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Digital literacies for the disengaged: creating after school contexts to support boys' game‐based literacy skills

Constance Steinkuehler (Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin‐Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA)
Elizabeth King (Project Assistant at the University of Wisconsin‐Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA)

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 30 January 2009




This paper aims to reviews the structure and format of an after school incubator program that leverages online games for literacy learning, particularly for adolescent males. It also aims to describe its dual function as both quasi‐natural context and design experiment laboratory and to discuss some early findings that illustrate the kinds of literacy practices the authors are beginning to see within their homegrown community to date.


For the past year, the authors have been engaging game‐loving boys in digital and print literacy practices, not by playing matchmaker between them and those game communities that engage in such practices naturally, but by growing such a community of their own. Following the lead of other games‐based educational programs and known characteristics of game‐related indigenous online communities, the design encourages distributed expertise and collective intelligence in place of standardization and peer‐to‐peer learning in the form of modeling and networked apprenticeship.


The goal is to leverage teenage boys' existing interests in games to strengthen and enrich their engagement in literacies with payoff both in school and beyond. The findings suggest that the laboratory has met with initial success, particularly in terms of the use of literacy as a tool for solving problems, researching and assembling online multimodal game‐related resources, and synthesizing in‐game and out‐of‐game information.

Research limitations/implications

There are challenges inherent to taking this sort of “piggyback” approach to literacy learning, yet some characteristics that emerge from such approaches warrant further investigation. Specifically, virtual worlds enable what we call “networked apprenticeship” and function as “levelers” in their ability to let mastery rather than credentials decide who is considered expert in any given situated interaction. Such social contexts for learning, despite the challenges of fostering them, warrant additional research.

Practical implications

While previous literature has blamed videogames as the culprit behind boys' lagging success in literacy‐related coursework and assessments, this program inverts this equation and instead investigates the ways in which games can function as a sort of “gateway drug” for important digital literacy practices.


The paper focuses on a program whose target audience is adolescent boys identified as “at risk” and failing in literacy‐related classes yet highly motivated by games.



Steinkuehler, C. and King, E. (2009), "Digital literacies for the disengaged: creating after school contexts to support boys' game‐based literacy skills", On the Horizon, Vol. 17 No. 1, pp. 47-59.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2009, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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