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Stories in Diverse Media? Play, Story Telling, & Critical Media Literacy in the Googleburg Galaxy

Stories in Diverse Media? Play, Story Telling, & Critical Media Literacy in the Googleburg Galaxy

Dr. Steve Gennaro
Professor in the Humanities department at
York University (Canada).He explores the intersections
of media, technology, psychology, and youth identity.

Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan is often remembered for his idiom that technology can be viewed as an extension of the self. For close to 300,000 years, language has served as a human technology. Through language, the ability to play and tell stories has served as an extension of the self into physical and digital environments.[1] But language is more than an extension of self; it is also a core component of subjecthood. The choice of words (storytelling) we use to categorize, order, structure, and explain the chaos of human life offers different glimpses into our subjectivity based entirely on the language we select (the stories we tell). The words that describe the spaces we occupy impact how we exist within those spaces, and of course, who benefits from such interpretations. We use language to craft the stories by which we embody the world we live in. Language organizes one’s place within that world by describing who belongs and who benefits from access and privilege.  In the Googleburg Galaxy of the 21st century, a world dominated by Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and more, subjecthood requires critical media literacy and an active engagement with media technologies to ensure diverse stories and diverse media.[2]

Consider the term homo sapiens, universally agreed upon to best describe the species to which all current human life belongs. As Yuval Noah Harar explains in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, there was at one point in history many species of the genus homo; however, the only species that survives today is the homo sapien.[3] The Latin translation for the term sapien is “wise man” indicating, as Harar argues, it was the intellect of sapiens that allowed for their adaptability, which included the creation of and use of tools.  Using their intelligence, sapiens both adapted to their surrounding environments simultaneously as they altered those environments to human life. Such adaptability was paramount for sapiens survival and tantamount to its ultimate dominance over other homo species despite their comparative lack of size, strength, speed.

However, we are more than just knowledgeable beings. We are also storytelling beings –narrans.[4] John D. Niles, in his work Homo Narrans: the Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature, argued it was the use of language as a tool, which made sapiens unique. For Niles, sapiens adapted and prospered in environments around the globe by using language to communicate their knowledge through stories, which created opportunities to adjust the self to the environment or the environment to the self. All animals communicate, but storytelling turns communication into animation, bringing language to life. Storytelling is a uniquely sapien trait that allows for the sharing of wisdom across generations beyond that which is already passed on in the genetic code of each animal.

Play is a complementary trait to intellect and storytelling for our species of homo, which has been advantageous to survival. In Homo Ludens: a Study of the Play-Element in Culture Johan Huizinga discusses the crucial role that play occupied in the establishment of sapien civilizations and societies, suggesting it to be of equal importance to language and myth (storytelling).[5]  Play, as a system, takes language and shapes it to tell stories. Play, as a technique, engages sapiens in their concrete situations, challenging them to question their role in these situations and empowering them to engage as active meaning-makers in those to follow. Play, as a method, is creative and expressive.  Play, as a methodology, offers contestation, rebellion, and subversion opportunities. Fundamentally, play is the process through which our subjective selves digest our objective realities by animating language, legitimating and/or destabilizing stories, and crystalizing objectification or activating subjectivity in every one of us.

Critical media literacy can be viewed as an approach that encourages play.  As a social justice project, critical media literacy uses play to unpack representation, ideology, and economics issues in media and technology. According to Douglas Kellner and Jeff Share in The Critical Media Literacy Guide: Engaging Media and Transforming Education, practicing critical media literacy involves a conceptual understanding of six intersecting themes: social constructivism, languages and semiotics, audience and positioning, politics of representation, production and institutions, and social and environmental justice.[6]  Hegemony, for example, works because of the presence of the press and its ability to shape human interaction by dominating the venues of storytelling and play.[7]  This is equally true for the culture industry.[8]  In fact, one of the real dangers of capitalism has been the exploitation of the working class by a few elites and the acceptance of this marginalization by the working class as a “normal” component of everyday life (this is hegemony!). The danger of capitalism and a primary reason for its growth and success has been its ability to manufacture consent, a process by which ruling elites control the storytelling process; limiting the number of stories that get told, shaping the process of how they are shared, legitimating the criteria by whom they are spoken, and regulating the channels through which they get distributed.[9]  There is even a desire to manage how these stories get consumed! Capitalism, on the surface, appears to be an economic system. However, the underlying actions that grease the wheels are ideological and based not on what gets sold but on how stories get told and consumed.Social Media

Storytelling and Pandemic Play

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are altering the practices of human storytelling.  For more than 6000 years, as the world changed around us, sapiens survived by adapting and telling stories. Storytelling provides comfort explaining the reasons behind societal changes and has helped sapiens adapt to change by marking out the steps required to successfully adjust to the emerging world.  More recently, in the case of COVID 19, where the changes were instant, global, and with dire consequences, the primary spaces for storytelling migrated to social media.  With people in lockdown and self-isolation around the globe, play, work, socializing, shopping, fitness, art, culture, leisure, learning, and music were relocated to social media spaces.  However, social media spaces are not free public spaces. Social media platforms are businesses owned, controlled, and monitored for profit.  Therefore, their impact on the processes of language, storytelling, and play occurs within a framework that serves their economic interests.

Here, an area of particular interest is young people’s storytelling on social media, as young people are the largest user group of social media.[10] In the spring of 2020, COVID 19 forced the migration of all aspects of young people’s lives to the digital. Around the world, outdoor public spaces were closed, schools were shut down, sports teams and clubs were cancelled, and the opportunity to gather and congregate in public areas was discouraged and even made illegal in some parts.  By April 2021, UNICEF reported that over 1.6 billion children in 190 countries had been displaced from public spaces by COVID 19, moving schools and activities to the digital where available.[11]  Research on young people, social media, and human rights at York University in Toronto, Canada, in 2021 explored young people’s play during COVID 19.[12] In a pandemic and post-pandemic world, access to play spaces remain a priority for democracy since play by its very definition is supposed to exist outside of ordinary life. In Homo Ludens, Huizinga argued that humans play by entering the “magic circle”: “temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” [13] Within the magic circle, individuals take on a set of expected roles, actions, and persona that are different from outside of the game. When asked about their experiences of play during the pandemic, young people frequently expressed the primary role occupied for social media for connecting with other people during COVID 19 lockdowns. For the young people who spoke about their pandemic play, COVID 19 had displaced the location where play happened, from liminal spaces or third spaces outside of adult control and direct supervision, onto social media platforms and often inside the primary area of the home (to access the technology required to visit social media platforms) with limited privacy. These findings from the pandemic play research are not the isolated experiences of youth.  Therefore, when a small group of proprietors control the magic circle, the types of stories that get told, shared, liked, and crystalized into popular discourse are framed through the guiding principles of the proprietors who operate these spaces for profit. It is no coincidence that billionaire owners of Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Oracle (as examples) profited greatly from COVID 19 by owning the very platforms and commons where stories get told and where play happens.[14]

In “The Culture Industry, Enlightenment as Mass Deception” Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer noted the sedative possibilities of entertainment. For Adorno and Horkheimer, the goal of the culture industry is to entertain the masses establishing agreement (or consensus) between the media, the medium, and the media viewer.[15] As Adorno and Horkheimer argue, when people are entertained, they uncritically accept the media that sedates them, the ideological bias embedded in the structure of the medium, and the diversity (or lack thereof) in media stories. If storytelling shapes who we are and has the power to alter the reality we live in, then the subversive power of play should not be overlooked.  For children, it has been primarily agreed-upon dating back to G. Stanley Hall and the beginning of adolescent psychology through to Jean Piaget and his staged theory of cognitive development, until the present moment, that “play” occupies a primary role in the mental, social, and even moral development of young people and their understanding of language, culture, and self.  Be it child’s play or adult storytelling; play occupies a subversive position, whereby it creates a safe space to challenge, critique, and even destabilize social norms.  Learning social roles, often called “identity formation,” occurs through subversive play.  Through play, children take the stories that explain the world and their role in it- and act them out.  In acting out the stories of a culture, children choose to accept or deny these stories as truth.

Mary Flannagan argues in Critical Play: Radical Play Design that play can act as a space for subversion whereby an individual can use the play space to explore and speak back to social issues where there is dissonance between the game player and their lived experiences. When the stories told by the culture industry are consumed critically, the lack of diversity and the crisis of representation become immediately visible. As Flannagan notes “[p]lay is, by definition, a safety space. If a designer or artist can make safe spaces that allow the negotiation of real-world concepts, issues, and ideas, then a game can be successful in facilitating the exploration of innovative solutions for apparently intractable problems.”[16]  Despite being subjected to the prescribed stories generated by the algorithms of Google, Facebook, Instagram, Apple, Amazon and more; we can still be designers who reclaim the magic circle as a play space to tell stories.  A true word can still be spoken back to power.  Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed describes this power to name “the word” as a core component for liberation as it enables the subject to also name the world, thereby participating in transforming it.[17] It is therefore a requirement for democracy that all people have the freedom to tell their stories and the opportunity to access free spaces where these stories can be shared. Examples of critical media literacy, practiced as subversive play can take multiple forms, such as “unplaying, re-dressing or reskinning, and rewriting”[18] This is precisely what has happened on social media across 2020 and 2021 in response to the murder of George Floyd or the discovery of mass graves of unidentified Indigenous Children from Canadian Residential Schools.

Louis Althusser argued that ideology is most dangerous not when it is seen as an ideology but rather when it is dismissed as “normal” and a regular part of everyday life.[19] Social media is the home of digital play. Social media platforms operate with in a framework of normalcy- privileging some while actively denying others.  Ruha Bejamin’s Race After Technology and Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression provide clear examples of how the normalcy of technology create false notions of diversity, equity, and representation.[20], [21]. If we begin from the premise that language is a technology and an extension of the self, then story telling is the very way that we become in the world, which surrounds us. And play is the process by which we consume and tell stories. Therefore, critical media literacy can help illuminate the importance of play and play spaces to diverse stories and diverse media in the Googleburg Galaxy, which are essential to freedom and democracy.


[1]  Handwerk, Brian. “An Evolutionary Timeline of Homo Sapiens” Smithsonian Magazine. February 2, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/essential-timeline-understanding-evolution-homo-sapiens-180976807/

[2] For more on the “Googleburg Galaxy” see: Gennaro, Steve and Blair Miller “Critical Media Literacy In The Googleburg Galaxy” Media Literacy and Academic Research. Vol. 3, No. 2, December 2020.

[3] Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind. New York: Harper, 2015.

[4] Niles, John D. Homo Narrans: the Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Print.

[5] Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: a Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Reprint of the edition 1949. London: Routledge, 1998. Print.

[6] Kellner, Douglas, and Jeff Share. The Critical Media Literacy Guide: Engaging Media and Transforming Education. Vol. 2. Boston: BRILL, 2019.  Web.

[7] For more on hegemony see: Gramsci, Antonio et al. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers, 1971. Print.

[8] For more on the culture industry see: Adorno, Theodor W., and J. M. Bernstein. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.

[9] For more on manufacturing consent see: Herman, Edward S., and Noam. Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002. Print.

[10] Third, A., Bellerose, D., De Oliveira, J. D., Lala, G., & Theakstone, G. Young and Online: Children’s Perspectives On Life In the Digital Age (State of the World’s Children: Companion Report). Sydney: Western Sydney University & UNICEF, 2017. https://doi.org/10.4225/35/5a1b885f6d4db

[11] Miks, Jason and John McIlwaine. “Keeping the world’s children learning through COVID-19” UNICEF. April 20, 2021. https://www.unicef.org/coronavirus/keeping-worlds-children-learning-through-covid-19

[12] Under the supervision of Dr. Steve Gennaro, this research was conducted in collaboration with more than 50 York University Children, Childhood and Youth students and over 120 young people from the greater Toronto area who documented how they played during lockdown, isolation, and the global pandemic.

[13] Huizinga, Homo Ludens, 10.

[14] “The 400 richest Americans added $4.5tn to their wealth last year, a 40% rise, even as the pandemic shuttered large parts of the US, according to Forbes magazine’s latest tally of the country’s richest people.” Dominic Rushe “The richest Americans became 40% richer during the pandemic” The Guardian. October 5, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/oct/05/richest-americans-became-richer-during-pandemic

For more on the inequity of capital during COVID, see the January 2021 OXFAM report by E. Berkhout et al “The Inequality Virus: Bringing together a world torn apart by coronavirus through a fair, just and sustainable economy” https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/621149/bp-the-inequality-virus-250121-en.pdf;jsessionid=113D8182198EAABA5B12502CEA3D20CD?sequence=1

[15] Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” 1944, reprinted in Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner. Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks. Rev. ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006. Print.

[16] Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2009. Print. 261.

[17] Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed. New York: Continuum, 2000. Print. 87.

[18] See Chapter Two “Playing House” in Flanagan, Critical Play.

[19] Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus (Notes Towards an Investigation)” 1970.  Marxists.org. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm

[20] Benjamin, Ruha. Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the new Jim Code. Medford, MA: Polity. 2019. Print.

[21] Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. NY: NYU Press. Print. 2018.