State of the Re:Union contributor Mike McGrath of the National Civic League shares the logic behind how such a simplistic and classicly iconic game, Pac-Man, is helping youths in L.A.’s inner city to learn in-depth understanding and engage in critical thinking regarding digital media and its role in their futures.
I read an article in the New York Times recently that noted that some of the top execs at Silicon Valley firms were sending their kids to private schools where the students aren’t allowed to use computers.
Learning is about using your own brain, not some artificial intelligence, so it makes some sense. I sometimes think Google, Wikipedia and IMDB are atrophying my memory. But if tech execs are really sending their kids to computer-free schools it’s more than a little ironic. Will the luxury of not becoming computer literate until middle school become a new badge of affluence, like summering in the Hamptons?
I ask this because out in the everyday world, nonprofits, foundations and educators are trying to figure out how to get kids from low income communities to use more computers, more broadband, more devices—and to be more savvy and critical about the media they encounter in everyday life.
As one activist from the tribal areas of San Diego County pointed out in an interview I did a while ago, you can’t even apply for a job at Home Depot if you can’t use a computer. In fact, new information and technologies (ICTs) have tremendous potential for empowering kids and narrowing the gaps between haves and have-nots in our communities.
That’s the premise, at any rate, of the most recent issue of the National Civic Review, which is in its one-hundredth year of publishing. The issue attacks this question from a number of different angles, but among the most original is Katynka Martinez’s essay, “Pac-Man Meets the Minutemen: Video Games by Los Angeles Latino Youth.” The article relates lessons learned from a project in the Pico Union and Korea Town sections of Los Angeles to teach kids media literacy and creativity by having them design their own versions of the classic, first generation computer game, Pac-Man.
Why Pac-Man? That’s part of the fun of this article. The students, who attended a high school just west of downtown L.A., thought they were going to work on something comparable to Guitar Hero, say, or Counter Strike. “Instead they were told that they’d be creating a version of Pac-Man,” writes Martinez, . They grumbled upon hearing the news. The 1980s game is pretty simple, does not involve serious acts of violence, and does not feature scantily clad women. For that matter, it features no humans. The storyline—chomping on pellets and the occasional fruit while running away from ghosts—is quite different from the actions of professional athletes or skilled marksman. Pac-Man was an anomaly among space shooter games that were popular when it was released, and it continues to stand out when compared to contemporary games.”
The project began with students putting pencil to paper and creating maps of their neighborhoods and homes. Then they were asked to match this urban landscape with the Pac-Man maze. In one of the student games, Pac-Man became a boy who was helping a hot dog vendor in MacArthur Park who is being menaced by demonic hot dog chomping ducks. In another version, the hero is a boy running away from aggressive, alcoholic homeless men in his neighborhood. In a third version, an immigrant is being chased by anti-immigration “Minutemen” vigilantes.
The games allowed these students to reconstruct their own urban landscapes and grapple with issue and challenges people face in those neighborhoods in ways that defy the prevailing stereotypes from the media in all its forms, video games not excluded.
The goal is to help these students develop a critical distance from and understanding of digital media in general, and more specifically, games, which are being used these days for everything from on the job training at McDonald’s to Army recruitment.
“It is essential that today’s youth learn to deconstruct and read video games as they would a novel or a poem in school,” write Martinez. Educators and media activists should engage in productive conversations with youth to discover what attracts them to the game they play.”
While I’m on the subject of media, congratulations to Youth Radio, which recently won a Peabody Award. Another article in the review focuses on Youth Radio’s uses of mobile media.
Spin around in any direction and there is a 99 percent chance that what your eyes land on is somehow connected with the digital realm. There is very little in modern society that is not affected by digital media. Think about it, what is the role of digital media in your existence? What additional advice, experience or knowledge can be offered to those looking toward the future of digital media? We know that many readers have nuggets of wisdom just waiting to be heard, so what are you waiting for? Of course we want to know.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.