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Media and Education in the Digital Age

Concepts, Assessments, Subversions

Edited By Matteo Stocchetti

This book is an invitation to informed and critical participation in the current debate on the role of digital technology in education and a comprehensive introduction to the most relevant issues in this debate. After an early wave of enthusiasm about the emancipative opportunities of the digital «revolution» in education, recent contributions invite caution, if not scepticism. This collection rejects extreme interpretations and establishes a conceptual framework for the critical questioning of this role in terms of concepts, assessments and subversions. This book offers conceptual tools, ideas and insights for further research. It also provides motivation and information to foster active participation in debates and politics and encourages teachers, parents and learners to take part in the making of the future of our societies.
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Children and videogames: Oral and written narratives

Children and Video Games: Oral and Written Narratives

Rut Martínez-Borda & Pilar Lacasa

Abstract

This chapter traces the development of a multimedia workshop that took place at a Spanish public school and the work of twenty-one third-year girls and boys (aged 8–9) who wrote narratives based on their use of video games in the classroom. The analysis scrutinizes the role of video games as educational tools and examines how these, supported by classroom discussions, can contribute to the development of narrative thought as present in written compositions available in different contexts. The findings indicate that the children manage to write their own stories based on their interactions with the video games and that their reconstructions of computer games stories are dependent on specific contexts. Moreover, the video game plays an important role in the development of narrative thought because it serves as a vehicle of symbolic contents that enables the child to sequence and specify his or her own experience.

Introduction

Commercial video games are instruments designed originally for entertainment that allow players to share their experiences, both real and virtual, in interactive contexts (Ito, 2010). However, considering these media as educational tools can be controversial due to their content, the values they transmit and the interaction with the players.

The bitterest detractors claim that video game contents have the potential to negatively influence the players’ attitude and behaviour. Studies have targeted possible links to addiction, aggression, violence, social development, and a variety of stereotyping and sexual morality issues (Dziewanski, 2011; Bickham, 2004; Horton, 2011). The results of these studies do not always coincide. For example, within the realm of aggression studies, some analysts have found that exposure to violent video games correlates with at least a temporary increase in aggression and a decrease in pro-social behaviour (Anderson & Bushman, 2001), whereas other authors have concluded that video game violence is not related to engaging in aggressive behaviour (Ferguson & Kilburn, 2009). However, some experts have based their work on the potential positive effects of video games (Kushner 2007; Kenyota, 2010), which is a view that we share. In this article, we treat video games as “cultural emergent forms” in the global context that affect the leisure time of children between the ages of 8 and 18.

It is true that the use of commercial video games in the school context is not easy. Video games do not educate by themselves, nor does television or other ← 183 | 184 → media; it is the audience’s interaction with those media and the role of a “mediator” that transforms them into educational tools. In this case, the role played by adults becomes essential in the transformation process of the game as an educational resource to create constructive and meaningful learning situations related to the acquisition of new literacies. (Berger, 2002; Lacasa, 2013)

Following this approach, we focus on how video games, supported by conversations in the classroom, contribute to the development of narrative thought as present in written compositions, available in different contexts. This paper analyzes the evolution of children’s narratives, working in small-group and large-group situations after playing commercial video games in the classroom. Adopting an ethnographic and action research perspective, we anticipate our results will inspire specific practices of using commercial video games as educational tools when children learn to elaborate and build stories in specific multimedia contexts in which the educational use of video games is combined with watching movies and acting out a theatrical play.

Gamers and game interaction: signs and meaning

Video games play a meaningful and natural role in the everyday life of children and young people and provide them with new experiences, interesting stories, social events, fun, challenges, excitement and many moments of learning. They make it possible for players to participate in valued communities of practice and, as a result, to develop the ways of thinking that organize those practices by creating meaningful experiences for the players (Lacasa, 2013; Cortés, 2011). The games become cultural objects that have value in specific contexts when the user faces problems and challenges before making decisions (Gee, 2008).

Focusing on the concept of game, Salen and Zimmerman (2006) consider the presence of rules as a fundamental aspect in its definition:

“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules that results in a quantifiable outcome.” (Katie Salen & Eric Zimmerman, 2006. p. 96)

The value of the rules and the presence of an imaginary world or playful creation are fundamental to the concept of the game (Steinkuhler, 2012). The interaction with video games allows the players to live meaningful experiences, face continuous challenges, learn by doing in worlds of rules and feel part of them thanks to the characters. This aspect is closely related to the presence of “virtual” contexts and spaces.

However, the objects are not valuable in themselves, it is the activities and practices that emerge from the interaction which make them meaningful. For this ← 184 | 185 → reason, we must observe the players and their interaction with the game to be able to determine how they generate new knowledge and forms of expression.

Moreover, we must not forget an important element in the game world that connects the player directly with the game – the character or hero (Popper, 2013). Recent studies on the narrative of games have highlighted the character function, which allows the narrative to go forward. This is important, since the player adopts an identity and the possibilities for action, spatial relationships and connecting with other characters multiply. From this perspective, Egenfeldt et al. (2008) consider the character as the necessary link between the player and the narrator, i.e. the junction between the interactive options chosen by the player and the narrator’s response. The player needs the character, but he/she has the ability to become the author of his/her own adventures, which will be reflected in the narratives.

Adopting this approach, we consider that video games allow gamers to learn and think differently than they are used to and provide very suitable material to create constructive and meaningful learning situations related to the acquisition of new literacies. When combined with other media, video games contribute to the development of digital literacy, a necessary competence to engage young people in society through different means of communication. By literacy, we understand the process by which people become aware of the discourses they use and, in doing so, gain control of the communication situations using a reflective and critical manner in order to achieve a certain goal. It is a process that allows people to control the languages they use and thus transform them into more complex models to enable new and more elaborate activities in communicative and interactive contexts (Mitchell, 2002; John-Steiner, 1994; Olson & Torrance, 1991). Currently, research is being conducted in the same direction (Dobson & Willinsky, 2009), which takes into account new communication tools that generate different forms of literacy and thinking. Thus, new media in digital environments allow users to become creators of information and knowledge builders able to control the discourses they use to convey their messages to remote audiences – something that was limited to the mass media professionals until very recently. By controlling their discourses, users’ experiences in the game become personalized and specified, both individually and collectively.

As mentioned above, at the time of playing the player discovers the logic of the game (rules) while experiencing a story based on his/her actions. Henry Jenkins (2003, 2004) understands the relationship between video games and narrative from a spatial perspective, in which space is the key element for narrative possibilities. The construction of complex plots and characters is not as crucial as the space to be explored, controlled and mapped. This is how stories and multiple endings can be invented. In computer games, the players must interact with the ← 185 | 186 → story, which is opposed to the linear structure of narrations (Carlquist, 2002). Both the game and the narrative situation move in a world that only comes to life as long as there is someone to interpret the signs that appear in those contexts. By inviting the player to become involved in the sequence selection process, the narrator opens a transitional space that allows the reader/player to participate in narrative creation. For example, the player becomes a narrator who chooses paths, and the game plot becomes a detached and almost unique experience. The decisions made by each player are different stories. Space generates narrative in video games and, by making these choices, the reader “moves the focus away” from him/herself and feels “as if” he/she is the one creating the story. This way, narratives in video games generate an affective, cognitive involvement that gives way to an immersion process in the plot, and we can understand the concentration and interest generated by the game (among other skills) and reject the argument of a lack of concentration of the users. Xavier Berenguer defines the connection between the player and the choice of history as an interactive dilemma between “the author’s need to control history and the freedom of the interaction to change” (Berenguer, 1998). Video games and, more specifically, the adventure game analyzed in this chapter, are built around this dilemma. The game designer creates a storyline and a set of rules that should allow the story to progress but, in turn, offers a certain degree of freedom and motivates the player to act in the game. These games in which the player must advance through predetermined sequences are known as “progression games” (Juul, 2009).

We have chosen to address these ideas because, by introducing video games in the classroom as a game element, we offer students moments of interaction and decision-making, turning them into the “authors/writers” of their own adventures. As we will see later on, the data obtained in the research have allowed us to analyze how students develop their creative skills, especially related to the way in which they build stories based on the video games’ contents.

Narratives and adventure video games

Some game theorists who have approached the question of games and narrative from various perspectives have also inspired this work. Gee (2006) and Jenkins (2004) both discussed the creation of narrative via spatial exploration and episodic play in video games. Murray (2000) describes games and narrative in relation to the concept of ‘procedural authorship’, while Pearce (2004) develops the notion of ‘emergent narrative’ to describe narrative-like event sequences that emerge during play. Alternatively, Zagalo et al. (2005) incorporate embodiment, emotion and ← 186 | 187 → cognition into their analysis of narrative in games. Our idea of narrative coincides with that of classical authors such as David Olson (1990: 99 and 101):

“In the classical tradition, dominant in our literate society, narrative is taken as antithesis of thought (…) There is nothing natural about narrative (…), narrative form, when applied to experienced or imagined events, create a story. These stories are constructed and interpretative in nature, memorable, functional and entertaining. Narratives, then (…) can be seen as forms of thought-devices for interpreting experience and informing action.”

These ideas come from an old book, but we can find similar concepts in many other sources, for example, Bruner (2002):

“Narrative is organized around the dialectic of expectations supporting norms and the possibility of evoking transgression. It requires a cast of characters who are free agents with minds of their own; they are recognizable by expectations about the ordinary state of the World, even if it is somewhat enigmatic.” (Bruner, 2002)

We are interested in narratives relating to the use of technologies in educational settings. Looking for new models of interpreting school settings, we focus on some authors such as Ferraro (1994), who believes that “the narrative form constitutes a basic tool for meaning construction and event interpretation. It could be said that, more than language, narrative should be considered the primary modelling system.” In this case, the narrative is a tool that interprets and constructs one process. Based on this idea, we can consider narrative not just as a formal discourse issue, but also as “a cognitive construct, or mental image, built by the interpreter in response to the text” (Ryan, 2004). Focusing on our connection between the narrative and the video game world, we can say that the reader (or player, in this case) moves to the world of the writer (game designer) when living the adventures that take place in the virtual world of the game (the experience).

In addition to the hidden action and resolution of problems, the video game features contents (space, time, actions and characters) that offer the perfect space for the player’s action (Gretchen Papazian, 2013). It is for this reason that adventure games are more related to the ability to create narratives. In this type of game, the player makes a narrative reconstruction of events planned by its creator, in some cases across platforms, by testing, achieving goals, etc. The decisions made by the player determine the path to follow in order to achieve the ultimate goal of the game. Adventure games present one method that starts out from a specific story world and inserts possibilities of user action to make it interactive. This is the approach in games such as Tomb Raider: since the plot of these games must be adapted to the possibilities of action offered by game controls, they are usually fairly different from their literary or cinematic sources. Many of the games ← 187 | 188 → based on a pre-existing story tend to become stereotyped shooters and quests with weak integration of the player’s actions into the storyline. These games attract players for the spatial and visual pleasure of finding themselves in a familiar fictional world and encountering well-known characters rather than for the temporal pleasure of enacting a specific sequence of events (Grove, 2013). In this kind of design, the story world takes precedent over the story. Let’s see how the game is introduced in the instruction manual of the video game:

Lara Croft is presumed dead and several of her colleagues and friends are holding a memorial service in her honour. This service leads to a sort of vigil, where the gathered recall some of Lara’s past exploits. These stories make up the adventures, and there are four unrelated episodes. Each of these finds Lara searching for some mythical artefact in some mystical land, usually against some European adversary. Descriptions of the episodes sound like variations on Clue solutions: You have the Frenchman with the Philosopher’s Stone in the Roman Coliseum and the German with the Spear of Destiny in the Russian submarine. Lara will also have to hunt demons in an Irish moor and find an Egyptian artefact in a high-security skyscraper.

This description shows that, right from the beginning, the player faces two essential elements that define the game: on the one hand, the adventures Lara Croft is going to go through and, on the other, the problems the player will have to solve in order for the story line to advance. This combination of the problems presented and the fictional experience ended up being determining factors for what happened during the workshop, and we will see it reflected in the children’s narratives. These simple instructions embody both representational and ludic designs; they continue the narrative events, characters, unresolved conflicts and episodic trajectory, while also issuing a ludic imperative, which provides the object of the game. From this point of view, we analyse the productions written by the children on Lara Croft, where we are able to observe the use of space as the context in which the action takes place and the predominance of time as students reconstruct the actions experienced in the game as a narrative (Klaus Bredl, 2013).

Case study: Lara Croft’s world in the children’s written compositions

The methodology on which our analytical process is based consists of our own case study techniques combined with the use of some ethnography practices and an ecological approach, which explores what happens in natural situations (Atkinson, Coffey, Delamont, Lofland & Lofland, 2001; Lacasa & Martínez, 2013). ← 188 | 189 → Its validity is based on a detailed description of the cases in which we can explain how people make sense of their activities in defined socio-cultural contexts (Bazeley, 2013). A micro-ethnographic analysis of multimodal discourses is also carried out. We have presented in detail the steps followed in the generation of information and data analysis (Del Castillo, García-Varela & Lacasa, 2003).

In this case, as can be seen in the data, we are exploring the role of video games as educational tools to examine how adventure games, supported by discussions in the classroom, can contribute to the development of narrative thought as present in children’s written compositions.

Context: participants and phases

Participants

The data collected and analyzed for this research were gathered at a public school in the Madrid region. We worked in a multimedia workshop and the students were in their third year of primary education (8–9 years old). In this context, we worked for a total of six one-hour sessions, in which 11 boys, 10 girls and their teacher participated, as well as the researchers themselves. We were participant observers (McNiff, 2013; Tracy, 2013).

Regarding who chose the game to be played, the children told the adults that Lara Croft was the game they played the most at home. The adults decided to take the opportunity to teach them to be critical of the violent messages of the game.

For this reason, the aim of the workshop was to develop critical and narrative thinking in the children by using video games as educational tools in the classroom with the goal of acting out a play. Several reasons justify the joint introduction of computer games, theatrical representation and the Internet as educational resources. First, the workshop development demanded the combination of different resources that are not mutually exclusive but rather, complementary; besides, the fact of introducing different symbolic codes helped to generate a critical consciousness, bearing in mind that the children needed to take into account a close audience, in the case of the theatre, and a distant one when posting on the Internet.

We expected the children to approach the narrative dimension of an adventure game, supported by the teacher and the researchers, by working together using new technologies in the classroom. Moreover, the fact that they were playing a violent video game in this workshop created educational situations that would allow for critical reflection. The aim of the adults was to situate the ← 189 | 190 → children critically in front of the screens of the game by means of consecutive reconstructions of the game and by supporting specific processes of meta-reflection.

Workshop Phases

This workshop was organized around three main phases that developed over six sessions:

fig3.jpg

Fig. 1:   The workshop sessions

  • First moment: Learning to co-exist with video games in the classroom. During this first meeting (first session), the participants decided what they were going to do in the workshop. The idea was to play the video games they played at home and come up with a story for a play. The children told the adults what their favourite video games were and how each of them was played. We then drew up a list of all the video games the children suggested and took a vote. “Tomb Raider” was the game most children voted for.
  • Second moment: What happens in the video game. During the second and the third sessions, the children started playing the video game in groups of two or three for approximately twenty minutes and then began to reconstruct the story of the video game helped by different strategies adopted by the adults as they developed the story. The strategy that turned out to be most useful was that of playing the video game via a video projector that allowed all the students to continue playing while writing the story because this made it easier for them to organize their ideas.
  • Third moment: How we adapted the video game for theatrical representation. The rehearsal of the script and the scene took place in the fourth session of the workshop. At this moment, in order to motivate her students, the teacher suggested they produced a dramatization of the video game story they had just written. To do so, the students adapted the story they had made up in order to be able to represent it in groups of six. The children thought of how they would ← 190 | 191 → interpret it and how they would dress up to stage it. Sessions five and six were devoted to representing the story and discussing it from an educational values perspective.

Analysis: writing, thinking and playing

Defining Categories

To explain how video games, supported by classroom discussions, can contribute to the development of narrative thought as present in written compositions available in different contexts, we used the narrative reconstructions of each session using AtlasTi.1 By focusing on specific conversations, we explored the dialogues among participants in order to show how the children were writing narratives at different phases of the workshop using computer games as educational tools.

In order to explore the narrative structure of the video game, a set of categories was defined following the models of Pearce (2004), Siegel (2001), and Vogler (1998). Some categories present in the video game structure served to analyze the children’s narratives in relation to the video game. In this case, the first aim was to explore the relationship between two perspectives: on the one hand, a more traditional idea related to the study of literature (Bakhtin 1982/1988, Greimas 1996/1999 (4th ed.) and, on the other hand, a perspective related to the idea of “video games as a narrative gender” (Carlquist 2002, Vogler 2001, Siegel 2001, Jenkins 2004).

Looking for concepts common to these two perspectives, we defined four dimensions (time, action, space and characters) to be linked directly to the nine acts according to Siegel. These dimensions appear in the game structure, and in this case we considered them of great interest since they are the categories we took as a reference for the analysis of our texts. ← 191 | 192 →

fig4.jpg

Fig. 2:   Dimensions and categories used for the interpretation of narrative of the video game (Siegel, 2001)

Additionally, constructing a narrative required us to focus on the analysis of its structure. From a literary perspective, we should refer to organization and consider Aristotle’s classic notion (beginning, middle and end). More recent authors such as Syd Field (1984) divide stories into three acts: context, confrontation and resolution. But what happens in the case of video games? Is the game structure similar to that of a story? Following Siegel’s studies, we could make a connection between the nine acts listed above in relation with the four dimensions (time, action, space and character) and the moment in the story in which they appear, thus resulting in a linear form present in video games. The following figure shows this relationship:

fig5.jpg

Fig. 3:   Relationship between categories and the narrative structure of stories and video games ← 192 | 193 →

As can be seen, the categories we have defined for the analysis of the data are based on the theoretical models of Siegel and Vogler. Starting from the designed pattern, we analyzed the presence of these categories in the texts that the children wrote.

fig6.jpg

The stories about Lara Croft’s video game

Taking Siegel and Vogler’s models as a starting point, we can make a link between the children’s texts and the narrative present in adventure video games. In these pages, the data to be analyzed are the end products of each of the phases in which the workshop was divided: ← 193 | 194 →

fig7.jpg

Fig. 4:   Key moments of the workshop for the construction of narratives

In each of these phases, the children wrote a text related to the work that had been done during the session. The tasks were usually to answer the question that either the teacher or the researcher posed to guide the children through the activity. In this sense, the different narratives that the children constructed in the workshop following the teacher’s instructions defined the analysis unit. Before analyzing each of these documents in detail, let us look at the following table. The information is the presence-absence of the category in that document, and the number represents the number of works that reflect this category2.

fig8.jpg

Fig. 5:   Presence of categories in the children’s texts ← 194 | 195 →

The presence of those categories in the children’s texts depends fundamentally on the relationship the child has with the video game. Later, we analyse each of the documents in a specific way, but first consider the information in this table:

  • –  In the first place, we can see that, out of 22 texts, only 3 talk about the game focusing on the description of the mission, on what you have to do if you play.
  • –  Secondly, all the children have played in class and, when they write the history individually after discussing it with the teacher, the most frequent categories are those that refer to the context of the story and the actions of the main characters. We should bear in mind that, in this case, they were “telling” what happened in the video game. In this case, we see how the information transmitted by the media is not as relevant to some. Most of them focus on the contextualization of the story of the game in action and leave aside the mission and information related to the character. When the story is written in groups with the help of an adult, all categories appear.
  • –  Lastly, in the case of the performance story, when they write the theatre script in small groups, all categories appear except for the main character, because the children think that the main character’s information in a dramatization story is intrinsic to the setting and the attire.

The children focus the information on some category or other depending on the situation in which their text is written. This is an example of how the mission’s category was presented in the different documents.

fig9.jpg

← 195 | 196 →

But what happens when we focus the analysis on the texts written by the children over the workshop? What are the differences? We now focus on several narrative productions as present in the children’s writings. We need to point out that the use of video games was a very interesting tool to introduce narrative telling and thinking into the classroom. Now, we see two examples of these after they played. The first example is in relationship to what happens in the video game; it is the children’s first experience with the game. Then, we focus on the analysis of two theatre scripts considered as the highest level of complexity reached in the workshop.

a. What happens in the video game? Write the game’s story game in groups. This is the story that the children constructed together with the teacher while they were playing the video game.

fig10.jpg

The second part refers to several characters that were really present in the video game, as considered and analyzed by the research team. However, what were the main features of this text?

fig11.jpg

← 196 | 197 →

We can see that the parts of any story are not differentiated as introduction, development and ending. The text is written in the present tense, and not all who want to appear in the play actually do so.

b. The performance story: Theoretical script

fig12.jpg

Fig. 6:   Theatrical script by Group 2.

We can see that, unlike the previous one, the parts of the story differ since it has an ending and begins like any other tale: “Once upon a time…”. It is written in the past tense and features all the characters in the story. Something that seems important to us is the fact that the children use adverbs of time to arrange their ideas and that the action develops in time.

Moreover, it is interesting to pay attention to the scripts written by the children. Two aspects stand out: first, the reference to the kind of actions that the actors must represent; second, the way in which these actions are distributed among the main characters. Both aspects introduce the children to a symbolic world that is also expressed by means of oral and written discourses (Schechner, 2013). There are important differences between the scripts of each of the groups regarding these points.

If we focus on the script that appears in Figure 7, we can see how the children have organized the main characters and actions: every action is assigned to a specific character, which is also clearly identified numerically. For example, Lara is always the first one and the actress who plays this role is Irene. In the case of the characters that represent the tigers, the actresses are Laura and Ester and are always identified as “2nd”. This numerical reference that the organization of the ← 197 | 198 → script facilitates refers to the order in which the roles were distributed and written down by the teacher. The children were able to use these and turn them into an instrument that helped them organize the activities of the play. On the other hand, it should be noted how the children were able to attribute an action expressed in a verb to every character. Even just observing the form in which the script is written we see that a line is assigned to every action, only on one occasion is there the concept of “1st Lara-Irene both attacking and defending herself.”

fig13.jpg

Fig. 7:   Theatrical script by one of the groups

The other groups did not demonstrate this level of complexity. If we look for example at the script written by Group 2 (Figure 6), we can see that this was more of a “story” than a play. The text shown in Figure 7 reproduces many of the discussions that had already taken place in the classroom. In any case, only the first part of the text explains Lara’s motivation, something really difficult to represent (Lara was training to avenge the death of her father).

In conclusion, we believe that a key to the process of construction of the story could be that, while the first one was written while they played, the second time round the students already had the history in their heads and they narrated it as fact, since this time they found it easier to shape the story. ← 198 | 199 →

Conclusion and new perspectives

Violent and non-violent video games may become the future of how people teach and learn as a society. Unlike other media available today, video games can be an enormously motivating learning tool. However, when introduced into the classroom and turned into an educational tool, they manage to have the players’ full attention by immersing them in a virtual world.

Numerous researchers have proposed potential positive effects of video games on aspects of social and cognitive development and psychological well-being (Jenkins, Lacasa, Gee). In this case, it has been shown that the video game has played an important role in the development of narrative thought, as it serves as a vehicle of symbolic content that enables the child to sequence and specify his or her own experience. We have considered the narrative text as a means by which speakers represent real life as events of fiction in which the player was presented as well as his or her social and cultural world.

The use of gaming has the ability to actively involve students in learning. From this perspective, the video game recreates a mythical environment, but with the advantage that it allows the player to participate in the ritual that develops in the course of the game. The very fact that the player interacts with the multimedia experience enables him/her to believe his/her own story. At the same time, it facilitates the development of symbolic thought for which the child is able to reconstruct those contents with a critical focus. In this line, adventure video games have narrative values with certain particularities typical of computer formats. The game consists of a simple story and it is the player’s action which, through his/her logic and behaviour, develops and tells the story. Narrating the experience is not only about telling it, discussing it and imagining it, but also about acting it out. Furthermore, the fact that the children participated in these “games of fiction” (by playing the video game and dramatizing it) helped them to reconstruct their own experiences.

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  1.    ATLAS. Ti is software used in qualitative and quantitative research. It works with large volumes of data, i.e. text, images, notes, video and audio. It allows analyzing and visualizing all documents and opening new interpretative views on the material.

  2.    Total number: 22.