Just Mediation: Videogames, Reading and Learning

By and | 1 August 2021

Troubling games

Building on the findings of this exploratory study, we next worked with male teenage gamers, in the same age group and educational context as above, this time playing Grand Theft Auto (Kendall and McDougall 2009). This time, the game was not their object of in college, but our participants were all students on English, film or media course. Our line of enquiry was related to the moral panic over this game and, in particular, its retrogressive gender representations. As our male gamers were highly proficient in textual analysis analyzing and assessing gender representation in literature, film and television, we wanted to find out if they would subsequently present higher levels of reflexive literacy, around the gendered figured world in play in Grand Theft Auto. We found four literacy practices at work in our participants’ reflections on their gameplay. They demonstrated a tendency for switching and splicing, with the game, against or alongside the game. They adopted multiple positions both in their approaches to play and in their recounting of their play. We observed the centrality of performance in gameplay practices –participants took pleasure in taking centre stage in these baroque performances and enjoyed the opportunity to re-tell their stories to us. In so doing, we captured them sorting, selecting, editing and glossing their experiences for maximum impact. For these participants, it seemed that gaming offered an opportunity for overt performance and in-game achievement, important in peer relations, but at the same time some reflection, with knowingness emerging as equally important to the performance as the events in the game. It became apparent that a highly frivolous ‘male showing’ was at work – a form of ‘gender trouble’ (Butler, 1990).

In terms of what we could generalise, these studies seemed to indicate that the degrees of cultural capital required to self-present and to theorise on this practice were largely in keeping with those required for more traditional forms of academic learning. The situation was less clear for non-traditional but game literate students.

Really doing text with games

For our next project (Berger and McDougall, 2013), we worked with L.A. Noire and went further by asking groups of English Literature teachers and students to teach and study the game as literature.

From this mixed methods research, we found a plethora of examples of the partial reframing of expert literacy. The teachers offered no resistance to the hypothesis – that L.A. Noire could serve as a literary text for study, but they would often recourse to ideas about ‘mastery’ of the text as a pre-requisite for teaching, despite having worked together with students as co-creators of learning materials for the project. A key finding was that teachers’ confidence with the integrating of kinds of reading practices was different to students. Student responses to questions about the status of L.A. Noire as a novel were more consensual than their teachers – moving beyond assessment of whether or not the game was ‘like literature’ towards dispensing with the question altogether. Games were ‘not quite literature’ for the teachers, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the choice made to teach or study literature, all of our participants that a game cannot be taught without being read, in the traditional sense, completely, so it can be known, understood at a higher level, or mastered. So cultural value became less of a marker here than pedagogic logistics, reproducing the insulation between reading in class and playing at home. Games can be read as literature, it seems, but it’s difficult for them to be taught as such.

We returned to these concerns in the last year, shifting our focus from how a player reads and interacts with the game to how the game interacts with and influences the reader / player and the story itself. With the contribution of artificial intelligence, the potential pedagogical efficacy of stories that are actively mediated by games, is further complicated and the aforementioned logistical tensions are extenuated. As hitherto, our findings suggest that the game mediated story presents clear and present educational benefits and pedagogical value, but the current, more static model of English Literature education – remains incompatible with the dynamic literacy experiences (Potter and McDougall, 2016) which game mediated stories offer.

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