents a huge study, focusing on the individualities of gamers and how this affects and relates to their game play and game literacies. In “Gaming Lives for the Twenty-first Century” (2007) they cover a range of studies from a range of researchers. The research covers Josh, an American teenager, Laxman and Angish, two Nepalese middle-aged and middle-class men, Eve and Martin to name a few. They discuss, across the book, the importance of age, gender, culture, race and learning ability on game play. They have much to say (and it is well worth a read) although there is still much more research to do in this ‘new’ area of ‘player-in-context’ focused research. However, so far they (and their contributors) argue convincingly enough to back up the notion that “what we get out of our media is dependent on who we are, where we are, what’s going on around us and what we’re up to” (Selfe and Hawisher, 2007: p254). For my part, I like to think of each gamer as individually as possible. Whilst each player is interpellated into many pre-existing social and semiotic domains, they still carry a ‘hallmark’ of individuality. This ‘hallmark’ is like their idiolect – their particular history of reading, game playing and game related experiences (digital and otherwise); their social background, their gender, schooling, sexuality and family. Talk to gamers and you find similarities. You will also find great variances. Researchers look for patterns – that’s what we do - but I have personally found it comforting to find individuality in those patterns.


ThrasherDMCC07.doc As Pahl & Rowsell put it “when we consider identity, we also consider literacy. Literacy practices are infused with identity. Literacy is a mediated and practise-infused activity that constantly pulls on the personality of the speaker, the writer or the reader” (Pahl & Rowsell, 2005: p98). When we consider the video game player, the same is true.

The context of prior knowledge

As stated in my musings about the individual, players all bring differing play histories to gaming. Some have played a lot of games and are therefore more game literate, some have played only one type of game and have only a partial grasp of the overall domain of videogames – in fact, most players know sub-domains well, sometimes several, but few know them all. Obviously as shown in my discussions of actual game skills, knowledge is furthered with more knowledge; the more you play, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more you understand and the easier it is to begin to operate effectively in the domain. This does not mean that the game(s) gets easier – no, they get harder. What I am saying is that as the player becomes more familiar with the schema of an arena of discourse, they become more adept at discerning and using it. As Gagne points out in his “nine events of instruction”37, retrieval is vital. He calls this “stimulating recall of prior learning” and this notion is becoming increasingly prioritised in mainstream teaching. Good learning takes place when prior learning is activated. For players, this means that the more they play, the more ‘prior knowledge’ they have to fall back on, to draw from, to harness, the more competent they are.

Gee talks of how players can achieve a point he calls ‘critical learning’. This is where ‘they learn not only to understand and produce meanings in a particular semiotic

37 Gagne in Becker, 2005: p3


ThrasherDMCC07.doc domain that are recognisable to those affiliated with the domain but, in addition, how to think about the domain at a ‘meta’ level as a complex system of interrelated parts’ (Gee, 2003: both p23). He goes on to suggest that critical level learning involves innovating within the domain. However, I don’t think it is necessary for one to be in the ‘critical learning’ stage and have to innovate. If one takes any area of study or theory, there are those who engage critically with it and are aware of meta levels of understanding (being aware of the whole domain and the relationships of the domain with other domains) but who do not innovate. However naïve and optimistic some of his views are, he has captured an important fact here. Players do achieve a level of understanding that allows them an overview of the domain. The more they play, the more they know, the more they know, the more they engage, the more they engage, the wider their involvement in the domain. At this level, players are contributing to discussions and forums within the gaming community: they are coaching other players and initiating others into a particular sub domain. Of course, this is a generalisation – not all players follow this line of development and not all go this far. However, the more one widens one’s experience and knowledge, the more one engages, the more one knows about any domain and this hold true for videogames. Wisdom does come from experience!

Context of Situation

Gee convincingly argues that learning should be situated in order for effective learning to take place; it makes common sense. You can learn Spanish from books, learn all the language and theory but if you never speak it out loud, with others who speak Spanish fluently, you have not really grasped Spanish at a functioning level. You may have achieved de-contextualised and interesting knowledge but if you cannot use the language in context, if you cannot converse with others and be understood by others, 48

ThrasherDMCC07.doc your knowledge is effectively useless. And so it is with video games. Gee meant his argument to stand for how video games utilised learning in their strategies effectively so they could be transposed to educational and pedagogical models. I want to take what he says out of this context and place it into mine – learning game play has to be (and is designed to be) situated. This is more than functional literacy, this is competency in a domain but competency that also involves meta-cognition, placing the domain in fully realised context.

Try learning how to play a video game, any video game, by reading the instruction book. You can’t do it. Instructions offer players only the first few instructions – how to move, how to execute basic moves and an overall mission or give an initial mission. From there on, the player must learn how to play by experiencing the game world for themselves. It is true that game designers have specifically designed their game engines to work this way. They have been doing this for a long time now and have become very good at it. Players are good at it too. Gee says that humans are ‘powerful pattern recognisers” (Gee, 2003: 91) and he goes further in saying that recognising patterns is an experiential process (Gee, 2003: p96). This is a key feature of game literacy – the ability to learn from (the experience of) the game and to not need to know the rules in advance before getting started (as I briefly mentioned earlier).

Cope and Kalantzis also agree that situated practice is important. In their book “Multiliteracies: literacy learning and the design of social future” (2000, Routledge, London) they propose a pedagogy of multiliteracies. In this model, situated practice is the first of four central tenets. Their model fits well with the work of Pahl and Rowsell and is a continuation of the work that places the individual at the heart of learning. For them, the child’s preferences, identity and practices are central to managing to teach successful literacy. Whilst they are discussing more traditional literacy (such as how to 49

ThrasherDMCC07.doc teach more traditional ‘school’ literacies), I am transposing their arguments and logics to my model of game literacy. If my model is to be valid, it must take into account all aspects of the player, as learner and expert, and the affecting factors. The ‘New Literacy’ proposed by the New London Group scholars is particularly relevant to game play as it starts immediately with the notion of multiple strands to literacy – of reading multiple modes through multiple mediums. This is exactly what videogame literacy entails. The location of this literacy within a fully realised context also fits neatly with game play and so is a very apt model to adopt.

The context of play space

Where one plays a videogame has an effect or at least is an important aspect. Whilst the more educational aspects of New Literacy propose that where a pupil reads or write affects how they comprehend texts and make sense of practice, I would propose something slightly different. A player may play alone or in a group and this does make a difference. In a large group there will be a plethora of voices all telling the player what to do and this will mean that they have to be able to filter through all this, sift the voices and decide which (and who) has the most relevant points to make, if any. I discussed this aspect of game literacy earlier. However, play space is also important and worth mentioning because there are so many different spaces a player can play on and in.

So here, I am expanding the notion of playspace from where one plays as a geographical place to where one plays including the platform and social space. The different consoles demand different types of ability and/or skill and the different locations can also affect play literacy. For example, an on-line player will have a different set of skills to one who plays alone, a player of a Nintendo Wii will have a


ThrasherDMCC07.doc different set of skills than a Sony Playstation 2 player. Sometimes this difference is just a dexterity skill where controllers are different, sometimes it’s down to how one saves. Players of games on PC or MAC may find it easy to mod their games than say a player on a PSP. However, probably the biggest difference is where a player plays online. This affects who they play with and how they play. Although the skills required for the games themselves remain largely the same, the strategies employed in play will differ. For example, on-line fighting often involves combat between the two players. This means the player will adjust not just to playing against a PC (rather than a NPC), they will also possibly NOT know (socially) the other person. When observing group play, the players often worked it out so that players who were friends played co-operatively rather than combatatively. However, when players did play against each other, they talked to each other in friendly banter. On-line combatative play can (and does) involve talk between players but the way you fight someone who is not in the same room as you is different from the way you fight your friend (albeit screen enemy) sitting next to you.

Similarly, in MMORPGs, players often forge alliances and guilds of players who are not necessarily geographically close to help each other and to defeat objects and monsters they might not be able to defeat on their own. Ironically, this goes against the ‘popular’ image of the computer nerd, sitting alone in their room, night after night playing alone on their computer.

I have no detailed analysis of the changes in play that these differences represent as I have only begun the purpose of proposing a kind of framework for video game literacy. Other studies and future studies, will have more to say and add about these issues so I will leave it to them. Suffice to say, these factors are important in game play.



The context of groups

The context of groups also has an effect on game play and relates directly on a videogame player’s literacy. Gee talks of the ‘dispersed principle’ and the ‘distributed principle’ which link with his idea of ‘affinity groups’ (Gee, 2005: p211-212, p27). These principles link with Levy’s notions of “hive mind’, ‘collective intelligence’ and ‘cosmopedia’. For Levy “knowledge communities will be voluntary, temporary, tactical affiliations, defined through common intellectual enterprises and emotional investments”. In these communities there is ‘shared knowledge’ and ‘collective knowledge’38. This is knowledge held by all fans and knowledge known by all the members across the whole group (i.e. available to all members of the group but not all known by any one fan).

Why is this important? If a member of the semiotic domain, whom Gee calls the ‘affinity group’ (Gee, 2005: p25), can operate effectively in that domain, then to be fully literate, a member must be able to operate within the relevant affinity group. Playing a game usually involves having to seek help from the community. This takes a range of forms from discussing play strategies with friends, using walkthroughs to engaging in online forums, seeking and offering guidance. Being able to operate within these spaces is a part of literacy if one considers literacy to be having competence in operating in a socially constructed (‘semiotic’) domain. Kellner states “Literacy…comprises gaining competences in effectively using socially constructed forms of communication and representation” (Kellner, 2002: p92) and Gee says, right at the beginning of his book, that “learning involves mastering, at some level, semiotic domains, and being able to
38 All references to Levy from Jenkins, “Interactive Audiences? The ‘collective intelligence’ of media fans”, available at


ThrasherDMCC07.doc participate, at some level, in the affinity group or groups connected to them” (Gee, 2005: p49-50). Certainly if one could not contribute to the domains of reading and writing by enacting those skills and discussing them with others, comparing and evaluating, to what degree would one be considered to be literate?

Games are then, a socially organised domain, with affinity groups or communities of practice that self organise and hold knowledge individually and collectively that they share to the benefit of all (although there are major disagreements and factions of course). They have their own discourses and ways of doing and being that a new gamer will become gradually inculcated within as they game, gaining competence and experience both of the games and of the affinity group (or community of practice)’s domain. To conclude, Burn states “Literacy is a form of cultural competence” (Burn, forthcoming: p5) and here the ‘culture’ is video gaming and this is more than functional literacy.


Games and their contexts
i. ii. iii. Making connections, placing a game in its context Player as fan – making meaning and being part of a group Pleasures of play – how players view the process and importance of pleasures from play iv. v. Multiple identities – having them, gaining pleasure from them Conflict, competition, race and Ideology


ThrasherDMCC07.doc So if video game literacy means gaining all these skills but they are gained in practice rather than direct instruction delivered via traditional teaching methods from one expert to other non-experts what happens next?

The problem with teaching videogame literacy in school is primarily that of time. If, as Gee proposes, learning is embedded in practice, and, as I have established, this is especially so for videogaming, how do we teach video gaming in school? There are many clashes of ‘culture’ involved in an endeavour such as this but let me start with immersion.

In order to learn a game well, to become skilled, many hours of gaming time are required. This affects the way curriculums and timetables are organised. How does one allow for so much game playtime? I cannot see a time when schools give over substantial periods of time to any subject, let alone one as controversial as videogaming. Besides that, how would a school manage that much ‘up time’ and specialist equipment? Here are a few key ‘clashes’ (although this list is by no means exhaustive).

a. “Power to the People!”
The kind of play that video games employ is more paidia that ludus plenty of identity play

and involves scope for

“Notions of performance and drama have been a popular academic theme in academic discussions of computers and cyberspace…these discussions characterise the digital medium as inherently playful and dramatic because of its interactive and immersive
39 The idea of Paidia and Ludus comes from Caillois (Carroll, 2002, p138)


ThrasherDMCC07.doc quality, the release from physicality it offers, and the rich array of easy to use possibilities.” (Carroll, 2002: p130) The qualities of videogame play cause problems for schools because schools operate on a strict hierarchical structure and videogames don’t. There is no room for manoeuvre – the teacher is in charge, the pupils are ‘second-class citizens’ – mostly disenfranchised and recipients rather than precipitators – a powerless mass.

Games are attractive to players of school age for many reasons but the space to switch identities, to be powerful, to be anyone they want, to be free of their body is a huge draw. In fact, game spaces are quite anarchic in this sense. The rules of ‘real life’ are changed, turned on their heads – it’s “Bakhtinian carnival…[with] its exuberant spirit, masked characters and preoccupation with the body, though in a simulated manner” (Carroll, 2002: p130). The players can be powerful mob bosses, run huge guilds or be a highly skilled sneak thief. They can build and destroy worlds – in truth, they can pretty much do anything a designer has come up with so far. They have agency and they have power. Although they are not the ‘digital natives’ that Prensky would have them be (Prensky, 2006), game players are more likely to be the pupils than the teachers, and players do tend to know more than non-players about games (as competency is largely comprised of situated practice). This tends to prefer the young rather than the old, the pupils rather than the teachers, when it comes to games and therefore the whole nature of videogames in school is carnivalesque.

Why is this important for schools? Well schools run, as I said, with strict hierarchies and games turn these upside down. The nature of the hive mind, the affinity group, is antonymic to schools’ verticality. In fact, as I discuss this more, it will reveal how this places teachers under ‘threat’, how it ‘limits’ their power and dismisses their knowledge.


ThrasherDMCC07.doc A good education system, in fact good learning, would ignore this and move straight ahead to embrace this – the pupils can be empowered and the teachers can still guide and lead – in fact pupils will not fare well without that guidance. However, most schools and their ideological hegemonies and power strongholds won’t (easily) give up any space, especially to something they don’t (or only partially) understand.

b. “Who’s in charge here?”
Videogames take power away from individuals – the nature of gaming as a powerful community undermines the power of elites

Videogaming naturally utilises and creates communities of practice, affinity groups. Those within it do have hierarchies, usually strictly based on experience and success in game play. Respect can be earned and is not afforded to any who don’t deserve it. The structures seem to weed out the arrogant and ignore those who try to exert their power or authority – they are essentially anti-establishment and anti-regulation. I am, of course, generalising but if you go online and look at these communities, if you observe players in their affinity groups, these aspects and attitudes are clear.

As I have said, this goes against the very nature of a school’s structure. Not only that, but the structures are not easily obvious and therefore are hard to control. That is certainly an issue for schools. These communities can’t be clearly defined or found, they can’t be easily policed or controlled and thus the school elite would be unable to exert it’s power and influence. Why is this important? If you allow game play in school space and time, you allow these structures to ‘grow’ within the school structure. You allow a network to form that you can’t see, control or police. How many schools are going to allow that to happen or manage it if they do?



c. “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others..”
What kids bring – “all creatures, great and small”

Children are all different and they all bring different things with them when they walk in the doors of school. Whilst this is the same problem for all school subjects, it is still worth giving it a mention here. A child’s background can mean that they read videogames differently, that they have different aptitudes in play and that, perhaps, they have never played videogames to any great extent. It is also worth thinking about how children relate their social experiences and how they transfer (or not) their frameworks of learning and knowledge, between school and home and between one subject and another, especially after having stressed the importance of context in literacy/competence. Beavis explains some of the complexity involved when she highlights the need to understand the ‘complex dynamics of in and out of school discourses and contexts” (Beavis, 2005, p10).

It is pertinent to mention how important it is to understand how children transfer their learning between subjects if videogames are to be any more than just another text type in the study of media; If they are to be useful, they need to take skills away from play and transfer it; Gregory & Williams call this “syncretic literacy’. (Gregory & Williams in Pahl and Rowsell, 2005: p59). They looked at how children used literacy from school and blended it with literacies at home. I think more of this syncretic literacy in terms of blending literacies between school subjects – and this is more like Sandford & Blair’s ‘morphing’ (Sandford & Blair in O’Donnell, 2004: p1). They investigated the practices of adolescent boys in Alberta, California over a period of three years. They found that boys were using skills and abilities they honed through their use of technology to alter,


ThrasherDMCC07.doc understand and write about their other school subjects. This was useful transfer of skills – ‘morphing’.

It seems that as all children are not equal, and, as videogames are deeply social, the issues for schools addressing the needs of children in an ‘every child matters’ climate are more problematic for videogames than in many other subjects or topics in the curriculum.

d. Playing?! This is school and anyway, “it’s not a proper subject”
Art, Drama, Media, Dance – Expressive Arts – They’re not real subjects are they, they’re not academic…

This has to be a short section because there’s little to say that hasn’t been said one hundred times before. However, the resistance to the subjects above will surely exist in resistance to video games. There may be support for games to be used as vehicles to deliver subject content but that isn’t what video games are really all about as I shall explain…

It’s not games to learn, it’s learning to game40

Much has been written about how games can be used to learn, too much to do justice to here, but it is important to mention it. Whilst Gee has lots to say about video games, he is linking this to how games have good principles that should be transferred to other learning – how games could be harnessed as another vehicle to deliver content (Gee, 2005). To be fair, he proposes that this is done in a dynamic and exciting way, utilising the best that video games have to offer but he still does not really focus on the games
40 Thanks to Arnseth whose title I have ‘stolen’ and re-worked! (He wrote Learning to play or playing to learn see Bibliography).


ThrasherDMCC07.doc (and their contents and contexts) themselves. Frasca also has a lot to say about games as vehicles for learning and he represents another way of looking at things – he says games are not representations and he primarily focuses on videogames as simulations, which he argues is what games are (Frasca, 2003).

One could problematise this by suggesting that according to Juul, simulations are not even games (Juul, 2003) and there is much to say about how games may not be useful for use as educating vehicles. Buckingham in his book “Beyond Technologies – children’s learning in the age of digital culture” (2007, Polity, Cambridge) is especially good on this41.

It seems that, when academics and parents discuss video games in education, they often assume that the games in question will be ones which contain ‘traditional’ academic content and, Buckingham adds, ‘a means of revitalising the use of technology in schools” (Buckingham, 2007: p117). Buckingham further points out that where new technology is used in schools it tends to be a ‘rehash’ of traditional teaching methods so one gets online encyclopaedias and multiple choice tests. He also points out the similarity between a classroom of students using laptops and a classroom of children using chalk and slates (Buckingham, 2007).

Buckingham also takes issue with much of the arguments of Gee and Prensky (key proponents in the ‘videogames as learning conduits’ debate) by pointing out that they are hopelessly utopian, taking no account of the realities of the educational context and schools as work places. He also says they ignore the fact that videogames are not neutral conduits but mediate representations. He says much of the work done on

41 Chapters 6 “Playing to learn?” p 99-118 and Chapter 7 “That’s Edutainment” p 119-142 are particularly relevant to the point I make here


ThrasherDMCC07.doc learning focuses only on particular genres. More importantly, he critiques the educational environment as one infused with market forces; he mentions ‘a growing incursion of market force into education’ and that ‘education has been progressively marketised” (Buckingham, 2007: p10 & p11).

A similar problem stems from the fact that there is only a little evidence that one can learn from these games but this problem really stems from issues surrounding ‘transfer’, that is, whether learners transfer the learning they do make from the games to other areas. This is the idea of ‘morphing’ again. It is worth mentioning that this problem is not only relative to videogames in learning – a lot has been said about the failure of pupils to transfer the skills and knowledge they learn in one subject to another. It’s a thorny issue; If transfer can be facilitated, then perhaps it is something that educationalists have to solve by adapting pedagogies and classroom practice. Certainly, it is not only a videogame problem. Arnseth highlights this as an issue but does not offer any solutions per se. He discusses at length how much of the research in these areas is based on faulty models of cognition such as ‘transfer theory’. He points out that the underlying problem stems from the fact that ‘context and cognition are treated as separable entities’ which he believes they are not. It basically comes back to the argument that games are situated (Arnseth, 2006: p4).

Finally, the fact that videogames require a ’learning by doing’ type apprenticeship model conflicts with the basic models of learning in place in school. It would also seem that how one situates videogames is vital: does one see them as something to be studied in their own right? Are they conduits to facilitate better learning in traditional learning contexts? Are they just another ‘text type’ to be part of ‘Media Studies



Sounds great! Who’ve we got who can teach it?

This is another key practical issue; teachers. Whilst I do not wish to add any weight to the arguments of Prensky and Gee in relation to their ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ divisions, there is an issue about teacher’s skills if videogames are to be utilised in the classroom. Admittedly, teachers don’t have to be experts in everything they teach to be able to teach it but videogames in education raises two key points to be considered in light of this; one – games do require a huge amount of play for anyone to gain critical literacy (which most teachers don’t have) and two – teachers are often not particularly adept with technology at all, let alone something as progressive and seemingly ‘insignificant’ as video games. (Here, of course, I am assuming that videogames are the object of study rather than the means of study). Buckingham points out that ‘teacher confidence and competence in using technology have actually declined over the past three years’ (Buckingham, 2007: p8).

There are other problems in schools as well. How do they finance the provision of the technology? Schools and LEAs may have greater buying power as they are more synergistically organised and recognised as key markets by technology providers but the way they purchase seems to be piecemeal. Until there is a coherent policy in place, I don’t see this changing. However, if a coherent policy comes into place two things also come into play – (A) one size does not fit all and (B) policy makers and LEA administrators often have little conception of how these technologies are (or should be) used ‘on the ground’. Thus one gets scenarios like LEA–wide bans on sites on the net (see the OCR teacher’s forum for the extent to which this causes problems for teachers) or (as has been experienced by teachers, uncovered in my research)


ThrasherDMCC07.doc comments such as ‘I don’t know much about it but I know it’s very harmful to the pupils (as it contains gross violence) and will destabilise the schools computer network’ (paraphrase of comments from an administrator in charge of computing for an entire LEA).42 So experienced teachers may be in short supply for a while (until one gets teachers coming through college who are game players or until it becomes an established part of teacher training). Schools have a tendency to feed teachers into subjects that are specialised or niche who are not specialists in those subjects themselves and this could have grave consequences for any study of videogames in their own right in schools. There may also be equally grave problems where games are used merely as ‘learning conduits’.

Where would schools place videogames? If videogames are seen primarily as conduits for education (where Prensky and Gee are), then one would find games all over the curriculum. However, as I hope it is now becoming clear, I think games are worthy of study in their own right. However, their place in the curriculum would no doubt be firmly rooted in Media Studies. This is partly because they are an important part of the institutional make up of the entertainment industry, a key part of people’s lives and a medium that mediates meanings. I will come back to this in chapter 7 but it is important to say that videogames are imbued with meaning and are not neutral in their representations.

42 The issue in question here was to open a suite to use World of Warcraft (rated 12!) for the study towards a unit of their AS level by Year 12 Media Studies students, despite the fact that the ICT Network manager had investigated the matter and decided that there would be no, or negligible, risks involved. This is a real example but I have not mentioned any details for obvious reasons.




“Videogames allow players to experiment with powerful identities” (Shaffer et al, 2004: p6). Videogames have important relationships with identities. Not only do videogames allow players to engage with adopting differing identities, negotiating the process of being and creating these identities in the process; the play can become a part in constructing our ‘real world’ identities. This happens in the way game texts are read and played, changing and challenging the way the player sees themselves in relation to the world. When playing, players construct identities which are a compilation of various strands, of things they are, wish to be, wish to escape from. This ability to play, to explore and ‘fantasize’ is a key factor in why players actually play games. This is a liminal space where carnivalesque subversion is the norm. Theorists often ignore this fact. Yes, game playing can be frustrating and difficult (and usually is) but the pleasure factor comes from a feeling of satisfaction, of having beaten the game and of being a part of a community with all the sense of belonging that that brings

This identity play works within the context of the game; for example a military game will provide opportunities for different identities than a fantasy adventure. Gee proposes that there are three different ways a player engages in ‘role play’ in games; as real world player, as a virtual identity (their character) and as a projected identity which he argues is the character they would like their character to be and the characteristics they would like their character to have in the virtual role. This engagement in identity play is very important in videogames and places an individual’s culture and context in the centre of notions about their play. 63


So the young child can play the role of an adult, the boy can explore the identity of a girl and the old can ‘become’ young again. A player can change all sorts of things about themselves, including age, gender, class, occupation. However, this is just play so the change is temporary, an illusion. It is worth asking just how far one can actually ‘escape’ one’s culture and identity; one can play, but to what extent does one take a ‘culture shadow’ with one? Are there always echoes of one’s true identity in these fantasy identities? So games allow a space to play, to invert things in a safe environment. Nakamura calls this ‘identity tourism’ (Nakamura, in Carroll, 2002: p141). However, this may only be possible within a player’s culture and ideology, another question that needs exploring. This identity play can involve challenging stereotypes but also often involves ‘reaffirming’ real life stereotypes (from Nakamura, in Carroll, 2002: p141). Carroll goes on to discuss whether this, in turn, reaffirms the identity of the player in real life.

Game Designers could be seen by some to have a responsibility to ensure they present only ‘ideologically correct’ profiles but in reality it is about the players – they often realise that play is play, that these values are not real.

Playing in videogames allows the player (in some genres) to engage in a kind of narcissistic process; they can see themselves at the centre of a world they have created. However, Piaget’s theories of play would contradict this. He says that play allows children to act out and engage in appreciating other people’s points of view in the process. Furthermore, Vygotsky says that children can use play to delay gratification and impose rules upon themselves (both from “Theoretical Play’, see bibliography). However, there is something very egotistical about the process of forging


ThrasherDMCC07.doc a game identity and this would seem to contradict the assertions of Piaget and Vygotsky.

Players’ real world identities are altered by these experiences, horizons can be broadened, understanding can be widened. There are numerous examples in the work of Prensky, for example, of very young players who have grasped notions through playing different identities in gameplay and have transferred them into the real world, changing themselves in the process.

It is worth saying that some academics don’t place as much, or place a different, emphasis on identity. Carroll says that identities are not fixed but are ‘necessary fictions…’ or are ‘points of temporary attachment to the subject positions which discursive practises construct for us’ (Carroll, 2002: p137). Whatever one’s position, a player gets to explore ideas of self and self in relation to one’s culture.

Finally one should not underestimate the value of the media in forming identities, particularly for students; “media culture is often part and parcel of students’ identity and [their] most powerful experience” (Kellner, in Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2002:p94). This means that videogame play should be placed fully in a media context as it is surely part and parcel of most students’ media related experiences. Players have even begun to map this part of the media landscape, sub-dividing and labelling the semiotic domain, the identity space; for example there are labels that they use to categorise themselves or one another; as a typical X-Box fan, as a typical Nintendo fan etc (Idea originates in Provenzo, 1991).


ThrasherDMCC07.doc Ideologies

Games themselves contain ideologies, in their content, rules and goals. Games can prefer one ideology over another – they often prefer those who beat everyone else, people who can beat all the puzzles – winners essentially. They can have values about sexuality (for example in The Sims you can have ‘gay’ couples (see Frasca, 2003)) and about what is right and wrong. Provenzo is right in this respect “videogames are neither a neutral nor a trivial technology…instead, like other media, they represent important intellectual and social systems that are redefining the symbolic underpinnings of our culture” (Provenzo, 1991: p33). He is not alone. McLuhan was interested in games because they required of the player that they submit themselves to the game and experiences and share the ideologies it incorporates (McLuhan, 1964: Chapter 24). Strangely he also sees games as “a release from the monopolistic tyranny of the social machine” (McLuhan, 1964: p238). These two positions seem strangely contradictory (unless McLuhan felt no ‘fear’ of ideological control).

Gee goes into this in some detail, explaining how games can ‘make’ players assume the ideologies of the character they are playing (Gee, 2005: ch6). He explains how this is good because it can cause the otherwise subconscious values to the fore in players’ minds. He believes this can problematise ideologies that might otherwise be held to be ‘natural’. However, in my research, when discussing this with players, they did not appear to reflect at this level on what was happening to their belief systems in play. It would seem that players, anyway, do not often choose to play games that would contradict their values and beliefs systems and Gee discusses this at some length (see Gee, 2003).


ThrasherDMCC07.doc Provenzo does not hold such a naïve view of games and their ideologies (although a lot of what he thinks is ideologically suspect!); “the message communicated by the rules of the videogame is that violence is not only acceptable, it is necessary to win” (Provenzo, 1991: p124). He talks at length about things that players have picked up from games which he says are dangerous and which they decontextualise. However, he fails to define which ‘games’ he means (all games? Just one genre?) and in worrying about how children pick up partial knowledge from games, he fails to pick up that children learn partial knowledge of everything – I have been amazed myself by a model of car called a “Ford Codsworth” and a new technique from Shakespeare called “Rhyming Cutlets”.

However, there are reasons to be hopeful. According to Kline, there is scope for rebellion and resistance. Perhaps this is somewhere in the fan spaces, in the modding of games and the recoding of entire games so they can be made available for free on the internet. He mentions Innis and his ‘oligopoly of knowledge’; this is “the political and cultural control exercised by a particular social group or class through the restrictions and directives they can impose on the way knowledge is organised, stored and distributed…new media can consolidate or potentially shift the terms of such oligopolistic control…a medium that at first might seem to reinforce the power of an established elite could eventually subvert it by undermining the relations of power into which it is introduced” (Kline, 2003: p32). Technological Determinism There is at work in the field of videogames study, a strong tendency to exhibit technological determinism – that is, as defined by Raymond Williams, a “powerful technological determinism that is, a belief that technology will bring about social


ThrasherDMCC07.doc changes in and of itself” (Buckingham in Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2002: p78). Kline links the faith in technology to a faith in the free market. As he points out, digitalisation and new technologies are all part of a system of production that involves consumers and producers and all the political and institutional issues that that involves (Kline, 2003).

Frasca gets very excited by videogame technology, exclaiming that this is the first time ‘in human history’ that we’ve been able to model simulations in such a way and Papert (with Gee) both see new technology (including and sometimes specifically games) as providing new forms of learning (Frasca, 2003: Papert, 1993 & Gee, 2003). However, a much more reasonable approach is to be a bit more realistic; technology doesn’t always, or necessarily, improve learning (see Kellner in Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2002: p91) Games as Play Videogames are fun and maybe they should stay that way. Maybe they don’t belong in the classroom at all. Livingstone talks a great deal about how placing videogames in the domain of the school would be yet another infringement of the state upon the private lives of children. Although she points out that schools are trying to engage children into ‘ways of seeing the world…that are no longer feasible’ which seems may be corrected if new technology was used more effectively in school. Finally moving things on from the point of view of the pupils, she does warn that “we are witnessing a historical shift away from the assumption that the home can remain private, outside state regulation” which is worrying and a point worth a great deal of consideration before we force videogames into a space in the curriculum (Livingstone, 2002: p232 & p241)


ThrasherDMCC07.doc It is also worth considering the issue of immersion. If immersion is strong in videogames – if presence is amplified, what does one do about critical engagement? It is hard to remain distanced from something so immersive, something so wholly consuming, something so close. This would cause problems in any classroom that chose to use videogames (either as subject or method) and would make it hard for students to engage in Gee’s “critical learning’ phase.


Videogames need to be located in the curriculum. They will suffer, perhaps certainly, the same fate as Drama, Art, Dance and Media Studies – ‘it’s not a proper subject!’ “You can’t use games in school, you’re supposed to be learning!” “Typical liberal policy, in my day…” and other cries would (and will) no doubt be uttered. Nevertheless, we have a real question to answer. Whilst videogames are very close to Art and ICT in the creation of the form, their analysis is very strongly bounded in Media and Cultural studies yet they could be read ‘representationally’ in English.

At the 2007 Media Studies Conference at the BFI in London, David Gauntlett addressed the conference in his keynote speech on the topic of ‘eco-systems’. He was trying to explain how the media cosmos is like an ecosystem – each part has its place and interrelates with all the other parts. This is important. Whilst videogames interrelate across and into many other contiguous disciplines, videogames should be firmly placed in the media studies curriculum. It is a text of mass production and mass consumption, popular as entertainment, a medium that uses representation and media (such as film and its techniques and sound as part of its diegesis) and that crucially involves elements of audience and audience participation, of institutional control and ideological stakes. 69


Videogames can be used to control and to normalise ideologies hidden within them and this is why the best place for videogames is in Media Studies – it allows the text to be deconstructed and the whole context of consumption and production to be taken into account. Media Studies can hopefully teach the students to become critically independent and to understand, at a much deeper level of literacy, the texts they enjoy.

One almost hopes that games don’t make it too far into the educational state apparatus of school; although learning may be made fun (which is not a problem in and of itself) it must always accompany the knowledge that videogames are not neutral conduits, that ideology is an integral part of a game system. Media Studies must always be alongside other curriculum subjects to undo the naïve belief in the seemingly innocuous nature of the medium, to equip students with analytical expertise and ideological awareness.


So as I hope I have postulated “critical media literacy …[is] analysing media culture as products of social production and struggle, and teaching students to be critical of media representations and discourses, but also stressing the importance of learning to use the media as modes of self-expression and social activism” (Kellner, in Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2002: p93). My work has not covered all these aspects. I have proposed only a partial part of what should constitute the study of videogames. I have tried to put forward a discussion of what constitutes the ability to actually use the videogames as I don’t believe one can analyse a text without a text and I don’t believe there is a text until one plays it. Therefore, an integral part of the study of videogames has to include the ability to play them. I have scratched the surface of representations and ideology of videogames but in media studies there are the ‘golden’ principles: Representation, 70

ThrasherDMCC07.doc Audience, Institution, Ideology, Production Language, Narrative and Genre. As one can see, I have only tickled these concepts.

For videogames to be incorporated into the media curriculum, all these aspects need to be mapped and taught. What I have proposed is a limited framework, looking at games skills only. I have also aligned myself strongly with the ideas of situated cognition, New Literacy Studies and Connectionism.

I have posited a theory that proposes that both videogame designer and player play an equal part in making meaning. I have not looked at the ways in which students could move into this more fully, through production for example. I have not even looked at the other two tenets in the original starting point of the Charter for Media Literacy, ACCESS and CREATE.

Also, in order for my arguments to make sense, one has to agree that each videogame genre is a (sub) domain of its own: not all games are equal, not all games require the same skills; Puzzle games are worlds apart from First Person Shooters which in turn are a long way from Racing Games. My argument does assume that genres are subdomains of the videogame semiotic domain.

I have relied heavily on the arguments of J P Gee. I hope I have pointed out some of the errors and shortcomings in his work and agree with a lot of what Buckingham has to say about Gee’s work in his book, ‘Beyond Technology”. He rightly points out that Gee does not place a lot of emphasis on content. However, reading Gee carefully, he states right at the beginning that his works starts from a reaction to the fetishisation of knowledge in schools. This wish to distance himself from this standpoint may have


ThrasherDMCC07.doc caused him to go little too far to the other way, however, his arguments clearly situate games, both in the world of games and within contexts; his semiotic domains and affinity groups both evidence a contextualisation. He does discuss content in Chapter 6 and in his discussions of his own game play, clearly looking at ideology and the content of the games.

Whilst I still would wish to distance myself from the sense of technological determinism he exhibits, I am happy with a lot of what he has to say, although I agree wholeheartedly with what Buckingham has to say about the reality of media education and the incursion of private enterprise into the world of education.

I hope that I have gone some way on the path of creating a kind of Framework of Skills referring to videogames, albeit one that still has very much more to be added to it. I hope this work will go someway to the creation of a new set of critical frameworks for videogames which will in turn allow for players to achieve the meta level of understanding of the domain, the state of ‘critical understanding’ proposed by the charter and, for me, defined by Gee.




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