David Beagley, editor

To Be a Mighty Pirate: Guybrush Threepwood, Indiana Jones and a misspent youth of unintentional learning

Anastasia Marie Salter

Anastasia Marie Salter is an assistant Professor of Information Arts and Technologies at the University of Baltimore. She spreads her research and teaching interests from the constructions of digital architecture, through game studies, virtual worlds and electronic literature, to the social impacts of fan culture, electronic narratives, and open access, copyright and privacy.

Instructing and Delighting the “Digital Native”

The tension between instruction and pleasure is interwoven into the heart of children’s literature. But children’s literature escapes some consequence of this battle through acceptance of the medium’s inherent value, particularly as digital media has grown as a part of children’s daily lives and offered a number of seemingly less “valuable” alternatives to the act of reading. The same tension of instruction, or educational intent, and pleasure, or entertainment value, is inherent in our dissection of the role of new media in children’s lives, but our engagement with these works is often filled with suspicion and hierarchical judgments of the quality of newer forms, from video games to social media, against the traditional codex.

This same desire for labels can be seen in generational models that apply the brand of “digital” far beyond works of media and instead label these technologies as responsible for larger transformations. Our current constructions of the role of digital media in the lives of youth often hold such media as essential to the entire construction of a generation’s identity. Marc Prensky’s term “digital natives” has spread as an identifier of those who have grown up with computers, social media, and the Internet intertwined with their lives from day one (Prensky, 2001, p. 1). The moniker is often used to address the gap between youth as multi-taskers comfortable with technologies that the older generation in theory does not use so readily. It evokes the image of a child as master of online environments, and to some extend familiarity does bring a level of mastery, but the relationship of youth with digital media is far more complex. Conversely, the term “digital immigrant” is a label assigned to those who still carry their assumptions from other media to video games and other interactive spaces (p. 4). These terms are inherently problematic, as they both assume privilege and access to technology for full inclusion as part of the generation while ignoring the difference between exposure to a technology and mastery of that technology. The assumptions inherent in the digital native debate have been attacked by numerous researchers, including Helsper and Eynon’s study debunking the extent of these generational differences (p. 519).

However, the addition of video games to the landscape of early entertainment and educational experiences of youth is worth querying, particularly as it is the apparently distinctive nature of these media that has helped to give rise to the very construction of the digital native and the assumptions alongside the label. Given the increased role that video games and other digital media play in the formative experiences of youth, how do these media interrogate and reflect the dual purposes of education and entertainment? And, with theorists such as Prensky demanding increased attention to games as an educational platform particularly appropriate to the needs of his picture of the digital native (p. 5), how can video games be understood in the child’s process of self-construction?

Growing up a Gamer

My generation, at the cusp of the so-called digital native versus immigrant divide, was the first to grow up with video games woven into the fabric of stories that offer a window into the transition to adulthood. The new form was immediately viewed with suspicion by those experienced enough to know better: we didn’t know we were engaged in the formation of our selves, we just thought we were shooting at demons. Video games have been since the beginning a medium in search of a definition, often defined by the qualities more established media possess. In their first iterations, as players of the classic Pacman and its ilk might recall, they lacked both the imagery and immediacy of television and film and the depth of narrative of a book. Most of the games available at the time Bruner was writing still didn’t offer much in the details or imagery we’ve come to expect from modern games. Yet Marie-Laure Ryan describes how the games compensated for these elements by advertising an immersive experience: “Even in the 1980s, when computing power allowed only rudimentary graphics, developers promoted their products by promising a narrative experience that rivaled in its sensory richness the offerings of action movies” (Ryan, 2006, p. 182). The games built up quickly through the years, particularly once Nintendo begin to redefine the initial collections of pixels not as simple targets but as characters participating in battles of good and evil. The games offered the basic shapes and the virtual playground: we players provided the imagination to fill in the gaps. The actions the players take are necessary for the story to be fulfilled. Without a player, there is no story: the self is invested as part of the experience.

The comparison of games to traditional literature is itself a tension of binaries, as the experiences of a textual book compared to a video game can seem very different. Jesper Juul set out a strong binary between reader and player: "The relations between reader/story and player/game are completely different - the player inhabits a twilight zone where he/she is both an empirical subject outside the game and undertakes a role inside the game.” This assumption of agency by the player is also essential to Mark Meadows’s definition of interactive narrative: “An ‘interactive narrative’ is a form of narrative that allows someone other than the author to affect, choose, or change the events of the plot” (Juul, 2001, p. 238). This definition allows for a wide range of playable experiences to qualify as interactive narrative, as changes can range from the micro-level in the ordering of events or solving of puzzles, to the macro-level where a game offers open exploration and perhaps little resembles the constructed linear narrative of another media form.

This investment of the player in the game means that we do not ask for the same depth of narrative as we expect from a work of fiction, literary or not: “A game does not need to tell stories that would provide suitable literary material to immerse the player in the fate of its fictional world, because the thrill of being in a world, of acting in it and of controlling its history, makes up for the intellectual challenge, the subtlety of plot, and the complexity of characterization that the best of literature has to offer” (Ryan, 2006, p.195). This thrill is the interactivity: the feeling that I as a player can shape the fate of the world. It doesn’t matter to me that the story of King’s Quest is incredibly contrived. A knight rescuing a kingdom, and later in the series becoming a king, then rescuing a princess…these are the archetypes of stories that don’t require me to engage in deep literary analysis. The connection I have with Sir Graham, King’s Quest’sknight errant, isn’t because of his great depth of character: it’s because of the melding of our characters and quests towards trying out a different perspective and seeing the world through another’s eyes. The games I played as a child have a particular hold on my mind because that was a time when I was just learning to stretch my mind in those directions: I remember the characters that were part of that initial experience of the other, of being someone beyond my initial realm of experiences.

Playing an interactive narrative game, I am ideally not aware that the control I feel is an illusion. The adventure games of my youth represented the most purely narrative form of game, a style that is occasionally decried as a dead genre despite the continual fascination with narrative games. I came to know the characters of these adventure games in a different sense than I know the characters of texts, as Juul’s analysis of the different experiences of reader and player would suggest. I read about the escapades of the lovers caught in a magical forest, I imagined myself in their places; I became aware of new possibilities and ideas for love and fantasy. But Guybrush Threepwood, Indiana Jones, Sir Graham—those are characters whose lives I’ve played. The narratives of these characters may not offer the same depth as text, but the experience of play allows for actually testing the possibilities and limitations the characters represent.

At the same time, the parallels between a digital character as lens and the experience of the reader identifying with a character in a book can outweigh the differences, particularly in the role of media in the formation of perspective. The ability to inhabit a character is one glimpse into the adult skill of coming to understand the other, which as children we start by perceiving as the supporting cast in our lives. Yet self knowledge is impossible without the ability to see from the 'other’s' eyes. Bruner explains the change from child to adult: “As we grow to adulthood…we become increasingly adept at seeing the same set of events from multiple perspectives or stances and at entertaining the results as, so to speak, alternative possible worlds” (Bruner, 1986, p.109). However, the educational possibilities of games as part of childhood development have been explored since the beginnings of the form. The fears we hear about every day regarding the possible impact of games—for instance, the idea that playing a violent character will make a child more violent—are an implicit acknowledgement that even those who don’t support video games are aware of their potential power. Continual attempts to harness games as learning experiences reflect the potential of such experiences to instruct. These questions and debates are increasingly relevant as the construction of the digital native, however flawed by assumptions both of access to technology and of familiarity equating to mastery, captures the imagination of parents and educators.

Learning Games

The genre of video games that emerged first from the challenge of simultaneously instructing and delighting was known as “edutainment,” a term that combines education and entertainment into the same space while suggesting that the two are not inherently connected. Often, this fusion presented itself through content-based learning disguised under a veil of interactive narrative. Traditionally, edutainment has operated as a veil of playfulness over a core of textbook lessons and repetitive drills, but there is potential beyond that limitation. Games excel at fostering learning mindsets that “are intrinsic to the game while the students are learning the content. Through game playing, students learn how to collaborate, solve problems, collect and analyze data, test hypotheses, and engage in debate” (Klopfer, 2008, p.19).

The educational games of Sierra fall into Meadows’s classification of interactive narrative: they still focus on relative linearity, quest-driven narrative, and characters. Most of these games are intended to teach fundamental skills of problem solving, although some additionally aim to impart specific skill sets. Turbo Science, for instance, consists of a race between your character and others through a quirky town that offers both an exploration experience and continually more challenging science problems. The game is bundled with a book filled with further information needed to proceed through the challenges: however, I must admit I made as little use of this book as possible. The illustrations tied the concepts to the charming characters of gameplay in an effort to make more palatable what was essentially a textbook: however, children are not so easily fooled, despite what we as adults tend to presume. The virtual learning environments were acceptable because they clearly offered engagement, humor, and entertainment. Yes, we were learning: but the experience was not one of the classrooms, and no one was penalizing us for getting things wrong. This was a particular relief in science, where I could virtually play with experiments that my science class would have discouraged—in science class, teachcers keep students from making mistakes because it could be dangerous. In a game, I didn’t have anyone playing that supervisory role, and I could experience all the mistakes the designers had left room for. The game was equally inviting of exploration, something the world I grew up in never seemed to be: in the game could pick what parts of the town to explore further and direct my character’s progression. My wandering seemed free even though it remained fundamentally bound by the limits of the storyline, which in turn was defined by the structure of learning the designers planned: certain concepts are intended to precede others.

Another challenge that emerges from this model of interactivity is not being able to distinguish learning that is meaningful from an exhaustive search for a solution to a task. As these systems validate success, a player doesn’t have to know the right answer in order to find it. Sierra’s Eco Quest: The Search for Cetus is a game that attempts the elusive goal of digital learning: it encourages players to do the “right thing” within the game in the hopes of keeping the message with them when they leave the digital environment. Perhaps the most elegant aspect of Eco Quest is the attempt by the designers to make the learning feel incidental: even the child most suspicious of forced learning through games could take comfort in a storyline as simple as finding and rescuing a dolphin. There were certainly no math equations floating in the water, no science experiments lurking on the sidelines. And unlike with Turbo Science, I was not confronted with any textbook disguised as manual. The game operates on the more subtle level of encouraging behavior: the player must engage in “eco-friendly” activities to win the game. For instance, the player must cut open the rings of a six pack holder that has been thrown out carelessly and mark barrels of toxic waste to be removed from the sea. Points are even given for tasks like picking up trash and recycling—chores I remember rebelling against my mother every time I was assigned, but did happily within the game for the rewards. Unfortunately, the experience in game made me no more interested in removing random trash from the street. [The rings on six packs, at least, were a non-issue as we didn’t drink soda. As for toxic waste in the sea, that’s not something children are often given the opportunity to solve first-hand.] Perhaps the game’s greatest success was not in changing behavior but in influencing attitude: the consequences to the happy pixilated sea creatures are something I still remember.

Many of the games we play in childhood are intended to be part of learning, whether we’re aware of it or not when we’re part of them. Some of this play is imitative: we play games of cops and robbers or board games of Monopoly mocking the exchange of property we imagine is part of the world of business tycoons. Games offer us a new level for play: when we’re part of a world that sustains its own story, that story can offer us a window to aspirations we never considered. While these games advertised themselves as offering to build knowledge and skill-sets, they were more apt at building culture, which Bruner calls the impact of pure education itself: “The language of education is the language of culture creating, not of knowledge consuming or knowledge acquisition alone” (Bruner, 1986, p.133). I don’t remember the specific skills I gained from each game, nor could I easily quantify those skills against the skills the designers intended. If I was a hesitant participant in the learning of the knowledge those games set before me, it is nothing next to how unwitting a participant I was in their effect on my cultural development. As Shaffer notes in How Computer Games Help Children Learn, “In playing games, [students] are doing explicitly, openly and socially what as adults they will do tacitly, privately and personally. They are running simulations of worlds they want to learn about in order to understand the rules, roles and consequences of those worlds” (Shaffer, 2006, p.24).         

I can’t say what I learned of American history from Pepper’s Adventures in Time, or even what I learned of science from Quarky and my races through Turbo Science. Years later I don’t remember the content in the same way that I recall the experience of play: I remember Pepper’s dog running through a time portal and the different racing vehicles my strange yellow avatar acquired to win a race against her brother but my chemical properties are far less rooted. The design of game challenges such as these are often built around learning through failure and repetition, as Jane McGonigal describes in Reality is Broken: “Compared to games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use.”

I can presume now that it was my parent’s intention that I learn something from the games I was handed, and they took care in the selection: they were excited by a new world of educational games and hoped that I’d do better with math equations if I was using them to propel the further adventures of Rodney the Racoon. The games I most recall were advertised as part of the educational series of Sierra, a company I knew better for the fantasy tales of King’s Quest and Quest for Glory. I don’t know if their efforts at education succeeded because I wasn’t intended to know I was learning: at the time, I remember being occasionally suspicious of these games but I was lured in by enthralling environments and clever new characters to interact with. As an experiment in learning, these environments were designed for education that the designer intended that was still supposed to seem incidental to me as the player: a strange combination.

This unintentional learning in environments designed by others is not so far removed from the traditional classroom. Education already carries the hallmarks of gameplay: Seth Priebatsch noted in his SXSW keynote that education, with its rewards for valedictorians and for perfect attendance, along with its many obstacles and trials, is already a “game ecosystem” but “kind of broken.” The rise of “gamification” extends the model of incentives and point-based rewards from the history of edutainment to any educational application (and beyond). One trend in classroom game design is the outright “gamification” of assessment, as Lee Sheldon pioneered in his massive-multiplayer game inspired classroom, where students were rewarded for completion of assignments with experience points, joined guilds for cooperative learning, and ultimately 'leveled' their way to a final grade (Sheldon, 2011). As Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown explored in their recent book A New Culture of Learning, this type of play is essential to learning, and embracing play is one way learners prepare for an environment with continually changing expectations and challenges (2011).

Gaming tends to be regarded as a harmless diversion at best, a vile corruptor of youth at worst. But the usual critiques fail to recognize its potential for experiential learning. Unlike education acquired through textbooks, lectures, and classroom instruction, what takes place in massively multiplayer online games is what we call accidental learning. It's learning to be - a natural byproduct of adjusting to a new culture - as opposed to learning about. Where traditional learning is based on the execution of carefully graded challenges, accidental learning relies on failure. Virtual environments are safe platforms for trial and error. The chance of failure is high, but the cost is low and the lessons learned are immediate" (Brown and Thomas).

In his recent book Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age, Kurt Squire (2011) points out that “good games find ‘the game in the content.’”

The best of these games went one step further in redefining how I approached learning itself, something James Paul Gee acknowledges as a strong impact of a learning game—intentional or no: “Good video games have a powerful way of making players consciously aware of some of their previously assumed cultural models about learning itself” (Gee, 2003, p.162). The classroom environment offered a reward based system, similar on the surface to the points and victories of the games—but unlike the games, the classroom did not reward exploration. The classroom taught me that all the answers were right there in the book. Interactive narratives constantly told me no, maybe not: but maybe they were in the next room; or beyond that next door, or well-hidden down a lightly-trodden path.

The development of culture and self made every game I played during those formative years a learning game, not just the ones that said educational on the package. Perhaps foremost among those games in my recollections remains the Monkey Island series: the Lucas Arts games about an aspiring young pirate, Guybrush Threepwood, and his continually thwarted and bumbled attempts to become something great and famous. The journey was one from youth, inexperience, and incompetence to slightly older youth, experience…and incompetence. Threepwood’s quest told me that nothing was accomplished easily, that talking skulls were only occasionally trustworthy, and that monkeys were more devious than they first appeared. The series also featured a woman governor, a reluctant and distance love interest with far more control and power than Threepwood ever attains. These were characters to stretch the self: they offered tantalizing models for the future and new roles to cast my hat at for a moment or two.

Perhaps that cultural bonding is most possible because we can all understand those shared elements of the experiences from years ago: like poor Guybrush Threepwood, I too wanted to be a mighty pirate. Those interactive narratives redefined my hopes for what is possible, and for what my “self” could be. The educational potential of such experiences is in the unwitting acquisition of new perspectives: the designer’s intentions are something altogether different from the player’s, and yet the player cannot help but take away a few moments looking through someone else’s eyes. The potential for games to instruct (and delight) is still being explored. As we try to understand the role such games play beyond the construction of the so-called digital native, analyzing these games both as interactive and as narrative can help to reveal their role in shaping generations yet to come.


Works Cited

Brown, John Seely and Douglas Thomas. A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace, 2011. Print.

Bruner, Jerome. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986. Print.

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave, 2003. Print.

Gilbert, Ron. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. LucasArts, 1992.

—. The Secret of Monkey Island. Lucasfilm Games, 1990.

Helsper, Johanna Ellen and Rebecca Eynon. "Digital natives: where is the evidence?" British Educational Research Journal 36:3 (2010): 503-520. Print.

Juul, Jesper. "Games Telling Stories?" Game Studies 1.1 (2001) July. http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/juul-gts/.

Klopfer, Eric. Augmented learning: research and design of mobile educational games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. Print.

McGonigal, Jane. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. Print.

Meadows, Mark Stephen. Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative. Indianapolis: New Riders, 2003. Print.

Prensky, Marc. "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants." On the Horizon (2001): Vol 9:5. Print.

Priebatch, Seth. The Game Layer on Top of the World. SXSW Keynote, 2010. Video.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Avatars of Story. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.

Shaffer, David Williamson. How Computer Games Help Children Learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.

Sheldon, Lee. The Multiplayer Classroom: designing coursework as a game. Boston: Course Technology Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.

Squire, Kurt. Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age. New York: Teachers College Press, 2011. Print.

Williams, Roberta. King's Quest: Quest for the Crown. Sierra Online, 1984.


Anastasia Marie Salter

Volume 16, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, 2012

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"To Be a Mighty Pirate: Guybrush Threepwood, Indiana Jones and a misspent youth of unintentional learning" © Anastasia Marie Salter, 2012.
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