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Video Games and Young People: Learning, Literacy, and Libraries By: Heather Robertson December 2004
 Introduction My first memory of video games was waking up as a child on Christmas morning and being introduced to Super Mario Brothers on the original Nintendo games console. I was enthralled by the cartoon characters and spent months gathering mushrooms, racing through various Mario world levels and striving to save the princess. While I am not a regular player of video games now, I still enjoy them. I have very fond memories of Christmas gatherings, seated around the television with the newest game system, laughing and socializing with my brother and our family friends as we tried to master the various sports, adventure and shoot-‘em-up games on the market that year. Two months ago, I stood in my local public library branch glancing through the newest addition to the library collection, DVDs. Shifting an armful of books, I eagerly explored which titles of this new format the library carried, pleased to see that the library was offering a format so heavily requested by patrons when I knew that there had been many concerns regarding cost, shelf life and security for this popular technology. Beside me stood a friend, an avid reader within his work environment but largely a stranger to libraries, who was silently dissecting a loose thread on his coat and patiently waiting for me to finish. When I asked him whether he saw anything of interest, his reply was, “Why don’t libraries have video games?” My first response was to laugh, roll my eyes and say, “because video games don’t belong in libraries.” However, as I prepared my answer, I began to wonder whether my instinctive response was in fact accurate. To many people, video games are just as important as books. I have spent many years watching my brother and his friends play numerous Nintendo and PlayStation games, with the same concentration and enthusiasm that I bring to each new novel. I had always viewed their game playing as insubstantial in comparison to book reading and other creative and physical activities. Yet, as I learn more about multimedia and the role it plays in learning and literacy, I find myself rethinking my assumption that playing video games is a waste of time. Librarians today spend a great deal of funds, time and energy thinking of new ways to bring people, particularly young adults, into the library. How is it then, that libraries will acquire multimedia items such as graphic novels, videocassettes and DVDs, audio tapes and CDs, as
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well as educational CD-ROMs, but game cartridges for Nintendo, PlayStation or XBox, which appear to be such a prominent component of youth culture, remain absent from library shelves? In order to reflect on these questions, it is necessary to gain a better understanding of some of the issues. This paper will attempt to provide a definition of videogames in the context of this discussion, as well as explore some of the larger issues of the relationship between video games and young people, particularly in the areas of learning and development, literacy and the influence of violence. This topic is extensive, therefore in no way will this discussion act as a comprehensive study of the topic in its entirety. Instead, I hope to build a foundation of understanding by which I can reflect on whether or not the acquisition of video games is in the best interest of both library and library patron.  Video Games Defined In order to look at some of the issues surrounding video games, it is important to first define what a video game is and how it will be referred to in the context of this paper. In its broadest sense, G. Frasca claims that a video game is “any forms of computer-based entertainment software, either textual or image-based, using any electronic platform such as personal computers or consoles and involving one or multiple players in a physical or networked environment” (qtd. in Newman 27).  I would argue that computer-based educational software could also be included in this definition, as video games are not necessarily used in an entertainment or recreational sense alone. For example, the game Bookworm for Nintendo's Game Boy requires users to construct different words from letter tiles. The more complete words constructed, the higher the points, the farther the player will progress. While this game is entertaining and the worm is really cute to watch, it also serves a more educational purpose as players get to learn and practice spelling skills as they progress through the game. Video games can also be used in the work environment. For example, leaders in the business, military and health / medical sectors, often use video games and video simulations in training exercises to acquire specific skills or familiarization with particular equipment or environments (Kirriemuir). Early systems were extremely simplistic in their design, but modern technology has evolved video games, such as the original Asteroids and PacMan Atari games found in so many video arcades across the world, into masterpieces of plot, character and visual graphics. Since 1980, video games have become one of the primary entertainment media, alongside the film and
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music industries, grossing almost $20 billion dollars each year in customer revenue (Kirriemuir). Geoffrey and Elizabeth Loftus provide a wonderful diagram of the “family tree of video games”, which shows that while todays video games were born directly from arcade game and digital computer technology, the broader framework draws from the more historical concepts of war and competitive games (6). This competition or war can be played out as player against other players in an interactive network, or as a more solitary game with player against the computer or player against themselves (i.e. trying to better personal scores, achieve new levels, etc). Video games, like other media and print materials, hold common elements and can be classified into different genres, or types of games. Some of the most common elements are conflict, rules, player ability (the skills needed in order to operate and progress through the game), and valued outcome, such as winning or losing (Wolf 14). In a more general sense, Geoff Howland points out that all video games have varying degrees of graphics, some sense of sound, an interface, a sense of gameplay or enjoyment and some type of story or narrative to follow throughout the play experience (Newman 11). Video games can also be classified into a number of different genres. K. Berens and G. Howard name seven particular genre classifications: 1. Action and Adventure 2. Driving and Racing 3. First-person shooter 4. Platform and Puzzle 5. Roleplaying 6. Strategy and Simulation 7. Sports and Beat-‘em-ups (qtd. in Newman 11-12) While these seven categories do cover most game genres, it is important to remember that a single game structure can cover multiple genres and that some games will not fit perfectly into a specific genre’s parameters. Video games are not only “puzzle-oriented and rule-based” but also “exploratory, open and free-roaming” and eachplayer’s experience with the game will be individual to that player’s interpretations of the rules, their skills at manipulating the controls and
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manoeuvring through the game space and the desired or valued outcome important to that player (Newman 28). The term video game is commonly used interchangeably with computer game or digital game. All have a screen to view the game, whether a computer monitor or a television screen, and some type of input device in order to play the game, be it a keyboard, a joystick, or a controller (Kirriemuir). However, while a computer game is only one small part of the larger system, video games are often the only purpose for the system. These “dedicated processors” or “dedicated systems” only have one function and thatis to provide a platform for the playing of the game (Wolf 17). Game consoles generally have a fixed specification where the “graphics, internal memory, drivers and so forth are identical across all units of a particular model” (Kirriemuir). For example, Sony’s PlayStation II can also play PlayStation I games on it. Computers, on the other hand, are constantly evolving which can lead to an instability in game play as new systems prohibit the playing of older games built around older software and hardware specifications (Kirriemuir). As well, computers can crash or freeze and the player can risk losing any game progress they have made so far, but game consoles provide relative stability for the players. As long as they don’t turn off the power in the middle of their game playing, they can leave the game unattended for hours without fear of losing their place (Kirriemuir). In 2002, there were three major competitors in the manufacturing and marketing of game console systems, both television-based and handheld: Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony (Kirreimuir). These three competitors are still the leaders in this industry today. As technology progresses, the lines between computer systems and these “dedicated processors” will become more blurred. For example, Sony’s PlayStation II is designed mainly as a game system but it also has the capabilities to play CDs, DVDs, and connect to the Internet (Kirriemuir). As well, companies are now producing games on multiple platforms in order to reach a wider market of consumers. Therefore, systems such as Microsoft’s XBox, Nintendo’s GameCube and Sony’s PlayStation II have a better chance of surviving in the evolving technological game market. Today, some libraries do carry small collections of computer games. However, it is currently rare if not impossible to find a library that has representation of television-based or handheld game console video games within their collections. It is for this reason that the term video games, as used in this paper, will refer primarily to those games played on game console systems only.
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Video Games: The Imagination and Play Technology is becoming an increasing part of everyday lives. Recent studies, such as a survey of the American gaming market conducted by the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) in 2000-2001, reveal that the assumption of a gaming audience comprised only of young males is inaccurate and that in fact increasing percentages of people over the age of 18 and of both genders are playing video games. In other words, video games are no longer solely a part of youth culture; players are both “’new entrants’ discovering videogames anew and players growing up with the industry” (Newman 49-50). This information, however, does not mean that video game play is any less important or pronounced within youth culture. Young people today are growing up surrounded by new forms of electronic media and are therefore developing new ways by which to interact with the world. Video games are a part of their play. They are the toys of today, as much as items like Barbie, G.I. Joe and Hot Rods were for other generations. Video games are a part of how children develop their imaginations and how they play independently as well as with their peers. Play is something that comes naturally to young people. They constantly find things to amuse or entertain themselves, whether through the medium of a physical toy, an imaginary friend or a role-playing game acted out with their peers. In essence, play “is the means by which they get to know the world and life around them” (Stutz 59). There are some who voice concerns that video games are taking away the freedom by which children play and instead replacing the possibilities of the imagination with the confining boundaries of a video game structure. Elizabeth Stutz talks about the concept of real play. She claims that: It is what children do when free-wheeling and when they have some space, either indoors or out. They create their own devices and initiatives and often find their own materials. The fewer sophisticated props they have, the more inventive they become. They find time to wonder and to reflect; they gain confidence and self-reliance, they get to know themselves and their playmates through interaction. They act out everyday scenes and personal experiences. In this way they work through their emotional needs and the traumas that are part of daily life. (62) Stutz goes on to say that parents, educators, and doctors are seeing creative and spontaneous play disappear in the wake of increased video game play time and that while technology can be wonderful, children must experience “actual reality, not virtual reality” (62).
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Other studies suggest that video games should not be viewed as restrictive but instead as vehicles by which young people can expand and enrich their imaginations as well as their concepts of individuality and their connection with the world. There are suggestions that elements of real play, as described by Stutz, can in fact be obtained through video game play. James Newman claims that video games actually present a necessity for exploration in order for the player to navigate the virtual world and storyline. As well, players are not necessarily restricted in their play by the game design, because they can choose to “develop tactics and strategy, perhaps exploiting weakness or flaws in the game, or they may even define their own games within the world made available” (Newman 28). Some actions may not be permitted by the game design, or sometimes an avenue that the player wants to explore is unavailable because the design team did not anticipate it and therefore did not create the option. However, toys like the board game Life also offer their own limitations, as players must conform to the structure of the game in order to win (Herz 187). In clinical observations with traumatized children, it was found that “video games … may favour the repr esentation of children’s internal worlds and therefore may stimulate the development of their imagination and aspirations” as well as provide a neutral and somewhat controlled environment where they can project their feelings and approach those traumatic aspects of their lives that they fear (Bertolini and Nissim 321). Video games can offer opportunities for extensive and enriching play. They “provide a medium that engages people for long periods of time, and gamers usually return to the same game many times over” much like young people do with toys such as dolls, board games, or even playground sports (Kirriemuir). Boring games will not hold a young person’s attention and the same holds true for video games. Those that do not offer the player “challenge, immersion” and the ability “to do, not to watch” will be tossed aside in favour of something more stimulating and more satisfying (Newman 16). The original perception of the video game player as an antisocial and isolated individual is incorrect. Video games do offer opportunities for solitary play, but they can be inherently social play opportunities. Games like PlayStation’s Sydney 2000, offer players the opportunity to gather a group of up to 4 players to compete in a virtual Sydney Summer Olympic Games. As well, it is important to keep in mind that social development does not necessarily always occur with other individuals. Imaginary friends or toys and other stuffed animals may seem very real to young people and part of their social and personal development occurs through interaction
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with these “friends”. In video games, “sometimes the other players are fantasy creatures endowed, by the computer, with artificial intelligence” but they can appear just as real to young people as the imaginary friend sitting next to them at dinner (Gee 7). Some people may feel that video games restrict the imaginations and play opportunities of young people, but video games are fun and perhaps they offer another avenue by which to explore and enrich the child’s imagination and their relationship to the external world.  Video Games and Literacy Does playing video games affect the literacy levels of young people? The answer is yes; however, some feel that video games have a negative impact on literacy, while others take a more positive approach. In his article, “Kids Don’t Read Because They Can’t Read”, David Walsh claims that “TV and video games offer instant rewards” while “reading … offers delayed gratification because it takes four to five years to master the skills”, therefore the more young people “turn to TV and video games, the dimmer their prospects of reading improvement” (30). This way of thinking follows the more traditional route in defining literacy as the ability to read and write print materials. Knowledge is learned through reading alone, therefore, “work that does not involve such learning is ‘meaningless’”and “activities that are entertaining but that themselves do not involve such learning are just ‘meaningless play’” (Gee 21). In other words, if literacy and the acquirement of knowledge are derived from the ability to read, fooling around with a visual medium such as video games does not assist literary development. There are many arguments against this negative view of video games and the development of literacy, particularly in regards to young people. For one thing, many video games do not provide instant gratification. Games can be difficult and frustrating and they can require a great deal of patience in order for the player to succeed within the context of the game. The PlayStation II game, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was a particular source of frustration for me as a player. The difficulty level of this game required a lot of my time and perseverance in order to progress much past the first level. I was required to learn many different skills in order to understand and gain knowledge of the game. This included the ability to not only see what my character was doing on the screen, figure out where I needed to go and how I could get there, but to actually read the text within different screen shots in order to learn how to play.
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This raises the question of how we can define literacy. James Paul Gee writes that, “in the modern world, print literacy is not enough” and that “people needto be literate in a great variety of different semiotic domains” (19). Being able to read words on a page and answer general, factual questions about the texts only provides a literal understanding of the text, but fails to show any contextual or social meaning (Gee 16). Playing video games provides the opportunity to learn a new form of literacy. Paul Gee states that “language is not the only important communicational system”,and that “the idea of different types of ‘visual literacy’” gained by the viewing and understanding of images, symbols, graphs, etc. is important for gaining a sufficient level of literacy in today’s society (13). More meaning can be gathered from looking at something in multiple ways rather than simply viewing it, or reading it, in one way. Why then, is the idea of multiliteracies so foreign? In “multimodal texts … the images often communicate different things from the words” and by looking at something in different ways, a whole new meaning is developed that otherwise would have been unknown (Gee 14). Knowledge is deemed important enough for people to fear and criticize anything that may prevent that knowledge from being learned, therefore it would seem wrong to disregard new ways of learning and the subsequent new knowledge gained. Visual literacy is just as important an element as that of reading the written word in gaining a more complete understanding of society and culture. Video games also provide many opportunities for simultaneous learning. In my experience with the Lord of the Rings, I had to use visual literacy skills, reading skills as well as motor skills in order to navigate the game. There are three components to active learning: “experiencing the world in new ways, forming new affiliations, and preparation for future learning” (Gee 23). Through video games, young people can experience the world in ways similar to how they use their imaginations to interpret the world in Stutz’s real play. The only difference is that video games provide a visual image of that interpretation and imaginative play, making the meaning more tangible. It is important to remember, that individuals who play video games, don’t just play the games and then turn off the machine when they are done. Roberto Bertolini and Simona Nissim point out that young people often seek out ways in which they can learn more about the games they are playing, the system they are using and what games may be coming out. There are numerous non-fiction books within libraries and bookstores on tips and tricks for game playing
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as well as information on video games in general. Many magazines are available to help players navigate their virtual worlds and move forward into future learning opportunities (308). In a sense, the video game has led the player to world of print and therefore players are progressing to new levels of literacy and meaning than they could have acquired through straightforward educational reading. As well, active and critical learning within the world of videogames will aid young people in developing a literacy regarding the world of computers and online resources, an essential skill for navigating the increasingly technological environment that we live in. Video games are not replacing books, they are simply an art form that will “interact with them, and change them and their role in society in various ways” (Gee 204). How can we view something that assists in the learning process, as a negative learning tool?  Video Games and Violence Games have always held elements of violence within them but, as they progress in terms of content, graphics and user population, the level of violence in video games has risen to a point that some people are concerned they are having an adverse effect on young people in the form of aggressive behaviour. Just as children immerse themselves completely within their imaginative worlds through the process of play, and adults immerse themselves in novels or movies that capture their interest, video game players tend to immerse themselves within the parameters of the virtual world set out before them. Professor Marsha Kinder believes that video games are “different from other media because they actively engage children in violent acts” (qtd. in Stutz 66). Video game players operate the controls to shoot, blow up or beat up characters or things within the game, therefore this genuine interaction with the act of violence has educators, parents and medical professionals concerned that the violent acts are being passed from the game into the behavioural make-up of the child. Some authorities claim that, “performing violent actions in video games may be more conducive to children’s aggression than passively watching violent acts on television” and that “themore children practice violent acts, the more likely they are to perform violent acts” (Cesarone). This line of thinking places a lot of responsibility for young people’s behaviour upon the shoulders of media and technology, and not a lot of responsibility on the young people themselves, or on our society for that matter. As mentioned before, the violence in video games has always been an element; it just appears that now there are better graphics to display it. In
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some regards, there is no difference to the level of violence in video games than the level of violence in “television cop shows” or “the latest Stallone, Schwarzenegger, or Bruce Willis vehicle, all of which feature more blood, bigger explosions, and higher body counts”(Herz 183). Increasing violence has become a part of our society, and it can be found in books, movies, magazines, music, etc. I attended a workshop held by Patrick Jones at the Edmonton Public Library recently and as I listened to him list his recommended titles for building a great collection for young adults, I realized that most of the titles being published for this age group dealt with violence, abuse and death, some in very graphic and detailed forms. James Paul Gee expresses his opinion that “the issue of violence and video games is widely overblown” especially considering we live “in a world where real people are regularly really killing real people in wars across the world that we watch on television” (10). Another example is the game of dodgeball. It is a game that nearly every child learns in elementary school and it is a popular game among physical education teachers and students. However, the essence of the game is to launch a rubber ball as hard as you can at a person on the opposing team in order to eliminate them. Injuries run rampant with this game, they are often bragged about in the school yard, yet ironically “a great hue and cry would ring out if any legislator tried to ban dodgeball, because it is an American institution” and I would argue a Canadian institution as well (Herz 183). Other concerns about the violence and inappropriate content of video games come up in regards to the portrayal of women in these games. Eugene Provenso points out that women are often portrayed in video games as victims in need of rescue and that “the games not only socialize women to be dependent, but also condition men to assume dominant gender roles” (100). While this may be true in some video games, there are games on the market today that portray women in a power position, such as with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, although Steven Poole points out that “given her lecherously silicon-enhanced curves” if she ever sat down, “she would never get up again” (53). As well, thereare games on the market that permit the creation of characters, and players can choose female characters as well as male and other (alien, monster, animal, etc) characters. It could be argued that the unfair and inappropriate portrayal of women in video games will alter as more women become video game players and demand more equal representation in character development. As well, as a child game player with Super Mario Brothers, I never considered the princess to be a weak and submissive sexist portrayal of women. In fact, I was Mario when playing these games and apart from holding hands with the princess
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when I saved her, I didn’t think about her all that much. As well, lots of men play the Lara Croft game, and therefore act and associate through the eyes of the woman protagonist. These examples present arguments for the possibility that video games create a neutral gender environment that allows players to act as someone else for the duration of the game, male or female. The important thing to keep in mind is that the portrayal of women in media has been an issue for decades. Barbie in fact is an extremely popular toy for young girls, and boys, around the world. However, the actual figure of Barbie is much like Poole’s description of Lara Croft – her proportions are so exaggerated that if she were a real person, she would not be able to stand properly or function at all. Perhaps it is not that video games are designed to present a poor presentation of women, but that our culture appears to still have a hard time straying from such representations. While much debate still carries on in regards to video games, violence and inappropriate content, there is no sufficient research to back up the claims that playing violent video games will lead to aggressive behaviour in young people. C.E. Emes points out the following three points in regards to this: The number of well-conducted research studies in this field is small The reliability and validity of the procedures used to measure aggression is questionable. Research into the long-term effect of playing videogames is lacking (qtd. in Newman 68) While it appears that the arguments have no foundation in fact, they are still concerns and in response to some of these issues, a ratings system was designed for video games, much like the one available for movies and films. This ratings system, created by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), provides a way for parents to monitor the content of the games by giving “consumers information about the content of an interactive video or computer entertainment title and the ages for which the title is appropriate” (“Understanding Video Game Ratings”). There are five main categories: Early Childhood (EC) for children 3 and up, Everyone (E) for children 6 and up, Teens (T) for people aged 13 and up, Mature (M) for ages 17 and up and finally Adults Only (AO). While the idea and the concept behind these ratings is good, it can be difficult to keep the lines between different rating categories clear cut. Sometimes games can be borderline and fall within the top portion of say the Teen category because it does not hold enough violent