Gaming as a Literacy

“When people learn to play video games,
they are learning a new literacy.”

 James Paul Gee. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, 2003.

Gee makes a strong and articulate case for games (video and computer games) as a “semiotic domain”: a system of symbols or representations that create and communicate meaning. Print literacy is a semiotic domain.

Like many of the other adjacent or overlapping literacies, gaming is different but it is still embedded in the construct of alphabet or notational literacy. However, looking at games as a semiotic domain is very helpful in teasing out what a post-literate context might be like:

“If we think first in terms of semiotic domains and not in terms of reading and writing as traditionally conceived, we can say that people are (or are not) literate (partially or fully) in a domain if they can recognize (the equivalent of ‘reading’) and/or produce (the equivalent of ‘writing’) meanings in the domain.”

Video games,

“situate meaning in a multimodal space through embodied experiences to solve problems and reflect on the intricacies of the design of imagined worlds and the design of both real and imagined social relationships and identities in the modern world.”

Perhaps most important here is the idea of “embodied experience.” The immersive nature of digital games (think of virtual reality generally or something like Xbox 360 Kinect in particular) occurs the body and the mind are fully engaged in making meaning both by “reading” the game and creating components or actions (“writing”). Digital games become a platform (an alphabet) to engage in meaningful communications and to develop and exchange ideas. Gee thinks this has changed how we learn:

Gee’s “situated and embodied learning” is reminiscent of Chorost’s concept of dance as an analog of a post-literate experience.

While Gee has established digital games as a new literacy, Jane McGonigal has taken that idea and begun to develop the canon, the literature, of this new literacy. In Reality is Broken (2011) she documents her vision of games as a tool to solve substantial problems and effect profound change. Like Gee, McGonigal thinks of games as a tool and a grammar to articulate ideas and to generate and communicate new ideas. Her games, like Evoke or World Without Oil, are alternate reality games designed to engage diverse and distributed players in gaming modalities to explore difficult problems and propose (and model i.e. play out) potential solutions. McGonigal’s TED talk is a classic.

These are games, not merely as entertainment, but as a toolset (an alphabet) to create meaning. Perhaps the most intriguing of these is Foldit; a game created at the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington about protein folding, a highly complex problem.

Playing the game creates new solutions. Playing the game repeatedly refines those solutions, assists others, and furthers the research group’s knowledge and the number of useful outcomes. Rather than host a conference or set up a lab or publish a series of papers, these researchers initiated a globally accessible game and then simply watched what the participants came up with.

See the introduction to “competitive” protein folding;

While the gaming experience is powerful and the effectiveness of games as a means to understand and be understood is undeniable, it is not sufficiently separate from its foundation in alphabetic literacy to qualify as a post-literate or emerging post-literate modality. However, the immersive and hypnotic nature of games suggests the kind of experience that might be a feature of post-literacy.

A Comment from Peter Cowan:
Are Video Games Making the Post-Literate Future?


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