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Computer games and literacy

April 22, 2011
Rise of Nations

I don’t know if the connection is fortuitous or cultural or what… but the main character in VM Jones’s Karazan Quartet, Adam, is a boy who struggles desperately with writing.  Literacy is a problem for him… then he turns out to be a great success in (and from) the computer-game-world of Karazan…

There is a common idea in NZ society that too much time spent on computer games will impede a child’s scholastic development – I lean towards agreement (because I believe you learn through play and that play needs to be physical not just academic), but I’m not hardline… anyway, it’s certainly a discussion that reappears periodically… so I can’t help wondering about this character and his attributes within the quartet’s setting.  Connections between video games, literacy, community, and character development???

Nope – I don’t have answers here – it’s just a thought – but here’s another thought that’s on topic:  James Paul Gee (who writes interesting stuff on literacy) has a book, What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy… which may provide interesting theory in this regard…. 

Gee describes his book in an article titled ‘What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy’ (ACM Computers in Entertainment 1(1) October 2003, pp1-4).  He writes: 

“Let me give a few examples of the good learning principles that are incorporated in good games (36 principles are discussed in my book). Good games give information ‘on demand’ and ‘just in time,’ not out of the contexts of actual use or apart from people’s purposes and goals, something that happens too often in schools. System  Shock  2, for instance, spreads, throughout the game, the sort of information typically found in a manual. As they move through the initial levels of the game, players can request just the right information (by pressing on a little green kiosk) and make use of it or see it applied soon after having read it. People are quite poor at understanding and remembering information they have received out of context or too long before they can make use of it [Barsalou 1999; Brown et al. 1989; Glenberg and Robertson 1999]. Good games never do this to players, but find ways to put information inside the worlds the players move through, and make clear the meaning of such information and how it applies to that world.

Good games operate at the outer and growing edge of a player’s competence, remaining challenging, but do-able, while schools often operate at the lowest common denominator [diSessa 2000]. Since games are often challenging, but do-able, they are often also pleasantly frustrating, which is a very motivating state for human beings. To achieve this, good games allow players to customize the game to their own levels of ability and styles of learning. For instance, Rise of Nations lets players tweak almost every element in the game, and offers skills tests as well, to ensure that nearly everyone can find the outer edge of their competence. Furthermore, players can continually adjust the game as their competence grows. 

Games allow players to be producers and not just consumers. …Too often, students in schools consume, but do not produce, knowledge, and rarely get to help design the curriculum.” (p2) 

He goes on to write that: “In computer and video games, players engage in ‘action at a distance,’ much like remotely manipulating a robot, but in a far more fine-grained fashion. Cognitive research suggests that such fine-grained action at a distance actually causes humans to feel as if their bodies and minds have stretched into a new space [Clark 2003], a highly motivating state. Books and movies, for all their virtues, cannot do this. The more a player can manipulate a game character and make decisions that impact on the character, the more the player invests in the character and the game at a deep level. This investment appears to be the deepest foundation of a player’s motivation in sticking with and eventually mastering a game.” (p3) 
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