Video Games, Affiliations, and Critical Optimism

This is the screen-worshiping zombie mothers across America are seeing in their children, young adults and fully grown children. This is the social stigma James Paul Gee is up against in his attempt to debunk the idea that video games are a waste of time.  In What Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Gee cites three things involved in active learning: “experiencing the world in new ways, forming new affiliations, and preparation for future learning (24),” and adds that a meta awareness of the particular domain brings “active learning” a step further into “critical learning.”  I would like to discuss here the aspect of new affiliations in gaming.  “Since semiotic domains usually are shared by group of people who carry them on as distinctive social practices, we gain the potential to join this social group, to become affiliated with such kinds of people (even though we may never see all of them, or any of them, face to face(24).)”  Though from our perspective, the child in the illustration above seems to be zoned out to technicolor nonsense on the screen in front of him, he could easily be communicating with others across the world having the same gaming experience.  From our position as outsiders looking in on a semiotic domain of which we are not a part, we have little way of knowing with who or what the boy may be interacting.

While some parents may be concerned about the amount of time their children spend locked up in their rooms with their video games away from society, research in numerous fields has caught on to the community aspect of the gaming world.  Gee states: “Reading and writing in any domain, whether it is law, rap songs, academic essays, superhero comics, or whatever, are not just ways of decoding print, they are also caught up with ways of doing things, thinking about things, valuing things and interacting with other people—that is, they are caught up with different sorts of social practices (Gee 18).”  Similarly, in “The Rhetoric of Video Games” Ian Bogost presents the social world of gamers as a community of practice:

“We often think that video games have a unique ethos. Video game players have their own culture and values. Video game players often self-identify as “gamers” and devote a major part of their leisure time to video games. They discuss games online, follow new trends, and adopt new technology early. Video game play could be understood as a “community of practice,” a name Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger have given to a common social situation around which people collaborate to develop ideas. In this sense, the people who play video games develop values, strategies, and approaches to the practice of play itself (Bogost 119).”

My friend’s recent marriage proposal

is a great example of the use of he and his fiancé’s shared practice of play, just as their relationship is a great example of the possibilities of affiliations in the semiotic domain of MMORPGs.  (The two – a videogame tester and college student in California and a working mother of three in Kentucky – met playing WoW) It is interesting to note that he posted this image on his Facebook page with the caption “I do things nerdy,” followed by a picture of her physical engagement ring with the post “but I also do things for real.”  I think this distinction is connected to the meta understanding of our semiotic domains that Gee stresses, and is probably the main legitimate worry parents have in seeing their children retreat to fantasy worlds.  Can gamers connect their community values and practices with practices that will help them be successful outside of their niche communities?

This post on Gee’s blog in which he discusses truths about books and what they have to do with video games made me think about the dangers of immersion in fantasy in another light.  It immediately made me think about Richard E. Miller’s Writing at the End of the World “TheDark Night of the Soul” and his discussion of the idealistic literary immersion that led to Chris McCandless’ death in the Alaskan wild. I can’t help but wonder whether the domain of video games, especially with its propensity toward social interaction within an easily accessible community (as opposed to the unreachable authors McCandless believed in so fully) already exhibits the ideals of the critical optimism Miller argues for in writing.  Most importantly, how can we use this to our students’ advantage?


2 comments on “Video Games, Affiliations, and Critical Optimism

  1. Your friend’s proposal is awesome. But then again, I’m a gamer as well so I guess I would find something like that unique and romantic (in a geeky way). I’ve seen other people use a variety of games to do something similar. I wish I could come up with something similar but my creative talents are limited…
    I think the literary immersion you mentioned in your blog is very interesting. The extent of my fascination with immersive text (both digital and traditional) isn’t as serious as the cases you linked to, but I can understand the powerful pull of other “worlds.” I don’t know what it is, but there are some games with stories and characters that make it extraordinarily difficult to put down once you start playing. It could be a means of getting away from dreary norms or it could be the excitement of doing things you can’t normally do. And I think it is that sense of empowerment and excitement that could be helpful for students. I suppose students could work on something like a creative writing project. Instead of playing their favorite game, they could be encouraged to come up with their own hero/heroine and write their own story. Whatever their story, their invested emotion and interest should drive the process and produce quality work.

  2. Oh lord, where were you when I was finishing Into the Wild with my class that ACTUALLY BLOGS?!?!? And just in time for me to give up the class to another instructor. BOO. But I might get this book and use that piece to open next semester, especially given the Sandy Hook shootings. We’ve been told to tread lightly, but as a person who believes that writing can “keep the wolf away from the door,” as Gloria Naylor put it, I think that chapter could really help me. I also think that asking my student to blog about it would be a worthy exercise in processing a national tragedy, adding their voices to “the conversation.”

    Thank you!

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