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The Idea of Video Game Literacy

Most people will associate the word “literacy” with literature, and rightly so. Both words stem from the Latin root litterae which roughly translates to letters. Literacy, or the state of being literate, refers to the ability to read, write, or otherwise comprehend something.


If someone lacks the ability to read, they cannot understand or appreciate a book. To them it appears a collection of lines on paper that flaps and flops around when they give it a good shake. Reading makes books valuable; it unlocks the information they contain. This seems like common sense, but only because it is the most straightforward example of literacy. There are many different types of literacy besides reading and writing. If something requires a bank of pre-existing knowledge in order to understand it, that knowledge is required in order achieve basic literacy in that subject.


When people first began making movies, there were no set standards. Length, film type, subject matter, editing, everything could greatly vary as there were no agreed upon consistencies in the burgeoning film industry. It was the Wild West as far as movie makers were concerned. This translated into a time of experimentation during which film makers realized that they could “cut” film to create different shots. Instead of having one long take, directors could have different angles, and indicate the passage of time without actually showing the time being passed. This might seem a given to modern audiences, but to people who had no experience making or watching movies it took a while to pick up this new visual language. Learning that an hour long film can span decades isn’t something that everyone just inherently understands. It takes time to build up a certain amount of visual literacy, to gain the ability to comprehend the graphic language of cinema. Much in the same way, it takes a great deal of time to learn the language of video games.


Video game developers are still figuring out accepted conventions of the medium and along with them, so are their video game playing audiences. The element of interactivity inherent to games creates so many variables for creators and users that it is likely this exploratory moment for games will last much longer than it did for film, especially given rapid improvements in technology to which the industry must adapt. However, given that people are playing, understanding, and enjoying games it seems clear that a language of video games has emerged over the years, distinct from any other medium.


Two distinct graphical presentations have also come into being; cutscene visuals and gameplay visuals. Cutscenes operate more along the lines of film, they can show action from multiple perspectives, the player has no direct control over them (unless the part in question includes a quick-time event), and that static quality has led to higher visual quality in cutscenes of the past, though that gap is quickly being bridged as technology advances. Gameplay visuals, meanwhile, are a completely different beast and vary wildly depending on the genre. If there is anything consistent to be said about the graphics during gameplay segments it is that the virtual camera is almost always consistent and depicts events in an easily understood chronological order. Gamers also learn to accept the virtual worlds presented in-game during gameplay with a degree of suspension of disbelief. Players aren’t thrown for a loop when in-game characters don’t react to floating health bars or enemies that seem to materialize from thin air.

Music and sound design also play crucial roles in understanding the video game. Both function similarly to cutscenes and gameplay presentation, but with more nuance and genre specific meaning than I want to delve into in this general overview. Suffice it to say that both are important and add a lot to the overall experience, but they apply too specifically to different genres for someone to generalize in a way that does both elements justice.


Control schemes are one of the most crucial hurdles to becoming video game literate. Every game requires some way to interact with the digital world, but not every game uses the same control layout or even device. Playing a game with a mouse and keyboard, a controller, a touchscreen, or motion controls are all very different experiences with differing learning curves. In fact, I’d argue that this level of differentiation is why video games have taken so long to seep into mainstream culture. Learning one game can be hard, but when each game has different rules and the controls keep changing it almost seems unfair to people who are trying to learn how to enjoy gaming. Over time, certain consistencies have evolved. For example, on a dual analog stick controller, the left stick usually dictates movement, while the right directs the camera. In shooters the left trigger usually makes aiming more accurate, while the right trigger fires your weapon. However, these general observations can prove inaccurate when looking at different genres of games or when taking into account remapped or alternate controller layouts. Without going into insane levels of detail, there seem to be general rules that you can apply to some subsections of gaming, but don’t work for every game or every player.


Gameplay needs to be taught making it one of the most unique features in any medium. Nearly every video game has some sort of tutorial or introductory level for that very purpose. Over time, there different types of gameplay mechanics have become established genres that prospective players can expect to have similar elements and rules to what they have learned before. Gamers began to pick up on the subtle patterns that permeate games in given genres and develop affinities for certain types of games. The end result is that experienced gamers have the feeling that they know how to play a game in a familiar genre even if that title might use different parameters and rules.


Amazingly, even though video games present numerous barriers and challenges to their players, people are more than willing to sink hours into learning how to play an RTS or days into grinding through a long RPG. Why? I’m not really an expert on the subject. I’m just a guy that knows how to write, but I’ll take a stab at it. The answer is that there is no one answer. Much like the variables that exist when a player interacts with a game, I expect that everyone’s answer would be a little different because everyone is bringing something different to the game.

The challenges of learning and overcoming may be difficult, but I do know that at the end of the journey, at least for me, the victory seems sweeter.


Do you agree with me? Am I a crackpot? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Feature originally appeared on 09/09/13

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