Thankfully, the discussion of media literacy is very prominent during Superbowl season. At this point, we are used to analyzing the commercials.
It must be one of the greatest accomplishments in advertising—talking about the ads is considered part of the tradition. People even say proudly, “I only watch for the commercials.” We start talking about the commercials weeks before they air. And people elect to watch them for fun on YouTube for weeks afterwards. It is absurd. Being sold stuff we don’t need has become an event.
I’m not unique in observing this. The conversation about body image and gender identity, in particular, is ubiquitous. Mostly, the focus is on girls and body image. But Common Sense Media leads the way with great articles about how to talk to your kids about gendered stereotypes during both the commercials, halftime and the actual game. Thankfully, they look at the impact on both boys and girls.
Here’s a quote from an excellent article entitled “What Are Boys Learning from the Super Bowl?”
Though there may or may not be a direct line between bone-crushing hits on the field and bullying at schools or between the objectification of women in commercials and the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, I do believe it’s our responsibility to investigate how valuing hypermasculinity in such a prominent way — as we do during the Super Bowl — might reinforce unhealthy gender norms. That said, there’s room for multiple conversations to give our kids even a slight filter with which to consume this overwhelming flurry of gendered images and ideas. Not only should we point things out to our kids while consuming this media, but we should encourage our friends and colleagues to do the same.
It is easy to find this kind of excellent writing during Superbowl season. And even during the rest of the year there’s a pretty healthy discussion of gender and media available. In fact, I might argue that the only good thing about the GamerGate fiasco is that it has brought more awareness about sexism in video games to the forefront of our consciousness.
But this culture of accusation, although sometimes necessary, tends to do more to antagonize than it does to educate our children. If we really want to raise a generation of thoughtful consumers who think critically about the media they consume, we also need to constantly teach them critical thinking skills in an ongoing and systematic way. We must do it in ways that aren’t always critical.
In my house, I do as much as I can to encourage critical thinking about media by talking about the video games my kids love to play. But it is not enough to just talk about it, I also have to encourage behaviors that nurture critical awareness to media and video games. Here are 3 ways I do it:
1. Play Without A Controller
All games are basically simple mathematical puzzles assembled using a series of complex algorithms. But we don’t see that side of games when we’re playing them. To a player, the game is an immersive fantasy world full of challenges and obstacles. Put simply, games are made up of mechanic and narrative scenarios. The mechanics are the rules of the game, the challenges players are expected to accomplish. The narrative is the story that makes the game interesting.
Most of the thinking about representation in video games is about the story. I’ve written a bit about the ways messages get baked into the mechanics, as have exceptional writers like Ian Bogost and Jane McGonigal, but the majority of the critical writing around games focuses on the narrative tropes. That’s okay, the narrative is a great place to start.
It is important to get kids to begin thinking about these narrative components and one way to do it is to get them thinking about the games’ characters outside of their devices, beyond the controller. Encourage them to draw pictures of their favorite characters. Encourage them to write stories about their favorite characters. Encourage them to imagine the characters outside of the games’ particular scenarios. And encourage them to imagine other characters in the same game worlds.
What happens is that by imagining game characters behaving differently in various scenarios, or other characters in the same scenarios, kids start to see that the game they’re used to is only representative of one narrative possibility. They realize that it could also go in a plethora of different directions. This opens the door to conversations about the kinds of messages particular narratives send and teaches kids that the commercial or mainstream message is not necessarily “normal” or “correct.”
2. Construct Your Own Reality
The primary part of learning to think critically about video games is learning that they are constructed.
Young players don’t give much thought to the fact that teams of developers and designers have to construct the games which seem so perfect. Once you’ve gotten them to realize that the games’ narrative components are not assembled from fixed possibilities, but rather from an infinite pool of variables, how do you get them to realize that narrative messages and characters are actually just thrown atop complex code? Teach them to make their own games.
There are many platforms that aim to teach young kids to make games by themselves. My personal favorite is Gamestar Mechanic. It uses a simple drag and drop interface to let kids assemble interactive systems-thinking based scenarios. Scratch is another great platform that is not as game oriented. It was developed as part of MIT Media Labs’ Lifelong Kindergarten project. It focuses on teaching basic coding through a drag and drop interface.
Both of these great web based options allow children to construct their own interactive media. And when they construct their own interactive worlds they begin to understand the way that mechanics and narrative elements interact to create a game.
Once they begin to see how it all works, they’ll approach the games they play in a different way. Not only will they be players, along for the ride, they’ll also become critics as they imagine what it took to construct the game that they are playing.
3. Face The Music
What about the more subtle components of the game? How do you get your kids to be thoughtful about the less explicit parts of media?
Top Score with Emily Reese is a Minnesota Public Radio program about video game music. My kids and I have been listening to the podcast regularly for the past few months.
Emily Reese, the host, interviews composers of video game music to talk about how they compose scores. She also plays tons of clips and explains the way video game scores are assembled.
I trained as a classical musician when I was a teenager and I’ve spent a good deal of time in professional recording studios. Still, despite my familiarity with music theory, I knew practically nothing about scoring video games prior to listening. The jargon of modern scoring—words like “stems”—was completely new to me.
This may not teach them to think about the political, social, and cultural ramifications of the games that they play, but it does nurture critical thinking skills in a way that doesn’t seem antagonistic or critical.