Studying Games in School: learning and teaching about game design, play and culture

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media education, media production, learning, literacy

In this paper, we will present findings from the first twelve months of a research and development project called ‘Making Games’, which is developing a software tool to enable 11-14 year olds create their own 3D computer games using object-oriented programming. The project is a collaboration between the Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media (University of London) and Immersive Education, a software development company set up by Elixir Studios and Math Engine. Over a three-year period, Immersive is releasing successive prototypes of a game authoring tool, which researchers are taking into schools and summer camps to research its design, uses and benefits. The research is investigating how game design can be taught and learned, and whether the concept of ‘literacy’ can be extended to the analysis (reading) and production (writing) of computer games. This develops the recent emphasis in education on digital and media literacies (Buckingham 2002, 2003; Kress 2003). In particular, we are interested in the benefits such a literacy might offer girls, as well as young people with print literacy difficulties. The paper will focus on two questions. Firstly, what are the components of ‘game literacy’? The term ‘literacy’ is traditionally used only in relation to print. However, in recent years it has been extended to apply to the different forms of competence that are required by a range of communicational and representational media, including print, visual images and sound among others. Communication has always taken place through these different modes, but in the wake of new information technologies, traditional definitions of literacy have been widened to encompass not only print-based media but also multimodal forms of expression. The notion of ‘game literacy’ extend this, by attempting to identify how meaning is created within the specific medium of games. It includes elements of signification that relate to all or most media, such as aspects of narrative, mode of address and representation; but it also incorporates elements that are specific to games and game systems, such as rules, goals, economies, exploration and conditionality. Our second question relates to how game literacy is taught and learned. Being able to read and write game texts is the result of pedagogic processes. In this paper, we will briefly present the approach we took to teaching game design in three sites: a media studies classroom in a mixed comprehensive school; an after-school club in a girls’ comprehensive school; and a summer camp. In each site, the approach we took to researching and teaching ‘game literacy’ differed. In the classroom, we used an established model within media studies that involves analysing media as social and cultural phenomena. We adapted an approach often taken to the analysis of film and TV in schools and focused on the experiential dimension of gaming, discussing issues relating to representation, identification, narrative structure, genre, marketing, and audience pleasures. In the after-school club, we focused more tightly on game design as a design practice, starting with board games and then moving on to computer games. This pedagogical approach encouraged students to view design as an enjoyable activity, on a par with playing games, and allowed us to develop an understanding of both the kinds of practices and areas of knowledge that might encompass game literacy. In the summer camp, game playing and game design were much more closely intertwined, allowing us to research how production might fit into young people’s wider gaming culture. The paper will comment on the pedagogical strategies that we deployed in each context and offer reflections on the different manifestations which ‘game literacy’ might take. In particular, we will examine the place of gender in learning and teaching game design. The significance of gender differed across our three sites of research as well as across time within each site, emphasising the need to view gender not simply as socially constructed but also as a form of social action intended to achieve certain ends within specific situations. Judith Butler’s notion of gender as grounded in language and enacted as a performance is useful here and particularly relevant to identifying the relation between gender and literacy (Butler, 1999). Our argument is in part constructed as a reflection on and response to Kafai’s research on gender and young people’s game design (Kafai 1996, 2000). The kinds of gaming knowledge which students chose to display in their game designs, and in particular the way they interpret genre conventions, relates not only to their experience of games but also to how they are positioned, and want to position themselves, in relation to the interpersonal context of design as well as the wider gaming culture and fan community. In our research, gender is not associated with a set of stable preferences or competences, but is rather performed to maintain a certain level of authority and a certain kind of relation to others within a specific pedagogic context. The presentation will include a demonstration of the prototype game authoring tool, as well as some of the games that young people have built within it. The authoring environment is based on some of the same principles as a level editor, but allows greater flexibility in terms of design and game play. Users select from a range of objects (such as environments, decorative objects, pick-up objects, triggers, etc), assign properties to them (for example, this key unlocks this door; the inventory has X number of slots; reaching point X earns the player Y number of points) and order them within the game space according to the rules of their game. By the time of the DIGRA conference, we will be half way through the development schedule; the prototype will therefore include only s fraction of the functions we hope to include in the final product. However, it will enable us to illustrate our approach to teaching game design, which aims to allow users design their own rules within certain genres (action, adventure and role-playing) as well as deploy and create a broad range of representations. References Buckingham, D. (2003) Media Education: literacy, learning and contemporary culture. Cambridge: Polity Press. Buckingham, D. (2002) 'The electronic generation? Children and new media' in Lievrouw, L.A. and Livingstone, S. (eds.) Handbook of New Media. London: Sage. Butler, J (1999) Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. London: Routledge Kafai, Y. (1996) 'Gender differences in children's constructions of video games' in Greenfield, P.M. and Cocking, R.R. (eds.) Interacting with video. Norwood NJ: Ablex. Kafai, Y.B. (2000) 'Video game designs by girls and boys: variability and consistency of gender differences' in Cassell, J. and Jenkins, H. (eds.) From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: gender and computer games. Cambridge: MIT press. Kress, G. (2003) Literacy in the New Media Age. London: Routledge.

Contact: Caroline Pelletier, Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media,
Document type: 
Conference presentation
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