Using Player Breakdown as a Lens for Understanding the Development of Literacy in Video Games

Will Ryan, Jeffrey Bardzell

Digital literacy plays an increasingly important role as digital media becomes a ubiquitous part of our daily lives. For this study, we examined how players develop this competency specifically in videogames by leveraging a combination of prior experience, if applicable, and in-game resources. We used the notion of breakdown (Winograd & Flores, 1986) and phenomenological inquiry (Moustakas, 1994) to observe how users were able to experience and learn from game interfaces through adoption, adaptation, and appropriation. As many authors have commented, digital literacy requires fundamentally new ways of approaching media to use them. Our study of videogames begins to uncover the way in which people experience and use games to achieve in-game objectives, while expanding the base of their understanding of digital media.

We studied thirteen participants individually, most of whom were above the age of 25 with varying degrees of prior gaming experience. The games they played were selected on a basis of unfamiliarity with a genre or expressed difficulty with a specific game. Although this study did decontextualize the practice in which game play would normally occur, given that these games were not voluntarily selected, we feel that the game forced the participant to construct their own context and, as a result, aligned itself with the spirit of situated cognition (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). We watched each player for about three hours and asked probing questions as they explored the game; later, we reviewed voice recordings and extensive notes. The questions we asked were of a naïve nature to allow players to describe their experience as much as possible in their own words.

Breakdown occurred mainly in two distinct ways. The first was manifested through player frustrations through attempts to negotiate with the environment to make it do what they wanted or expected. The second was manifested through finding environmental affordances through playful interaction that extended the possibilities within a given environment often in ways unbeknownst to the player. There were three sources of learning that players leveraged: formal training through tutorials and the options menu, exploration of the environment through trial and error, and familiarity with a game situation through prior experience. Training and exploration were enhanced significantly by a greater pool of prior experiences to know what to look for. A large amount of experience can enhance a player’s ability to mentally simulate and project towards a variety of situations that may be possible (Klein, 1998), but even novices can succeed with a little bit of conviction. This ability to practice, explore, and fail within an environment are some of the strengths of videogames for learning described in Gee’s principles (2003). Through this study, nineteen patterns of breakdown were discovered manifested in either frustration, environmental affordance, or both at the same time and drawing on the three sources of training, exploration, and prior experience to varying degrees.

Brown, J. S., Collins, A, & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.

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

Klein, G. (1998). Sources of power: How people make decisions. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Winograd, T., & Flores, F. (1986). Understanding computers and cognition: A new foundation for design. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

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