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The Marxist and the Gamers: Reading, Fortnite, and My Students’ Identities

Photo source Whelsko | CC BY 2.0

I have a student, call him Karl, a self-described Marxist. Karl has read the first two volumes of Capital, and, given the clunky translations I’ve seen, that’s no mean feat. Within an hour of meeting him, Karl insisted on telling me that capitalism was doomed because it “fundamentally exploited the masses.”

Our relationship developed through questions, “do you think there might be any middle ground between private enterprise and public good?” (no, he didn’t), and conversations about books. Karl lent me his copy of Che Guevara’s Bolivian diaries. I gave him historian Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, a magisterial history of the twentieth century.We talked Dostoyevsky. I wanted to know his thoughts about Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov. Karl is not so doctrinaire as to withhold praising a bourgeois author; the Russian master passed muster.

Karl is home now, graduated from the boarding school where I taught him, busily working through the reading list he pestered me for in the final weeks of class. He emailed recently saying he’d report on his progress before heading off to college.

Intellectually precocious, what marks Karl as truly unusual among peers is his habitual reading of books for pleasure. I have reached a point in my career, coinciding with norms of twenty-first century adolescence, where an inveterate reader stands out as obviously as the face-painted Goth I encountered in classrooms back in the Eighties. Like those Goths, the book-reader is quirky; unlike the Goth, the reader usually wants to talk about ideas.

That was true for Samantha, who loved novels and affected an artist’s disdain for normality. Somewhat angry, Sam used books to make sense of and validate her feelings. Just before her graduation a few years ago, she gave me David Foster Wallace’s rambling rant against American pop culture, Infinite Jest. In the inscription, she wrote: “This book is a monster, but it’s one of my favorites.” Working through it, I found out why—and why she felt dismay for the plastic world Wallace satirized.

It would demean Sam and Karl’s reading passion merely to say that they both ended up at terrific colleges. They had deeper purposes. They used books to build identities.

Historically, that used to be common. Scholars have described how reading transformed people’s faith lives in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries, started revolutions in the eighteenth, and refashioned individuals’ sense of self in the nineteenth and twentieth. Reading formed the spine of a “civilizing process” that curbed societal violence in early-modern times. Reading created a “public sphere” of ideas that became prerequisite for the American, French, and Latin American revolutions as well as subsequent democratic politics. Reading, everything from scripture to novels, was fundamental in creating the modern Western-World self. [1]

From this teacher’s perspective, reading as a transformational tool has pretty much run its course. This marks a profound break in history, the consequences of which cannot yet be fully understood. The rising generations of non-readers, or rather people who read solely for technical ends, have not yet had complete lives capable of historical or longitudinal study.

An anecdote suggestive of where we might be heading involves my technical-reading-only students who play Fortnite, the wildly popular computer game in which participants aim to assassinate opponents. I’ve watched kids play, seen how the game draws them in, and wonder if teenage me would have been able to resist (doubtful). Students fall asleep in classes after Fortnite all-nighters. One of mine is a chronically-tired champ who, when asked about his gaming behavior, asserted with only the slightest hint of comedic exaggeration: “yeah, I’m addicted.” Thus, he scooped the World Health Organization’s recent declaration that “gaming disorder” is now a public health concern.[2]

I don’t hear such words to describe bibliophiles. They have a reading habit, not a disorder or addiction. The difference derives from the fact that games like Fortnite are deliberately designed to be addictive, as described in Adam Alter’s recent book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology. Most gamers I encounter know they’re being played—which might be hopeful.

What remains unknown is how people take shape in Fortnite world. Readers, especially teen readers, are not always easy to be around. They ask tough questions. They tend to be skeptical of authority. They have intellectual systems for making sense of new information and ideas. Those same traits appear in readers through the ages.

Comparatively, Fortniters seem hamstrung by limited vocabularies and narrow intellectual scope. It’s not that they will require gamer twelve-step programs, although those inclining to ADHD, autism, depression, or anxiety might. It’s that, as a technology of self, Fortnite is a blunt instrument full of sensory overload and reflexive action.

I, and the educational culture generally, operate in a trough between the twilight of books and morning of Fortnite. Computer games have changed the landscape as teachers design lessons mimicking their interactive, fast-paced qualities. I do too, but my instincts lead me also to resist. My students read in class. They encounter real, live guest speakers–politicians, writers, professors, war veterans. We work in a homeless shelter, go to museums, see modern dance. Most kids respond to such activities; my workplace gives me freedom to pursue them, but I cannot know or quantify their impact—as would be required in many public schools.

My students are not so fond of other artifacts of book-reading education: term papers (I still require them), libraries (even many 12th-graders are hard-pressed to find books using the on-line catalog and Dewey Decimal System), and newspapers. I’ve won awards for teaching, but I grew up reading and went to schools that prioritized thinking through books, so I’m somewhat at a loss trying to reach Fortnite gamers. Teachers like me, in the built environment of most schools, are anachronisms.

While I cannot say for sure how Fortnite will shape future selves and societies, my student Karl can. Asked about the game, he quipped: “It’s the new opium of the masses.” I miss Karl. He may be the last of his kind.

Notes.

[1] Elias,The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Malden, Mass. and Oxford, 1994); Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, Mass. 1989); Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York, 1991); Sobel, Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era (Princeton and Oxford, 2000).

[2] On the WHO announcement and its implications, see National Public Radio at: https://www.npr.org/programs/morning-edition/2018/06/19/621253022

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