Watchworthy Wednesday: 2016 DML Keynote Recap

In case you weren’t among the nearly 500 people at the 7th annual Digital Media and Learning Conference last week at the University of California, Irvine, here are highlights from the keynotes.

What is the Intellectual Culture of Games?

Thanks to two factors that have emerged — mobile gaming and a healthy indie ecosystem — video games are in “the golden age,” according to games expert Constance Steinkuehler, presently a professor in digital media at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and co-director of the Games+Learning+Society Center at the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery and soon to join the UCI faculty, who delivered the keynote address Oct. 6.

“Consumers can get blockbusters and, too, they can get a ton of other games,” she said. “So, rather then just games like ‘Call of Duty,’ which is great, or ‘Madden’ or even ‘Pokémon Go,’ which is a massive huge hit, you also now have games that look like ‘Minecraft,’ that are making gazillions of dollars…and the market is booming.”

She pointed out that not only are there games from indie titles, but now there are serious games for impact, games for education, fully integrated into the market.

“So, now, you have games that are documentaries, games that are thought pieces, games that are about emotion, and it’s beautiful,” Steinkuehler said. “And, that’s the golden age of games.”

A decade’s worth of research on gaming and cognition, learning, doing, thinking and feeling, she said, has revealed:

  • Half of the text that kids are reading while playing video games is expository text.
  • The reading level of game text is considered 12th-grade level.
  • Four percent of the game text is on the “academic word list.” Such words show up on standardized tests, like college entrance exams.

“Games have this amazing architecture for engagement,” Steinkuehler said. “What you’re starting to see is the role of interest in learning itself.”

So, games become a kind of Trojan horse for progressive pedagogy, she added. “It’s interest-driven pedagogy, where the goal of getting it done is the first driving wheel not left out of the equation or not explained in a big reveal at the end of the year in a standardized test and kids don’t even know why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

One of the main concerns that faces all digital media is equity, and technologists and educators need to address it, Steinkuehler emphasized. “Digital technology is a way to connect people. This is connected learning. People learn from each other, and technology either amplifies it and enables it or it gets in the way. And, I think that teachers and mentors and experts and others are part of that conversation.”

Watch her entire keynote address online.

Digital Dreamers

Equity also was discussed at the conference’s Oct. 7 conversation between Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas and Henry Jenkins, USC Provost’s Professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts.

Vargas, who came to America from the Philippines when he was 12 and found out he was undocumented at 16 when he tried to apply for a driver’s license but realized his green card was fake, kept his immigration status a secret until he outed himself in the New York Times Magazine five years ago.

As a Washington Post reporter a few years before then, he found other undocumented young people all over the country using social media to tell their stories.

“I started watching these videos as early as 2008 and started feeling really guilty,” Vargas recalled. “The very people who legally aren’t supposed to be here are using these technologies to tell you who they are, to frame their own narrative, to tell their own story.”

Today, as publisher of the websites, EmergingUS.com and DefineAmerican.com, he is telling the stories of immigrants in America to advance a cultural shift.

“You cannot change the politics of immigration unless you change the culture in which people talk about immigration,” Vargas said.

Migration, he added, is the defining issue of the 21st century.

“There are 244 million migrants — 4% of the population — around the world…. My iPhone has more migrant rights than I do. This can be manufactured in China, delivered to Cupertino and then to New York, where I bought it. Meanwhile, I’ve been in this country since I was 12 and I haven’t been able to leave. It’s been 23 years.… Why is it that goods and commodities can travel anywhere and people can’t?”

Moreover, he asked, “why is it that when white people travel — manifest destiny, white man’s burden — it’s courageous, it’s essential, it’s the new frontier? When people of color travel, it’s a question of legality.”

For undocumented youth, Jenkins said, the struggle to survive is incredibly urgent, but long-term cultural change requires the ability to envision something beyond the immediate and think about the next direction. Jenkins and his team of researchers found that pop culture provides the language for today’s young activists.

The Harry Potter Alliance, for example, uses Harry Potter to get people concerned about various forms of human rights.

“The idea is that maybe we need Harry Potter to bridge between our world and the problem area, and form empathy through fiction,” Jenkins explained. “When we started looking at the dreamers, we discovered they also needed popular narratives, empowering narratives that could bridge capital between their group and other groups. We discovered how central superhero stories were to that generation of activists.”

When he encountered undocumented youth fighting for their civic and education rights, they frequently referred to Superman as part of the narratives they tell about their issues. 

“If ever there was an illegal alien in the United States who deserved to be called that, it’s Kal-El from the planet Krypton,” Jenkins narrates in Fusion’s video, “The Civic Imagination with Henry Jenkins.” “His parents sent him away to a new world, seeking a better life. He crossed the border in the middle of the night and was adopted by an Anglo family that told him to hide where he came from. So, he masked his ethnic identity and goes out and fights for truth, justice and the American way.”

Created by two immigrants, “Superman” from the beginning was about immigration, Jenkins said. “When dreamers reclaimed Superman, they were literally going across 70 years of history to reconnect with earlier generations of activists. It’s become a powerful way of communicating among themselves what is to be an undocumented dreamer seeking a better life for yourself and your family.”

Connections between all races and groups need to be forged, Vargas stressed, because “immigrant rights is connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, which is connected to the women’s rights movement, which is connected to the LGBTQ movement, which is connected to income inequality among all races. Until we actually talk and engage with lower-income white and black Americans in this country, how are we going to have any change?”

Through his video documentaries and essays on EmergingUS, Vargas is telling the story of today’s race and equity issues.

“This is a crucial struggle of our time,” Jenkins said. “Grass roots media solves it on one level. We’re seeing stories of dreamers that wouldn’t have gotten out in any other way and any other moment in history because they’re able to take advantage of the resources of the digital. But, if we don’t change Hollywood and we don’t change the news industry, there’re some fundamental issues that are not going to be addressed…. It’s important that we have these discussions.”

Only the internet and social media, Vargas added, are equipped to answer the question: how do you define American? And, “how willing are we to challenge ourselves and to go deeper and to get uncomfortable?”

The full conversation between Vargas and Jenkins is available online.

The 8th annual DML Conference is being scheduled for the first week of October next year at UCI.