Moving with the times

November 20, 2008

One happy childhood memory that I cherish is riding in a clunky old white Volvo with my much bigger big brother. I was eight. He was 23 and completing his sixth and final year of a medical degree. As we crunched around the roads with Abba’s Arrival and Rick Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry the Eighth blaring out of the window, Steve Brab would commence the daily ritual of the 30-minute commute that took me to school and him to hospital.

There would be no small talk. No chat about the weather or last night’s television. Instead, he tested my multiplication tables. Five fives? Six eights? Eleven fours? I still remember being able to judge his mood by the selection of questions. If he was angry or nervous, then we would remain in the 12 times table. If he was happier, then we would laugh through the multiplications of five or ten.

It was a great example of informal education. It used dead time, bonded siblings separated by age and intellectual experience and was an appropriate use of drill-based learning strategies. Currently, there is little time or opportunity for collectivised, family-based drills. With children scheduled into after-school activities and parents balancing multiple jobs and roles, we are locked into overcrowded and overcommitted timetables. Our commute is one of the few opportunities to breathe, ponder, relax and process the vagaries of the day. Most brothers would prefer to listen in iPod isolation to their Rick Wakeman. That is probably a good idea.

This digitally punctuated lifestyle of pods and phones provides not only the soundtrack for our mobile and connected lives, but a platform that simulates the drill-based training of my childhood. With so much attention locked on Apple’s iPod and iPhone, the Nintendo DS Lite has quietly but radically transformed gaming. Without the punchy sound and glamorous graphics of the Playstation or the XBox, the DS Lite is not the most technologically advanced of leisure devices.

It is not digitally convergent and does not play music and DVDs on an integrated platform. But like the iPod, it was able to create new markets and audiences because of its size, mobility and understanding of the new working and recreational environments. The DS Lite deployed touch screens and wi-fi, including a microphone to enlarge potential game developments. It also continued Nintendo’s commitment to dual screens, dating from Donkey Kong and the Game & Watch products in the early 1980s.

Released in Japan in March 2006, there were particular markets tapped by Nintendo that ensured its success as it moved around the world. The corporation targeted women, commuters, families and older people who were untouched by the post-1980s gaming “revolutions”. Emily Britt, European PR manager for Eidos, suggested: “I think handhelds can be slightly more appealing to the female gamer, as they don’t appear to ‘dominate’ in the way a home console does. Psychologically a handheld looks more like you can fit it around your life, rather than the other way around.” This mobile gaming is increasing the presence – and power – of female consumers in the industry. The Electronic Software Association recognised that 38 per cent of all gamers are now women over 18 years of age.

Similarly, older consumers have been the focus for the slogan “Touch Generation”. Nintendo Japan recognised that many nations have ageing populations. The young male audience is declining in numbers. The way to create new consumers was to simplify the interface, through a pen-like stylus and touch screen, make the content relevant for older users and ensure that the hardware is stylish, light and mobile.

The reasons for the DS Lite’s success among non-traditional gaming groups are many, but the key tactic was the creation of a range of seemingly odd “games” that have more in common with the multiplication tables I used to share with my brother than Grand Theft Auto. The four most successful games for the DS Lite are Brain Training, Nintendogs, Big Brain Academy and Cooking Guide. Mario is underplayed in DS marketing. The focus is on the services and lifestyle options that can be facilitated through its purchase. The British celebrities chosen to represent and sell the console and games package are significant: Girls Aloud, Ronan Keating (and family), Fern Britton and Phillip Schofield, Patrick Stewart and Julie Walters.

This celebrity-endorsed marketing ensures that communities that would not have bought or played a game can familiarise themselves with a console that can be held like an open book and features a touch screen that can be written on with a stylus. Brain Training allows the player to write answers to mathematical problems on a screen or to speak the answer aloud using a microphone. Word Coach similarly tests and improves vocabulary by “writing” on the screen. In simplifying the control system, wider audiences could participate. The fear of new technology was reduced by building links with prior platforms that have been accepted and used.

While the Wii has siphoned some of the family game-playing market, by 30 September 2008 the DS Lite had sold 65.51 million consoles. A new model, the DSi, was released in Japan on 1 November this year. There are subtle differences between these models including a thinner unit, larger screen and – intriguingly – two cameras: one facing the user and the other pointed outside the unit.

While recognising the value of the DS Lite to leisure, I am not one of those writers who believes that education – or even training – should become more like gaming. There is no doubt that for educational drills in mathematics, vocabulary, spelling and grammar, the repetitive and playful question-and-answer format has benefits. It is a digitised equivalent of reciting tables or spelling bees.

My critique of James Paul Gee – whose work is both inspiring and challenging – is that higher-order knowledge requires interpretation, a disciplinary context and distinct curricula strategies to the development of lower-level skills in words, numbers and memory. Gee is right to argue in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy that “in the modern world print literacy is not enough”. We do need to understand a diversity of “semiotic domains in which one can learn to be literate”. But it is important not to confuse an object of study with a method for learning.

Gee’s work is important and distinctive. He constructs an important intellectual space, building a relationship between gaming and literacy theory. He confirms that gaming is not a waste of time. It is a mode of serious and productive leisure. It is not a sphere of demonic worship. Considering the publicity encircling World of Warcraft this week, it is important to remember that gamers are not tourists from the Death Star visiting Earth.

They dress up, spend time with their friends and enjoy free time. Too often, such behaviour becomes “addictive” and “pathological”. Critiques of the violence or sex in video and computer games configure a simple – and seductively – causal relationship between watching, clicking and doing. Think about how this argument would operate in older and more domesticated media. Simply because we watch Fern Britton does not mean that we want a gastric band. Similarly, because a young man wants to enter a game and be a soldier does not mean he will be shopping for army fatigues and a rifle the next day.

Nintendo – as a company – has (with some notable exceptions) avoided the shooter games and overtly sexualised content. Instead, it has found a large market that does not want to shoot, but would like to think. The DS Lite has claimed the “serious leisure” slice of the gaming market and avoided controversy through this decision. Brain Training has been used to market gaming devices to consumers beyond the – archetypal but also illusionary – young male with time on his hands. But the role and function of gaming in education remain more complex than this marketing success suggests.

There is a way to understand and situate this gaming mode of learning into more formal models for education beyond demonising shooters or celebrating the dexterity and concentration of players. One of my favourite educational theorists is Mary Macken-Horarik. Through her work she constructs four stages of literacy, where each step is built on a prior competency.

The first phase is the development of everyday conversational skills. These are often learnt in the home, reinforced by peers and used in formal educational environments. The second stage is encoding and decoding text, which emerges in schools and includes learning to read, write and become numerate. Increasingly important at this level is the capacity to encode and decode images and sounds in a multimodal environment. The third step of literacy facilitates the development of disciplinary knowledge and the final stage develops critical or reflexive literacies.

Gaming platforms work well in building conversational and everyday skills. The “lifestyle” programmes for cooking, yoga, health, becoming a “guitar hero” and even feeding a virtual dog are part of these daily tasks. Obviously Mario and his friends are part of this leisure-infused literacy, learning about winning, losing, heroes, villains and responsibility. The other type of Nintendo games – Brain Training, Word Coach and futureU (the SAT preparation “game” in the United States) – is effective in developing the second stage of literacy, through encoding and decoding numbers and words, testing spelling, comprehension and basic mathematical skills. But this drill-based practice is not education or learning in and of itself. By Macken-Horarik’s model, there are two steps remaining in literacy education. These stages commence in school but are solidly located in the degree programmes, disciplinary knowledge and curriculum in universities.

It is not useful to celebrate or ignore gaming in education. I teach gaming platforms and cultures in creative industries, popular cultural and media literacy modules. They are well nested in the research literature for these topics. But we can also recognise the value of the DS Lite and other platforms in building and reinforcing more basic capacities in mathematics, vocabulary, hand-eye co-ordination and memory. All these skills are required in education. But they are the start of a journey into learning, not an end.

My brother, from the vantage point of the final year of his degree, helped his sister move through the first few steps of primary school. He knew he could not teach me histology or immunology. Even anatomy would have been beyond me. But he could help in the same way as a DS Lite can assist the development of literacy and numeracy. What video games can teach us about learning and literacy is that the educational game is never “over”. We simply move to a higher level.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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