Hooked on Phonics and Warcraft

Posted: November 29, 2011 in Games
Tags: , , , ,

A few weeks ago I was talking about one of Dr. James Paul Gee’s excellent books. For viewers playing at home,  Dr. Gee specializes in literacy and linguistics. One of the things he talks about it “multi-modal literacy” – the idea that for every mode of communicating, there is a way of taking in information, processing it, and then using it to express your own ideas. Video games have their own mode of literacy.

Two weeks ago I wrote my family an email, trying to get them onto World of Warcraft for the holidays. Since we’ll be spending the holidays completely apart (sniffle), I thought it would be fun to meet up online and play with each other. My parents and sister all agreed to give it a whirl. Some of my grandparents have also expressed interest.

So far, only my mom and I have been able to get online. The results were interesting, and a lot of fun. But it really does hammer home the fact that video games are not a passive form of entertainment. There is a learning curve required for entry. There is, by the very nature of the medium, interaction required.

I have been gaming for well over a decade now. I’ll pick up any controller or game and, if it’s competantly designed, feel comfortable within minutes. My mother, on the other hand, has ventured into Bejeweled territory and stayed there pretty comfortably. So when it comes to video games, my mom doesn’t know how to “read.”

The analogy to reading is very fitting. “Talk to that guy to turn into your quest,” involves three different concepts (interacting with an NPC, finishing the task, and the idea of a quest) that my mother has no frame of reference for. For instance, when I said “talk to that guy” my mother attempted to interact with him via whispers the way she was talking to me. What I meant, of course, was “right click on that NPC and open the dialogue box, select your reward, and click on complete to finish the mission we are currently on.” But that is not the obvious meaning for someone who is entirely knew to the environment. I was asking her to skip past phonics straight into Nancy Drew novels.

This isn’t what Dr. Gee intended in his writing, but nonetheless it is affecting the way I will try to introduce people to gaming in the future. In the past I would assure my victims loved ones that it was easy and they’d pick it up in no time. But now I see there is in fact a significant learning curve. I’m not just asking them to share a form of entertainment, I’m asking them to learn how to take in information in a whole new and unfamiliar form. In a very real way, I’m asking them to learn to “read.”

Now my family is made of some of the smartest people I know. Their stumbling over game “vocabulary” is only indicative of the fact that they’ve never had need to learn any of this before. It’s my responsibility as a guide, and later as a designer, to help them learn and keep the barriers to entry low.

I’ll be posting more about this as my mom and I continue adventuring around Azeroth. Watch out for a Tauren Shaman running with a Tauren Hunter; there’s a student driver on board.

  1. Craig says:

    This concept has quite a lot of merit, as I learned recently with a friend. The group of PC gamers that I commonly hang out with will play a pretty wide range of games types: RPG, RTS, FPS, Sim, MMORPG, Turn-based(yay, gamer vocab). This friend, however, was the only player who had never gotten into the RPG or MMORPG genre. I assumed it would just be a simple adjustment of controls and hotkeys for him to excel in WoW. But like you said, telling someone to go turn that quest in and pick up the next one isn’t intuitive to someone who normally just worries about capturing a flag like in CoD or securing a certain map resource like in Company of Heroes(A game I HIGHLY recommend). It was a challenge to get him to understand the mechanics without taking the fun away from his new game experience. Sadly, he said the game was not for him, which made the rest of us that were showing him how to play feel a bit like we failed. Hmmm, maybe he will like Pandaren and come around then.

    I hope you and your mom had a more successful beginning journey.

    • LX says:

      My mom has maintained her interest. I will say the first time I tried to introduce her to the game it was an unqualified disaster. I emphasized how easy it was and how she’d get into it in no time. Meanwhile she was having trouble even moving her avatar around. When I tried to introduce my sister and her boyfriend to D&D about a year ago they even had trouble with the concept of an avatar.

      I can see this in other things to. For instance, my sister and her boyfriend are super into music, with a recording studio in their basement. They are very music literate and can sit and listen through multiple albums while not doing anything else. I think music is very nice, but I can’t listen to music like that. I’m pretty well music-illiterate.

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