What Videogame Making Can Teach Us About Literacy and Learning: Alternative Pathways into Participatory Culture

Kylie Peppler, Yasmin Kafai

The publication of Gee (2003) has jumpstarted a long overdue discussion about videogames and learning in the academic and public arenas. In this book, Gee articulated a collection of learning principles involved in playing videogames and becoming part of the gaming community. Other researchers have demonstrated how participation in game communities involves apprenticeship and how games, such as Civilization, can be used in classrooms to examine how the understanding of history is fostered (Shaffer, 2007; Steinkuehler, 2004; Squire, 2004). On the public side, movements such as the Serious Games initiative have highlighted role-playing games for learning in military, health, and other professional contexts (Glazer, 2006).

Noticeably absent from all these discussions has been another promising context — the making of games for learning (Kafai, 2006). In this context, game players program their own games very much like commercial game designers and learn about software and interface design. Some efforts have even integrated the learning of subject matter such as mathematics and science within game-making activities (Kafai, 1995). Most current commercial games have customization features that allow the player to tailor their characters and edit new levels for games. But in our view this kind of scripting does not touch the backbones of game design — all modifications are within set parameters of game designers.

For this paper, we want to bring back the approach of making games for learning but situate its contribution within the current debates of the participatory culture (Jenkins et al., 2006). In Jenkins’s view, videogame play is part of the larger digital culture and the majority of youth are already contributors and producers of media when looking at social networking and blogging sites (Pew, 2005). He articulated three issues that policymakers and educators face as they attempt to bridge the gap between those that contribute and those that do not: the participation gap, the transparency problem, and the ethics challenge. These three issues encompass the need to ensure that every young person has access to the skills and experience needed to become a full participant, can articulate their understanding of how media shapes perception, and is knowledgeable of emerging ethical standards that shape their practices as media makers and participants in online communities. We agree with these challenges, but want to expand on media production as an alternative and complementary pathway for learning and participation in today’s media culture. We will use these challenges as our framework to examine the working and production of game making activities for learning that took place in a Computer Clubhouse, an informal, after-school program.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Glazer, S. (2006). Video games: Do they have educational value?. Congressional Quarterly Researcher, 16(40), pp. 937–960.

Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robison, A., & Weigel, M. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participation culture: Media education for the 21st century. White Paper. Chicago, IL: The MacArthur Foundation.

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Kafai, Y. B. (2006). Playing and making games for learning: Instructionist and constructionist perspectives for game studies. Games and Culture, 1(1), pp. 34–40.

Pew (2005, November). Teen content creators and consumers. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Shaffer, D. W. (2007). How computer games help children learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Steinkuehler, C. A. (2004). Learning in massively multiplayer online games. In Y. B. Kafai, W. A. Sandoval, N. Enyedy, A. S. Nixon, & F. Herrera (Eds.), Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of the Learning Sciences (pp. 521–528). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Squire, K.D. (2004). Sid Meier’s Civilization III. Simulations and Gaming, 35(1), pp. 135–140.

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