Henry Jenkins on “Reducing the World’s Suck”

Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture, has some relevant (for us) things to say in an interview posted on Boing Boing. His take on the connection between literacy and play seems especially connected to conversations we’ve been having about games:

Reading, writing, and understanding words on a page won’t cut it anymore. In a digitized world, Henry says young people need new skills that go way beyond basic composition and comprehension. Skills like play (“the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving”), collective intelligence (“the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal”), and transmedia navigation (“the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities”).

What’s the deal with “suck”? Would it surprise any of us that he’s talking about school? “[S]uck consists in imposing your tastes on someone else by cutting them off from participating in meaningful activities. Right now, our schools do that all the time,” according to Jenkins. This critique is, in some respects, very similar to the ones made about school in the chapters from Gee we read last week, in that school seems not to encourage “active and critical learning” in the context of some “semiotic domain.” Of course, school is itself a “semiotic domain,” so one could argue that what school is fairly good at is teaching kids how to be in school. The question, I think, is whether that alone is worth spending 12-16 years of one’s life on. The answer, I think, is no.

Finally, when asked about the issue of “videogame addiction,” Jenkins says “I would be asking as much about what [the kids were] escaping from as I was concerned about what [they were] escaping into.” That is, perhaps we could spend less energy worrying about questionable aspects of videogames themselves, and a bit more of it trying to figure out why youth might prefer to spend so much time in them. This seems to me a more ecological approach to the issue, since it asks us to situate gaming in the broader context of a player’s “lifeworld,” to use Gee’s phrase. We assume that videogames exert force on peoples’ lives — such as making them more violent or prone to other questionable behaviors — but it’s just as true that peoples’ lives exert force on their participation in videogames. In other words, we need to stop thinking of videogames as something foreign, as attacking us from the outside. They are, instead, embedded in our lives, for good or ill.

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2 comments on “Henry Jenkins on “Reducing the World’s Suck”

  1. I would agree about school as a semiotic domain “teaching kids how to be in school” as not worth the 12-16 years we spend time in. But why is this the case? I think obviously because of various interference from capitalism and institutionalisation–which Jenkins alludes to in quoting Twain about schooling vs education. What are the alternatives? Home-schooling? That, too, would constrain little people in a specific semiotic domain.

    So that makes me think of his own Huck, whose running away at first seems to render him a free “semiotic orphan.” The problem is that, at every point he begins to slow down/settle into a community (i.e. semiotic domain), that’s when new signifiers and signifieds start to plague his life (once more). So, really, the only way to escape the clutches of a sign system is by becoming transient. Is this perhaps why many of the people society considers “successful” are well-“travelled”–be it physically or mentally/disciplinarily? All this time, we’ve been championing the experiencing of new cultures and things when perhaps the greater force at work is the recoil from being mired in a system…

    …which I guess is just a roundabout academese way of saying: Don’t do anything the same way.

  2. It seems to me that school could be better in at least two ways: 1) give students experience in semiotic domains other than school. So, instead of rendering, say, biology into an antiseptic laundry list of facts to be memorized and regurgitated, give students some experience of what it’s like to be a biologist. And cutting open the occasional frog won’t be enough. 2) Help students understand what Gee calls the “design” of semiotic domains. That is, school should be about teaching students how to learn.

    I see these two things as connected. As students move through each semiotic domain in school, they should engage in a fundamental problem-solving challenge: what is this new domain? How does it work? How do I need to participate in it? The more domains a students moves through, and the more reflective teachers can help them be about them, the better they will be at figuring out the next semiotic domain.

    Isn’t this essential what Huck does?

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