By Emma Reay, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

Videogames can occupy the same space in classrooms as novels and poems do, but this is rarely reflected in the critical literature. Instead, videogames are positioned as a means to an end – a trojan horse to trick students into accepting something they would otherwise resist. Well-intentioned educators debate the merits of running Fortnite-themed exercise camps or whether Minecraft might be used to re-engage readers with Swallows and Amazons, which is proving amazonly hard for modern children to swallow (considering this text’s picnic-hamper-colonialism, maybe this isn’t a bad thing). However, if researchers could entertain the possibility that playing Fortnite has autotelic value, they could explore the aesthetic experiences elicited by Fortnite and illuminate how the text works on the player. I see this kind of analysis as equivalent to the close, critical readings English teachers encourage in literature classrooms – understanding how a mechanic produces a particular effect is not unlike speculating how a metaphor acts on a reader.

Taking Fortnite or Minecrafts seriously as set texts in an English class not only shows an openness to, and a respect for, children’s tastes and interests, but also models a critical, emancipated playing stance that children can choose to adopt when they encounter other interactive media. If half of the energy spent worrying about videogames trapping children in passive, mindless spectatorship were dedicated to teaching children about the ludic and rhetorical devices videogames use to direct their attention, children would be equipped with the skills and information needed to be alert, and potentially resistant, players.

My research argues that prioritising the utilitarian, teleologic value of videogames detracts from and diminishes their poetic or aesthetic value, and producing data that suggests videogames may have practical applications as pedagogic tools is a poor defence for their inclusion in the classroom. If you treat art like a tool, it ceases to be art. If you approach literature as you would an instruction manual, it ceases to be literature.

After all, can you imagine if this were how academics approached other children’s texts?

 “Although reading The Hobbit is somewhat underwhelming from the perspective of the sensory and motor cortices, it does expose readers to a broad range of vocabulary. However, it must be noted that there are no drills or tests to cement memorisation. The nonsense coinages do provide intrinsic motivation for the assessment of phonic abilities and the maps found on the end-papers could be used to introduce to cartography. Unfortunately, studies have found that using this text in the classroom demotivates those with dyslexia, and alienates those who do not have access to books at home.”

The Secret Garden does not allow for individual, creative self-expression in terms of garden design, but it does introduce readers to the names of a selection of British flora and fauna. There is very limited scope for readers to experience the ‘emotions of agency’ when reading this book, as they are unable to direct the protagonist’s actions: they feel neither a sense of responsibility for Mary’s mistakes nor a sense of personal triumph when she is able to rectify them. The hardback volume weighs about five kilos and so may promote muscular toning if readers are encouraged to carry it to and from school.”

“Despite the fact that readers were better able to identify symptoms of scarlet fever and showed more interest in toy-based hygiene after reading The Velveteen Rabbit, overall it was felt that the participants’ involvement in the task of reading produced a very solitary, sedentary, and isolating experience, during which conversations between participants were almost nonexistent and collaborative teamwork ceased altogether. Teachers also expressed concern that when students were sequestered in the dark, quiet space of ‘the library’ they were forgoing vigorous outdoor play, exposure to natural light, and the possibility of engaging with real rabbits.”

Ridiculous, right? But this is what it often feels like to read research papers and critical reviews on the merits of using videogames in educational contexts. The focus on the utilitarian function of videogames distorts depictions of the medium, and diminishes and devalues the rich, complex aesthetic experiences that many players report having. Studies exploring the pedagogic potential of videogames always seem to centre on the question ‘do they work?’ Well, does The Secret Garden work? Does The Velveteen Rabbit work? I can only imagine the resistance I would face from colleagues in my field if I tried to formulate a methodology to answer these questions. I expect that I would be told reading The Secret Garden has value beyond measurable outcomes: it is enough that someone enjoys the experience of reading it.

For the record, I am not suggesting that educators shouldn’t use videogames to teach testable skills and curriculum-specific content. And, yes, I’ve definitely had students whose grasp of ancient history and modern geography was acquired primarily viaCivilisation and Total War. And I do believe that simulation games which contextualise abstract maths problems are more than chocolate-coated broccoli. But encouraging competitive play, simulating real-world contexts, and roleplaying were pedagogic devices long before the advent of digital media – so what are we really talking about here? I agree with the general consensus that games – digital or otherwise – do ‘work’ in educational contexts, and computing software is a fantastic facilitator of games; however, if we require play to be ‘work’ in order to legitimise critical attention from the education research community, we reinforce a binary opposition of ‘learning’ and ‘play’. Learning is not broccoli – maths and history lessons are not universally loathed, but nor are knowing the times tables or the names of the wives of Henry VIII deeply nutritious; play is not chocolate – oftentimes it is frustrating and fraught, and sometimes it can sustain and nourish you like nothing else. A utilitarian approach to videogames massively underestimates what the medium has to offer. We should accept that videogames can be just for pleasure, because we know that any text that prompts excitement, joy, and voluntary engagement is already teaching something that exceeds measurement. 

I once read The Secret Garden to a seven-year-old boy and we cried about loneliness and laughed at my shocking Yorkshire accent. Did he learn something? Absolutely. But it was a type of collateral learning: I could see how The Secret Garden had furnished his imagination when we played outdoors: he would translate bird chirps for me and insist on planting all of my apple pips, when he wasn’t protecting me from Creepers, that is. Because Minecraft was an equally important part of his perceptual matrix, expressed through his desire to wield a branch as a pickaxe and to build forts to keep us safe. Books and videogames already occupied the same spaces in his mind, so why shouldn’t they occupy the same spaces in his classroom?

Emma Reay is a 2nd year PhD student in the children’s literature 
department of the Education Faculty, where she researches depictions of 
children and child-types in videogames. Her recent work has been 
published in ‘International Research Society for Children’s Literature’ 
and ‘Games and Culture’.

Posted by:fersacambridge

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