Ludoliteracy: Defining, Understanding and Supporting Games Educationby Siobhán Thomas
While games literacy is a familiar theme within game studies literature, teaching and supporting games literacy is a less familiar one, particularly at the undergraduate and postgraduate level.
Zagal's book, Ludoliteracy: Defining, Understanding and Supporting Games Education, offers a meaningful complement to existing games education scholarship. Published in 2010, it remains a one-of-a-kind resource, not only because it focuses on adult videogames education, but because it also offers insight into how one might define, understand and support "ludoliteracy." Zagal underscores that supporting learners' acquisition of ludoliteracy, like the analysis of videogames itself, involves navigating complex territory in a field that is in a constant state of flux. "On the surface it seems like teaching about games should be easy," writes Zagal. "After all, students are highly motivated, enjoy engaging with course content, and have extensive personal experience with videogames. However, games education can be surprisingly complex" (xi).
Rather than focusing on a specific facet of games education (e.g. videogame history or 2D level design), Zagal's well-researched work presents a "holistic" discussion of "game-related classes." And, although the specific research studies he discusses are oriented towards the analysis of play rather than the analysis of the production of games, the results he presents are equally useful for readers involved with game development courses as those readers concerned with teaching academic game theory. In fact, this is one of the strengths of the book: that Zagal offers a "top-down" perspective of games education and, in doing so, identifies the key underlying challenges and problems faced by students and educators. Zagal tackles some hefty theoretical questions: "What does it mean to ‘understand' games?";"What does it mean to have a critical discussion about them?";"What does it mean to be literate, or even fluent, in games?"
While the book is presented in a conventional academic format, it isn't a dry academic tome. And although it offers a multitude of practical strategies, Zagal's book is not strictly a "how-to" text. For someone interested in games teaching, the book reads more like a sophisticated post-mortem written by an educational expert who has taken the time to put forward a nicely balanced collection of theoretical and practical games-teaching revelations.
Zagal's work was published two years ago and, as such it might be easy to overlook it, or, worse, to label it an outdated text. But, do no be misled. He asks and addresses fundamental questions which games educators need to consider. His work is equally useful for people who are faced with teaching videogames for the first time, as those who have been struggling with the challenges he outlines for several years.
Because it is an emergent field, Zagal argues, game studies has some identity problems (Mayra, 2005). For students, teachers and researchers alike, the lack of "a unified language and vocabulary for describing games" (Costikyan, 1994; Kreimer, 2002)" (p.1) can be frustrating. It's useful, then, that early on in his book Zagal situates his work by providing a carefully articulated introduction to game studies. Starting with Huizinga, he summarises a range of theorists definitions of games. He presents a brief "history" of "the academic study" of game studies, from social science, humanities and engineering perspectives and he reflects on the "state" of the field. Though short, the chapter is a useful introduction for anyone new to teaching games and offers a useful moment of reflection for people familiar with the field.
If game studies is "wrestling with what its fundamental concepts, ideas and theoretical models should be" (p.1), then educators involved with teaching video game design and criticism face an even more difficult challenge: "Colleges and universities are not only teaching classes in game analysis, design and development but they are also wrestling with the issue of how best to do it, what are the challenges involved and what they should expect student to learn" (p.1). Zagal suggests one obstacle to addressing these concerns is the lack of agreement on what it means to be ludoliterate. It makes sense, then, that he proposes a definition of game literacy. Zagal, like Gee (2003), argues the ability to understand and produce meaning is situated and needs to be contextualised by a set of multimodal practices, referred to as a "semiotic domain." Thus, ludoliteracy, as defined by Zagal, has three context-specific components: 1) the ability to play games; 2) the ability to understand meanings with respect to games; and 3) the ability to make games (p. 23). While Zagal acknowledges the importance of game playing and game making to the pursuit of ludoliteracy, the focal point of his work is the second dimension of games literacy: the ability to understand meanings with respect to games.
Zagal argues games meaning is understood by enacting knowledge. He further suggests that this understanding can be enhanced if learners are made aware of the relevance of their work to the game studies community. His arguments are supported by results from two research projects which explored how games literacy could be taught using two game-oriented online learning environments: a reflective online journal called GameLog and the Game Ontology Project.
The GameLog project examined how students' use of an adapted blogging environment called GameLog (http://www.gamelog.cl/) could help them reflect on their gameplay experiences. Unlike a traditional blogging platform which sees users contributing blog posts to a larger blog, the GameLog is a repository for a collection of blogs, with each blog dedicated to a different game. During the project, students were required to post written entries discussing three different gameplay sessions of the same game. Sessions had to be at least 30 minutes long and the entries had to be written each time students played the game, rather then when they had completed all three sessions. Students were, thus, expected to revisit and write about the same game multiple times. The value of the GameLog project, suggests Zagal, was this emphasis on iteration. Unlike in traditional learning environments where students might engage with a piece of writing (e.g. an essay) once and then "move on to the next assignment," the GameLog's requirement for students to write on multiple occasions about the same game forced them to write in different ways about their playing experiences: students "stepped back from their traditional role of "gamers" or "fans" and engaged in reasoning critically and analytically about the games they were studying" (p.9). The GameLog enhanced students' relationship with the videogame medium, expanding their understanding of videogames and offering them an opportunity to share and discuss their experiences in a forum different than that which they would have engaged with in their personas as videogame fans. Importantly, the exercise helped them decipher some of the game design structures that were shaping their experiences: "The reflective process helps them realize certain non-obvious insights as they begin to identify components of games and see how they interact and create certain experiences…" (p. 72). Zagal emphasises the GameLog exercise saw learners shift their "modes" of play, from playing a game solely for its entertainment value to playing the same game from a mode of critical analysis. Because students were making multiple entries, it challenged them to not only approach and write about the games they played differently, but, also, to PLAY the games differently. The GameLog activity, therefore, disrupted students' habitual gameplay behaviours: "They began paying attention to details", to "notice things that would other wise have gone undetected"; "planning ahead" to" keep track of what they would like to try in a game"; "playing games with broader issues or questions in mind; and "trying out new actions and in-game experiences" (p. 74).
An ongoing struggle for games educators is helping students to see the legitimacy of their work beyond the tasks assigned as part of a course. Enter Zagal's Game Ontology Project (http://www.gameontology.com). Anyone familiar with Zagal's existing work with the ontology project will find that his discussion of the use of the ontology as a teaching tool offers an interesting perspective on this very useful scholarly resource. The ontological approach, for readers unfamiliar with Zagal's project, shares similarities with design rule and design pattern approaches in that it looks at the elemental qualities of games. However, Zagal argues that his work is distinct from pattern approaches because rather than offering "imperative advice to designers" about what makes a good game or classifying game according to their mechanics, the ontological approach focuses on identifying "the important structural elements of games" and the relationship between them", with the end goal of describing the "design space of games" (p.91).
The nuances of approach aside, while the Game Ontology Project and Game Design Pattern approaches are useful tools for the study of games they can, pragmatically, be difficult to use in teaching, particularly when instructors have limited classroom time to explain to students how the resources work. While the entries in the Game Ontology Project are organised in a hierarchial fashion, there is such a mass of encyclopedic material, the resource requires time to get acquainted with, a luxury that many instructors do not have. Thus, it is inordinately useful that Zagal provides an example of how the ontology was effectively integrated into course curriculum.
Entries in the game ontology are comprised of a title of the element; a description of the element; and game examples which explain how the element is "instantiated in specific games". Each entry has two types of examples, strong and weak. "By relying on strong, or canonical, and weak or borderline examples," writes Zagal, "the GOP affords the exploration of the space of game design" (p.93). Because the ontology is arranged hierarchically each element will also have "parent", "child" and "part" elements listed.
Students who participated in Zagal's research project were required to complete a game ontology assignment. After being introduced to the Game Ontology Project's core terminology, they were asked to edit two Game Ontology Project entries simply by adding examples from two games they "knew well". One of the edits had to be to provide a "strong" example; the other edit had to be to provide a "weak" example. Students had one week to complete the exercise and were graded on participation rather than the "quality" of their entries.
During his research, Zagal found the Game Ontology Project exercise helped students contextualise the academic game material they were learning in the classroom. It helped them engage in a practical way with the academic vocabulary used within the field of games studies and to consider their gameplay experiences from a critical perspective. Because the ontology is a "living" resource used and maintained by game studies experts, by contributing to the ontology students were immersed in the ontology's community of practice. Thus, argues Zagal, the Game Ontology Project "shows that it is possible to design learning environments that are approachable by learners, allow them to contribute legitimately to external communities of practice, and support visibility and access to the practices of a broader community" (p. 109). It is important to note, stresses Zagal, that the students' entries in the Game Ontology Project also provided game studies experts with a catalyst for reflection on their own personal contributions. Zagal's work emphasises, then, the utility of interplay between "experts" and students in the acquisition of ludoliteracy.
Though he raises important questions about "the sustainability and scalability of his approach," Zagal's discussion provides a practical model instructors can follow were they interested in using the Game Ontology Project in their teaching. He also suggests other useful possibilities for implementation:
An additional way of introducing the Game Ontology Project would be to encourage students to create and define ontology entries before being formally introduced to the project. Students could then, given the entries they have written, see whether there are already similar entries in the ontology and discuss the differences. If there are no similar entries, students could add their new entries as proposed ones. This exercise would be similar to one used by Holopainen and colleagues when they teach game design using design patterns (Holopainen et al., 2007) (p.109).
On the whole, Zagal's book is thought provoking. It is an inspiring and ground-breaking work, which takes the difficult first step of defining a new form of literacy. But more than that, it dismantles the assumption that the artfully arranged collection of 0s and1s that make up videogames, can weave, unaided, a magic circle of ludo-terrific teaching around an entranced class. While there is no denying that videogames have an elevated status as a force of fun, there's also no denying that teaching videogames is immeasurably harder than plonking a bunch of students down in front of Angry Birds and expecting them to wax poetic unguided about "agon" or "alea."
What Zagal has done here is no easy task. He has put forward some suggestions for supporting the teaching of videogame literacy. In doing so, he has underscored the importance of thinking critically about videogames education and opened the door for discussion, debate, and expansion.
Costikyan, G. (1994). I have no words & I must design. Interactive Fantasy.
Gee, J. P. (2003). What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy. New York, PalGrave-McMillan.
Holopainen, J., S. Bjork and J. Kuittinen (2007). Teaching Gameplay Design Patterns. Organizing and Learning through Gaming and Simulation, Proceedings of ISAGA 2007. I. Mayer and H. Mastik. Delft, Eburon.
Kreimeier, B. (2002). "The Case for Game Design Patterns." Gamasutra. Retrieved Oct 29, 2004, from http://www.gamasutra.com/ features/20020313/kreimeier_01.htm.
Mäyrä, F. (2005). "The Quiet Revolution: Three Theses for the Future of Game Studies." DiGRA Retrieved Jan 26, 2006, 2006, from http://digra.org/hardcore/hc4.