Video Games, Authority, and Problem-based Thinking

Gta[UPDATE: Raph Koster has replied to this post over at his blog, and Gus offers some interesting thoughts as well.]

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

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  1. Weekly Roundup (20 August 2006)

    Well Im back from my holidays in both Scotland and Dublin. The latter wasnt as good second time around, although on the positive side its not a myth that the Guinness tastes better there. That made up for being searched at the airp…

  2. Dammit, I guess it’s time for me to read this… I hate being behind the curve. Everyone from my best friend to my mom has given me the heads-up on this one, and it sounds to me like it’s Harper’s annual crotchety-but-well-meaning back-to-school piece — one of the few times of year when I’m guaranteed to disagree with Harper’s. you have to love it for being perverse enough to revert to canonism once a year while being on the cutting edge of everything else the rest of the time.

    Just a few comments to start with:

    They did a roundtable on games and literacy and didn’t invite Jim Gee? Wow.

    There is a game where you type words to off zombies, in case they didn’t bring it up — it’s called Typing of the Dead. It’s the best thing to ever happen to typing tutors, worst thing to ever happen to first-person shooters.

    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).

    I think this is far too simplistic. Appropriation and annotation have been the natural forms of literacy since time immemorial; it’s why the Bible is shaped the way it is. And what’s wrong with appropriation and annotation, anyway? Do we need rigid, uniform canonical texts produced by single authors to preserve human achievement?

    The shape of mass literacy is one-to-many: mass-market paperbacks, mass-audience magazines, international newspapers. Do I understand correctly that you think the technology really does enable new creation and new forms of original creation, but people are so accustomed to the mass-market media they grew up with that they don’t take advantages of the new technology’s affordances for original creation? That does make sense to me; attributing a mass mindset to blogging technology’s own affordances does not. That kind of claim is one of the sort which drive me up a wall, and I do think it was implicit in what Koster was saying, at least. He’s confusing the technological affordances of blogs — which are pretty broad — with the emergent literary genre of blogs. Nothing about blogs says you HAVE to have only one author, or link to or comment on anything. I, in fact, usually don’t link; but if I do, how different is it from the review of Ian Bogost’s book Unit Operations which I am now writing for the Teachers College Record? (I highly suggest everyone read that one, by the way… and based on Ian’s approach in that book I think it would be especially easy to break down the idea that blogging inherently encourages either of the authorial forms discussed here.

    And I own a Gameboy too; two of them, actually… is that supposed to make us biased? Neil Postman must have owned a radio and gone to see movies every once in a while; did that make his writing about mass media biased? C’mon, now. No more video game exceptionalism!

  3. Thanks for your comment, Gus. There’s another subject in which Harper’s is predictably myopic, and that’s religion, but let’s not get into that…

    As I said over at Koster’s blog, I agree that appropriation and annotation are essential to any creative endeavor, so I am not arguing for some canonical form of blogging that demands pure originality. Besides, I believe that good writing (and good art, and good science) can create something genuinely original out of appropriation and annotation.

    I am more interested in what happens when a technology’s affordances fetishize appropriation and annotation to the point that they become a more desirable end than originality, to the point —as Rivers would say— when we no longer believe we have to be authentic in order to act authentically. You are right: we should not end up “confusing the technological affordances of blogs — which are pretty broad — with the emergent literary genre of blogs.” But I’d argue that a particular way of using blogs is becoming more common because only a particular set of affordances is being privileged: the use of appropriation and annotation not as a source of originality, but as a way to increase output in an environment where higher volume of posts = more attention = higher ranking.

    And yes, I see a certain “new” mass mindset at work here (different from the old one-to-many mindset). Why aren’t people taking advantage of the new technology’s affordances for original creation? Hmmm. Could it be because the genre is spreading through them like they were… a mass? As you point out, nothing says you have to use blogs in a particular way. So why indeed are they being used mostly in one particular way (the usual exceptions asides, yada yada)? If it looks like a mass and it smells like a mass…

    Now, I am as much for discussing affordances as the next guy, but I am also against the simplistic belief that because affordances exist as potentials, the invisible hand of technological progress will guarantee that they will be fulfilled. And that’s what made me nervous when I heard Koster refer to the blog genre as democratized literacy, as if there was something inherent about blog-style appropriation and annotation that promotes democracy. If there is, what kind of democracy are we talking about? Maybe his comment was out of context, but I heard in his remark a sentiment commonly expressed by us technophiles that makes me worry more about the future of democracy than about the future of literacy.

  4. As I ended up saying in the comments thread on this topic over at my blog, I was not using “democracy” in the political sense, but in the populist sense; put simply, appropriation and annotation are an easier form of literacy in many ways. This very blog post has a very high level of education required to understand it; that’s atypical of blogs in general, and of literacy in general (remember, the target is 7th grade readers…).

    The hope, on my part, is that tools that permit this easy entry via appropriation and annotation, and with a huge and diverse pool of sources, may permit more people to climb the ladder towards writing something like this post.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Raph. I understand you were not thinking about democracy in the political sense —but in my opinion everything has political implications! Your comment in Harper’s helped me realize that we need to think more, not less, about the political aspect of the kind of literacy blogs afford. As someone in the field of education, I am of course interested in means that will increase literacy and critical thinking, and I recognize that blogs can be used in such a way (if they are purposefully designed into the curriculum, not just thrown in there). Heck, I myself have used blogs for teaching!

    But what worries me about an apolitical prescription of blogs as learning tools is something like the Harry Potter phenomenon. Regardless of its literary merits (I’d much rather have youngsters read the His Dark Materials trilogy), students, teachers and parents agree that the HP books have helped motivate a young generation to read. Fantastic, I say. But should we suspend all analysis because of this outcome? Shouldn’t we look at the marketing process that has made HP so popular in a critical light, at how it contributes to certain patterns of consumption? Shouldn’t we look at the system of norms and behaviors that HP inculcates? Can’t we examine in terms of social classes who really benefits from this ‘literacy campaign’?

    Similarly, I agree that blogs can be powerful tools for teaching better writing, but I want to make sure we understand at what cost. A technology’s affordances, while facilitating or making some things possible, also make others impossible. All I’m saying is that we should be on the lookout for that too.

  6. Grand Theft Moral Purpose: Fear and Lovey-Googly-Eyes in Harper’s

    The Harper’s Magazine back-to-schoolmarmishness issue this year consists of a panel discussion on video games, literacy, and education… and guess who doesn’t appear in the discussion at all. Despite this oversight, the article has sparked some very l…

  7. Why aren’t people taking advantage of the new technology’s affordances for original creation? Hmmm. Could it be because the genre is spreading through them like they were… a mass?

    Ulises, would you really argue that the only way cultural ideas spread is through massification? Are we going back to those classical Greek arguments about written language which Frank had us pound through, and agreeing that point in history is where massification began? Because otherwise, it appears there are other possible reasons for cultural ideas to spread. Could it be because human beings are SOCIAL, and interpersonal communication requires some measure of standardization — even if it arises organically — to function?

    I’ve finally read the article, and my response is up on my own blog (it was too long for a comment 🙂 )

  8. I hope my argument is a bit more nuanced than claiming that the only way for ideas to spread is through massification 😉 My own work is about alternatives to massification: how technological affordances can be socially constructed and distributed. But I feel we need to make a distinction between those cases where affordances are socially constructed vs. those cases where affordances are imposed from the top (marketed, so to speak). In the former cases, social groups take ownership and control of the affordance-defining process through collaboration. In the latter, models, genres or ‘instructions’ for how to use the technology are presented as hermeneutically-closed, and individuals are prevented from collaboratively tinkering with and transforming the technology. This can only happen because they are configured as a mass. Of course, there are plenty of examples out there of people using blogs, etc. in creative, ‘non-massified’ ways, but I am interested in the bulk of the population, and in the social trends of alienation that have accompanied modern ICTs.

  9. Thanks for the link, Ulises!

    Hey, I attack with preposterously hyperbolic accusations because I love 😉 I really do hope you can clarify what you mean by massification better for me, as I myself still have not come to any kind of equilibrium with the concept and would like to as I proceed in my work. So: In what ways has the “marketing” of blogs been “presented as hermeneutically closed,” and in what ways have individuals been “prevented from tinkering with and transforming the technology”? I can see how blogs have been presented that way by the mainstream media — and note again this begins to muddy the argument, because that’s the influence of an old mass technology on a new technology, so it’s hard to argue that the affordances of blogging software cause a mass mindset — and I can see that Blogger, Movabletype, Livejournal and other large-scale blogging solutions which are not open-source prevent users from tinkering. However, this doesn’t mean that blogs in general are not open to tinkering. People are still free to use free software or develop new software, whereas they would not be free to start up a new radio station due to federal regulation of the airwaves, or put their own program on MTV without its permission. If you’re talking about the literary genre it’s even harder to prove that tinkering is being prevented.

    And “prevented” by whom? You imply that “models, genres or ‘instructions’ for how to use the technology are presented as hermeneutically closed” by “the top,” if I get your sentence structure right. But who is this top? I have no doubt that de facto, the people developing blogging software are highly educated elites; a number of my programmer friends have homebrewed their own blogging software. But little in the way of formal barriers are stopping just about anyone from doing the same. Sure, you have to pay for server space and learn to code, but the price of entry is still not as exorbitant as getting a broadcast license and running a television station.

    I continue to maintain that this “massification” you object to comes from attitudes toward communicative technologies which were developed in the era of television (I won’t even say “and radio,” because HAM radio culture has a do-it-yourself ethic) and is being carried over into blogging, rather than the blogging technology somehow inherently carrying the seeds of this mindset at the behest of its corporate masters (who, after all, still don’t have as much money as Rupert Murdoch. Speaking of which, did anyone else notice how pathetic The Nation’s coverage of technology ownership was in its annual media ownership spread this year? They were talking about Disney’s web portals instead of Google and Microsoft, which didn’t even appear on their chart.)

    My background may be missing some key texts on “massification” — among other things I have not read much of Capital — and if there are texts you’d recommend to help me fill these gaps, I appreciate it. But I have to say, the more I think about “mass mindsets” the less comfortable I feel with the term. Doesn’t the identification of a “mass” imply that the viewer is outside, and probably superior to, that mass?

  10. I very much appreciate the “accusations,” Gus, because they force me to clarify my own thoughts. However, it will take me some time to address your questions… perhaps even a separate post. I’ve been struggling with these issues recently (have you seen this and this?), and I thank you for demanding clarification.

  11. Some actual analysis of the Harper’s forum on educational gaming

    Only have a few moments, but I wanted to link to Ulises’s characteristically thoughtful post concerning the Harper’s discussion I pointed to yesterday, one which prompts a response from one of the principals (I was meaning to see if Koster had a blog)…

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