Crispy Gamer

Print Screen: Are You Gaming Literate?

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With games now firmly entrenched in the culture, new business opportunities have cropped up. From sites devoted to a generation of parents uncertain of where to go for advice to a blog that tracks the gaming adventures of a senior citizen, there is clearly a market ready to accept that games are nothing to be afraid of. But there are still substantial parts of the population unversed in games.

Peyton Paxson has made media literacy a personal mission, having written a series of books that encourage newcomers to media criticism to think about popular culture. The newest book in his series is called "Thinking Critically About Video Games & Virtual Worlds." Paxson doesn't pretend to be an expert in videogames -- he admits that he is not. But he approaches the issue as a teacher and tries to lay out what he sees as the critical debates and concepts in the fastest-growing part of the entertainment industry.

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Paxson's Latest Book in a series on media literacy.

In many ways, the organization of the book calls to mind every clich? editorial ever written on a gaming blog. Do women play games? What is the relationship between games and violence? Is gold farming always a bad idea in a massively-multiplayer online game? As a professional gaming scribe, I must have written about two-thirds of the topics covered in this book. Since I'm so immersed in gaming culture, it's difficult to see these topics as something new. It is to Paxson's credit that he provides just enough context for a newcomer to actually begin to form an opinion.

But the question that keeps nagging at me is the audience. For whom are these media literacy books being written, and what level of knowledge are they really targeting? Paxson can write a book about television and assume some baseline knowledge -- even people who don't watch TV know what it is and how it works. Gaming is still not at the level of cultural penetration where the terms "MMO" and "FPS" are equivalent to "sitcom" or "soap opera."

When the teacher is not especially well-versed in the subject, the problems of reaching a target audience become even more acute. What to make of Paxson's definition of a "hardcore game" as one that is usually "player-versus-player," a definition that only scratches the surface of what hardcore gaming is? And there is more to a role-playing game than having a player "assume a role." Minor errors like this risk obscuring just how stratified and balkanized gaming culture really is. There are, after all, PvP casual games, and lots of games that aren't RPGs let you play a role.

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The cheaper, but less-focused, alternative.

"Video Games & Virtual Worlds" is really about establishing games as a media form worthy of discussion. But the book is often less about understanding why games are different from other media and more about how they are a media form like any other. Issues of sex and violence, for example, are compared to attitudes toward film and television. Gaming terminology is framed within a discussion of language and why some subcultures develop unique jargon.

It is not enough to simply situate gaming within a media landscape; games themselves have to be understood in all their variety. Violence in the context of, say, slaying an ogre or giving Chun-Li a thrashing has an entirely different meaning than mowing down civilians in even a sci-fi shooter. Not to mention the fact that I can commit greater war crimes in Civilization than I can in Modern Warfare 2.

But knowing games is not the same as being able to instruct on them. Teaching or writing a textbook is much more difficult than actually learning about games or game culture. Paxson's volume fits well in his series and is, at this point, one of the better introductory options for media-studies courses. You can almost imagine the book being used in an introductory class on videogames, either at a high-school or an early-year university course.

As a teacher, the one thing that surprised me was how poorly the book is integrated with actually playing games or online materials. Questions are asked about Grand Theft Auto IV with no assumption or expectation that the student is actually familiar with the game beyond the textbook. Free-to-play serious browser games like The Redistricting Game are given in-depth analysis, but otherwise there is little incentive within the text for students to play a game before they address any of the serious issues Paxson raises. Any course that chooses to use "Video Games & Virtual Worlds" as a text will clearly need to supplement it.

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How much will playing this teach you about gaming in general?

Within a few years, though, this book will be obsolete. My own teaching experience has confirmed that students are well versed in many of the terms and arguments Paxson introduces. Students live in an online space where they are more comfortable debating and analyzing games than they are questioning books or news programs. The frequently combative nature of the online space that surrounds gaming means that anyone interested in games as media is usually more literate in games than they are in other media forms. The current generation of high-school students -- both girls and boys -- has many of these tools partially developed.

If Paxson's audience is high-school and college students, then, he will find that they have already lived the lessons of the book. Even if most Internet gaming forums are cesspools of chop logic, misogyny and idiocy, the chop-logicians, misogynists and idiots have been exposed to whatever ideas Paxson is trying to traffic. In short, any young audience sufficiently interested in becoming gaming-literate already has access to the tools to make it so.

But, for now, books like Paxson's series fill the rapidly diminishing gap.

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