FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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

More articles by:

Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
Jasmine Aguilera
Lessons From South of the Border
Manuel García, Jr.
A Formula for U.S. Election Outcomes
Sam Pizzigati
Drug Company Execs Make Millions Misleading Cancer Patients. Here’s One Way to Stop Them
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Agriculture as Wrong Turn
James McEnteer
And That’s The Way It Is: Essential Journalism Books of 2018
Chris Gilbert
Biplav’s Communist Party of Nepal on the Move: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian
Judith Deutsch
Siloed Thinking, Climate, and Disposable People: COP 24 and Our Discontent
Jill Richardson
Republicans Don’t Want Your Vote to Count
John Feffer
‘Get Me Outta Here’: Trump Turns the G20 into the G19
Domenica Ghanem
Is Bush’s Legacy Really Much Different Than Trump’s?
Peter Certo
Let Us Argue Over Dead Presidents
Christopher Brauchli
Concentration Camps From Here to China
ANIS SHIVANI
The Progress of Fascism Over the Last Twenty Years
Steve Klinger
A Requiem for Donald Trump
Al Ronzoni
New Deals, From FDR’s to the Greens’
Gerald Scorse
America’s Rigged Tax Collection System
Louis Proyect
Praying the Gay Away
Rev. Theodore H. Lockhart
A Homily: the Lord Has a Controversy With His People?
David Yearsley
Bush Obsequies
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail