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Serious Gaming For 21st Century Literacies

Gaming literacy is an approach to literacy based on game design.

Eric Zimmerman's argument is that there is an emerging set of skills and competencies, a set of new ideas and practices that are going to be increasingly a part of what it means to be literate in the coming century.

Game design is a paradigm for understanding what these literacy needs are and how they might be addressed. Eric Zimmerman looks at three game design concepts — systems, play, and design — as key components of this new literacy.

"Traditional ideas about literacy have centered on reading and writing — the ability to understand, exchange, and create meaning through text, speech, and other forms of language. A younger cousin to literacy studies, media literacy, extended this thinking to diverse forms of media — from images and music to film, television, and advertising. The emphasis in media literacy as it evolved during the 1980s was an ideological critique of the hidden codes embedded in media. Media studies scholars ask questions like: Is a given instance of media racist or sexist? Who is creating it and with what agenda? What kinds of intended and unintended messages and meanings does media contain?"

"Literacy and even media literacy are necessary but not sufficient for one to be fully literate in our world today. There are emerging needs for new kinds of literacy that are simply not being addressed, needs that arise in part from a growing use of computer and communication networks."

"Gaming literacy is one approach to addressing these new sorts of literacy that will become increasingly crucial for work, play, education, and citizenship in the coming century."

Whereas the current idea of literacy involves being able to read, understand and basically memorize information out of a textbook, gaming literacy follows the dynamic cause-and-effect threads found in videogames and applies it to the real world.

Games journo Heather Chaplin made an example of the way a dynamic videogame can be compared to a real-world issue such as global warming. In New Super Mario Bros., Mario can eat a micro or giant mushroom for two different effects, allowing him to move about the virtual environment and impact it a variety of ways.

In real-life, you can drive a car, which creates emissions, which contributes to global warming, in effect melting the polar icecaps, putting polar bears out of business. The car and the bear are connected. Both are "dynamic systems," whether in a game or in the real world. The Web, corporations and politics are also dynamic systems.

This past week, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced a $1.1 million grant to the Gamelab Institute of Play, to design and create a new 6-12th grade public school in New York City. The school will teach critical thinking skills and media literacy, using game design and game-inspired education methods.

The Institute of Play, a non-profit currently headed by designer and educator Katie Salen, seeks to introduce games into school curricula in order to foster creativity and promote new ways of thinking about problems. The Institute has dubbed the term "Gaming Literacy" to refer to a revolutionary way of approaching education by adhering to modern media.

The school, which is being built in collaboration with New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit that works with NYC schools to improve academic achievement, is due to open in the fall of 2009.

The MacArthur Foundation has shown great support for the potential of games in education. The MacArthur Foundation also recently awarded a grant to the Institute of Play's sister company Gamelab, to create educational software for teaching game design.