The Literacy of Zelda: A Link to the Past/Present/Future

As The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s release date approaches, I’ve been spending time playing through all the LOZ games I never had a chance to play or finish.  This list was a lot longer than I thought it would be. I knew I’d missed out on several of the handheld games (Oracle of Ages/Seasons, Phantom Hourglass, Minish Cap, and Spirit Tracks) but I didn’t realize there were that many. I had played Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, as well as fiddled with the original and fell in love with its bizarre sequel Link’s Adventure for the NES. I also begrudgingly worked my way through Skyward Sword when it was about the only decent game to play on the Wi. So, I started with A Link to the Past via a ROM and went from there. I just managed to finish Twilight Princess’s HD remake for the Wii U, and decided to head back to the beginning of the series.


I quickly grabbed a ROM from the internet (for scientific purposes) and started playing the original Legend of Zelda. It was hard.


Constant game over screens. I blamed the clunky controls which don’t let you move at diagonals.


I blamed the arcade-style difficulty which existed in early console games for no good reason.


I even blamed myself. “Perhaps,” I thought,  “I have grown soft in my old age. Perhaps I’ve been coddled by too many freely given out power ups and participation trophies.”


But then,


The familiar music started playing, the puzzles came at me hot and heavy, and I was soon the owner of 1/8th of the Triforce.

And then,


Holy hell, this game is hard.

So, maybe I learned some and maybe I still had a lot more to learn in order to succeed in this game world. I still partially blame the clunky controls and the unnecessary, tediously hard difficulty, but now I see my struggles with this game as primarily coming from my own inability to adapt to what scholar James Paul Gee would call the internal design grammars of the Legend of Zelda.

Gee is a New Literacy scholar who wrote a very famous book called What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. It is excellent and is largely responsible for the growth of academic studies into videogames as well as the press for more digital games in the elementary and high school classroom (the “gamification of education”). Gee identifies videogames as the sites of great learning and motivated learners.

Gee argues that a hallmark of intelligence and the potential to transfer that intelligence to other areas (what he would call “semiotic domains”) is being aware of the forms, patterns, mores, and expectations of a particular cultural medium–whether that is basketball, video games, or physics. This collection of practices and expectations about a particular area of content or group of people is called an internal design grammar. You’ll recognize this kind of thing in video games when you instantly know that if you aren’t able to open a door, you need to go find a key.


If no such key existed or if I was able to rip the lock off the door instead of opening it with a key this would violate the internal design grammar of videogames. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean it is bad or shouldn’t be allowed. Sometimes defying convention or expectations can be used to better the overall experience (such as in a tricky puzzle that requires players to stop moving for a set amount of time, which flies in the face of the go-go-go mentality videogames induce for movement motivation).

Gee and others who have come after him have talked a lot about the need for a games literacy to be researched in order to better understand how people learn about games in order to foster people learning through games.

Part of the reason this is so hard is because games are incredibly diverse more so than any other medium. Point-and-click games, puzzle games, LARPing, board games, first-person shooters, MMOs, baseball, basketball, and every other type of game.

I’m interested in how we can develop, understand, and research an overall understanding of not just videogames, not just board games, not just sports and other physical games. How do we understand a literacy that encompasses all forms of play?A true, ludic literacy.

I think one way of going about this is to highlight the visual nature of all play. In fact, I would like to make the argument that play is equally visualized and embodied. Understanding both aspects of play will lead to a fuller understanding of the ways we drawn meaning out of play experiences, develop new experiences, and conceive of the value of such experiences.

Types of play which create, distribute, and respond to high frequencies of images lead to more novel and nuanced forms of play. Understanding the visual situation of any particular piece of play through the capacity of the system to create new states of play is essential to understanding how, what, and why of play.

My struggle with The Legend of Zelda comes from my inability to predict which visuals the game will create in response to my actions.


As the power of play becomes further entwined in the fields of health, education, and art, it will become more and more necessary to understand how a game’s images and potential to create, distribute, and respond to images underlies our ability to succeed in a game.


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