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Language: Literacy & Online Gaming

There is an interesting exchange taking place at TerraNova. There is much to explore here and I was especially interested in the ideas about literacy in relation to "ingame play as the construction of a new kind of "nonlinear, multi-authored narrative." Ideas about literacy, especially as they relate to something called "the basics" in the education sector, have been the centre of a great deal of [circular] controversy here in Canada, so it is refreshing to see literacy being explored in new contexts. The author of the entry, Constance Steinkuehler, has captured the essential piece here...

It's [MMOGames] not replacing literacy practices; it IS a literacy practice. Terra Nova [via Lisa Galarneau].

She then goes on to add the following insights: "So, the question isn't 'Are kids literate?' or 'Are (MMO)Games displacing print media?' but rather 'How are kids literate?' and 'How do (MMO)Gamers engage in print media?"

If we assume literacy to be nothing more than, "the ability to read and write" [World Book] then we find ourselves pursuing a very limited path. The ability to read and write in order to do what? If the answer to this question is, "We learn to read and write in order to become proficient in reading and writing" then we spin ourselves around in circles. At the same time, we should acknowledge that the word literacy does refer us to "letter" and is something visual.

Is we apply this definition to the "back to the basics" notion in education then we have to ask a "basic" question: "If students on average attend school for five hours per day, 180 days per year for 12 years, is 10,800 hours to teach people how to read and write?" This amounts to 1,350 eight-hour days. If schools cannot accomplish the task of making people "literate" (in the sense of the ability to read and write) in 10,800 hours then we need to ask, "Is the teaching of literacy so difficult that it requires more than 10,800 hours of instructional time [ask parents about the intrusion of homework into family life and we soon realize there is significantly more time than this], or is something seriously amiss?"

There have also been many attempts to extend the idea of literacy to various contexts, for example, oral literacy, aural literacy, visual literacy, tactile literacy, media literacy and so on. It may be that the word literacy is problematic since its roots refer us back to visual-letter literate, or we can choose to expand the meaning by moving it into other realms - by adding adjectives to it and then providing new definitions/perspectives.

It's safe to say that the dynamics of online text is different than paper-based literacy. Therefore the quality and character of literacy in one media environment is different from another, even though they share text-based communication that places demands on our ability to read and write. The online character of literacy is embedded in a medium that is more dynamic and interactive. This doesn't make it better or worse, just different. There's a place for both. This is precisely why exploring MMOGames is a valuable place to explore a literacy practice. This latter approach, for me, is preferable and supports Constance's insight, "it is a literacy practice - the key word being "a" which invites us to explore the diversity of ways in which people can be literate.

But MMOGames, and traditional approaches to literacy, must also address the questions Literacy in order to do what? and Is literacy and end unto itself or should it be aimed at something more comprehensive?

Traditionalists might possess a fear of this, but their fears are unfounded. I saw mention of the "five-paragraph essay" in one of the comments and it brought back memories of my son trying to fit all his thoughts and ideas into the five paragraphs demanded by the school system. Agreed - it's a model and there is something to be learned in terms of structure, but it is not a norm, a standard or a tool for evaluation. A few hours per year on it would be enough. I wonder what real authors might think of this practice?

A more aggressive (and risky) approach to expanding our ideas of literacy places it into other realms - for example, visual literacy. If we define literacy literally then the visual aspect must refer to seeing letters. Of course, the idea is aimed more closely at the interpretation (the "reading" and "writing" of) visual images and pictures. I have tended to move more toward ideas about intelligence (a controversial term I know, but I defer to Howard Gardner's ideas about "multiple intelligences") rather than literacy in trying to understand these other media environments.

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