Videogames and Media Literacy – a Portuguese study about teenagers’ perspectives and online uses Luís Pereira

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Videogames and Media Literacy

– a Portuguese study about teenagers’ perspectives and online uses

Luís Pereira

University of Minho / Portuguese Science and Technology Foundation

Keywords: videogames; kids; uses and perspectives; media literacy.

Abstract: This paper presents some data pertaining to research on Portuguese teenagers’ perspectives about videogames and uses, especially on the Internet. It underlines the level of videogame literacy shown by these 9th grade students, according to James Paul Gee’s ideas, and tries to point out the importance of knowing and thrashing out the media environment they live in as a process of media empowerment.
In 2007, I presented my Master thesis on Educational Technology at the University of Minho, a study with 260 fourteen-year-old Portuguese teenagers about their perspectives and perceptions related to Videogames (offline and online) and Learning. The initial goals of my master thesis (Pereira, 2007) were, on the one hand, to understand media practices among these young people related with videogames and, on the other hand, to understand the perspectives these young people have about videogames potential. A questionnaire was created and validated and filled in online by 260 students (134 girls and 126 boys) from the 9th grade; a school was randomly selected from 18 regions in Portugal, but only14 schools answered. The average age of students was 14.5 years.

The main purpose of this paper is to discuss the level of media literacy, especially the videogame literacy that the inquired population revealed. In his well known book What Video Games Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy (2003), James Paul Gee argues that «when people learn to play video games, they are learning a new literacy. Of course, this is not the way the word “literacy” is normally used (…): the ability to read and write» (p.13), but maybe the connection (or the division) between reading/writing and videogames should be discussed.

As Johnson says, «historically, videogames have been contrasted with the older conventions of reading» (2005: 11). It is undeniable that the experience of video gaming is more related, at the sensory level, to the cinema movie or the theatre than to a book (Zagalo et al., 2004), but the same author compares the exercise of reading and gaming and concludes that playing could be even more demanding than reading: "you can still enjoy a book without explicitly concentrating on where the narrative will take you two chapters out, but in gameworlds you need that long-term planning as much as you need present-tense focus" (Johnson, 2005: 55). However, this opposition could be questioned, because these two activities complement each other and are not in conflict: «when you have played a video game for a while, something magical happens to the texts associated with it. All of sudden they seem lucid and clear and readable. You can’t even recall how confusing they seemed in the first place. (…) For instance, they can look up details that enhance their play» (Gee, 2003: 103).

Maybe the main question is one which Johnson poses: «why kids are eager to soak up that much information when it is delivered to them in game form» (Johnson, 2005: 32). First of all, playing videogames is a very common activity, as my study has shown, where 93.1% of teenagers had played a videogame (Table 1).

Table 1 – Teenagers that have already played videogames (N=260)

Have you ever played a videogame?

Female (n=134)

Male (n=126)

Total (N=260)





















Thus, one can say this is a well known medium, when compared, for example, with reading a newspaper. The way children and youngsters approach information is much more through new media, with all the gadgets, playstations, mobile phones and computers, inherent to the activity – which made Prensky (2003) call them Digital Natives. These new media are, for example, videogames and Internet. Regarding the Internet, one of the questions asked was if the students played on the Internet (Graph 1) and if they preferred to do so alone or with others (Graph 2).

Graph 1 – Teenagers who play on the Internet

A little more than half of the students (58.3%) said they play on the Internet, with more positive replies from boys (64.5%) than girls (51.7%). A high percentage (40.1%) said that they don’t play on the Internet and 1.7% did not reply. As the Mediappro Study (2006) has concluded, only 12% of the Portuguese teenagers questioned mentioned online play, a number well below the data obtained in our study.

The graph below presents data about Internet preferences.

Graph 2 – Teenagers’ preferences about playing on the Internet

The replies obtained show that 39.0% of teenagers prefer to play alone, 42.6% like playing in both contexts, and only 13.1% of girls and 22.5% of boys (18.4% of the total) enjoy playing with others more when they are on the Internet.

The largest percentage (42.6%) falls into the category of playing "both alone and with others". If we add this to the preference of 18.4% of subjects who prefer to play “more with others", it is possible to see an enhancement of the social dimension of the games on the Internet. In the same way, a study carried out by McFarlane et al. (2002) showed that participants played more often with friends than alone. These activities should show us that playing a game is not an anti-social activity.

When questioned about the aspects they like in a videogame, the answers obtained were grouped in the following categories (Table 2): type of game (30.2%), challenge (18.9%), fun (9.5%), negative aspects (8.9%), emotions (5.9%), learning (5.3%), to be played in a group (4.7%), graphics (4.1%), realism (3.6%), being someone else (3.6%), winning (3.0%) and playability (2.4%).

Table 2 – Aspects that potentiate teenager’s enjoyment of a game (n=169)

What makes you enjoy a game



Type of game









Negative aspects









To be played in a group









Being someone else









The most interesting aspect is the analysis of the expressions young people used. For example, for the type of game, someone said that he/she played a game “because I enjoy football” or “I like war games”, “I like fighting games”. Others prefer a videogame that “has a lot of speed” or that “has adventure and action” or because “it’s about war”. Another mentions that he/she enjoyed games because he has “to discover the strategies”.

The challenge is the second issue with more remarks, in these terms: “to be concentrated”, “to pass onto other missions”, “to have to think”, “to have to find things”, “the difficulty”, “to think a lot”, “to do everything to get more points”, “it gives you a rush” (dá pica).

Related with the item “to be played in a group”, the expressions were “it allows for team work”, “it is a game online where I can play with other people”, “to talk to people from the world”, “the enthusiasm of being able to play against colleagues”, “to play with the gang”.

It can be concluded that the teenagers questioned have a critical capacity: their answers appear to show a certain self-knowledge concerning play activity. What must have contributed to this situation is the experience of playing and the need for young people to be aware of their tastes, resulting from a meta-game activity that takes place between peers. It also results from the correct choice of the game bought because prices are high.

In a question similar to ours, the research that McFarlane et al. (2002) carried out revealed that favorite games were those which had a high challenge level and multiple levels so that players could experience a feeling of progress, such as those of adventure and racing. Bearing these preferences in mind makes it important to transfer them to educational games, so they become more attractive for young people accustomed to the excellent quality of the video market (Squire, 2002). For example, a game that is easy to win, not presenting challenge and difficulty, will not be well accepted by players who participated in our study.

Another question asked teenagers about what they think they could learn from videogames (63.5% think it is possible to learn something from videogames, 22.7% said no and 13.8% didn’t answer). Some interesting discourses were obtained in this open question, such as: “it develops our speed of thinking”, “the reflexes, the strategy and mental development”, “to concentrate better”, “they make us think”, “to develop reflexes, tactics, strategies”, “to learn to live other lives”, “to be a citizen”, “to learn to be with ourselves”, “it improves our creativity”, “never give up on our goals”, “not everything in life is like videogames”, “not everything that happens in games happens in life”, “to play better”.

It is possible to establish a new connection between these results and Gee’s thought when he defends that «playing videogames actively and critically» children (or adults) are: «1.Learning to experience (see and act on) the world in a new way; 2.Gaining the potential to join and collaborate with a new affinity group; 3.Developing resources for future leaning and problem solving in the semiotic domain to which the game is related; 4.Learning how to think about semiotic domains as design spaces that engage and manipulate people in certain ways and, in turn, help create certain relationships in society among people and groups of people, some of which have important implications for social justice.» (Ididem: 45-46).

Furthermore, when observing expressions “to learn to live other lives”, “to be a citizen”, “to learn to be with ourselves”, we must agree with the forementioned author when he says that videogames «recruit identities and encourage identity work and reflection and identities in clear and powerful ways» (Ibidem: 51).

Although Gee says that videogames have “an unmet potential to create complexity by letting people experience the world from different perspectives” (Ibidem: 151), some of the children we questioned underline that by saying “not everything in life is like videogames” or “not everything that happens in games happens in life”.

One can conclude that some of the teenagers participating in the questionnaire are critical players of videogames. Their knowledge of this medium can be unexpected, at least in the eyes of adults, most of the time bombarded by the harmful effects of videogames.

After this research work, I would like to make one last statement about the whole process and its connection with media literacy. First of all, when studying the new media and its relation with children, it is very important to place them in the center, thus adopting an ecological approach, which some authors have already done. From this perspective, it is impossible to generalize about the consequences of using technology and (digital) media in education since it is necessary to attend to the several forms of this medium and to its diverse uses. As the studies developed by Portuguese researchers Sara Pereira and Manuel Pinto (Pereira, 1999; Pinto and Pereira, 1999; Pinto, 2000) have shown, the impact of the media and new media on citizens depends, to a great extent, on some factors such as the context of use, the citizens’ personal and social features, their social interaction, their motivation and objectives in using it. The research work they have been developing is based on a holistic perspective (Pereira, 1999) and converges with McQuail’s sociocentric approach (McQuail, 2003). This means they understand media practices and uses as a process immersed in society in general and in citizens’ everyday life in particular.

So, understanding practices and uses is an essential starting point. This can be done by using different goals: research, school activities, parental mediation, exchanges between colleagues, amongst others. It can be done through a questionnaire (as I did), by focus group or other more informal methods or strategies, such us conversation. One outcome of this process will be empowerment mainly for children, because they will have to talk about their tastes, realize what their practices are, share their points of view and compare them with others. So, we can consider this to be an activity of media literacy (or media education, or digital literacy – the discussion of the concepts is not our main goal here), because, after this, they will be playing and looking at the media - the videogames in this case - more critically, more culturally, and consequently with more creative potential – the CCC approach (Burn and Durran, 2007). This is what the next figure attempts to represent.

Figure 1 – Research process and connection with media literacy

One of the goals of this seminar was to consider the question of ludology in relation to media literacy. This is the contribution to that goal: by crossing some data, provided by research about Portuguese teenagers’ uses of videogames, with the contributions of Gee’s book and other authors as well, one has tried to discuss the connection between literacy and videogames.

The final idea is that the teenagers questioned who play games (at least, some of them) do so with some level of criticism. In addition, it is the careful observation of their media uses and perspectives – instead of attempting to protect them from several (unknown) dangers – that could be a great starting point in improving their relationship with videogaming, one of the most important media for most of our children and teenagers.


Burn, A. & Durran, J. (2007). Media Literacy in Schools: Practice, Production and Progression. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Gee, J.P. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave.

Johnson, S. (2005). Everything Bad is Good For You. How Today’s Popular Culture Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead Books.

McFarlane, A.; Sparrowhawk, A. & Heald, Y. (2002). Report on the educational use of games. An exploration by TEEM of the contribution which games can make to the education process. Teem, Education and Skills. Url: (seen in 08/2006).

McQuail, D. (2003). Teoria da Comunicação de Massas, Lisboa: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian.

Mediappro (2006). A European Research Project: The Appropriation of New Media by Youth. Brussels: Chaptal Communication with the Support of the European Commission / Safer Internet Action Plan.

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Pinto, M., & Pereira, S. (1999). As Crianças e os Media no Pós 25 de Abril: Discursos, Percursos e Silêncios. In M. Pinto & M. Sarmento (Coords.) Saberes sobre as Crianças – Para uma Bibliografia sobre a Infância e as Crianças em Portugal (1974-1998) (pp. 109-123). Braga: Centro de Estudos da Criança – U.M.

Prensky, M. (2003). Digital Game-Based Learning. In ACM Computers in Entertainment, 1 (1), October, Book 02. Url: =GUIDE&dl=GUIDE&CFID=19253&CFTOKEN=76451821 (seen in 07/2006).

Squire, K. (2002). Cultural Framing of Computer/Video Games. In Game Studies, 2 (1). Url: (seen in 08/2006).

Zagalo, N.; Branco, V. & Barker, A. (2004). Emoção e Suspense no Storytelling Interactivo. In Proceedings of Games2004 - Workshop Entretenimento Digital e Jogos Interactivos, Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal. Url: (seen in 11/2005).

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