Why do games work? How do games attract and encourage players? What is unique to the roleplaying worlds of Arcanum and World of Warcraft that causes them to create massive communities of people invested in teaching and spreading information about these games? For one, these games offer their players complexity (characters, plots, narratives, histories) and culture (message boards, websites, backstory, official and unofficial events). In-game rewards for incremental quests that build on the success of the last action taken offer gamers a sense of accomplishment, and gratify through increasingly levels of mastery. These games then create offshoot webpages, communities, list-servs, comics, and tools to help use the original game to a higher degree of precision. These “interconnected people, tools, technologies and companies” are called affinity groups. The idea behind these affinity groups is that they act a sponsors of literacy, encouraging the spread of knowledge about the game (Gee 188). Video game websites, chat rooms, and community sites sponsor of literacy of new gamers to facilitate the acquisition and promotion of meta-knowledge about particular games and many times, gamer culture in general. Gee postulates that affinity groups are models of learning that school should, but do not, represent. Both Gee and Squire note that this total engagement of gamers mastering their environment and creating “good online learning communities” is a facet of gaming that school literacy should be desperate to emulate. The problem is not found only in physical classrooms. Participants often find e-learning classrooms “dull and ineffective,” whereas game worlds have developed into immersive environments that create their own systems of knowledge dedicated towards teaching them (Squire 1).
If games like Arcanum and World of Warcraft are so successful at creating affinity groups, why can’t we bring those games into the classroom? Aside from the difficulty surrounding using games where you must pay monthly for a unique game identity, the popularity of RPG games is actually much smaller than publicity would have us imagine. When we pay attention to the types of games played by gamers, the EAS shows us that the majority of game players enjoy action (22.3%) and strategy (33.9%) as the two most-purchased console and computer game genres respectively. The computer game market is diminishingly small next to the much more widely-disseminated and purchased console games. Immersive strategy, adventure, and shooter games like Deus Ex, Arcanum, Lara Croft, and Return to Castle Wolfenstein have tiny audiences—next to the 47% of gamers that play non-immersive online puzzle / board / trivia games that are less likely to create and sustain large affinity groups.
For games such as Civilization III in Squire’s case study, affinity groups exist in large number—Squire cites one of the most comprehensive and well-known, the Civilopedia, that at least one student (Marvin) reports using to help him understand game concepts. However, the “difficulty and complexity” of Civilization III did not automatically lead to students engaging in the affinity group sponsorship. Motivation to seek out such resources varied between players based on the “student’s goals, life histories, and game’s affordances” for using such material fruitfully. The “learned helplessness” caused by “contemporary pedagogical practices” of breaking problems into “easy-to-learn pieces” caused students to find a holistic environment of Civilization III exceedingly difficult. These learners may, based on their past learning habits, choose not to seek out affinity groups that are geared towards and organized by individuals who enjoy or have mastery of the game (Squire 3).
My experience with affinity groups has been extensive over the past twelve years. I’ve played MUDs, MMORPGs, and MMOs. Most recently, the masssive multiplayer online game World of Warcraft took up a my gaming bandwidth. World of Warcraft is unique in that it has the largest online gaming community with thousands of sites devoted to every aspect of gameplay, from beginning level customization to advanced game play in end-game raid dungeons. There are entry-level sites such as Wowwiki that exist to define terminology in their most basic units. Even at this basic level of the affinity group, I found myself having to explain to friends who hadn’t played old school games that a “mob” did not mean “an unfriendly group of people.” A mob is “a single creature that you can interact with or attack.” The term is a throwback to text-based MUD days when it stood for Mobile Object. This admittedly minor example is illustrative of the difference in language (or primary discourse to borrow another term from Gee) embedded in the gaming community that is taken for granted even at the base-level of gaming affinity groups.
The amount of material condensed in these literacy sponsoring sites such as Wowhead or Elitist Jerks ultimately requires a level of familiarity with World of Warcraft that keeps out all but the most dedicated players. If affinity groups are meant to sponsor new players, they do so at a high cost. A player must have invested (or be willing to invest) the time into learning the mechanics to understand the material presented. Just like in any professionalized group, the jargon necessary to understand Hunter Shot rotation discussions, or gemming requirements for meta gem boosting requires a significant knowledge of the game that is not necessarily apparent to, nor necessarily supported by, all players. In discussions about the most competitive aspect of the game–raid dungeons that are played by groups of high level players–you will encounter Guilds who refuse to divulge their gaming strategies in order to maintain a potential edge over other raiding Guilds. Game literacy is transformed into a “resource” which is not only traded and exploited for value, but also “rationed” for competitive benefit in an economic model that emphasizes difference, exchange, and unequal distribution (Brandt 5).
Yet Gee does not attempt to differentiate the genres of games (RPGs and shooters) that are traditionally more likely to spawn literacy-sponsoring communities from game genres that people more casually engage with that may not reach the level of complexity or devotion amongst its fanbase to engender affinity groups. We must recognize that “managing this complexity” of the game environment and its sponsoring affinity groups will be a challenging task for educators. Learners in a school environment cannot be expected to engage in sometimes highly-demanding affinity groups if they are built to exclude players who have not spent the requisite time immersing themselves in the environment. The idea that the existence of affinity groups automatically supports players (and are an integral part of gaming) forgets for a moment that affinity groups work as self-sponsors only when the motivation to find and use them exists outside of compulsion (Squire 3-4). To assume that affinity groups are idealized spaces that promote free and easy transfers of knowledge to all individuals is a problematic notion at best. What usually allows players to overcome gaps in understanding is a desire to engage in these communities. The idea at the core of introducing video games into the classroom is that these affinity groups will encourage and promote learning amongst students in a far more powerful (and individual) way than the classroom experience will allow. Built into this idea is an assumption that video games are equally compelling experiences to all students–a topic I will tackle in the next section.
One of the concepts that is absolutely central to advocacy of games in learning environments is the strongly-held notion that games are “fun, engaging, and immersive” to players (Squire 1). James Gee is concerned with explicating how video games, as fun and immersive spaces, are designed to allow their users to engage in “active learning” and “critical learning” depending on how the user learns to view of domain of their game (Gee 31-2). If video games do have the ability to instill critical learning, Gee’s argument ultimately begs the question: are all game environments equally engaging to all people? Will video games within the classroom be as engaging to learners who are required to play them as they are to a self-selected audience?
Gee marginally notes that “girls and women…are quickly catching up with the boys and men, though they sometimes prefer different games.” He does not acknowledge that there might be a gender gap between men and women gaming. When he bolsters his personal ethnographic experience with games by using examples of other gamers, Gee present no interviews with female gamers. When literacy researchers cite data on gaming to support their contention about the importance of video game literacy—such as a 2003 Gallup poll where between 69% of teenage boys consume video games and a 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation study 85% of teenage boys play them—the focus is always gendered male (Harushimana 2008). Squire unfortunately falls into the same practice as Gee on this point; he does not distinguish results by gender. The single interview excerpted in Squire’s study as an exemplar of a learner engaged with video game literacy that has acquired new historical concepts is Marvin, a middle-school aged boy.
However, when we pay attention to the actual composition of game players, a very real gender gap emerges amongst self-selected gamers. Entertainment Software Association (2008) reports that 60% of gamers are male, 40% of gamers are women. The ESA also reports that of individuals who play games, 13 years is the average number of years adult gamers have played; for the most frequent gamers, males average 15 years and females average 12 years. The nearly 20% disparity between self-selected male and female gamers, and the 3 years of average difference in experience playing games—while undoubtedly smaller than in past decades—could potentially cause gender-based outcomes in video game literacy classroom practices if the male population is much more likely to have engaged with games, and for longer, than their female counterparts. Gee speculates that, based on a growing corpus of research, that girls may tend to give up video games as “unfeminine” for the same reason they give up math and science in middle school (Gee 13). As a female gamer who began playing games in her early childhood, I personally beat the stats with 20 years experience.
Likewise, Gee does not see race or class as a potentially problematic topic when talking about video games. Gee argues that African-American students “resist learning literacy” because they do not “envisage themselves in [a] new identity that success in school requires” due to a prevailing belief that school will not be a route for them to gain a good job, status or power in a society that still exhibits a large racial gap in higher-level employment. These types of learners are “damaged” by officially-sanctioned literacy. The idea of “damaged learners” is a powerful concept in literacy studies, although it doesn’t always go by the same name. Various theorists claim that the reading, writing, and thinking required in schools is built on, and privileged by, middle class values that teach and transmit these ways of thinking, talking and story-telling to their children. Individuals who come out of traditions who don’t subscribe to these same values (rural, working class, or poor urban communities) come to school with their types of knowledge, and ways of being and acting, only to be repeatedly silenced, devalued, and told that their knowledge isn’t valuable. 5 Nearly thirty years of literacy research in communities of middle-class and working-class families, touched off by Heath’s groundbreaking “Ways With Words” (1983) bears this observation out. Gee argues from his experience as a “damaged” learner (of the video game variety) that video game literacy could enable new identities in video game environments to help “repair” these “damaged” learners by offering new possibilities outside of the traditional classroom (Gee 55-57). However, Gee fails to acknowledge that video game literacy may potentially be resisted by “damaged” learners if it were officially sanctioned by the school. He also fails to account for the historical reality that computers (and games) have been owned by a much lower percentage of black families through the 90s, and have penetrated urban and poor areas at a much slower rate than wealthy / suburban areas (Selfe 1999). While a full eleven years after Cynthia Selfe’s study will no doubt show a greater trend of black families owning gaming systems and gaming consoles, unfamiliarity with games still persists along class lines. Squire’s results from the “urban” school setting found that 25% of students, especially academic underachievers, thought Civilization III was the “perfect way to learn history.” But he found than an equal 25% of students complained that the game was “too hard … and uninteresting,” failed to reinforce their academic knowledge, and elected to “withdraw from the gaming unit” to participate in traditional reading groups (Squire 2). Although neither researcher are particularly concerned with differing results by race, Squire identifies problematic categories of learners within the social environment of the school for video game literacy.
Squire’s study rather forwardly engages with the idea that student identity could cause problems for adopting game literacy in the classroom. One the more persuasive arguments about video game literacy is that while players engage in problem solving, a learner can fail but still “have fun, enjoy themselves” and not become frustrated like school learners do when they struggle with hard problems (Gee 175-6). Yet Squire’s observances do not bear that view of enjoying failure out. For one group of learners, some “failure was…a precondition for learning” as situations were repeated and called for increasingly complex responses. For others, “failure affronted those students who self-identified as gamers.” Failure for any students after 25 hours of time commitment could be as de-motivating as other types of bad habits in educational systems (Squire 4). Assuming that differently-identified groups, such as non-gamers, casual players or gamers, will react similarly and positively to gaming environments is problematic. Squire’s work shows that failing to account for student resistance will ultimately still cause failure and frustration in the classroom.
I can detect an underlying anxiety in Gee and Squire’s work vis-à-vis video game literacy that permeates the general academic culture. Most of these researchers come from a print culture. The reliance on non-print environments for learning causes a not-insignificant amount of squick in game researchers—yet this anxiety has not led to a critical awareness about video game studies as a whole. Both Squire and Gee fail to take into account gender, race, or class differences that might be symptomatic of a digital divide. Blindness to these categories is problematic; Cynthia Selfe’s work on digital literacy notes an unequal distribution of computing equipment among high and low-income school systems affects the ability to integrate technology into pedagogy. Gee postulates through his own experience with the individual gaming communities the existence of affinity groups as part of the identity kit available to individuals who engage with video games. Yet he did not attempt to probe the phenomemon of the gamer in any critical or extended way. While awareness of student identities that may conflict with video game literacy does not come into play in Gee, Squire does begin to emphasize other vectors, such as student identification within school literacy as a high/low achiever or gamer identity that informs student reaction to video games. We must continue pay attention to how video games and learners’ responses to them change based on situational and contextual usage of games in the classroom. Without data that directly engages with a range of learners, genres, and motivational goals, we cannot generalize about the benefits of games from a self-selected group of gamers to a wider group who may resist or fail to engage with video games as matter of preference and individual learning styles.
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