What digital games and literacy have in common: a heuristic for understanding pupils' gaming literacy

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  • Literacy Volume 00 Number 0 xxxx 2012 1

    What digital games and literacy have incommon: a heuristic for understandingpupils gaming literacyThomas Apperley and Christopher Walsh


    This article argues that digital games and school-basedliteracy practices have much more in common thanis reported in the research literature. We describe therole digital game paratexts ancillary print and multi-modal texts about digital games can play in connect-ing pupils gaming literacy practices to traditionalschool-based literacies still needed for academic suc-cess. By including the reading, writing and designof digital game paratexts in the literacy curriculum,teachers can actively and legitimately include digitalgames in their literacy instruction. To help teachers un-derstand pupils gaming literacy practices in relationto other forms of literacy practices, we present a heuris-tic for understanding gaming (HUG) literacy. We argueour heuristic can be used for effective teacher profes-sional development because it assists teachers in iden-tifying the elements of gameplay that would be ap-propriate for the demands of the literacy curriculum.The heuristic traces gaming literacy across the quad-rants of actions, designs, situations and systems to pro-vide teachers and practitioners with a knowledge ofgameplay and a metalanguage for talking about digi-tal games. We argue this knowledge will assist them incapitalising on pupils existing gaming literacy by con-necting their out-of-school gaming literacy practices tothe literacy and English curriculum.

    Key words: digital games, gaming literacy, paratexts,multimodal, heuristic, professional development


    How do we prepare literacy teachers to acknowledgepupils gaming literacy in ways that help them ac-quire the traditional print-based literacies still neededfor academic success? We will address this questionby looking at what digital games and literacy havein common, particularly the complementary print-based and multimodal literacy practices required byboth. Examining this intersection establishes whatteachers and practitioners need to know about chil-dren and young peoples gaming literacy to effec-tively incorporate digital games into classroom literacyactivities.

    Recent research that connects digital games with lit-eracy argues that when children and young peopleplay digital games, they participate in a complex con-stellation of literacy practices (Steinkuehler, 2007,pp. 299300), which are not generally acknowledgedwithin classrooms. This research, which examines anarrow set of digital games, pinpoints that a con-nection between playing digital games and readingprint-based and multimodal texts (frequently askedquestions (FAQs), walkthroughs; cheats and codes) often at grade levels well beyond pupils acknowl-edged proficiency as measured by standardised tests is an important component of playing digital gamesof which many teachers are unaware (Steinkuehler,2010; Steinkuehler et al., 2009). These researchers alsoargue that these print-based and multimodal readingpractices are an essential component of pupils par-ticipation in digital gaming culture that often remainshidden from teachers and practitioners (Steinkuehler,2007, 2010; Steinkuehler et al., 2009). Our discussionbuilds on this position by examining the connec-tion between pupils out-of-school literacies developedthrough playing digital games (and their reading, writ-ing and design practices on and about games) andmore traditional school-based literacies.

    This article introduces a new heuristic or model for un-derstanding pupils gaming literacy that we argue canbe used for effective teacher professional development.The heuristic offers a new representation of a gamingliteracy that will assist practitioners in acknowledgingdifferent aspects of pupils gaming literacy and selectgames that support activities that are appropriate totheir curriculum. Using the heuristic as a guide, theywill be able to successfully introduce diverse aspects ofgameplay and game cultures into their literacy teach-ing, learning and assessment practices. It explicatesthe knowledge about digital games and the metalan-guage that is needed to connect pupils out-of-schooldigital gameplay practices with school-based literacypractices, and charts the dynamic complementary in-tersections between unofficial, informal, out-of-schoolgaming literacies and formal school-based literaciesacross four quadrants: actions, designs, situations andsystems. The aim of the heuristic is to raise awarenessamong teachers and practitioners of the complexity of

    Copyright C 2012 UKLA. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

  • 2 What digital games and literacy have in common

    the literacy practices that pupils use during gameplayand consequently alter them to the unique opportuni-ties that digital games provide for connecting the lit-eracy curriculum to texts and practices significant topupils lifeworlds.

    In this article, we examine what digital games andliteracy have in common by first outlining the keyrole that digital game paratexts (Consalvo, 2007) playin connecting digital gameplay and game cultures totangible literacy outcomes. The term paratext is mo-bilised to describe the print and multimodal texts usedand often developed by game players that circulate inthe complex nexus of literacy practices that make updigital gaming cultures. We argue digital game para-texts can work as a useful segue because they con-form most closely to the textual requirements of theofficial curriculum to introduce digital games intoliteracy and English curricula. Second, we discussgaming literacy, arguing that when teachers acknowl-edge pupils gaming literacy through the consump-tion and design of digital game paratexts, it providespupils with increased opportunities to acquire tradi-tional school-based print and multimodal literacies.Finally, we introduce a heuristic for understandinggaming (HUG). We maintain that the HUG presentsteachers and practitioners with the essential knowl-edge and metalanguage about digital games andpupils gaming literacy practices that will assist themto connect pupils out-of-school consumption and de-sign of digital game paratexts with school-based liter-acy practices in ways that are authentic and not ad hoc.

    Digital game paratexts

    The term paratext is useful for helping teachers andpractitioners familiarise themselves with the wide-ranging print and multimodal texts that circulatein digital gaming cultures. Digital game paratextsrepresent print and multimodal texts (walkthroughs,video tutorials, fan fiction, fan art, for example) thatare easily accessible to teachers and practitioners,when digital games themselves are not. GameSpot(http://www.gamespot.com.au) has over 40,000 digi-tal game FAQs, guides and walkthroughs, over 250,000cheat codes and 100,000 reviews contributed by thecommunity of game players.

    Many paratexts are not only relevant to pupils out-of-school lives but are often difficult expository and pro-cedural texts, above pupils grade level, that they arewilling to engage with and work to decode and un-derstand. A study of pupils in Years 69 who strug-gled with literacy or do not experience success inschool showed that those that played digital gamestackled (e.g. decode, understand and apply to theirgameplay practices) texts written at Year 12 or a highschool graduate level (Steinkuehler et al., 2009). Apressing issue remains as to why so many teacherscontinue to fall short of helping pupils who struggle

    with reading, writing and design inside schools, whenclearly many of these same pupils experience liter-acy success outside school with texts related to digitalgames.

    Through their out-of-school consumption and designof paratexts pupils are engaging in many difficultprint-based (as well as multimodal) literacy prac-tices directly related to school-based literacy practices.Apperley and Beavis (2011, p. 133), describe para-texts succinctly in relation to literacy. Paratexts refersto both the texts and the surrounding material thatframe their consumption, shape the readers experi-ence of the text and give meaning to the act of reading.It is:

    an umbrella concept that connects the familiar no-tion of intertextuality the processes of reading textsas linked and always already known and the need fora diversity of texts to be part of any literacy/Englishprogramme to explicit industry-based practices, par-ticipation in global culture and existing practicesof digital gameplay (Apperley and Beavis, 2011,p. 133).

    Digital game paratexts aptly demonstrate where andhow digital game cultures and literacy are related. Ifthe writing, reading and design (as well as speakingabout and listening to pupils and peers gameplay talk)of digital game paratexts can be viewed as a legitimatemedium of expression in the literacy classroom, thenthe possibility of digital games becoming worthy ofacademic inquiry in schools might become acceptable.It would also shift the field of literacy in a directionthat does not view gaming as something distinct (neg-ative, violent, sexist and an activity that takes awayfrom reading) and in direct competition with school-based literacy practices.

    The challenge for teachers and practitioners is inhow to include digital game paratexts in the liter-acy curriculum and make strong conceptual linksbetween them and the kinds of print-based liter-acy practices that are assessed through standardisedtests and aligned with local, state and national stan-dards. We are not advocates of preparing pupilsto simply do well on standardised assessments;rather we are hoping teachers can leverage pupilsinterest and affinity with digital games and theirparatexts to provide opportunities for them to ex-perience success with school sanctioned