I had the good fortune of hearing Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell speak this past weekend. I’ve devoured all of his books and am just beginning his last Inspector Wallender book, The Troubled Man. Mankell is a marvelous speaker and knows how to regale an audience with subtle, yet powerful anecdotes.
Among the many topics he discussed, ranging from Mugabe to Mozambique, Mankell talked about art as the “search for friends to take into reality.” He shared the story of meeting a man in the early 1990s in Sweden. The man asked Mankell whether Mankell’s most renowned character, Inspector Wallender, was in favor of Sweden joining the European Union. At that moment, Mankell noted, he recognized that Wallender had become this man’s friend who had entered reality.
This got me thinking about kids and digital media, ranging from social networking to gaming. Kids love to create online identities, living with a mulitplicity of names, in different realities. The question is how kids navigate between the real and the imagined, and which identities enter reality for them.
Instead of art being the search for friends to take into reality, for kids is it gaming and social media as the search for friends to take into reality?
I love the character of Inspector Wallender and as the woman who introduced Mankell explained, Mankell’s characters have a way of staying with you and the stories are ones that still have you asking questions months and even years later. Do the characters and identities that kids are creating online have the same depth of connection?
Jane McGonigal in Reality is Broken argues for the need to invert reality into a game, and leverage the power of game thinking and design to solve global problems. She writes:
“What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality? What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?” (p. 7)
McGonigal shares the story of David Sudnow’s 1983 memoir on gaming, Breakout. She shares Sudnow’s “neurochemical activation” from the immersion of gaming:
“This was a whole different business, nothing like I’d ever known, like night and day…Thirty seconds of play, and I’m on a whole new plane of being, all my synapses wailing.” (p. 40)
Sudnow was “working at the limits of his abilities,” according to McGonigal.
Scavnger Founder Seth Priebatsch has spoken about this decade as being the decade of the game layer.
In the book Teaching 2030, the authors argue that teachers of the future need to be prepared to “Teach the Googled learner, who has grown up on virtual reality games and can find out almost everything with a few taps of the finger.”
The key is to figure out how to create depth in the learning experience with digital media in the way that Mankell has in his understanding of art and literature. Mankell understands how to build and sustain connections with his characters and with his readers.
I hope that we can still hold onto the magic of books, like the ones Mankell writes, to hold the imagination and feed the “search for friends to take into reality.” I would hate to ever lose that to games and virtual learning environments.