Getting a Read on Literature in Digital Environments

When does a book become an ebook? When does an ebook become an interactive storytelling app? When does an interactive storytelling app become a digital game? The reality is, its hard to tell a lot of the time. The ever growing confluence of media forms and literature has muddied the waters. Between every concrete example of one of the above literary categories exist a myriad vagaries: transmedia, no media, participatory, agentic, emergent, haptic. Storytelling is experiencing a revolution just as impactful as when moveable type changed the world (Cull, 2011) – a revolution reflective of the shifts evident in greater society where digital creativity is flourishing amid technological advancement, an increasingly participatory culture, and complex networks of information flow (Wheeler, 2015).

 

Are we losing something here though? There is something very calming, relaxing.. even homely, about sinking into a deep couch and reading chapter one of a Cracking Good Novel, feeling the spine under your fingers and hearing the papery wing flap of the pages turning. Scholars wonder the same thing – whether the bells and whistles of all this digital enhancement break the hermeneutic immersion necessary for deep, focused reading (James & de Kock, 2013; Gurnsey, 2011). The answer, again, is muddied. In many cases, a poorly designed ebook / interactive storytelling app without a goodness of fit between its visual, audio, and haptics will distract from the experience – but one which hits a sweet spot between those elements can indeed support the literacy learning and reading experience (Roskos et al. 2014). There are many, many examples of digital literature “out there” now, all falling somewhere on this spectrum of distracting to enhancing.

 

Kicking back with a good book...?

Kicking back with a good book…?

 

Personally, I’m very interested in comparing the experience of print literature versus that of a storytelling experience in a digital game, as I’m a big fan of both. Storytelling in games has been hit and miss over the years but in the past three of four, designers are finding their stride, understanding that when wrapped up in a rich story, games become much more engaging and appealing (Alderman, 2015). Many games available today offer “literacy experiences” (The Last of Us, Bastion, The Stanley Parable, Papers Please, Life is Strange, Mass Effect) the avant garde of which are using gameplay mechanics (control forms, decision making, customisation etc.) to tap into “the emotions of agency” of the player, deepening the connection to the story perhaps in a way that books and films cannot (Phillips, 2013). Digital games can make the player feel guilty, for example; the consequence of a poor choice. Games are also exploring the edges of emergent, reactive storytelling where decisions a player makes in game effects the story arc, the characters, and the environment around them.

 

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Comparing print and digital literacy experiences then, it seems digital storytelling, in its many forms, can indeed provide new and exciting ways to tell the stories we’ve always enjoyed. Research also indicates that students’ comprehension does not necessarily suffer, regardless of the format of text (Margolin et al., 2013) – what matters is the mindset a reader deploys. What schools, teachers, and parents need to contend with then is expanding the notions of what literature and reading is. There will always be classic, good old text-based books, but it’s also much more than that now in our digital environment, such as transmedia mashups of audio, written word, video, art, music, and gameplay. These are semiotic resources (Walsh, 2013); methods that authors and designers make meaning from. Reading should be thought of as the process of constructing meaning from symbols (Lamb, 2011) – so, reading any of these new digital formats can be accomplished via unpacking its semiotic resources, just as much as novel, a movie, or a piece of art. In today’s media saturated, convergent environment it’s more important than ever that students contend with these kinds of digital literature formats, these new literacy experiences, so they become armed with the tools to make sense of the mediasphere around them (Moorefield-Lang & Gavigan, 2012).

 

To walk the talk then, I’m currently planning a series of sessions with a Grade 4 class at school who are conducting a unit of inquiry on how “the values we have influence the choices we make.” Exploring the digital game Never Alone (discussed in more detail here) with these students will, I hope, help develop understandings of this concept. Initially, we will inquire into traditional Iñupiat culture via web research and key readings with the purpose of learning about traditional Iñupiat values. Jumping into the game next and learning about the challenge facing Nuna and Fox, students will record how the story and game design reflect the values of the Iñupiat. We will gather information across the mini-documentaries embedded in the game, the story plot, thematic and symbolic elements, and game design – working to read and interpret the semiotic resources available and in doing so, increase our understanding of the key concept (and enjoy a wonderful story).

 


References

 

Alderman, N. (2015). The first great works of digital literature are already being written. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/oct/13/video-games-digital-storytelling-naomi-alderman

 

Cull, B. W. (2011). Reading revolutions: online digital text and implications for reading in academe. First Monday, 16(6). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3340/2985

 

Lamb, A. (2011). Reading redefined for a transmedia universe. Learning and Leading with Technology, 39(3), 12-17.

 

Margolin, S.J., Driscoll, C., Toland, M.J., & Kegler, J.L. (2013). E-readers, computer screens or paper: does reading comprehension change across media platforms? Applied Cognitive Psycology, 27, 512-519.

 

Moorefield-Lang, H., & Gavigan, K. (2012). These aren’t your father’s: the new world of digital graphic novels. Knowledge Quest, 40(3), 30-35. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/aaslpubsandjournals/knowledgequest/docs/

 

Unsworth, L. (2006). E-literature for children: Enhancing digital literacy learning. Taylor & Francis.

 

Walsh, M. (2013). Literature in a digital environment (Ch. 13). In L. McDonald (Ed.), A literature companion for teachers. Marrickville, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA). https://www.csu.edu.au/division/library/ereserve/pdf/walsh-m3.pdf

 

Wheeler, S. (2015). Learning with ‘e’s. Crown House Publishing.

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