Saturday, September 25, 2004

Online games, digital literacy and identity

Digital texts and their particular affordances are fascinating. This is a screen capture of an online game called "Mucha Lucha" which is based on a hugely popular (but admittedly strange) Warner Brothers masked wrestling themed animation of the same name. While amusing, it is at the same time instructive of the ways in which young people can now understand themselves and their access to the world outside home, school and local community.

To play this small online game, one goes to the site, constructs a wrestler (in the same way that any avatar is constructed from a limited range of stylistic options) and then waits for someone else to enter the arena and agree to a wrestling match.

Out in the world beyond the computer screen, another person has also constructed a wrestler and chosen to enter the online wrestling arena. Although this person is anonymous and known only by their avatar and self-chosen wrestling name (i am known to my fans as "The Tick" -- a name sure to create terror in all adversaries) s/he represents a living, breathing person somewhere else in the world with which I can interact in a shared virtual space and shared enterprise. Suddenly, i am no longer limited to my loungroom or neighbourhood. I am a citizen of a wider world who shares skills, knowledge and practices with others outside my immediate sphere.

One of the consequences of the rapid shift to digital technologies has been the ways in which children and young people are increasingly able to gain access to other people across the world. Issues of time, distance and economic capacity are no longer the same kinds of limiting factors they once were. Children in Australia are able to engage with the young (and not so young) in Poland, Singapore, Ukraine, America and many places in between. This kind and speed of access was unimaginable even ten years ago.

This seemingly simple shift, represented here in this one online game, has profound implications for literacy educators, particulary those of us who work in primary and early childhood settings. Where once, childhood texts were easily monitored and regulated and interactions with those outside home and school were limited, this is no longer the case for increasing numbers of children. These children have new skill sets, new views of themselves as active participants in a range of virtual and physical social sites, and new expectations of how and why they might manipulate text. As educators, how are we to respond? The debates are ongoing.

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