XBox Live is one of the most controversial affinity spaces of the 21st century. As a form of participatory culture, Dr. Henry Jenkins argues that participating in XBox Live’s online community provides young people with the opportunities for “learning, creative expression, civic engagement, political empowerment, and economic advancement” (8). Jenkins cites Gee (2004) who suggests that affinity spaces such as XBox Live offer children learning opportunities in ways textbooks do not, because “they are sustained by common endeavors that bridge differences in age, class, race, gender, and educational level, and because people can participate in various ways according to their skills and interests, because they depend on peer-to-peer teaching with each participant constantly moved to acquire new knowledge or refine their existing skills, and because they allow each participant to feel like an expert while tapping the expertise of others” (9). All of these cases can be seen in the average XBox Live online gaming community which suggests that Jenkins is correct to suggest that participatory culture allows young people to acquire skills that will help them in the future. First, by allowing gamers to create a profile and “gamertag,” users have the opportunity to disguise their demographic characteristics so that it is difficult to tell what one’s gaming opponent looks like in real life (assuming the user is playing in random mode and not against his/her real life friends). Additionally, one has the option to mute their voice and type messages to other members of the online community so that no one can guess his physical appearance by his voice. Second, users can share gaming tips and cheats with their friends in the chat features which allows them to learn from one another like Gee suggests. Thus, by participating in XBox Live online communities, young people learn how to interact with others and how to collaborate with strangers to achieve a common goal. These are important life skills that will prove useful when young gamers enter the workforce, and in some cases, the school setting. As Jenkins suggests, this form of participatory culture offers youth the chance to engage in civic debates (this, of course, depends on what forum the user chooses to participate in) and to participate in community life (10).
According to Jenkins, three challenges of participatory culture are (1) The participation gap, (2) the transparency problem, and (3) the ethics challenge. XBox Live’s online gaming communities are not immune to any of these challenges. One aspect of the participation gap is that between those who have access to the technology will be able to take advantage of the skills and content it provides while those who do not, mainly for financial reasons, are left behind (13). This is the case with XBox Live since ownership of this technology is expensive, and therefore is not accessible to those who live in poverty. While children who own an XBox Live system, “adjust quickly to new situations, embrace new roles and goals, and interact with people of diverse backgrounds,” poor children miss out on the experience to practice these social skills (14).
On the other hand, not having access to an XBox Live gaming system allows the have-nots to avoid falling victim to the transparency problem. According to Jenkins, the transparent nature of games makes it difficult for young players to access the quality of information they receive (15). Jenkins explains this phenomenon by quoting scholars who examine how some games encourage users to manipulate the system. This skews their perception of reality. Many XBox Live games are set up in ways that make it easy for users to manipulate the system so that they “win” every time. I can see how this might create a learning bias in young children who later fail to conduct scholarly, non-biased research, because they do not know how to determine the truth value of information.
Lastly, participatory culture raises ethics concerns. For XBox Live communities, ethic concerns arise in regard to interactions with strangers. With the option to remain anonymous, young people may find it easy to speak to their opponents in ways that they wouldn’t in-person. For example, it is easy to use fighting words online, but saying these same words in public could get someone arrested. In this case, participatory cultures can make it difficult for young people to differentiate between right and wrong, especially when their media education is limited.
In sum, Jenkins argues that “we must rethink which core skills and competencies we want our children to acquire in their learning experiences. The new participatory culture places new emphasis on familiar skills that have long been central to American education; it also requires teacher to pay greater attention to the social skills and cultural competencies that are emerging in the new media landscape” (18). Indeed, XBox Live and similar gaming systems have been shunned by parents and teachers alike due to the common belief that participating in these cultures makes young people socially awkward and confrontational offline. Based on Jenkin’s article, I agree with those who argue that interacting with strangers online can potentially cause more harm than good for young people. But I also agree with Jenkins that participatory culture emphasizes the social skills that American children often learn only once it is too late. Nonetheless, participatory culture is here to stay so I think it is best if media education teaches young people to use it to enhance their social skills rather than teaching them to avoid it altogether.