Matthew S. S. Johnson

Reflections of an Academic Gamer or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Work of Play

ABSTRACT: From one perspective, I shall be the first to point out, this essay is rather self-indulgent: I am serving as my own “case study” analyzing my own experience and trying to glean something from it. From a more generous perspective, and I hope a more accurate one, this essay provides an illustration of theories of game and play, traced over time in the life of an individual gamer, engaging theoretical, pedagogical, and popular texts about gaming as they work sometimes in conjunction, sometimes in tension with one another. In addition, the significance of personal gaming experiences reveals, implicitly, that as productive as the movement is, we need not turn to “serious games” – those that specifically are designed to education – to see the educational and literacy development value in commercially-available and extremely popular game titles. Last, I hope my anecdotes throughout this essay show how our own gaming histories and active self-reflection about them are exceedingly important for scholars investigating games and gaming practices as we continue to do good theoretical work on games and persuade others to recognize them as serious objects of scholarly study within the academy, and texts and activities to celebrate within and beyond it.

KEYWORDS: computer games, literacy, learnig, education, ludology, sociology of games, adventure games, interactive fiction, early gaming

UltimaThere are many beginnings referenced in this ludological issue of Techsty: the issue itself, the journal’s first; the Call For Papers, which mentions Espen Aarseth’s foundational declaration: “2001 can be seen as the Year One of Computer Game Studies as an emerging, viable, international, academic field” (“Computer Game”); the focus on “Childhood Video Games,” calling for scholars and gamers alike to reflect upon their own early game-related experiences.

In 2004, Aarseth commented that “After forty years of fairly quiet evolution, the cultural genre of computer games is finally recognized as a large-scale social and aesthetic phenomenon to be taken seriously” (“Genre Trouble” 45). That means we have quite a bit of catch-up work to do, so it is fitting that scholars are currently and voraciously investigating the origins of game studies, games, and electronic gaming. Game studies scholars, productively moving beyond the field’s early separatist tendencies, have embraced Johan Huizinga’s 1938 Homo Ludens as an early theoretical text, and “ludology” and “game studies” have become irreversibly linked, sometimes even being used as synonyms. And if we accept 1962’s Spacewar! as the first computer game, then it makes great sense that it is in the mid-1990s – allowing time for children to grow up playing games, enter into graduate schools, and study games for their PhDs – that serious studies of games commenced. Since then, the development of theories with which to analyze games has flourished, and these theories are numerous.

Theory-building has moved quickly, but perhaps not as quickly as games themselves (convenient for a scholarly field), linked as they are to rapidly developing digital technologies. Yet even while we voraciously consume the latest game titles (I would list a few representative examples, but the games themselves would quickly become dated), we look back to video/electronic gaming’s historical origins: if we stretch it a bit, 1889 according to Steven L. Kent’s (xi) and Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L. Wilson’s (3) timelines in their histories of video/electronic games, which appeared in 2001 and 2004, respectively. Analysis specifically of early game titles has also piqued scholarly interest. Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton, for example, closely examine videogame landmarks in Vintage Games; their earliest title is 1978’s Space Invaders, prompting me to comment on an early draft that “calling games from the last two decades of the twentieth century ‘vintage’ might not sit well with thirty-something gamers.” At least the online “bonus chapters” for their text covers Spacewar lest I feel too aged at my “ripe old” thirty-four years which make me a veritable dinosaur in gaming terms. In fact, “retrogaming” has become a not only a hugely popular practice, but is itself an active subfield of game studies, in part evidenced by Zach Whalen and Laurie N. Taylor’s edited collection which focuses specifically on history and nostalgia. Suffice it to say that there is currently a strong focus on the past, even while we herald the next generation consoles or replace our aging (which is to say perhaps two- or three-year old) PCs in order to play, to their fullest, the latest, computer-resource-hoarding game titles.

Recently a comparatively new focus on the past has appeared in game studies and related fields that concentrates not on games’ historical origins, but on our own histories as gamers. Cynthia L. Selfe and Gail E. Hawisher, for instance, strive to capture individual literacy narratives in their Gaming Lives in the Twenty-First Century: in their own words, “our aim throughout the book is to tell the stories of individual gamers” (1). It is only within the last fifteen years or so that digital gamers have been able to consciously and systemically reflect upon their own histories – gamers needed the time to grow up playing games and write about those experiences, and game studies needed some time to develop theoretical frameworks. This focus on our past – whether we call it “vintage,” “nostalgic,” “retro,” “historical,” or even “old-school” – reveals the value we place on it: that our individual gaming histories (either our childhoods growing up with games, or our “childhoods” of our gaming-selves) shape our epistemological frameworks, literate behaviors, our very ontologies. Our games guide the way in which we make sense of other games and the world at large. They guide, to some degree, the questions we ask and the answers at which we arrive.


Not unlike many of my generation (growing up in the United States and also of a relatively privileged socio-economic status, and therefore with access to games), my “year one” with respect to videogaming involved an Atari 2600 [1]. I remember hearing odd sounds emanating from the television after I had gone to bed; later I was to find out that they were not psychedelic dreams nor early signs of failing sanity, but rather my parents playing games before my sisters and I were to receive the console as a Hanukkah gift. But I was never all that interested in gaming consoles. Console games were (at the time, to a lesser extent today), with a few notable exceptions, either duo-player or level-based (levels at least seemingly without end).

The former genre – the two-player opposition, which included games such as Combat, Fishing Derby, and Outlaw – demanded a winner and loser, a success and failure, which also meant fierce competition. As Huizinga notes, “the more play bears the character of competition, the more fervent it will be” and mentions “in gambling and athletics it is at its height” (11). This was not a form of entertainment in which I had ever been interested (nor am I, today, any more interested in overly-competitive gaming, gambling, or sports). I had seen too many boastful winners and dejected failures for such gaming to command my attention overly much. “Human purpose,” Richard A. Lanham claims, “is energized by the competitive urge; that is why we convert all our serious activities into games. This competitive impulse finds its explanation in the hierarchical behavior of primates and lower animals” (57). Perhaps that was the trouble: unavoidable hierarchy, a struggle for dominance, where the inevitable winner engaged in “showing [her or himself] superior in the outcome of the game” and where “the main thing is to have won” (Huizinga 50). I did not find the second genre that much more fun: the unwinnable single-player game – including games such as Asteroids, Missile Command, and Space Invaders – which consisted of levels that increased in difficulty to the point that it seemed impossible (or actually was impossible) for a mere mortal to “beat the machine.” To this day, I remain uncertain whether or not many of the games I played ever had a possible triumphant ending; it seemed to me that the player was always doomed to failure, regardless of effort, practice, or talent. So what was the point, especially given that such games were incredibly repetitive, containing no real narrative interest to encourage further progression? John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade say that the “gamer generation” has an “acclimation to failure,” [2] for members believe, “no matter what style of video game you play, not succeeding is no big deal; you can always start the game over” (43). For the single-player, arcade-style game, perhaps this is true for many gamers, but “knowing you’ll be a better player the next time around” (Beck and Wade 43) seems not particularly reassuring if progress still means failure; and for the duo-player games, certainly one can play again, but Beck and Wade neglect, here, the involvement of others, where losing may be more akin, to use their example, to Little League “where failure has real costs and its consequences are immediately visible” (43). Losing and failure, though, are sometimes just that: losing and failure, accompanied by all of the emotions inherent to those conditions. I found both of these cases frustrating: the focus on the one hand on the conclusion of a contest (whose purpose is to win), and on the other, the mere impossibility of success (the inevitable failure).

The teleological necessity that I scorned in sports activities [3] seemed re-enforced in videogames. Yet games such as Atari’s 1979 Adventure did not fit either model. I repeatedly, but not quite repetitively, played Adventure, beginning to end: once a player becomes proficient, even the red dragon is not much of a danger, and the bat, stealing keys, only an annoyance. Losing the game was the exception. And yet, there I sat, playing over and over again.


Adventure, Atari 2600.

The pleasure I experienced in reaching the same solution in various ways was what was so enjoyable. While I might be critical of Beck and Wade’s overly positive claim that games teach their players that “failure is part of the process that leads to success” (134), I embrace more fully their claim that gamers tend to think, “If it doesn’t work I’ll try it this way, if I’m stuck in the maze I’ll try this.’ You’re in a situation for a reason, you’re not usually stuck, so let’s find a way around it, let’s solve this problem” (142). This is what Adventure was in part designed to do: while the goal always remained the same (bring the chalice to the yellow castle), the circumstances necessary to navigate in order to achieve that objective shifted. The game allowed some flexibility, too, so that the player could determine additional sub-conditions: for instance, bring the chalice to the yellow castle, but do so without slaying the dragons.

What’s more, while I often played as the programmers intended, nevertheless it was the first game whose boundaries I began to test, putting the purple bridge in odd places and locking the keys within the castle doors (making the game unwinnable). Putting the game cartridge in only part of the way, or quickly flicking the power switch on and off repeatedly sometimes caused the game to play in odd ways. My sisters and I also played Adventure not as intended: one of us would hide objects in various places throughout the world while the other looked away; the game, then, was to find everything (and to locate increasingly clever places to hide objects). I began to experiment with, even if not entirely conscious of it, disparate forms of gameplay, where I could relocate the binary that prevented me from enjoying play-just-to-win or play-until-you-fail scenarios. Instead of serious contest versus non-serious play [Huizinga’s “ludic factor proper” (30)], I could see that indeed numerous forms of play encompass a certain form of agonistic confrontation, where the gameplay itself – serious or no, teleological or perpetual – can be gratifying. Huizinga, even while he acknowledges the differences between serious and non-serious play and discusses several ancient cultures’ linguistic separation of the two playful forms, persuasively reveals their inseparability, where “the agon in Greek life, or the contest anywhere else in the world, bears all the formal characteristics of play” (31). His is a coherent theory of play that comfortably embraces serious contest and merely ludic activity. Even a competition might go on unendingly, not requiring a declared winner or loser: play is continually rekindled. That’s the point of the game. In the “hide-and-seek” version of Adventure that my sisters and I created, it was neither the player who hid objects successfully nor the player who found objects successfully the winner. Rather, a cleverly-hidden object being found was the desire, a pleasure that involved reciprocating process and result.

The Self as Agent

In identifying different types of ludic activity, distinguishing them from one another in order to reveal their shared qualities, Huizinga tangentially mentions the role of play in rites of passage (31). I never had to go on my first hunt, imbibe hallucinogens, or binge-drink (for all of which I am thankful), but there are moments we all have that are more internalized rites of passage or indications of ourselves as autonomous individuals, and some of mine involved gaming. In 1987, Test Drive hit the shelves. While my father may not have shown any interest whatsoever in the adventure games that I played (more on those later), fathers and sons often bond over a mutual admiration of various types of transportation, from the pirate ship in Treasure Island to space shuttles and sports cars. In this case of Test Drive, we were no different, he in a virtual Lotus, me in a virtual Porsche – or some similar combination of exotic supercars. Now it may be that I played the game quite a lot, and therefore knew the various advantages and disadvantages of particular automobiles, how fast I could take each bend – and in which car. And it may be that my father played the game infrequently and when he did, it was always with me. Regardless, though, I ran (drove) circles around him. In consistently defeating my father in Test Drive, I was still not particularly interested, as I mention of the Atari games, above, in the “evidence of this superiority [which] tends to confer upon the winner a semblance of superiority in general” (Huizinga 50). And I did not have as a motivation, as Huizinga might assume, a “desire for power or a will to dominate”; yet I actively enjoyed this triumph, for it seemed to me that I had “won esteem, obtained honor” (Huizinga 50) – and that is unarguably important for an eleven year-old. While I do not want to overemphasize this “coming of age” moment, it was nevertheless evidence that I could, indeed, do something better than my father could. And his continuing to play the game with me, even though he always lost was striking: it was the play itself (not even Test Drive, but the father-son activity) that was important. And perhaps he recognized the “esteem” I earned in consistently out-running him, which contributed to some inkling of realization that I had of myself as an agent independent from my parents. This recognition happened simultaneously with the obvious enjoyment we experienced playing the game in opposition, but together, a positive feeling which must indicate to some extent that that separation was okay, the son diverging from the father’s path. Computer games, despite representing themselves and requiring, to run, other advanced electronic technologies, operate on surprisingly primitive levels: earlier, I discussed the human drive to compete and to win, a concept that Lanham applies to human evolutionary history (57); here, I am discussing a rite of passage and a matriculation into self-consciousness, an awareness of oneself as an independent agent.

Games offer us insights into the way we think, act, and behave (or the way that we think we think, act, and behave) because they are such conscious attempts to represent our reality. It is no wonder that we learn something of the self when engaging in gaming activities.

The Agent’s Subjectivities

Computer role-playing games in particular have explored quite consciously how various elements of identity might influence the way in which player-characters interact with the gaming world’s inhabitants (or even their ability to do so) and accomplish tasks. Character creation processes vary widely, but often include some combination of identity markers – gender, race, strengths and weaknesses, character classes, moral frameworks, even types of dress – that alter gameplay to various degrees, depending on the title and complexity or flexibility of the gameplay itself. And while many gamers doubtless attempted to create some virtual version of their material selves [4], reflection on character creation was primarily about how different combinations of skills and abilities and the assigning of attribute points would shape gameplay: this was certainly my early motivation, so I did not much self-reflect. But this changed. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar’s character creation took a different approach. Matt Barton describes its process: “Instead of rolling dice and generating stats, players answer a series of difficult questions about moral dilemmas. Each of the questions is designed to test the player’s own moral center, or at least to determine which of the game’s eight virtues he or she most holds most dear” (115). For instance, one of Ultima’s character creation questions asks, “Thee and thy friend are valiant but penniless warriors. Thou both go out to slay a mighty dragon. Thy friend thinks he slew it, thee did. When asked, dost thou A) Truthfully claim the gold; or B) Allow thy friend the large reward?” [5] In essence, the players need to determine whether they will emphasize honesty or sacrifice: both admirable qualities representing positive responses to a question with no right or wrong answer. “Garriott’s[6] system,” Barton remarks, “lets players create characters that reflect their own personalities and interests” (115). While the game is not precisely launching a self-analysis, it is certainly asking players to examine value systems from the perspectives of their player-characters, the beings that the players creatively imagine. Later, in setting up a narrative whose unfolding requires gamers to make decisions through their player-characters, the game, in essence, provides a unique method of character development and exploration. In basing character creation on ethical systems which emphasize various values, and then compelling gamers/player-characters to choose different paths that favor one moral principle or another, the game inspires a potentially serious process self-inquiry in which it is asking about you through a particular representation of you[7].

I spent literal hours with the game, merely in character creation, exploring the various results of different answers and combination of answers as it affected my character and his class. This was an approach to the game not entirely dissimilar to my “testing the boundaries” with Adventure, but here, I was testing different results specifically enabled by the game; in essence, I was, to use Wm. Ruffin Bailey’s phrase, “acting digitally” (73), exploring the various possibilities offered by the game’s programming. In one respect, I practiced a gaming “literacy,” trying to predetermine, for example, how to be a bard or ranger in certain cases; following as much as I could a single “virtue” throughout the questioning process in others; and finally, trying – as honestly as I was able, while creating more contextual detail in my own mind to more accurately address the questions posed – to answer the inquiries as I (not my avatar) actually would. For a nine year-old, attempting to determine whether I valued “compassion” or “valor” over “honor” or “honesty” – and what each meant – was quite the exercise in self-inquiry and -perception. This reflection enables gamers to explore alternate mental landscapes, perhaps not so closely aligned with their own; gamers, eventually, begin to discover the “self” (or selves) by inhabiting the other, or at least imagining the other.

While I have focused on my own childhood experiences and what follows occurred well beyond it, nonetheless it is worth discussing this character creation method a bit further. It was adopted in subsequent games (for instance, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind) and appears in contemporary titles. Emphasis on self-exploration through gaming, especially with the advances in online communications which enabled MUDs and multiplayer games (and eventually, in 1997 in the form of Ultima Online, massively-multiplayer online games), has ultimately led to enormously widespread and productive scholarly focus on (even obsession with) online identities and alternative, electronic personae. Fallout 3, a comparatively late manifestation (2008) brilliantly executed its character development process, its designers clearly hyper-conscious of what the assigning of an avatar’s statistics is supposed to represent.

Fallout 3 [źródło Bethesda Game Studios,

Fallout 3 [source: Bethesda Game Studios]

The game starts with your (the player-character’s) birth: after a small splattering of uterine blood is cleaned from the “camera lens” and there is an appropriate number of mother-and-father-mutterings-of-joy, your father says, “Let’s see. Are you a boy or a girl?” at which point a window appears, prompting the player to determine her or his player-character’s gender. Your father then continues, “You’re going to need a name, aren’t you? Your mother and I were talking; what do you think about …” at which point the player is again prompted, this time to enter her or his player-character’s name. After a scene change, you find yourself in a nursery, where there is a children’s book, You’re SPECIAL (where “S.P.E.C.I.A.L” is an acronym for the player-character’s primary statistics: strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck). Reading the book – beautifully illustrated as a children’s alphabet book would be, you page through the characteristics, assigning points as you go. The book itself describes what each characteristic means. For example, “C is for charisma, it’s the way people think I’m great! I make my friends all laugh and smile, and never want to hate!” Fallout 3 successfully captures what actual children’s literacy development (in this case, learning one’s letters) is like. In fact, You’re SPECIAL even ends with a “Let’s Review” section, in which a gamer can review the player-character’s statistics before committing to them. The game (its writer, developer, programmer) is self-conscious about literacy development, but the players are, too: they are conscious of identity creation as creation, as developmental, as a choice-laden process. In essence, Ultima IV and Fallout 3 help us to realize that we are the agents of our own identities.

Traditional, Spatial, and Digital Literacy Development

While the character creation process in Fallout 3 certainly represents literacy development, by itself, it certainly isn’t. Yet game studies as a field has quite a clear sense of actual literacy development inspired or even enabled by the games that we play, as in part evidenced by James Paul Gee’s highly influential book, titled rather frankly, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. Others have quickly followed, even to the point that we have texts directed at audiences outside of the academy, such as Beck and Wade’s The Kids Are Alright – originally intended (as the authors themselves claim) for business applications (xi) – and ones specifically written to popular audiences, such as Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You and Marc Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me Mom—I’m Learning. These latter books are written almost as a defense against the vehemently negative criticisms, rampant in mainstream media, of videogaming. But unlike these latter three titles, Gee at least implies that there are different ways to play games, and not all of them are equally productive: “I am convinced,” he says, “that playing video games actively and critically is not ‘a waste of time’” and two sentences later, he repeats,

The content of video games, when they are played actively and critically, is something like this: They situate meaning in a multimodal space through embodied experiences to solve problems and reflect on the intricacies of the design of imagined worlds and the design of both real and imagined social relationships and identities in the modern world. (48, boldface mine, italics in original)[8]

In terms of active and critical awareness, Gee may have an advantage here over mainstream gamers. He had only recently been introduced to gaming when he wrote his book[9]. This perhaps enables the critical distance needed to play games consciously and analytically, the elements of play, in this case, so valuable to literacy development. While early computer games – purely text games or graphical games whose command inputs involved text parsers – were clearly traditionally literate activities (one had to read and compose commands), the relationship between contemporary games and literacy development are not quite as clear. Obvious, traditional notions of literacy, upon What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy’s publication, had already been largely eliminated from game interfaces. This diminishing of traditional literacy as a prerequisite to gaming is arguably a conscious attempt by developers to achieve what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin call “transparent immediacy.”

Bolter and Grusin claim, “virtual reality is immersive, which means that it is a medium whose purpose is to disappear” (21), and “virtual reality should come as close as possible to our daily visual experience” (22). As it applies to computer games, games’ interfaces, then, should disappear, as “the desire for immediacy is apparent in claims that digital images are more exciting, lively, and realistic than mere text on a computer screen and that a videoconference will lead to more effective communication than a telephone call” (Bolter and Grusin 23). As Kevin Moberly argues, “In the development of computer games, this process of remediation is often manifested in attempts to eliminate or otherwise diminish the presence of writing” (288). He then traces the gradual, but relentless fading of the written word in Sierra On-Line’s King’s Quest series: where King’s Quest I utilized a “carat-driven parser interface” (Moberly 288) that generally used a two- or three-word imperative to command the on-screen character (in this case, Sir Graham) and textual descriptions of various game objects, eventually King’s Quest V heralded the comparative demise of the written word, favoring a point-and-click interface and vivid graphics that seemed not to require further written description.

When playing King’s Quest and Sierra’s other “3-D Animated Adventures,” I remember (as many gamers doubtless do), struggling with the parser, trying to get the program to make the characters do what I wanted them to do. For me, it was a happy struggle. I try this, I try that, even if, too frequently, I “can't do that – at least not now.”[10] I had to figure out whether King Graham, in King’s Quest II should “get,” “take,” or “pick up” an object, or look at a “stone,” “rock,” or merely “the ground.” Sometimes the game would recognize multiple ways of issuing a command, sometimes not: testing the parser’s ability to recognize words and phrases became part of the game – not a bad lesson in traditional literacy for a young lad. I am also thankful that, when my lexis failed me, my older sister was often there to help (a lovely teaching moment, to be certain, and she, too, was excited to complete the quest, to see the next screen). It was her linguistic proficiency that also quickly proved to me that it was not always my lack of vocabulary that was at fault; rather, it was the parser “who” was inept. Language, here, was specifically non-transparent, where the machine’s interpretive limitations mirrored my own.

While on some level Moberly seems to lament the parser’s passing (a funeral that I would solemnly attend), Loguidice and Barton disparage – quite persuasively, even irrefutably, I should add – King’s Quest I’s command interface as “cumbersome and vexing” and “woefully dumb compared to Infocom’s Zork.” They even reference others who had similar difficulty with the inconsistent parser, but also remark that while the “text parser was dropped in later Sierra adventure games … some fans objected that doing so inhibited their (perceived, at least) freedom and creativity” (147). Sure, the parser was inconsistent, but for the eight year-old child I was then, wrestling with the parser was part of the challenge, forcing me to think not so much about different strategies to solve a problem (as is commonplace and universally welcomed in games), but about different words to employ to solve the problem. Language manipulation was revealed to be a problem-solving process; language itself was a potential solution.

            It was Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter that really threw me.[11] In one sequence, Roger Wilco, the story’s protagonist, having crash-landed in an escape pod on the planet Kerona, needed to traverse a path upon which a laser beam barred his progress. I spent hours attempting to solve this problem, manipulating the command parser in the numerous ways I had trained myself to do in previous Sierra 3-D Animated Adventure titles. But to no avail. I eventually purchased the hint book[12], having split the cost (cobbled together from our allowances for various household chores) with a friend of mine, as $7.95 was a small fortune at the time. This was, of course, well before we could quickly Google the solution, download any one of a number of gamer-authored walkthroughs, or poke around the Space Quest wiki. As it turns out, I had merely missed the piece of reflective glass – shrapnel from the escape pod’s rough landing – that I could use to short circuit the laser beam. Easy. And goodness did I feel stupid (and poorer). I had learned my lesson, however.

In Police Quest I, I encountered a similar impasse. Sonny Bonds, the protagonist, had to make a felony arrest. I simply couldn’t do it. Regardless of my dedicated experimentation with the parser, trying numerous commands over the course of hours and days (literally), I eventually gave up. It was weeks (perhaps months) later, that, given my desire to play the rest of the game and continue its narrative, I determined, I swore to myself, that I would successfully arrest the perpetrator. I turned to the game manual[13] – more specifically, the “Lytton Police Department Policeman’s Indoctrination Guide”[14] – in which I found “Felony Arrest Procedures,” a ten-step procedure that I merely had to translate, in chronological order, into the command interface’s few-word-sentence input structure. After weeks (perhaps months) of being frustrated and dejected, and pining to continue the game, I had solved the problem and transported the prisoner to jail, just in the way the procedural documentation indicated I should (“Lytton” 10).

In these examples, I hope I have indicated that the challenge and pleasure was in deciphering what lay behind the simple parser input – on the one hand, figuring out an appropriate word combination (usually an imperative-verb/object command) to get the program to do what I wanted it to, and on the other hand, testing its capabilities (to see what I could get it to do, whether related to the game-as-intended, its story, or neither). I found delight in the latter practice, exploring what the program could and could not understand and how it would respond to either. Although I would be remiss if I did not also point out that there was enormous glee in seeing the next screen and unfolding additional narrative after I had solved a puzzle. Yet beyond fiddling with word combinations, there are two additional, conventional literacies at play. First, in going to the game manual and the hint book for aid, reading became a form of problem-solving (one that I cannot stress enough to my own students). Second, the game manual and hint book, existing as they do outside of the gaming environment, constitute research. Today, the Internet has enabled gamers to write and distribute their own game walkthroughs and hint lists, FAQs, strategy guides, and related documents [15], while gaming forum and chatroom participation add to these literate practices. And of course, in order for gamers to access these documents, they research (even if a quick Google search usually does the trick) and read in order to help them solve the frequent problems – both technical ones and those involving gameplay – that they encounter in numerous games. Even the most cursory glance at gaming community websites will persuasively demonstrate, beyond doubt, the widespread writing, reading, and research practices in which gamers engage, and many of them on a daily basis.

There is another literate practice that I should mention, a “spatial literacy” that gamers develop that involves a learned behavior. Anna Reading and Colin Harvey “contend that it is the simultaneity of body and mind in video game play that suggests the need for a conceptualization of nostalgia that draws on its etymological origins embracing the physiological” (165). As an example of simultaneously psychological and physiological nostalgia, I turn to my experience playing The Bard’s Tale, an early computer role-playing game that is largely a dungeon-crawler.

Bard's Tale [źródło: Creative Commons]

The Bard's Tale, [source: Creative Commons]

The gamer assembles a party of characters (all of whom the gamer generates) and, in typical Dungeons and Dragons fashion, works to gain experience by solving puzzles and slaying creatures (in The Bard’s Tale, emphasis is on the latter). But since even then there were too many games and too little time, I, like many gamers, took a shortcut (perhaps also a residual effect of not quite realizing at the time that it was the gameplay itself, with the tedious slaying of kobolds to slowly build experience so that the zombies were more approachable; with the frequent dying and reloading; with the continual traveling of the same labyrinthine corridors, repeated until quite unbelievably, yet perfectly, memorized). What I needed was properly-equipped, experienced characters, goals that could be achieved more quickly if I could slay just a couple of high experience point- and ample treasure-yielding creatures, thereby bypassing excessive kobold carnage and the frustration that resulted[16]. And easily accessible were the guardian statues who secured the temple in northeastern Skara Brae. To this day, the route from the Adventurer’s Guild to the temple returns quickly at least to my hands[17]: L-R-R-L-R-L-R-L-L-R, and voilà!, guardian statues to slaughter for much experience. Eventually, I was able to reach the statues (literally) with my eyes closed. It is quite extraordinary to me that a gamer playing a CRPG – largely viewed as an intellectually lively, but physically idle act – is defined in part by the physical body. We are familiar with simulation games being widely used for training purposes when one learns, for instance, to drive, to fly, or to shoot. Well known are studies of arcade-style games and their potential enhancement of gamers’ hand-eye coordination over time. Yet even The Bard’s Tale, a CRPG that is anything but a “twitch game,” one whose battling (an exceedingly physical activity, often even in gaming) commences merely through pushing individual keys – (A)ttack foes, (P)arty attack, or (D)efend – and then sitting back to watch the battle (textually) unfold, involves the physical body, as Reading and Harvey suggest.

The first statue-slaying was the most difficult, and I needed a plan, which brings me to digital literacy development, a term I am using to very generally describe the knowledge, use, and even exploitation of computer programs and interfaces. I wanted to level-up my characters rapidly so that I could get on with the game and not have to worry (as much) about dying and reloading after turning each corner or opening each door (and I opened all of them). The first activity involves wandering around Skara Brae, killing creatures, collecting their treasure, and selling their equipment; this is as the programmers intend. By this time (1985), I was savvy enough with MS-DOS that I could:

1)    Exit the program

2)    Locate the character files

3)    Copy them to the same directory, but with different file names

4)    Reboot the program

5)    Take all of the treasure and equipment from the copied characters’ inventories and give it, at the Adventurer’s Guild, to the original characters

6)    Sell the unneeded equipment at Garth’s Equipment Shoppe (R-R-R-L from the Guild) and pocket the extra treasure

7)    Repeat as “necessary”

In this way, I multiplied my treasure and equipment – exponentially. The method had the added benefit of duplicating rare items, so several of my characters wore diamond plate and soul maces quickly became commonplace. And what’s more, rarer items, even when made less rare through my manipulation, maintained their rare-item prices (The Bard’s Tale economy was not as realistic as, say, Morrowind’s, in which merchants are limited by budgets, or Guild Wars, in which values of commodities can fluctuate widely).

Gaming Literacies

To this point, I have largely been examining my own childhood through my gaming experiences. I began to understand competition as a complicated concept, without contradiction or paradox, embodying the agonist contest; the roles of winners and losers; the joy of the competition itself, divorced from a final outcome; the collaboration that exists within competition. Through gaming, I discovered a rite of passage, during which I realized that my path was diverging from that of my father’s; I was becoming an independent agent. I explored myself as self, questioning the roles that I played, the decisions I made, the motivations behind my actions. I was developing disparate forms of literacy – linguistic exploration and flexibility, spatial understanding and mastery, computer interface use and manipulation. These are examples of development and maturation that, while related to, shaped, and even inspired by gaming, have an impact on activities in the larger, non-virtual world. Yet gaming helps us to develop literacies and behaviors applicable to and located within gaming worlds as well.

As an experienced gamer, I have thoroughly learned three basic lessons, fundamental directives. First, look at everything. Only in so doing – whether typing “look at x” with the text-based parser, pointing-and-clicking every pixel, or visually examining the screen in the conventional way – will one find the shard of glass necessary to disrupt a laser beam. Second, pick up everything. In this way, one will be prepared with the nightstick (that one almost left in the patrol car) to confront the miscreants of Lytton. Third, read everything. Otherwise, Marvin Hoffman will inevitably shoot first, and Jack will never show up as backup. I have an advantage here (perhaps unlike Gee, in this case), in that my “actual” childhood coincided with my “childhood as a gamer.” Others, however, come to gaming comparatively late in life. For the new adult gamers I have encountered, I have often played the role of teacher, providing them with the basic “literacy education” that I received as a child through practice. I am no longer the child learning, but the teacher educating – education that, when I was growing up, was simply unavailable. I can be the pedagogue for others’ childhoods as gamers. Let me illustrate with two quick anecdotes.

I had largely ceased gaming for a while, due in part to a lack of money to replace my aging PC, but also because I was concentrating on my early graduate studies. But my then girlfriend (now wife) was intrigued by my stories of playing games while growing up, and by my descriptions of the games themselves. She was not a gamer. Her curiosity rekindled my interest, and I justified the purchase of a new PC. Adventure games struck her as the most attractive, and so we installed the recently-released The Longest Journey. It was fun for a bit, but quickly became frustrating for her. I think her frustration, even fury, understandable. Who would have predicted that one needs to take a rubber glove out of a wastebasket seemingly just to carry it around? What is the logic behind putting someone else’s bread in one’s pocket for it to molder? And why, oh why on earth would one pick up a deflated rubber duck, combine it with a clothesline (which was previously combined with clamps), and then blow it up to create some sort of new object, all to get an iron key that opens one knows not what? Well, the answer is, a non-gamer wouldn’t, while a gamer would. New to gaming, my wife envisioned the various puzzles of the game similarly to mathematics or logic puzzles: one needed to think through them, unravel their inherent logic, perhaps work backwards. This is true of some game puzzles, but not others. For instance, the inventory puzzle is a well known “puzzle genre” for gamers. (Well of course you need the toy monkey and have to remove its eye!) Once this “adventure game logic” is understood, the games are playable, the experience enjoyable. It introduces a different way of thinking applicable within gaming environments, if not so much in life of the everyday. After playing additional games, having new gaming experiences, and continuing to develop her gaming prowess, my wife is now game “literate” and understands fully the rule to “pick up everything.”

Quite recently, my sister (also encouraged by the replacing of an aging PC) got back into gaming. As I mentioned, she and I had played videogames as children, but after Sierra’s 3-D animated adventures, her videogaming experiences for the most part ceased. To celebrate her new PC, I bought her Fallout 3 (of course the Game of the Year Edition – did you need to ask?), a copy of which no gamer should be without (I said). My wife and I had completed it, having played over the course of a full year, as we explored every nook and cranny and completed every mission possible based on our respective player-characters’ identities and gameplay decisions – and balanced gameplay with our professional schedules. I was looking forward to my sister’s updates: where she was in the game, who she had talked to, what paths she had chosen. It was quite the surprise when she called a few days after first booting Fallout 3 with a report that she had “completed” it and that it had been fun. That’s it?! I wanted to hear a more verbose description of her experiences, and so I asked: Were you as creeped-out as I was by the locals in Point Lookout? How did you deal with the Tenpenny debacle? Is Bob/Harold still with us or did you actually listen to him? Wasn’t the Mothership a hoot? My sister was confused by all of these questions, having met her Dad and followed him directly to the Jefferson Memorial and Project Purity. Ack! Read everything, I said, and you would have known that the little clear triangles on the compass lead you to undiscovered places and therefore more missions. She had followed her literary training, taught to her since childhood, that indicates the linearity of narrative structures; as a result, as soon as she saw the objective to follow her father, she did so. That’s how, after all, stories work. I explained to her that this world is designed to walk around it and explore. That’s part of the fun. And for goodness sake, don’t listen to the NPCs (usually) when they tell you that you need to hurry: your Dad will still be there, weeks and months later, so go ahead and plan that assault on Paradise Falls and visit the Pitt first. The entire world actually does revolve around you. Folks will indeed want your help, but you can make them wait for it. The condition of the needy NPC waiting idly for sometimes absurdly lengthy periods of time for the protagonist to reinitiate conversation is one with which the experienced CRPGer is familiar: “Before it’s too late!” and such utterances are merely part of the narrative tension and not to be taken literally. My sister began Fallout 3 again – for a new gaming experience, this time with a different character, a male specializing in ranged weaponry (instead of the female who preferred hand-to-hand combat). Simply “fun” before, my sister enthusiastically reported that it was now “fantastic,” “the best game ever,” indicating in no uncertain terms that being gaming “literate” leads to fuller experiences and deeper pleasure.

These anecdotes reveal that games, as many scholars have claimed, and by now I hope we all know, do expose new ways of thinking and learning to those unfamiliar with them: “When people learn to play video games,” Gee states, “they are learning a new literacy” (13). Although the Fallout 3 manual claims that “it’s your game, so play it the way you want. There is no ‘right’ way to play” (“Vault Dweller’s”), my sister did, in my estimation, play it “wrong” initially. Gee explains his own wrestling with this type of “literacy”:

One sort of limitation video games certainly bring up to real-world baby boomers like me is that they do not reward—in fact, they punish—some of my most cherished ways of learning and thinking (e.g., being too quick to want to get to a goal without engaging in sufficient prior nonlinear exploration. (57)

What my two examples also indicate is that one does not need to be a baby boomer (a subjectivity that Gee uses repeatedly to indicate a divergence in learning strategies among different generations) to be “too influenced by traditional schooling” (102), and to thereby unintentionally overlook new gaming-learning strategies. To an extent my sister had done so, and she’s younger than I am. There are different sorts of problem-puzzles to be solved and gaming-based learning strategies to explore. “Real-world” is also not the only gold standard of applicability or productive value any longer. The claims that certain types of puzzles exist only within gaming environments and certain learning strategies are only useful within games may at one time have been an indication of limited use-value and applicability (and therefore, productivity). But given the comparative ubiquity of games (peppered all over the Internet, accessible on cell phones, appearing widely on social networks such as Facebook, and so forth), gaming is becoming (has become?) so much a part of life of the everyday (given certain socio-economic positioning and access to electronic technologies), that the fact that some skills and knowledge types may find most use within games does not regulate them to the periphery in terms of literacy or practice. In addition, professional success is also not the only goal (as Beck and Wade’s or Prensky’s or even, to an extent, Gee’s examination of gaming practices might indicate). What of entertainment? Certainly the specifically gaming literacies that I have discussed enhanced my, my wife’s, and my sister’s ability to enjoy computer games. It could be that we need to consider a wider definition of what we deem “productive” and recognize non-academic and non-professional applications of our various literacies.

If one does not understand gaming literacies, one can be, given the ubiquity of games today, missing something. By way of comparison, consider that television is so pervasive that if one does not watch any of the primetime shows, one is left out of the conversation: “What?! You didn’t see it?!” (This is an expression of shock with which I am somewhat familiar.) Some knowledge of current television (and/or film) becomes to a degree necessary, or at least useful, to communicate socially in a world where casual conversation about the weather has been replaced by recaps of the latest television shows and expressions of favorite (or deplorable or scandalous) moments. No knowledge of, a complete lack of understanding of videogames has already begun to create disconnections between people within social, perhaps even cognitive, culture. Gaming literacies as gaming literacies are worth having, worth developing, worth studying.

Gaming Literacies Revisited

But games themselves change rapidly, and so too do the literacies they demand. Having played games throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, I had learned the lesson that if an object could be interacted with, then that object was essential to gameplay; if I could pick up an object, I should. At the time, this pattern was caused, ultimately, by necessity. Given extremely limited data storage capacity, there was little room on 5¼ or 3½ inch floppies or in 640K of memory available for superfluous material (and we certainly wouldn’t, even if we could have, downloaded it at 300 baud). Interactive objects needed more data – programming and complicated graphics or animation – and therefore more space. Even as storage media and devices grew in capacity, the trend continued: whether because of habit, tradition, or laziness, I don’t know. But in 2002 – for me, perhaps slightly earlier for others – everything changed. This is when I realized that I am still in the midst of my gaming learning process.

Waking up in the hull of ship, dazed, and as some sort of prisoner, I had little on my person, yet I was nevertheless about to be released into an unkind and dangerous world. I needed to survive, so based on the gaming provision I just mentioned, I picked up, indiscriminately, everything that appeared moveable – forks, hourglasses, calipers, bowls, yarn, pieces of paper, inkwells. Everything grabbable, I grabbed. It was quite the surprise to learn, rather quickly, actually, that these objects – though saleable for a minimal number of Septims which certainly were not worth the risk of being caught thieving – served more an aesthetic purpose than as objects essential to gameplay. (And yet they were: not merely part of the background and indeed able to be manipulated!) None of the items would help me to complete a quest. I was thus introduced to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, where my interaction with the world became more complicated, richer. The new pleasure was not really narratological (although the added items enhanced the depth, the immersion into the world and by association, the story), and not ludological, either, as the items had little to do with gameplay (although they enhanced the game’s physics, its dynamics). The existence of such items, the introduction of this new element of items-for-the-sake-of-world-immersion, represented an “experiential literacy” that I had not seen up to that point in games. It was certainly not my “baby-boomer ways of learning and thinking” (Gee 5) that caused me to misunderstand the game initially; I had, after all, grown up with games. It was my gaming literacy itself that actually hampered me in Morrowind, even if just for a fleeting moment, for it was a “real world” literacy that was more applicable in this particular situation.

Will Slocombe explores the reciprocal nature of gaming and “real world” literacies (even if he does not use these terms, instead framing his argument in terms of behaviors). He claims that narratological and ludological conceptions of interactivity can be “remarkably naïve,” in that they “assume that the player ‘plays’ the game”; “rather,” he continues, ‘interactivity’ is reciprocal and not just at the level of the feedback provided by the game. … Just as the player plays the game, so too the game ‘plays’ the player” (46). He offers the example or “when the act of peeking around a wall places the avatar in the line-of-sight of a guard; this causes the guard to react and, in turn, causes the player to hide the avatar until the danger is past” (46). With this (rather clever, I think) example he establishes his argument against Ted Friedman’s assertion that the computer “runs the universe that you inhabit when you play the game” (qtd. in Slocombe 41). Critical of Friedman, Slocombe adds that “the computerized consciousness – our way of thinking as a result of gaming – runs the universe that we inhabit whether or not we are playing the game,” and points out that his thinking outside of the game environment is sometimes shaped by gameplay tendencies: he “started interacting with the world as if it were a game,” for example “formulat[ing] conversations as a series of dialogue options” (47, emphasis in the original). It is here that I’m rather skeptical: Slocombe asks, “Who has not, after a particularly heavy bout of gaming, started interacting with the world as if it were a game?” (47). (Well, I’ve done a lot of gaming, and if he needs one example … ). I do not imagine that Slocombe, in Terminator-like fashion, is selecting numbered dialogue options from some mental HUD, although perhaps we can take him at his word that his everyday, face-to-face communication has been influenced by gaming. His is not, like Gee’s, an argument indicating that literacy practices developed within games can be productive only when games are played actively and critically. Instead, he stresses that this “ideological aspect” (46) of games has altered our very ways of thinking in an unconscious way; to illustrate this possibility, Slocombe applies Louis Althusser’s notion of the Ideological State Apparatus to his object of study, Deus Ex, revealing that beyond the player being in competition with the computer within the game itself[18], the machine becomes an active agent, shaping the thinking of the human.

But the trouble with Slocombe’s claim as I see it is that most of these roles and behaviors – the alert guard searching, the stealthy infiltrator hiding – existed well before the game; the game itself is only a result of this previously determined way of thinking and is indeed veritably designed to emulate familiar actions and reactions; in essence, what Slocombe is claiming as cause is actually an effect. We might, for instance, marvel at how amazing it is that the Earth’s atmosphere allows light and heat, which are beneficial to human beings, to penetrate, but simultaneously reflects ultraviolet rays that would be harmful – how extraordinary it is that the sun and earth are set up that way, seemingly just for us; yet it’s really not surprising when we consider that if it were any other way, we’d be marveling at that alternative condition, or, evolutionarily speaking, would never have been conscious about this idea in the first place (in short, we either would exist differently and recognize that ontology, or we wouldn’t be at all). Slocombe certainly does not miss the point, but rather arrives along side of it: it’s not that gaming influences our thinking and behaviors overly much as some sort of ISA that operates for itself without motivation or through some intentional strategy of sinister game designers; rather, gaming reveals something about the way we think and behave because they represent constructions of reality that were consciously produced and executed. Even the “pick everything up” mentality, though extreme in games, is part of a “natural” inclination for a tool-making species whose members see the world around them as raw material for the production of tools.

For an alternative perspective, we might turn to Ian Bogost: while Slocombe argues for videogames as ISAs, Bogost claims that “by playing these games and unpacking the claims their procedural rhetorics make about political situations, we can gain an unusually detached perspective on the ideologies that drive them” (75). To frame the significance of this point in terms of literacy, gaming as a literacy development tool does not necessarily show us new ways of thinking and learning (although it can do that, and certainly does enable new methodologies, but again, only if games are played “actively and critically”), but it does reveal something about the way we learn and offer us new ways to conceptualize conditions, actions, and approaches to thinking and learning. “Conventional” literacies and gaming literacies, like Slocombe’s interacting behaviors of humans and games, are reciprocal: we read games by whatever method we have available to us; games show us new analytical methodologies; we read artifacts in the “real world” employing those new analytical methods; we play new games; new games challenge and reinforce our traditional and new ways of reading; we read games and reality through the new lenses revealed to us.

Just as I remain skeptical of Gee’s homogeneous “baby boomer generation,” so too do I cringe when I see references to the “gaming generation.” The literacies practiced by both groups are embraced by members in both groups – if we can even classify these “generations” coherently, and I think that schema problematic. And I am suspicious of any overly enthusiastic analysis of games as objects that indoctrinate us and covertly modify our behaviors. After all, games are programmed, consumed, and played based on analyses of largely familiar behaviors and activities in the first place. We certainly can see, as many videogaming-related texts – scholarly and non-scholarly – indicate, a change in literacy development and education as games have become ubiquitous (truly, on a worldly scale). It is essential to remember, however, that we do not discard different literacies. Rather, we apply them in various ways and in diverse contexts. Games may help us to develop “new” literacies, but these new literacies do not replace conventional ones. Finally, as is always the case when academics appropriate “non-academic” objects of study – the novel, film, television, comic books, now videogames – it would be our loss if we neglect Huizinga’s “ludic factor proper,” becoming too serious about our gaming activities. I still have a great deal of fun videogaming, “just” enjoying the gameplay, indulging my escapist desires. Yet gaming literacies indicate, too, that there is enormous pleasure (and productive use-value) to be had from playing games “critically and actively,” when gaming in an analytical frame of mind, consciously considering games and the subjectivities they enable. Through my anecdotes above, I hope I have communicated the pleasure that I experience in gameplay, the intellectual-analytical variety and the childlike glee games elicit. It is perhaps this dual-nature of gameplay that would be the most productive element that experienced gamers can pass along to others.


Works Cited

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---. “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004. 45-55. Print.

Bailey, Wm. Ruffin. “Hacks, Mods, Easter Eggs, and Fossils: Intentionality and Digitalism in the

Video Game.” Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games. Ed. Zach

Whalen and Laurie N. Taylor. Vanderbilt UP: Nashville, TN, 2008. 69-90. Print.

Barton, Matt. Dungeons & Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games. Wellesley, MA: A K Peters, Ltd., 2008. Print.

Beck, John C. and Mitchell Wade. The Kids Are Alright: How the Gamer Generation Is

Changing the Workplace . Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2006. Print.

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007. Print.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin.Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT P., 2002. Print.

DeMaria, Rusel and Johnny L. Wilson. High Score: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games.

New York: McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2004. Print.

“Vault Dweller’s Survival Guide.” (Fallout 3 game manual). Rockville, MD: Bethesda

Softworks, LLC, 2008. n. pag. Print.

Gaming Lives in the Twenty-First Century: Literate Connections . Ed. Cynthia L. Selfe and Gail

E. Hawisher. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Gee, James Paul. Foreword. Gaming Lives in the Twenty-First Century: Literate Connections.

Ed. Cynthia L. Selfe and Gail E. Hawisher. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. ix-xiii. Print.

---. What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New

York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: The Beacon

Press, 1955. Print.

Johnson, Steven. Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually

Making Us Smarter . New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. Print.

Kent, Steven L. The Ultimate History of Computer Games: From Pong to Pokémon and Beyond.

New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001. Print.

Lanham, Richard A. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: The

U of Chicago P, 1993. Print.

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class=GramE> Auto, Super Mario, and the Most Influential Games of All Time . Burlington, MA: Focal

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Designed by Jim Walls. Coarsegold, CA: Sierra On-Line, Inc., 1987. Print.

Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games. Ed. Zach Whalen and Laurie N.

Taylor. Vanderbilt UP: Nashville, TN, 2008. Print.

Prensky, Marc. Don’t Bother Me Mom—I’m Learning: How Computer and Video Games Are

Preparing Your Kids for 21st Century Success—and How You Can Help! St. Paul, MN:

Paragon House, 2006. Print.

Reading, Anna and Colin Harvey. “Remembrance of Things Fast: Conceptualizing Nostalgic-

Play in the Battlestar Galactica Video Game.” Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games. Ed. Zach Whalen and Laurie N. Taylor. Vanderbilt UP: Nashville, TN, 2008. 164-179. Print.

Slocombe, Will. “A ‘Majestic’ Reflexivity: Machine-Gods and the Creation of the Playing

Subject in Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Invisible War.” Digital Gameplay: Essays on the Nexus of Game and Gamer. Ed. Nate Garrelts. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005. 36-51. Print.

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Generation . Ed. Heather Urbanski. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2010.

198-200. Print.

Games Referenced

Adventure . Atari, Inc., 1980. Atari 2600 Game.

Asteroids . Atari, Inc., 1981. Atari 2600 Game.

The Bard’s Tale . Electronic Arts/Interplay, 1985. PC Game.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind . Bethesda Softworks, 2002. PC Game.

Deus Ex . Eidos Interactive/Ion Storm, 2000. PC Game.

Fallout 3 . Bethesda Softworks, 2008. PC Game.

Fishing Derby . Atari, Inc., 1980. Atari 2600 Game.

Guild Wars . NCSoft/ArenaNet, 2005. PC Game/MMOG.

King’s Quest I: Quest for the Crown . Sierra On-Line, Inc., 1984. PC Game.

King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne . Sierra On-Line, Inc., 1985. PC Game.

The Longest Journey .Funcom, 2000. PC Game.

Missile Command . Atari, Inc., 1981. Atari 2600 Game.

Outlaw . Atari, Inc., 1978. Atari 2600 Game.

Police Quest I: In Pursuit of the Death Angel . Sierra On-Line, Inc., 1987. PC Game.

Test Drive . Accolade/Distinctive Software, 1987. PC Game.

Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter . Sierra On-Line, Inc., 1986. PC Game.

Space Invaders . Atari, Inc., 1980. Atari 2600 Game.

Spacewar! Steve Russell at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1962. Programmed Data Processor-1 (PDP-1).

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar . Origin Systems, 1985. PC Game.

Ultima Online . Electronic Arts, 1997. PC Game/MMOG.

Zork . Infocom, 1980. PC Game.



I had another “year one” of gaming experiences, different enough from the Atari 2600 that I won’t call it a “year two.”  It was the beginning of my computer gaming experiences.  My father procured (it must have been 1982 or 1983) through his work a Vector 4 computer.  It had two 5.25” floppy drives (no hard drive), maybe 128 KB of RAM, a monochrome display, and ran on the CP/M operating system.  It was glorious.  My father “downloaded” – I’m rather certain that we didn’t use that term at the time – at something like 300 baud an ASCII game that resembled Centipede.  [And fewer than ten years later, a buddy and I took the Vector 4 apart to see what was inside (our plan did not include putting it back together).  What’s more, I recently saw a Vector 4 motherboard on ebay – “Buy Now” for $229.99.  Who would have guessed?  (Who could have guessed?)] 

Beck and Wade’s, like other popular audience-directed texts arguing for the productivity of gaming in childhood, tend to be rather overly enthusiastic or positive, a symptom, perhaps of actively working against the thoroughly uncritical condemnation of videogames frequently heard from parents or in mainstream media outlets (thus, such popular texts perhaps necessarily overstate their cases).

One might argue that in sports, the focus is on the game, or the “fun of the game,” but to this day I largely deny that.  As early as elementary school, the sorrow of the losing team was clear and not relieved overly much by immodest winners; the importance of winning is a symptom of serious competition that only increased in high school and at the university.

For an amusing and insightful short piece that addresses one academic gamer’s attempt to create a character that mixes the “real” with the “virtual,” see Zach Waggoner’s “Conf(us)(ess)ions of a Videogame Role-Player.”

If, dear reader, you’re interested in your own Ultima avatar, I highly suggest playing the game; however, if pressed for time or lacking in archaic computing equipment, see Weyfour WWWWolf's Web of Weird Things, Random Hacks, “Ultima Character Creation” at <> (last accessed 4 April 2010).

Richard A. Garriott, the creator of the Ultima series.

Even given a player-character that is specifically unlike the gamer, such self-inquiry is possible through negative identification.

Gee refers to active and critical play frequently throughout the text (45, 46, 47, 48, 59, 98, 194, 202).

Gee comments that “when I wrote What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (2003) I was fairy new to video games” (Foreword ix).

And I was sometimes gullible enough to believe the parser’s canned response to something that it did not understand, and would, in fact, try again later . . .

Yes, I realize that Space Quest I came after King’s Quest II, when presumably my gaming literacy development should have been at a more advanced level – what defense can I offer?  It is significant, however, that this episode has stayed with me for so long. 

The hint books were actually quite entertaining in their own right.  They were comprised of actual “hints” as I remember it, and not written as a full walkthrough   as is comparatively common today.  Each of the clear questions were followed by the answers, written in an invisible ink, which required the special highlighting marker (that accompanied the book) to reveal.

Police Quest I came with other useful materials – such as a quick reference card explaining “HOW TO PLAY FIVE CARD DRAW POKER.”  Marvelous!  (I was eleven.)

Sure, contemporary me would have a field day with the term “indoctrination.”

Gamers even create their own gaming content and mods with the help of game authoring tools.

Matt Barton remembers, “I lost track of the times I created an entire party of adventurers, only to have them all perish in a random encounter before I could make it to Garth’s weapon shop!” (93).

I still have to look at the map for the street names, but basically, go South on Trumpet, take a right into the Gran Plaz and, after going crossing the plaza, take a right to go north on Grey Knife; then, hang a left on the Blue Highway and take another left at the bend.  Mapquest or Googlemap that.

That is, for stand-alone titles, especially of the strategy or arcade genres, for this line of argument is less convincing when we consider multiplayer games, and ambiguous when we consider narrative-driven games in which the competition is less direct.