Semiotic Domains, Virginia Woolf, and Video Games

A New York Times review of a new Batman video game

I eagerly signed up to blog for this week’s topic “Games and Writing,” in order to learn more about video games, and gaming since I am a little embarrassed to admit – I am novice. I came of age during Atari’s ascent, had friends with early Apple computers that had video games loaded into the software (primitive by today’s standards), but never caught the bug that so many of my contemporaries did. I read comic books as a kid and as a teenager, have returned to them as an adult, but somehow, I never jumped on the wave of video games, believing that they were a waste of time, as one grandfather (aghast!) makes comment in one of this week’s articles.

In my attempt to unpack why I felt they were not worth my time, I realized, I just was not that informed about them, and even a little frightened, because I did not know the lexicon necessary to enter the conversation of video games. However, I soon realized, after pushing past my initial discomfort, that if I believe that the study of images, film, television, comic books, graphic novels, and Cultural Studies, are apt canvas’s to read, and write about, so too are Video Games. Moreover, if I did not think that video games had arrived, I could not ignore that the seminal New York Times regularly reviews newly released, and popular video games, in a serious-minded fashion, as they would review a book, play, or film – providing video games weight and status.

In reading James Paul Gee’s “Semiotic Domains: Is Playing Video Games a ‘Waste ofTime’?” article and Ian Bogost’s “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” I noticed that both writer’s link and even go so far as to define learning to play video games as “learning a new literacy.” I was moderately suspicious but Bogost made an argument that resonated to me when he suggested that “playing video games is [a] kind of literacy . . . not one that helps us read but . . . that helps us make or critique the systems we live in” (136), which made sense to me after he had systematically chronicled the benefits that video games provide. I especially like how Bogost presents games that have socio-economic structures and questions that can assist with a student’s actively engaging with real world issues, that may seem more abstract when written only on the page, but more concrete and alive through the application of a video game.

James Paul Gee places an emphasis on recognizing that in the modern world, we need to acknowledge more than just print literacy to move forward. Gee’s sentiment reminded me that ever since motion pictures were developed, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writing has been altered in order to incorporate the public’s new understanding of images. The Modern writers of the 1920’s and 1930’s made strides to incorporate the visual into the word in ways never before imagined, so as to make the text more like something the reading audience could “picture” happening in film. Reading words in a visual frame much like Gee argues for learning multiple literacies.

Notably, Virginia Woolf’s makes use of modern technology in a sequence in Mrs. Dalloway, in which a plane flies overhead, providing descriptive language to incorporate the propulsive, motion that the new technology provided (airplanes and film).   Influenced by Impressionistic Art in the Fine Arts, and often making an attempt to meld different mediums, Woolf and her fellow Moderns embraced pushing the boundaries of the written word, through experimentation, stream of consciousness narration, and shifting perspectives in time and place. While I am not sure what Woolf and her colleagues would make of today’s multimodal landscape, many of their interests are extended in today’s digital mediums and literacies.

I believe this week’s readings assist in providing a solid foundation for the use of video games as a learning tool in the classroom by demonstrating active and applied effort from students as a result of playing video games.  I am still not sure on quite how, or where to begin with in my own effort to get started.  I do not want to wrangle with joy sticks or consoles, but I am interested in computer based games, or smartphone applicable ones; and therefore, I welcome suggestions from my fellow blog readers and writers.

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5 comments on “Semiotic Domains, Virginia Woolf, and Video Games

  1. Your synthesis of Woolf and other moderns with our conception of ‘new literacies’ is fascinating! Like they adjusted their writing to fit the needs of a increasingly more visual culture, I wonder how authors today are changing their writing. It makes me think of authors like Jonathan Safran Foer who utilize visual rhetoric and visual play in their novels. I’m glad you make the connection between new visual literacies and new written literacies – is that what is happening now with utilizing visual rhetoric in student papers? Which one is influencing the other? What would the influence of video games look like in a paper – choose your own adventure?

    These thoughts are a bit scattered but I really enjoyed the connection you made. I’m with you in not knowing how I would incorporate video games into the classroom. However, if we could see how it is influencing how we write and think, I think that could be an interesting way to include it into the classroom. Not sure if that makes sense!

  2. William Gibson is another we can add to the mix of authors who write with a videogame mindset and embrace new literacies. Look at the Neuromancer, winner of the sci-fi triple crown (Nebula, Philip K. Dick and Hugo Awards) for its brilliant vision of a not too distant future in which we live both in the here and now and in virtual space. Navigating the highways and byways of cyberculture, Gibson uses video game terminology to describe his protagonist’s travels in and out of the matrix. I first read this in the late 80s, about the same time I’d discovered chat-rooms and MUDs (multi-user dungeon/dimension/domain). MUDs are text based virtual worlds. MUDs challenged the concepts of literacy, identity and critical thinking. The chance to collaborate in virtual space, design my identity, then navigate a world I could only see through words was not unlike writing a never-ending novel.

  3. I love the way you brought Virginia Woolf into this conversation. It’s a really interesting connection that I probably would have never made on my own.

    As far as thinking about bringing video games into your own classroom, my first suggestion would be to start playing them yourself. If you own an iPhone, getting in on some fun games is as easy as downloading them.

  4. I really wished I had a better understanding of stream of consciousness narration. I feel like I wasn’t able to understand the paragraph referencing Woolf because I’m not familiar with that particular narrative device. But based on the brief explanation and example provided from wikipedia, it sounds terrible. The sentences sound like ramblings and I couldn’t tell what the narrator was trying to say. It reminded me of how my parents react whenever they see me playing a game on the Xbox 360. What seems perfectly obvious and tremendously interesting to me must sound like garbled nonsense to them.

  5. A room of one’s own–a pod of one’s own, headphones of one’s own…I too was inspired by your reference to Virginia Woolf. While video games are often characterized as social, the solitary, meditative and immersive quality of them popped into my mind with the mention of Woolf. Anyone who has ever played a video game and wondered where the hours went knows the immersive aspects very well. There is something about isolating yourself in regards to games, which reminds me of Woolf’s proposition long ago, that with private space, some basic resources and time what women writers were capable of imagining was unlimited. Is it possible that the immersive quality of games has the possibility to unleash imagination in all of us the same way?

    I battle inside myself with these ideas. I protest but whose imagination are you immersed in? Is there benefits to being so immersed in a game? I think the power of the games needs to be bridled to be effective and beneficial.

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