Making Sense of Videogames: Exploring the Methods of Meaning-Making of a Group of Recent Chinese Immigrant Gamers in New York City

Aaron Chia-Yuan Hung

In recent studies of videogames, educators have built on the notion of “situated learning” to describe how learning occurs and why learning in videogames is often more effective than instruction in traditional classrooms (Gee, 2003, 2004; Steinkuehler, 2004). Under this model, educators argue that players are situated in contexts that allow them to learn through active and meaningful participation. However, many of these studies tend to be game-centered, usually focusing on a single game as a way of exploring how players learn. If one of the goals of studying games for education is to find out how players learn, it may be useful, even crucial, that we also look at a broader spectrum of players and games, particularly ones that tend to be under-represented in recent research. This paper reports on an ethnographic study where the researcher followed a group of Chinese adolescent high school players who are recent immigrants in order to discover how they learn and make sense of games. Since they are English language learners, this study explores how they make sense of videogames despite not always understanding the directions provided in the game. Drawing on sociological studies of technological settings (cf. Suchman, 1987), it aims to fill the gap in the literature by analyzing the constructions of meaning in interactions occurring both inside and outside the game to reveal how learning is shaped through these interactions.

The concept of meaning-making for this study builds on both Halliday’s and Garfinkel’s notions of meaning. In his description of functional linguistics, Halliday (1975, 1978) describes language learning as the acquisition of new ways of meaning. Moreover, available “meaning potentials” are connected to the macrosocial structure that orients people to different meanings depending on their positions in the structure. Garfinkel (1984; Garfinkel & Rawls, 2002), who established the approach of ethnomethodology, sees meaning as a locally constructed procedure that everyone engages in to make sense of their everyday interactions. In interactions such as conversations, people rely on others to have a shared assumption of what the conversation is about by “indexing” utterances or actions as an example of those shared assumptions. This means that all interactions have inherently ambiguous meanings and are only stabilized by those involved to maintain those shared assumptions in an ongoing basis. By studying meaning-making in videogames through these lenses, we can begin to explore how these procedures are often contingent on the contexts players are in — where “context” refers not only to the virtual context, which prior studies tend to focus on — but any context that may be relevant to the situation (e.g., surrounding players, spaces, consoles, and games). It also problematizes the assumption that players who learn the game are necessarily learning what game designers can predict or control.

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Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. New York: Routledge.

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Halliday, M. A. K. (1978). Language as social semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.

Steinkuehler, C. (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 Associates.

Suchman, L. A. (1987). Plans and situated actions: The problem of human-machine communication. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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