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The Confusion Between Content and Containers

The digital realm allows content and containers to exist separately, but their old bond is still tough to break. An article in yesterday’s New York Times education section illustrates this point:

Spurred by arguments that video games also may teach a kind of digital literacy that is becoming as important as proficiency in print, libraries are hosting gaming tournaments, while schools are exploring how to incorporate video games in the classroom…

… But doubtful teachers and literacy experts question how effective it is to use an overwhelmingly visual medium to connect youngsters to the written word. They suggest that while a handful of players might be motivated to pick up a book, many more will skip the text and go straight to the game. Others suggest that video games detract from the experience of being wholly immersed in a book.

The problem with this thinking is that it only assigns “literacy” value to books. Certainly, books are an essential learning tool and students should be exposed to them early and often, but if the goal is to improve literacy — i.e. “being able to read and write” — then the argument against games falls apart. A game-based project that boosts reading and writing skills in even a small percentage of children is still worthwhile, especially if it’s one initiative amidst a broader literacy effort.

The anti-game contingent noted in the Times piece is falling into a familiar trap: assigning value to a container instead of content. The container trap was innocuous in years past because the audience (consumers, students, etc.) was limited to passive acceptance of a few choices. Now that digital delivery empowers audiences to naturally gravitate toward material they deem worthwhile, shoehorning people into a particular form diverges from bigger goals. If you want to accomplish something — be it literacy improvement or creation of sustainable revenue streams — you need to go with the audience grain, not against it.

(Via Shelf Awareness)

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