I am on the cover of Harper’s

 Posted by (Visited 10929 times)  Game talk, Writing
Aug 092006
 

Which is slightly shocking. 🙂

That is alongside Steven Johnson, Jane Avrich, and Thomas de Zengotita, of course, not all by myself. And the redoubtable Bill Wasik moderating. It’s the September issue.

It’s a Forum piece entitled “Grand Theft Education,” and the question is literacy in the age of video games, seen through the lens of whether video games could be made to teach writing. I’ll say that this was one of the most stimulating conversations I have had in years…

A few very very brief samples to whet the appetite:

ZENGOTITA: I think there’s a real danger… of failing to understand not just the complexity of real world but also its mystery, I’m using “mystery” as oppose to “problem” on purpose: problems have solutions, mysteries don’t. People are profoundly mysterious entities, I think, and understanding them in the real world involves understanding that you’re never going to entirely understand them.

KOSTER: What we mean by literacy is changing… What kind of writing do we hope to teach? We might like to teach our kds to write like Proust, but nobody writes like Proust anymore. Appropriation and annotation are becoming our new forms of literacy. Think of blogs, for example; most blog posts are reblogs, they are parasitic on things other people have written. It’s a democratized writing, a democratized literacy.

WASIK: It seems, then, as if video games will serve ideas better than they will serve art.

AVRICH: But any game that would teach students real literary writing, with real characters, would have to include some real literary reading. There’s no other way to learn style, tone, the uses of irony.

JOHNSON: If you spend time assessing these complex systems and writing about them, then you should be able to take that skill and apply it to a real-world ecosystem or a political system or a cultural system.

There’s much more there, of course: it’s 8 pages long. I hear it will be on newsstands this week or next, but my contributor’s copies arrived today, and I already got one email from a long-lost college friend who found me via the article, so I assume it is out there.

  36 Responses to “I am on the cover of Harper’s”

  1. […] I am on the cover of Harper’s on Raph Koster I am on the cover of Harper’s on Raph Koster Which is slightly shocking. That is alongside Steven Johnson, Jane Avrich, and Thomas de Zengotita, of course, not all by myself. And the redoubtable Bill Wasik moderating. It’s the September issue. It’s a Forum piece entitled “Grand Theft Education,” and the question is literacy in the age of video games, seen through the lens of […] via Raph Koster […]

  2. The September 2006 issue hasn’t been released to EBSCO yet, but I’ll keep looking.

  3. It hasnt been released here (Hollywood) yet. Only August on the shelves.

    I’ll keep my eye out however.

    Spot

  4. Pretty soon we’ll be seeing you on MTV Music Award sound bites screaming obscenities in a coked up fasion.

    Seriously though, I’ll have to pick that up.

  5. […] Comments […]

  6. Gratz Raph. Now if you can only all have a debate with that crusty John Leonard (books editor), I’d bet we’d see some sparks 😉

  7. Heady stuff. Normally I don’t read Harper’s…okay, normally I don’t read anything on paper anymore. But I’ll check that out.

    These two quotes really caught my attention, and I wonder if you put them in that order on purpose:

    WASIK: It seems, then, as if video games will serve ideas better than they will serve art.

    AVRICH: But any game that would teach students real literary writing, with real characters, would have to include some real literary reading. There’s no other way to learn style, tone, the uses of irony.

    Recently I discovered similarities between Ranma 1/2 and Shakespeare, Sailor Moon and Buffy, Captain Harlock and Firefly. Anybody who studies the arts eventually comes to a point, I think, where they see some kind of “Universal Artistic Theory,” like the universal equation that physicists are chasing. I reached that moment three days ago, and it’s driving me insane. Going through everything, trying to find the One Ultimate Story that encapsulates humanity in art, I’m finding that Final Fantasy VI carries a lot of those themes.

    Gawd. I hate replying to someone by posing a question of my own, but I really don’t have a resolution to that. Do games serve art? Ideas? Both? At the same time? Do we even want them to? Can we teach literature through video games without reading? Does literature really require reading? Are video games a new kind of literature? Do we give them a new scholarly term when refering to their artistic function, or can we still call them video games?

    Okay now. My head asplode.

  8. Anybody who studies the arts eventually comes to a point, I think, where they see some kind of “Universal Artistic Theory,” like the universal equation that physicists are chasing.

    Well, of course, you know “they” say that nothing new is being written – that everything produced now is in some way an imitation of what came before it. And that, I would think, is a result of reading.

    Can we teach literature through video games without reading?

    I don’t think you can play a video game (or watch tv or a movie or listen to music) without “reading”. Maybe I’m thinking of it all in an odd way, but to me any appreciable “study” of any “mentally consumable” material is a form of reading.

    I guess I’m turning this into a bit of a chicken v. egg argument, but I think that in order to achieve true literary writing that true literary writing must first be experienced, and that would most likely come by means of reading it.

    Just my thoughts on it.

  9. “Literacy in the age of video games”? Admittedly that’s your summary, Raph but at first glance it sounds rather silly.

    You may as well discuss “church-going in the age of video games”. Tying two things together which are barely, if at all, linked.

    It’s the age of literature, if it’s the age of anything. Has there ever been a more literate age? Has there ever been a time when more books were devoured by more people? Has there ever been a larger group of people with Eng. Lit. (and every other kind of Lit.) degrees? Has the “reading public” in other words, ever been bigger?

    But maybe I’ve missed the point.

    Was the question actually more like: “Does exposure to ‘art’ in one form encourage people to seek out other forms?”

    Now that is a good question.

  10. I always remember this one statement by an English professor long ago:
    Popular Musician/Song Writers are the poets of this age. We consume music as a population like people consumed Poetry 100 years ago. Except now the poetry is more accessable.

    Taken in this context, what have relatively new video games as a mode of transmission replaced? I’m not really sure. Are they transmitting anything at all? If so is what they are transmitting more accessable than whats been replaced?

    Seems to be a lot of questions about this stuff 🙂

  11. Going through everything, trying to find the One Ultimate Story that encapsulates humanity in art

    Joseph Campbell. Monomyth. Hero’s Journey. Look it up. =D

    To the entire thread, check this out:

    http://boards.swirve.com/board.cgi?boardset=utopia&boardid=roleplay

    As a principle, not as an example. (Some of the writing on there is really, really painful, but… Sturgeon’s Law, I remind myself. Yes, I do post there. But not under this name, obviously.)

  12. “Literacy in the age of video games”? Admittedly that’s your summary, Raph but at first glance it sounds rather silly.

    You may as well discuss “church-going in the age of video games”. Tying two things together which are barely, if at all, linked.

    Actually, it isn’t my summary, it’s Harper’s summary; the subtitle of the article, in fact.

    It’s the age of literature, if it’s the age of anything. Has there ever been a more literate age? Has there ever been a time when more books were devoured by more people? Has there ever been a larger group of people with Eng. Lit. (and every other kind of Lit.) degrees? Has the “reading public” in other words, ever been bigger?

    But maybe I’ve missed the point.

    Half the group were educators very concerned about dwindling attention spans and the like; and there was a general concern that the meaning of “literacy” has changed over the years. Once upon a time, you were not considered literate unless you read Latin, for example.

    Was the question actually more like: “Does exposure to ‘art’ in one form encourage people to seek out other forms?”

    Now that is a good question.

    No, it was more about games as educational tools, their strengths and weaknesses, traditional literature’s strengths and weaknesses, and the ways in which culture is changing. It was about the new forms of literacy, such as procedural literacy, close reading, annotation, and so on, as manifested by everything from Lost to The Da Vinci Code.

  13. Ugh. Not Campbell again. The Hero’s Journey may explain Luke Skywalker and Rocky Balboa, but it doesn’t explain “Memento,” “Se7en,” “Macbeth,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” or even, ironically, “Hero.” What does it have to do with “Romeo and Juliet”? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Where is the Call to Adventure in “Seinfeld”? What about “Antigone”?

    We see patterns because fiction and drama have been formulaic (both consciously and unconsciously) for as long as there have been fiction and drama. However, the Hero’s Journey is just one formula, out of many. I think it’s misleading to call it a “monomyth,” because it’s not. Even many of the ancient myths and fairy tales have nothing to do with it. I think some of us geekfolk get a little too stuck in the whole Hero’s Journey mindset, and can’t find our way back out of the box.

  14. Ooh, also, to Raph:

    Appropriation and annotation are becoming our new forms of literacy.

    New? That’s how folklore came to be. Appropriating stories and embellishing upon them is as old as storytelling. Most of Shakespeare’s works were not at all original. Heck, Dante’s “Inferno” is a Mary Sue fanfic! 😉

  15. Everything new is old again, eh Tess? For a while, appropriation had fallen out of favor; today it’s booming, though. It’s cyclical. We think of ironic self-reference as a modern thing, but almost every plot of Shakespeare’s was taken from something that everyone in his audience would know because the last play version likely was done within the last ten years! But we’d think of that as downright odd today.

    I do think the rise of annotation and of a sort of hyperlinked literacy as being something relatively new and that is gaining currency. TV seems to be embracing it eagerly in some quarters.

  16. Taken in this context, what have relatively new video games as a mode of transmission replaced? I’m not really sure. Are they transmitting anything at all? If so is what they are transmitting more accessable than whats been replaced?

    I really think games are a new artform, not derivative of anything, and not replacing anything. Dance makes art of bodily motion, music makes art out of sound, theatre is art out of the human condition, and games are art through interaction.

    But yeah, that’s pretty damn subjective, to say the least!

    I’ve studied the arts for over twenty years, but strangely I’ve never read Campbell. I am familiar with his premises though, and I agree with Tess. It covers some artistic themes, but not all of ’em. Aristotle tried before Campbell with his Poetics, and he didn’t get it all either. 🙂

  17. Actually I suggest Campbells work on eastern mythos more than the Hero’s Journey. Its very informative

  18. Everything new is old again, eh Tess?

    Too true. 😉

    I do think the rise of annotation and of a sort of hyperlinked literacy as being something relatively new and that is gaining currency.

    I do think you have a good point, here. This may sound like a strange thing to say, but I’m still not sure how to deal with hyperlinks, as a reader. Like a sidebar on a textbook page, I don’t know whether to read immediately, or read later.

    I think that humans may be engaging in more text communication than they ever have — even more than before the invention of the radio and the telephone. General literacy has, if anything, become increasingly important. If you’d told people thirty years ago that this was going to happen, they’d have thought you were crazy.

  19. The walls between gaming and the classroom need to break down. They have at earlier ages (OK, Tommy, if you type 45 words a minute the monkey will swing over the pit), but they’re still solid in advanced education. I think you and Johnson were right, though: online collaborations, wikis and the like are beginning to show us ways through. Plus faculty in higher ed are becoming (slowly) a bit more tech savvy.

    Timely discussion.

  20. I’m still not sure how to deal with hyperlinks, as a reader. Like a sidebar on a textbook page, I don’t know whether to read immediately, or read later.

    I couldn’t agree more. Sidebars should be called “sideTRACKS” in the online world, especially when following just one little link could lead to a epic journey of tip-toeing through scores of loosely related pages and suddenly forgetting where you live.

  21. Half the group were educators very concerned about dwindling attention spans and the like; and there was a general concern that the meaning of “literacy” has changed over the years. Once upon a time, you were not considered literate unless you read Latin, for example.

    Now this is interesting, if wrong headed. Reminds me of the Chinese government’s 50-year “literacy drive” — which basically has meant a reduction, every decade, in the number of characters one has to know to be deemed “literate.” In the 50s it was 6,000 characters, and barely anyone was literate. The current level is 600 characters, and now nearly everyone is “literate” — yay! 😉

    Although perhaps I’m reading too much into your word “concern.”

    If we define literacy as “percentage of population who are bi-or-more-lingual” this is still the most literate age, ever. If we define literacy as simply “percentage of population who list ‘reading’ as one of their top three hobbies” then we’re still the most literate age ever. Are there better definitions?

    And what is “attention span”? Willingness to absorb something boring? Improvement of general-level “culture filters” so I am more likely to know if something will interest me in a shorter length of time?

    For any sensible definition of these two things, no-one should be concerned.

    No, it was more about games as educational tools, their strengths and weaknesses, traditional literature’s strengths and weaknesses, and the ways in which culture is changing.

    Ah! Well. That’s different then. Lots to talk about there. I will pick up the article. Congrats on your Harper cover, too! 🙂

  22. Shan wrote:

    Now this is interesting, if wrong headed.

    The definition of concern as a verb does not attribute or imply the sense of urgency that you described. By extension, the adjective concerned does not require the meaning perceived to be associated with use of the term.

    Commercial enterprise is concerned with increasing profits from customer accounts while decreasing costs of business transactions through the functions of marketing and innovation. The adjective concerned does not attribute or imply meanings associated with the emotions of anxiety and/or unhappiness that may arise from intense comparative interest in a subject. Moreover, the context in which the use of the term occurred prohibits the attribution or implication of such emotional meanings due to the requirement that emotions be exhibited by a biological organism.

    The definition of concern as a noun is ambiguous; therefore, contextual consideration is necessary. Unfortunately, the context in which the term concerned was used contains a reference to biological organisms and renders the context ambiguous. The context is therefore not useful to determining the meaning of the term. Since the intended meaning of an ambiguous term cannot be deduced from the context in which the term was used, further clarification is suggested as that which should be sought to accurately comprehend the meaning intended by use of the term within the encapsulating context. An assumption of neutrality or negativity, where the term could be respectively defined as either relational interest or emotional irritation, would likely produce confusion in the event that the assumption is incongruent with the actuality of the meaning intended by use of the term.

    Although perhaps I’m reading too much into your word "concern".

    Perhaps.

    *ahem*

    🙂

  23. Literacy is one of the scare subjects amongst educators right now. Personally, I think it’s the wrong term, but the right notion. What I think is lacking isn’t the ability to read and write, per se, but the ability that stacks right on top of it: critical reading and cultural interpretation. Here, I define adolescence to be a literate child. (Yes, it’s a bit provocative and general. Be sure to click on Draft One, though.)

    I’m still not sure how to deal with hyperlinks, as a reader. Like a sidebar on a textbook page, I don’t know whether to read immediately, or read later.

    With the hyperlink, I have interpreted the “correct” usage to be “when it doesn’t matter”. If I, as a presenter of information, want you to read something before or after something else, I will place it before or after that something else. My habit has always been to make a mental note and go back to it later, if I remember to.

    It’s a freedom of ordination, in my opinion. And my policy with such freedoms is to develop a routine, be aware of the habit, and break it when I feel like it.

  24. The Hero’s Journey may explain Luke Skywalker and Rocky Balboa, but it doesn’t explain “Memento,” “Se7en,” “Macbeth,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” or even, ironically, “Hero.” What does it have to do with “Romeo and Juliet”? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Where is the Call to Adventure in “Seinfeld”? What about “Antigone”?

    For the most part your examples are tragedies. That term might not quite fit Seinfeld, but then again, maybe it does. Perhaps there is a great tragedy myth that could be created from talking them all together. At the very least, I’m sure a good book.

  25. I forgot to mention Dramatica when I mentioned the Hero’s Journey. Mostly because I’ve been working with the HJ a lot lately and have let Dramatica’s Theory of Story get neglected (in no small part because of its… overly mechanistic nature).

  26. almost every plot of Shakespeare’s was taken from something that everyone in his audience would know because the last play version likely was done within the last ten years! But we’d think of that as downright odd today.

    Maybe not so odd, Raph. Appropriations are still very common in the theater today, and especially popular on Broadway: Wicked, The Producers, Spamalot, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Mary Poppins, and The Color Purple, to name a few (and these few are all currently playing!)

    The phenomenon isn’t restricted to the theater. Consider the popularity of movie and TV show remakes: The Dukes of Hazard, The Poseidon Adventure, Miami Vice, Battlestar Galactica, Planet of the Apes.

    I guess the difference is that these are all licensed, authorized uses of the original property; whereas Shakespeare was blatantly appropriating someone else’s plot. But it’s the same principal at work.

    You were more right than you knew about appropriation.

  27. Broadway musical theater is certainly massively derivative, doing revivals and adaptations. But a better comparison would be movies. It would be like there being a remake of a hit movie every five years: Sleepless in Seattle showing up like clockwork, slightly reinvented. In Shakespeare’s version, he might do a bit of a mindfuck: having Meg Ryan’s character jump off the building at the end. That’s the sort of thing he did in his version of King Lear for example, a story everyone knew and had seen staged before, but that had a different ending.

  28. How many versions of the Bad News Bears (screwup takes over coaching a team of child misfits) have there been? And what do you think You’ve Got Mail was, if not Sleepless in Seattle slightly reinvented (with the same lead actors, even)? Steven Segal has been making the same three movies over and over for the last 20 years, the Romeo and Juliet story has been done every few years since forever.

    Every form of entertainment is repetitive variations on themes.

    –Dave

  29. Radical innovation is perceivably more risky than incremental innovation.

    If this not yet a law of nature, observe the behavior of ants. If the progression of marching ants is disrupted by water, some ants will perish in the depths while the ants that confront the obstacle will analyze the situation and then either return to a previous vector while communicating the problem to other ants in the line, or explore for path around the obstacle. The ants will respond to the message from the ant that first encountered the obstacle by verifying the problem. Invariably, some ants will appear to scatter, yet these ants are exploring either for a reason to a progress in a certain direction or for a way to circumvent the obstacle.

    Since there were ants that perished in the depths, this fact was likely communicated to other ants. "If you move into the water, or the water moves onto you, you’ll die." Swimming is therefore a less likely solution to circumventing the obstacle. In this case, the act of swimming is radical innovation, and the act of swimming is perceived as more risky to the ants. The ants will perform the proven action of travelling by land.

    Although human cognition is more complex, at least from our human perspective, our "pathfinding" capabilities follow the same basic principles that enabled ants to survive for billions of years, and to become the dominant species on the planet.

    In terms of storytelling, what other stories about our human perspective of the natural world exist to be told?

    What is radical innovation in storytelling?

  30. Mr. Koster, I’m surprised you didn’t bring up the genre of visual novels, a midway point between video games and full text. Phoenix Wright and Silent Hill GBA are two notable examples in the U.S.

  31. It’s not a genre I am all that familiar with, to be honest; I have Phoenix Wright but it’s in my backlog of DS games to play (I have a large game backlog in general).

    I am not sure how directly related the genre would have been to the discussion however; it certainly feels more like traditional reading, but it doesn’t address the topic of teaching writing particularly… what aspect were you thinking of?

  32. […] A couple of responses to the Harper’s Forum have popped up on the blogosphere, one at The Aspidistra and another at ideant. This latter one prompts a reply, as it comments, the group wonders about the changing definition of literacy, and what current technologies are doing to our literacy practices: KOSTER: …To me, there’s a question hanging over our conversation, which is: What kind of writing do we hope to teach? We might like to teach kids to write like Proust, but no one writes like Proust anymore. Appropriation and annotation are becoming our new forms of literacy. Think of blogs, for example: most blog posts are reblogs, they’re parasitic on things other people have written. It’s a democratized writing, a democratized literacy. (p.39) […]

  33. Well, using video games to teach anything is a challenge, but when you’re talking about teaching writing, and with quotes like “any game that would teach students real literary writing … would have to include some real literary reading”, I think the concept would have served as a handy shortcut in the discussion.

  34. […] AVRICH: But any game that would teach students real literary writing, with real characters, would have to include some real literary reading. Theres no other way to learn style, tone, the uses of irony. […]

  35. It hit the shelves today. I found the entire discussion quite thought-provoking and assisted me in coming to a solution on something I have been dealing with.

    Great stuff!

  36. […] Claims for learning outcomes from games run the gamut from “nothing at all” to professional assassin skills. Hopefully the truth lies somewhere else. In a recent Harpers Magazine roundtable, Raph Koster makes the lovely point that what a game teaches may bear no relation with its ostensible subject or goals. “In Pac-Man, we think we’re eating dots, but the game is actually about visiting very location on the grid. With first-person shooter games like Grand Theft Auto, we’re learning to position a cursor on a screen accurately.” (Averich et al. 2006) There is inevitably some distance between the user’s concrete actions in the game interface and the scenario of the game. This has always been interested me—how to ensure that what user’s do is tightly connected with the content and learning goals. […]

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