About the Project
For this project, I will connect my mother’s literacy practices involved in playing Hay Day to the larger context of the histories of Malaysia’s language policies as well as the trends of usage of messaging applications.
My research question is as follows:
To answer this question, I will examine the different factors that have affected my mother’s language abilities before and after arriving to Singapore, and how this relates to the game.
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For my previous project, I examined a literacy practice (how my mother plays for a competition in Hay Day) in relation to her individual experiences. If you are interested, you can access it here.
How does Hay Day work?
Hay Day is a freemium mobile farming game. The premise of the game revolves around the player’s uncle who is unable to take care of his farm. The player has to pick up the responsibility of caring for the farm. Similar to Farmville, the player has to harvest crops and create items from these crops.
These can be sold on the community marketplace (from other players) in exchange for coins and experience points. These coins can be used to buy production buildings and decoration items. Experience points are used to level up.
Players can also buy items off the community marketplace (from other players) instead of making it.
Communication in the affinity space of Hay Day
According to Gee, Affinity spaces are spaces where informal learning takes place (75). In this case, Hay Day is the affinity space that we are examining. More specifically, we will be examining the communication that takes place within the affinity space of Hay Day.
Hay Day is inherently a social game – it requires players to cooperate and compete with others to get ahead in the game.
It has an in-game chat function that players can use to talk to their “neighbourhood” – a community of players who play as a team for missions. Players can also request for items from within the neighbourhood.
My mother belongs to one such neighbourhood, called “Singapore Chiong Team”. “Chiong” is a Singlish word meaning “hurry up”, or in this context, “get ahead”. My mother plays to win. However, playing to win does not mean winning at all costs.
My mother shared that Singapore Chiong Team was actually splintered off from a predecessor which was both much larger and more competitive.
In this larger team, players were competing within the neighbourhood as well as with other neighbourhood, which did not help, since cooperation within a team was important for completing missions. Requests for items in the group chat often went ignored as no one wanted to give up their items to help someone else, even if they were working towards the same goal of winning the team mission. Hence, her current team decided to break off from the original team to form their own smaller and more collaborative neighbourhood as they shared similar values and beliefs. These values manifest themselves in the form of the tone of the in-game chat (encoded text).
According to my mother, the tone of the new in-game chat is friendlier and more encouraging. Players offer their extra items to help other members. For example, Lawyer offers her extra fish in the group chat.
Interestingly, although they have all met through the game and do not know each other in real life, they occasionally share about their personal lives. For example, Bernard’s Farm shared that he would be taking a break for a month from Hay Day as he would be going for a kneecap surgery.
They also make fun of each other in the game.
Transcript of audio file:
In the game, sometimes, other people request for items from me. I told them I would only give it to them if they sat on the ground and cried, so they sent me pictures of them sitting on the floor and (fake) crying.
Other than just communicating via the in-game chat function, she also communicates with her Hay Day friends via Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger. Interestingly, her in-game friends’ contacts are saved according to their in-game usernames.
Sponsor of Malaysia’s Classroom
A closer examination of the shifts in Malaysia's langauge policies during newly independent developing years
My mother was born in Malaysia in the 1960s and received her education till the 1980s, after which she left and moved to Singapore in search of work.
Language policy changes in Malaysia have taken many twists and turns over the years. The period when my mother grew up in was an especially interesting time as post-independence Malaysia, in an attempt to decry colonial powers and establish national consciousness, stipulated Bahasa Malaysia (BM) as the national language in 1971 (Tharmalingam 1). The constitution was even amended to state that the status of BM could not be questioned. Prior to this change, English had been the defacto lingua franca due to British influence. In that same year, the National Education Policy was established. One of the key features of the policy was that all national schools had to use BM as the medium of instruction for all subjects, except English. Arguably, this decision caused the nation-wide standard of English language to decline. The language policies had demoted the role of English language to that of a secondary language rather than the primary one (Asmah) by restricting the use of the English language in schools. In fact, because the English language had diminished in importance in comparison with BM, exposure to English for Malaysia-educated students was reduced. This was deemed as a setback for Malaysia in its ambition to achieve its Vision 2020 objective (David and Govindasamy).
My mother clearly had gone through these shifts in language policies and her experiences with the Malaysian education system certainly corroborates the above findings. She does not consider herself as literate in English, despite having received an English education in primary and secondary school. She attributes it to the Bahasa Malaysia (the stipulated national language of Malaysia) being the primary medium of instruction in school. She says that for each week, there was only a 1h English language class. Juxtaposed with the fact that BM is used as the language of instruction for all other classes of the week, it is not hard to understand why she attributes her English language abilities to the sponsors of the classroom. Furthermore, she says that the English language was not essential or used often in day-to-day conversations and writings outside of the sponsored environment of the classroom, which she says limited her exposure to it greatly.
In Malaysia, I learnt BM and Chinese. In primary school, I was taught in Chinese only. In secondary school, I was taught in BM and a bit of Chinese. We only had English classes once a week.
The sponsored literacy practice of BM and English had, in some sense, been overly successful. The government, as a formal institution, had actively regulated the use of the language in schools to ensure that BM rose in importance, and on top of that, English had not been a big part of the everyday vernacular literacies of Malaysia. As a result of these two forces, my mother had not picked up the English language sufficiently to consider herself a fluent speaker and writer.
Hay Day as a language resource
After playing Hay Day, her English has been improving by leaps and bounds. When asked how this has happened, my mother explained:
They don’t correct me, but in the group chat, based on what they write, I see new words and translate them. After I find out the meaning, I pick up new words.
She further explains that she relies on the people around her, particularly, her children, for translation. She also uses Google Translate to translate words from English to Chinese, and subsequently uses it to formulate sentences in English with Chinese input into Google Translate. After repeated usage, she is able to pick up basic English words.
I can’t speak English. If I can’t reply someone in English, I ask my son. After my son teaches me, I pick up some words. I also use Google Translate. I use the copy and paste function on my phone to copy the English words over from Hay Day to Google Translate to find out the meaning, then I key in the Chinese words I want to communicate into Google Translate to translate it into English back into the Hay Day chat.
She does note that the language she picks up is not just English - she also picks up Singlish phrases:
My English has improved a lot, but so has my Singlish! Jialat la (oh no), siao la (crazy), luo suo luo suo (naggy)... I’ll tell you when I think of more.
According to Selfe, Mareck and Gardiner, games have a power in helping people gain literacy skills as there are achievable goals that reward the player (a positive incentive), as opposed to traditional classes in schools where tests are considered a chore (30).
In the affinity space of Counter Strike, Josh (the example used in Selfe, Mareck and Gardiner’s text) is considered an “insider” as he shapes the learning environment within the affinity space through literacy practices – these practices include words, symbols and artefacts. These practices hold meanings specific to the members of the affinity space. Josh has to employ these practices for achievable results. In other words, literacy practices help him accomplish things, on which he places a positive value.
This idea of achievable results is corroborated by Gee and Hayes, who write that game designers design the relationship between players and the game world:
“Game designers are often storytellers, but they are primarily designers of the relationship between players and a game world by creating problems for the player to solve and by giving the player fun and interesting ways to solve them.”
Applied to this context, members of the Singapore Chiong Team shape the learning environment through the way they type, use emoticons, and use other symbols such as gaming terminologies.
My mother corroborates this as she comments that in order to achieve quests (such as requests for items), she is forced to use English:
You need to be able to communicate with them to play. You need to know what they are saying. Based on what the contents of what they say (e.g. what items they are requesting) you can roughly figure out what the words mean.
One of James Gee’s most powerful arguments for learning in video games is the “situated meaning principle,” or the claim that “the meanings of signs… are situated in embodied experience” (Journet 95). Journet argues that “video games make virtual experiences feel embodied or real to players through their narrative shape” (95). Hay Day is an imagined world whereby the actions of my mother and Singapore Chiong Team, in the form of literacy practices, have consequences in the form of achievable results (the competitions that they take part in). Relating to this story of actions and consequences in the imagined world of Hay Day, learning of language has become situated within the game.
Other supporting language resources
The affinity space of Hay Day exists beyond the gaming application – it also includes other platforms which allow users to discuss or interact regarding the game. In this case, my mother communicates with other players via applications such as Whatsapp and Facebook.
Therefore, besides Hay Day being the main form of language resource, external language resources support her learning as well. For example, she uses WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to communicate with both her in-game and real life friends about Hay Day – requesting for items in both Chinese and English.
Interestingly, she only communicates in Chinese on apps outside of Hay Day. When asked about it, she explains that Hay Day is built entirely in the English language (tutorials, instructions, and other signposts directing users around), which makes the implicit language for communication to be English. For messaging apps, the cyberspace is not as regulated or directed as compared to Hay Day. With less regulation, this also implies that there is less language use in the form of instructions or tutorials, which makes language use less directed, as compared to a game.
As Hjorth argues, “the intimate co-presence enacted by mobile technologies should be viewed as part of a lineage of technologies of propinquity” (115). SMS, and by extension instant messaging phone applications, re-enact nineteeth-century letter writing traditions, with the only exception that modern communication has led to a gradual convergence with multimedia, the internet, and most importantly, the mobile phone. In fact, Hjorth and Richardson write that the convergence of the mobile phone with multimedia has to be “conceptualised within broader, historical processes of mediated intimacy” (115). Mobile messaging applications act as a bridge between the private (private group or one-to-one communications) and public spaces (the game application) of Hay Day. By existing in the affinity space of Hay Day, my mother navigates between both private and public spaces to communicate. These messaging applications have become a modern way in which intimacy is mediated, situated within the imaginary world of Hay Day which extends beyond the actual gaming application.
Gee, James, and Elisabeth R. Hayes. Women and Gaming: The Sims and 21st Century Learning. Springer, 2010.
Hjorth and Ingrid Richardson. Playing the Waiting Game: Complicating Notions of (Tele)presence and Gendered Distraction in Casual Mobile Gaming. COST 298 Conference: The Good, The Bad and the Challenging, 2009.
Journet, Debra. “Narrative, action, and learning: The stories of Myst.” Gaming lives in the twenty-first century. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2007. 93-120.
Selfe, Cynthia L., Anne F. Mareck, and Josh Gardiner. “Computer gaming as literacy.” Gaming lives in the twenty-first century. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2007. 21-35.
Tharmalingam, Selvarajah. Language Policy Changes in Malaysia: Progressive or Regressive? International Islamic University Malaysia, 2012.