The September 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine (contents not online, unfortunately) has a piece titled Grand Theft Education: Literacy in the Age of Video Games. It is a conversation between Jane Avrich (author and English teacher), Steven Johnson (author of Everything Bad is Good for You), Raph Koster (video-game designer, including Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies), Thomas De Zengotlta (author, teacher) and moderator Bill Wasik (senior editor of Harper’s).
The participants were asked to discuss how video games could be used to teach literacy. The guys (Jane is allowed to interject here and there) immediately get to the task, envisioning various kinds of possible games for this purpose, including a zombie game where you have to type a word correctly in order to off a Z. But the conversation does include more interesting nuggets. For instance, the group wonders about the changing definition of literacy, and what current technologies are doing to our literacy practices:
KOSTER: …To me, there’s a question hanging over our conversation, which is: What kind of writing do we hope to teach? We might like to teach kids to write like Proust, but no one writes like Proust anymore. Appropriation and annotation are becoming our new forms of literacy. Think of blogs, for example: most blog posts are reblogs, they’re parasitic on things other people have written. It’s a democratized writing, a democratized literacy. (p.39)
Not sure I see the connection between democracy and literacy as appropriation. If anything, it reminds me of certain critiques of technology (such as Rivers’) which argue that our current technosocial systems stamp out individuality and are responsible for the erasure of the individual by the mass. One could argue that appropriation and annotation are the natural forms of a mass literacy, operationalized through the extreme individualism of the blogosphere (masses are not collectives as much as they are homogenous collections of isolated individuals). That resulting kind of democracy, therefore, is one which blocks authentic difference and makes the masses more susceptible to control. And speaking of control, the Harper’s group briefly touches upon the issue of authority:
WASIK: But you’re suggesting that increasingly it’s the social network itself, through reputation systems or what have you, that is acting as the authority?
JOHNSON: This is especially true in the online network games, too, which are really the most influential games in the world right now. Raph, actually, helped to create some of the biggest ones. With Ultima Online and other online games, we’ve had the rise of guild structures, these distributed systems for collaborating. A player who wants to slay a particular dragon will need to get twelve people together, and put one in charge of this, another in charge of at. (p. 37)
The kind of authority described here, however, is very simplistic. It is more interesting to explore the question of how in social media (and networked games) the masses are not susceptible to a central form of authority, but to a distributed form of control emanating from the mass itself, from what are considered to be ‘objective’ rules and values. It’s rationalism all over again, with logical thinking as the only valid method for interpreting the world. At one point, the Harper’s group confronts this problem:
ZENGOTITA: … But when the players go out into the real world, I think there’s a real danger—and I see signs of this in my students, and young people in general—of failing to understand not just the complexity of the real world but also its mystery. I’m using “mystery” as opposed to “problem” on purpose: problems have solutions, mysteries don’t. People are profoundly mysterious entities, I think, and understanding them in the real world involves understanding that you’re never going to entirely understand them.
KOSTER: To bring solely a gamist perspective to the world is a really big mistake. But of course this perspective predates video games. It harkens back to behaviorist psychology, and a variety of unsavory political movements as well.
ZENGOTITA: It’s systems-based thinking, model-based thinking. I can’t claim that Donald Rumsfeld or Robert McNamara were products of video-game education. But they show all the symptoms of it. (p. 35)
Zengotita sets up a dichotomy between problems that have solutions and mysteries that don’t, and points out how the gamist perspective inculcates problem-solving skills but not the skills required to live with the ambiguity of complex ‘mysteries.’ The thing with rationalism is that it inverts the problem-solution relation in such a way that only problems that have solutions it can handle are made relevant. Problems, in other words, are subordinated to solutions. This makes, ultimately, for a very impoverished relationship with reality. As DeLanda (2004) warns: “The crucial task is to avoid the subordination of problems to solutions brought about by the search for simple linear behaviour” (2004, p. 171).
Interestingly, while this threat was identified early in the Harper’s piece, the participants quickly move on to describe more ways in which games can teach literacy. It is as if we are required to surrender our agency in a technocracy, and while we can make observations, we are beyond questioning the progress of technology. So what if video-games produce more Rummi’s?
(Disclaimer: I own a Gameboy)
I’d love to hear from the literacy and gaming people what they think about the Harper’s piece or my reading of it.
De Landa, M. (2002). Intensive science and virtual philosophy. London; New York: Continuum.
Creative Commons photo credit: gregoryperez