What MMOG's have to teach in the way of "new literacies"

One of the great articles my CUC course in Ed. Technology had me reading last week was one by MMOG champion Constance Steinkuehler (2007). “Massively Mulitplayer Online Gaming as a Constellation of Literacy Practices.” E-Learning, vol. 4, no. 3, 2007. http://www.wwwords.co.uk/ELEA

Though it wasn’t her main focus, I found the exposition of “new literacies” I gained from Steinkuehler’s article exceptionally valuable. Though as an English teacher I am an agent of literacy education, I was shockingly unaware of the considerable theory and research over the last dozen years in the newest kind of literacy–which is not a single kind, but a plural set of literacies that have emerged with new technologies. The article’s inter-textuality with the “New Literacy Studies” is a side point for Steinkuehler–her main purpose is to vindicate the poor MMOG video gamer as a human dignified with literacy skills. In the virtual world of the MMOG she describes, a gamer must be proficient in many types–a whole “constellation”–of literacies to be in the game.

The author writes against the notion that video games induce “torpor” in users, resulting from the “inert reception” of the medium, and that video games are a direct threat to literacy, and lead to “the closing of the American book” (Weber, 2004). Prior to  (2007) Steinkuehler had undertaken studies of the actual behaviors of actual gamers, and finds just the opposite is happening. Her subject MMOG is the Lineage game, which is about “server-wide seiges and battles,” but which is really about the gamers engaging in serveral complex literacy behaviors. Far from simple battles, Lineage play calls for “individual and collaborative problem solving, joint negotiation of meaning and values, and the coordination of people, (virtual) tools and artifacts, and multiple forms of text” (299). It is just the sort of 21st century literacy that can empower learners.

The cognitive load on immersed games is significant:  “At any given point during game play, an indivdual must negotiate not only the diversity of forms of typed communication described above but also multiple text chat channels, each with its own function and social norms for use…at least five overlapping conversational activities happening at once.”  (304) Asynchrounous, synchronous, formal, informal, the literacy events are everywhere in the game, and in every type.

But there is elaborate social learning that goes on–the gamer learns to “read” his society–the culture of  gamers working together in a “guild.” New players are “apprenticed” to experienced ones in the guild, who help the new gamers understand the foundations of the discourse community of practice that is Lineage II. In response to his new “society,” the gamer composes elaborate formal “in-game correspondence” that has its own conventions and values; he contributes creatively to the game with “the development of new game exploits,”; he documents the history and knowledge of his “guild” in a collaboratively authored, wikipedia-like “planning documents,” and stores valuable information for use by his community of practice in “research documents about …given location[s] of interest…” etc. By the end of his initiation into the guild, the MMOG player has learned to perform elaborate literate tasks. [This is powerful testimony to the learning potential of group projects structured with “game-like” attributes.]

Steinkuehler (2007) references one of the oldest statements of the “New Literacies” The London Group in 1996, who defined the new literacies as entailing “sense-making within a rich, multimodal semiotic system, situated in a community of practice that renders that system meaningful.” The MMOG Lineage does this, requiring deep “reads” of game situation screens in order to advance the game. Lineage gamers “demonstrate fluency and participation in a thoroughly literate space of icons, symbols, gestures, action, pictorial representations, and text. Gamers must continually ‘read and write’ meaning within this complex semiotic domain …” (301). Yet even by a traditional, text-based definitions of literacy, the gamer is acting in a whole contellation of ways, writing, and “speaking” to other players in narrative, argumentative, cooperative and expository ways. New Literacy Studies directly counters the assertion of “game haters” that video games require little verbal intelligence. Where the traditional literacy (that I was taught) was entirely through text and speech, the new literacy is no longer textual:  “The increasing mulitplicity and integration of significant modes of meaning-making, where the textual is also related to the visual, the audio, the spatial, the behavioral…” (New London Group, 1996).

According to the wikipedia article, the new technologies of communication have caused the psycho-linguistic faction of “New Literacy” researchers to note (with Leu 2007) that

  1. new types of literacy have evolved around new technologies (like Web 2.0) and the “novel literacy tasks that pertain to these new technologies require new skills and strategies to effectively use them.”
  2. “new literacies are a critical component of full participation—civic, economic, and personal—in our increasingly global society.
  1. “new literacies are deictic—that is, they change regularly as new technology emerges and older technologies fade away. With this in mind, [Don Leu states] ‘what may be important in reading instruction and literacy education is not to teach any single set of new literacies, but rather to teach students how to learn continuously new literacies that will appear during their lifetime.”Finally, new literacies are “multiple, multimodal, and multifaceted,” and as such, multiple points of view will be most beneficial in attempting to comprehensively analyze them.”

There is another branch of “New Literacies” that focuses on the explicitly social side of new literacies, situating literacy events within “discourses” among human beings in society. According to Lankshear and Knobel (2006), the “new” literacies are  “new socially recognized ways of generating, communicating and negotiating meaningful content through the medium of encoded texts within contexts of participation in Discourses (or, as members of Discourses)”. For the new social literacy theorists, “new literacies” concern digital code rather than material print.  Technologically speaking, literacy is a tool used for social purposes. “New literacy” to these theorists means a “highly collaborative, distributed, and participatory [literacy, an]… expressions of what Jenkins (2005) calls engagement in participatory culture, and Lankshear and Knobel (2006) refer to as a distinctive ethos.”

But regardless of the faction, the “New Literacies” ideas have “tipped”–they now represent the normative thinking in authoritative literacy institutions such as the National Council of Teachers of English. In a tour de force ending, Steinkuehler goes point by point through the NCTE’s national standards for America’s students, and they each describe MMOG gamers–

  • Standard 1 — Gamers “read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts and of themselves”
  • Standard 3 — Gamers “use a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts, including drawing on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers”
  • Standard 5 — Gamers use “a wide range of strategies to author texts of their own”
  • Standard 6 “use their understanding of language, structure, language conventions… media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print”
  • Standard 7 — Gamers “gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources in order to conduct research on issues of interst to them”, and
  • Standard 12 — Gamers “use spoken, written, and visual language to acconplish their own purposes.”

Ain’t that literacy?


Besides the impressive evidence for the cognitive effects of MMOGs, I am intrigued by the opportunities for social-emotional growth the games offer, and the skills for negotiating “real” life they can foster.  If I understand them correctly, in these games, one is able to choose one’s own identity, and practice without fear of total failure–one’s avatar never totally “dies.” One can reconstitute oneself with health points, etc.  So might these games be “safe” places to practice the life skill of envisioning a course of action, carrying it out, and learning from the consequences?  How much would these experiences embolden the young gamer to practice the same deliberative action and reflective learning skills in his/her “real” life?

I was glad Steinhuehler (2007) brought up the potential ethical issues of global justice that has arisen with the MMOG:  the “Chinese Gold Farmers,” (featured here in this video from a 2007 documentary). These needy Chinese workers derive their livelihoods from their ability to spend 13 hour days playing nonstop MMOG so as to accumulate “gold” points in the game they can then sell to wealthy American players. In effect, the Chinese players are doing the “heavy lifting” for the benefit of the westerners. When the “virtual” and real worlds collide like this, I think it is important to look not at imagined or “virtual” damages, but at the real effects on real human beings’ “real” existences. As it happens in “real” human history, battles in the MMOG realm arise between ethnic and economic “others.” The informational “service” the Chinese Farmers provide is resented by members of the authors’ game. Genocidal “Farm the Farmers” Days are declared, and westerners seek to destroy the disadvantaged worker gamers. According to Steinkuehler, there are “Americans-versus-Chinese raids on … farmers by a community depeerately trying to rid themselves of what they see as a ‘cancer’ in the virtual world” (310).  The ethical dimension exists in all human endeavors, although we often try to forget it. The article reminds us that, even in our diversions from “reality,” we can create and perpetuate “real-world” injustices.


The “Second Life” virtual worlds that Professor Pate is having us read this week have much in common, it seems, with the worlds that MMOGs inahbit. They both require a lot of literacy to derive any benefits, and both engage participants in virtual space with other “real” people through the avatar.  As we read, there are many schools and courses being carried out in Second Life “Islands.” They are given away free to educators like us. Would my cohort colleagues be interested in getting “avatars” and developing an Island of EdTech at Concordia, perhaps having our instructors “instruct” us in synchronous distance learning?  For all I know (not much) there are many more educational options (“islands”) in Second Life.


Jenkins, H. (2006). Fans, bloggers and gamers: Exploring participatory culture. New York: New York University Press.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2006). New literacies: Everyday practices & classroom learning (2nd ed.). New York: Open University Press and McGraw Hill.

Leu, D. J., & Zawilinski, L., Castek, J., Banerjee, M., Housand, B. C., Liu, Y., & O’Neil, M. (2007).
What is new about the new literacies of online reading comprehension?. In Secondary School Literacy: What Research Reveals for Classroom Practice (Chapter 3, pp. 37-68). Retrieved from http://teachers.westport.k12.ct.us/ITL/wkspmaterials/NCTE%20chapter.pdf

New London Group (1996). “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: designing social futures, Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

Weber, B. (2004). “Fewer Noses Stuck in Books in America, Survey finds” New York Times, 8 Jyly, p. E1.

image courtesy of creativecommons search

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