In a hunting society, children learn by playing with bows and arrows. In an information society, they learn to play with information.
Despite this excellent advice from media scholar Henry Jenkins, it seems that when it comes to kids and media the news is always bad.
Computer games — in particular — are held to be responsible for everything from adolescent illiteracy to childhood obesity, not to mention the stereotype of the Grand Theft Auto-addicted eight-year-old who grows up to engineer a Columbine-style school massacre.
Don’t underestimate the uses of media
Gaming is a powerful form of media. But comparatively little discussion has focused on understanding how digital technologies – including not only computer games, but also popular digital media more generally – can be harnessed as positive forces in the classroom.
This is not to say that there are not good reasons to be suspicious of the impact of large and potentially predatory media companies on children. The suspicion that Walt Disney or Dreamworks is attempting to colonise your child’s imagination is certainly legitimate.
But the old academic model that tells us that every 90-minute kids animation is a feature-length commercial designed to sell toys is not nearly complex enough to describe the challenges and opportunities represented by increasingly sophisticated media products for children. These range from the traditional Harry Potter media franchise to the Lego Movie.
The old approach underestimates the capacity of children to be active and critical media audiences. Indeed, it deprives them of the opportunity to develop the crucial media literacies they will need to become active citizens in the media-saturated, technologically driven world beyond the schoolyard.
Kids need to be media literate
Policy documents like the National Curriculum have focused on the need to enhance media literacy. Digital texts are gradually becoming a feature of school curricula. This year the HSC category “Film” was replaced with “Multimodal” in Victoria, and students are now embarking on a study of Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus.
The most traditional way of integrating computer games and other digital texts into classroom activities has been to use them to enhance the allure of traditional print-based media. For example, relevance is increased by linking novels or history books to the newer technologies that are already embedded in the student’s social world.
In this model, the print, film and game versions of teen hero Percy Jackson can be used to illuminate wider ideas about quest narratives, or as an entry point to the teaching of ancient myths. The Lizzie Bennett Diaries can be used to get high school students interested in Jane Austen. A computer game such as Europa Universalis IV can be used as a springboard to teach the violent histories of European conquest.
This is certainly a start — but it can underestimate the critical thinking required for students to grapple with what are in fact highly complex forms of meaning making.
New texts, new approaches
The logic of the ways in which digital texts construct meaning is very different to that of the print-based mediums that have traditionally dominated the classroom.
To realise the full potential of digital media more attention needs to be paid to the way in which these texts are changing the way we read, write and think.
For example, good transmedia narratives do not merely repeat across media platforms. Rather, each text offers a way to supplement, analyse and evaluate the rest — a bit like pieces of a puzzle that need to be put together through the use of imagination and problem solving.
In reading Percy Jackson, for example, children must find and think about the various texts. These are not just the book, the movie and the computer game, but also a complicated array of official and fan-made websites, including fan-run wikis like Camp Half Blood, and fan art, fiction and video websites, such as Percy Jackson Fan Fiction.
Looking at Percy Jackson Fan Fiction, you can actually see serious criticisms of the text made by children and teens in the stories they contribute. These are predominantly gender-flipping narratives in which the teen hero is recast as a heroine, remixes with other famous quest narratives, and a smaller quantity of narratives that deal with important social issues such as schoolyard bullying and problematise significant issues around race and ethnicity. These disrupt stereotypes by recasting the white hero as black, Hispanic or Asian.
The contributions represent points of critical thinking and, indeed, in the case of the gender and race-flipping narratives, ideological struggle.
In a similar way, the Lizzie Bennett Diaries problematise issues of class and race that are often invisible to Austen readers, through, for example, the addition of Lizzie’s Asian-American best friend, Charlotte Lu. Europa Universalis fans have actually built game [mods](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mod_(video_gaming) (modifications to the program code of the existing game, which can be downloaded from the internet to make the game look and behave in a different way) that allow First Nation Peoples to repel European invaders. It’s a sophisticated critique of the underlying politics of the game.
One of the more intelligent mods around is Escape from Woomera, which transfers the action of the game [Half-Life](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Half-Life_(video_game) to the Woomera Detention Centre in order to explore one of the most fraught spaces in the Australian political landscape.
Of course, building mods may be out of reach of most, but there are many games that facilitate customisation. A range of teen and even child-friendly game-making programs exist such as Game Maker and Scratch.
What’s great about new technologies is that they require active participation — not passive consumption. For this reason, the immersive environments offered by digital texts might give us the means to ensure that unlike last century, when the Johnny Can’t Read books spent decades on the bestseller lists, in this century Jane and Johnny can.