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Pretty good for a girl: gender, identity and computer games

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Young people's participation in the online world of digital culture is one of the fastest and most efficient means by which they become proficient in the management of ICTs, and in the new literacies emerging there. In a predominantly male field, however, less is known about what characterises and contributes to young women's successful participation in online popular culture. This paper reports on a small project investigating the gendered dimensions of teenagers’ engagement in and out of school with stand alone and multiplayer computer games. The project had two foci: (i) the proposition that that there are gender related significantly different patterns of engagement both with different forms of new media (Kress 2000) and with the out-of-school digital culture through which so much of young people’s familiarity and expertise with the new media is acquired (Cassells and Jenkins, Meredyth) and (ii) the argument that the changing nature of literacy in the contexts of ICTs requires traditional school subjects concerned with literacy curriculum to be reconceptualised. The initial aim of the project was to identify characteristics of successful girl game players, and to consider ways in which they might be utilised in the production of English/literacy curriculum for both boys and girls. Information that helps teachers and systems design curriculum that engages productively with ICT-based texts and literacies is significant for schools and systems seeking to imagine and anticipate how literacy communication and curriculum might effectively be reconfigured in the networked society (Castells). The project was thus centrally concerned with the gaming practices of girls and young women who saw themselves as capable and competent players of computer games. In relation to curriculum, it sought to generate understandings about what characterises young women's successful participation in computer games and hence, to gain insights into ways in which curriculum utilising ICTs might more productively create hospitable environments, activities and opportunities for girls. A second concern was to explore intersections between ICTs, digital culture and imagined possibilities more generally for curriculum renewal and English, and to contribute to debates about the future of English, and the reconfiguration of curriculum subjects in the present times. Thirdly, the project sought to extend understandings of intersections between game playing, community and identity, with implications for debates around connectedness and engagement for young people, and the ways in which schools might build stronger connections between young people’s worlds, schools and the curriculum. The project was carried out in two locations: a year eight English classroom in a mixed Victorian secondary school, and a suburban internet (LAN) café which was a specialist centre in Melbourne for clan wars and competitions around the game Counterstrike. In this context, the project focussed particularly on an all-girl gaming clan. Specifically the project sought to explore: • On- and off-line game-based literacy practices of successful female gamers • On- and off-line game-based literacy practices of successful male gamers • Young people's sense of agency and identity in the every day spaces of computer games. • Issues of access and equity for girls participating in online popular culture • Implications of different practices, orientations and preferences for learning online • Implications of different practices, orientations and preferences for school-based English/literacy curriculum The first phase of the project centred around the design and teaching of a English unit organised around curriculum games at year 8 level, working with 14-15 year old boys and girls and their teacher. The unit was planned jointly between the teacher and the researchers, and took place over a two week period at the end of term. Students and the classroom teacher were interviewed at the start and end of the unit, and a third time towards the end of the year. Data also included the analytic grids completed by the students, their imaginative writing and videotapes of the presentations where they played and spoke about their game. The second phase of the project focussed on the literate and social practices of a group of young women who form their own clan in the game Counterstrike. Five young women aged 18-22 were observed on site during a six week competition and interviewed about the game, their history as game players, and their experiences as membership of an all girls clan. The age difference between these players and the schoolgirls was taken into account in the analysis of interviews, together with the differences in location, so that observations about both groups were seen as part of a continuum rather than as the same. Similarly, differences were noted between those students, both boys and girls, who were game players out of school and those who were not. The research was contextualised within an awareness of the ways in which texts and purposes change when popular culture is brought into the classroom and appropriated for institutional (curricular) purposes. The paper presents an overview of the activities and data from each site, and discusses conclusions drawn. It highlights a range of issues raised for English/literacy educators about the introduction of games into the classroom, and for the design of ICT-based curriculum that seeks to provide for gender equity. In doing so, it also draws attention to the ways in which boys in the study interacted with games, other class members and the curriculum unit. Findings underline the socially situated nature of play, in relation to both classroom and games activity, where relationships, contexts and purposes flowing across both on and offline play are seen as shaping the kinds of literacy and learning practices entailed in the students’ discussion and activities, and in the ways they engage with each other and the games. Observations about successful girl gamers are thus made not just in relation to specific skills, strategies and familiarity, but are more broadly located within the complex dynamics of in- and out-of-school discourses and contexts which need to be factored in to the construction of gender-equitable pedagogy and curriculum.
Contact: Catherine Beavis, Deakin University,
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