Over the past few years I have heard several comments from fellow parents, older siblings and relatives who complain about their childrens’ lack of reading habits and disproportionate time-expenditure in front of screens, especially while playing video games. I have always replied to such comments with my own definitions of what it means to be literate, how literacy changes and how traditional definitions of the term may take issue with the contemporary forms of reading and writing that our children practice.
I am the mother of a nine-year-old girl who grew up in the Colombian countryside in a very small, rural town, where playing outside with neighboring friends is a taken-for-granted luxury. However, during the COVID-19 lockdown, my daughter started to play video games. She was 7 at the time, and rapidly became an avid player. I became increasingly surprised by my daughter’s ability to read the video games she was navigating. For instance, she easily learned to read Minecraft’s maps, to move around the villages, and read coordinates to explore her surroundings and avoid getting lost. I quickly deemed these gameplay requirements as a reflection of literacy, numeracy and cognitive skills she was developing. However, what I have valued the most from observing my daughter playing video games is how her learning has started to move more fluidly in trajectories like the one I’ll be describing in the following vignette.
Moving learning between worlds: My daughter and I were walking out the PIE IX metro station between Pierre de Cubertin and Desjardins streets in Montreal. This space is currently under construction. While walking through, my daughter exclaimed surprisingly: “Mami, es diorita!” I did not understand what she was referring to, so I asked her to explain.
She directed me to the exact place where several structures of some type of concrete were sitting. She pointed at the structures and said: “That’s Diorite! I use it to construct in Minecraft.” I admitted to my daughter that I had not heard of diorite before, and promised to look it up on Google when we got home. So we did; We were surprised to learn about the actual rock description, as well as its origins and uses in construction. We concluded that it was very likely that the structures we had seen were in fact made of diorite.
In sharing this anecdote I hope to spark some new perceptions of video games, not just as time-killing devices to keep our children busy while at home, but as potential sites where literacy learning occurs. Yes, literacy happens in and throughout video gameplay!
I abide by non-traditional understandings that define literacy as a set of knowledges and abilities helping us to understand and participate in the world. For instance, by constructing with Minecraft materials, my daughter has gained some knowledge about rocks and minerals which I surely did not have at her age. The knowledges and experiences gained are not only available to her as she makes decisions during gameplay, but are carried with her as she moves around the real world as well. As she sees details, taps into her new understandings and shares all this with me, it also impacts my experience of the places we navigate together. For instance, if it had not been for her voiced surprise, I would not have paid attention to the long structures sitting on the construction site and would not have used a search engine – where we used our digital and alphabetic literacy skills – to read and learn about, imagine, and discuss diorite.
This learning trajectory surely did not end with our Google search. I acknowledge that I may never be completely sure of all the ways my daughter has and will continue to gain literacies as she moves through Minecraft and other games. Experiencing this one particular vignette along with her, however, allowed me to see her game-based learning trajectory, think about the conventional and non-conventional literacies through which she experiences the world, and reflect on the extractivist practices that sustain our economies.
I am very appreciative of the video games my daughter plays. While she performs very well at school, especially reading and writing at the expected levels, she is not an avid reader of books or writer of texts. I don’t worry about these traditional reading and writing habits, especially when she has opportunities to imagine, build, and question worlds through her video gameplay. She is able to insert herself and extend her body into new worlds through the mouse, experiencing pixelated, blocky towns where she can trade goods, jump from the clouds and build anything she can dream up. She also has opportunities to think about the myriad roles she would like to fill in the future: “Mom, I want to be an interior designer, a farmer, a vet, a doctor, a salesperson, a fashion designer, a model, a video game developer, a doctor, a teacher, a math teacher, a language teacher.” All these are roles she has experienced in the games she plays.
Although personal in nature, I hope my narrated experience as the mother of a nine-year-old gamer, as she identifies herself, illuminates more positive perceptions of video games as sites where lots of learning and literacies occur.