Teaching with Video Games

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What is it?
Video games have seen a significant recent upswing as tools for teaching composition. These approaches treat video games as texts – to be consumed, analyzed, discussed and even created by students themselves. As more and more tools for easily building games have made their way into mainstream availability – many of them freely availably online – composition instructors have begun experimenting with video games as a form of teaching students project design, multimodal composition and rhetorical awareness.

As objects for study, video games come in all shapes and sizes. Students can play browser-based online games, such as The Last Door or Unmanned, both of which offer many rich openings for discussion of rhetorical choices, author intent, and affect. And digital distribution platforms such as Steam make it easy to assign commercial games large and small, often at very affordable prices comparable or cheaper than a typical textbook. Paired with one or more of the tools available for composing their own original games, such play experiences can form a rich and scaffolded unit within a multi modally focused composition course.

What are people saying about it?
Interest in video games is on the rise with academia, and composition and rhetoric is no exception. A look at the program for 4C14 shows a wide range of presentations related to games, both examining them as rhetorical objects and exploring their potential as pedagogical tools. Such presentations come in the wake of the increasing call to view programming as a literacy and compositional form in its own right. Scholars such as Stuart Selber (2004), Andrea diSessa (2001), Ian Bogost (2011), Jeannette Wing (2006), and Cathy Davidson (2012) increasingly advocate movement towards an integrated pedagogy that diminishes the conceptual divide between writing a program and writing a paper. Programming, these scholars argue, is deeply related to alphabetic composing, and just as deeply bound up in the fabric of contemporary life.

What kinds of things can I do with it? 
But don’t be intimidated if you don’t know how to program! That’s the beauty of video games as instructional tools – they’re perfect for fostering critical reflection on the act of composition, and specifically for learning to recognize the connections between writing procedural systems (like computer programs) and writing other, more traditional texts. And there are a wealth of tools out there, many of them free, that make it possible to build games with little or no programming knowledge. Twine lets students build text-based interactive fiction games with no programming knowledge at all – though students who do know some programming (or are just highly motivated), it’s easy to work in some more complicated scripting elements or add other forms of media. Scratch, created by the MIT media lab, is a simple multimedia authoring tool that is easy to learn, and that lets students create simple but creative games while learning some basic principles of programming. Tools like these make game creation possible without a steep learning curve, while encouraging students to see themselves as capable of composing programs and coded texts.

Video game assignments are a great way to engage students in critical reflection about multimodal design. When students are asked to create their own games, there’s a very specific and concrete experience being targeted – the player experience. Player experience is a much less abstract experience than reader experience, easier for many students to conceptualize. And from a practical perspective, it’s much easier to test out oneself. This means that games are a great site for discussing and practicing rhetorical awareness. Video game assignments also pair easily and well with more traditional written components; in addition to creating a game, students can create supporting documents such as walkthroughs, analyses and designer memos. This can make it smoother to integrate game units into courses with traditional writing requirements as well.

Why might I want to use this in my classroom?
Some of the most important features of good writing can be difficult to teach.Taking audience into consideration, for example, or the importance of matching your [rhetorical]approach to your purpose – these are ideas that can feel very abstract to students, especially those just starting out in college. Good examples go a long way here, but have the drawback of being one-way – students still need to find a way to internalize and apply these principles to their own writing.

Here’s where games come in. As a highly inherently interactive genre – as well as a fun one – composing games offers a way to pull these principles forward and make them more visible parts of the composing process; it can also make the challenges they pose a bit more colorful and fun.

In the case of a traditional paper, the reader and their experience is hidden and somewhat abstract. It can be hard to imagine what it looks like, and therefore hard to account for or put into words – even for the reader themselves. When making video games, however, that ultimate act of consumption is much more visible and concrete part of the composing process. A game is meant for a player. It’s pretty hard to forget, when making a game, that eventually someone’s going to play this. Students must ask themselves consistently what the player will be doing and seeing, and how that will affect their experience. For example, what information does the player need to have in order to succeed in this game? These questions can be abstract and difficult to spot or solve in traditional texts. Making games highlights these skills for students in ways that, with some attention to scaffolding, can easily transfer to more traditional writing assignments and genres.

Video game assignments also make it easier to give students’ composing process a genuine audience. Unlike a term paper, it’s relatively easy to find “readers” for a short game you wrote. Having a “class arcade” day where everyone plays each others’ creations is fun and engaging in a way that a “class reading group” day is not. Playing a game is an active, entertaining experience; knowing that their work will be experienced in this way by an audience of more than just their instructor and a few peers can also instill a greater awareness of audience and its stakes.

Instructor Perspective – Jason Custer
Jason Custer is one of the aforementioned presenters on video games and composition at 4C14. He’s a PhD student in Rhet/Comp at Florida State University, and has been actively teaching with video games for several years. He’s the author of the forthcoming piece on video games and teaching, “Becoming the Test Subject: Fostering Procedural Documentation Skills Through Production with Valve’s Steam for Schools,” in Computer Games and Technical Communication. Jason generously agreed to share some of his experiences using computer games to teach composition – including some materials related to video game lessons and assignments.

Jason says:

I started using videogames in my pedagogy in 2013 as I designed a course that would embody what I called in my research at the time “videogame-infused pedagogy,” a way of combining leading theorists in game theory (namely Ian Bogost and James Paul Gee) with some of the core principles in composition pedagogy seen in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. The resulting course was taught in the spring semester of 2013 entitled “ENC 1145— It’s Dangerous to go Alone: Take This! Writing About the Rhetoric of Videogames.” As the second semester of the two semester long First Year Writing sequence here at Florida State University, ENC 1145 courses (courses that typically have a theme of some kind and the “Writing About ____” tagline in them) must, like the ENC 1102 and ENC 1142 courses that fulfil the same requirement, incorporate a research-driven component. Upon designing the course, I was forced to consider how I could, in a course about videogames, writing, and rhetoric, ask students to perform research that would fit into the goals of my research while also properly addressing the needs of the course as described by FSU.

In the first semester I taught this assignment, I allowed students to spend time with one of a few different analytical lenses for a game of their choosing; students were permitted to use either Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic pentad (like Bourgonjon et al had done with the game Bioshock in “From Counter-Strike to Counter-Statement: Using Burke’s Pentad as a Tool for Analysing Video Games”), an adapted form of the Elemental Pentad from Jesse Schell’s text The Art of Game Design, and finally, research incorporating Bogost’s notion of procedural rhetoric and examining the ways in which a game represents a concept or idea in the real world with its mechanics. After that first semester, I decided to switch my focus exclusively to Bogost’s procedural rhetoric, as I felt it offered greater opportunities to foster research skills in students outside of simply investigating a game of interest and applying a framework to it; this approach required students to do research on a game’s representation of one or a few things, and assess its successes and failures in taking advantage of games as a unique medium and crafting a procedural argument. What I will share with you now is the assignment I did with my students in the spring of 2014, the weekly plans I built off of for this more recent semester, a presentation I do in class to help my students process their assigned reading of Bogost’s “The Rhetoric of Video Games” and the first chapter of How to do Things with Videogames titled simply “Art,” and a list of games that I ask students to play in the classroom and discuss in terms of procedural rhetoric by using a collaborative Google Document to play and comment on games in real time in one place. We also played the game Papers, Please, developed by Lucas Pope (and available on Mac and Windows operating systems) and discussed the game as a set of processes, and what argument those processes seemed poised to make by creating collaborative Google Slides presentations in small groups and presenting them in class. (Link to Google Drive Folder with the above materials: http://goo.gl/QBmUfD.)

These combined materials illustrate the foundation for the largest and most intensive unit of my First Year Writing course that utilizes and illustrates what I call videogame-infused pedagogy by combining Gee, Bogost, and the Framework for Success to teach composition with a set of targeted goals and outcomes germane to the field while also fostering research skills. When I first taught this course, I struggled to successfully convey the importance and practices of research to my students since there were so many different approaches being used (Bogost, Burke, and Schell) and only the adaptation of Bogost’s procedural rhetoric as an analytical tool provided clear avenues to discussing and participating in research. I have yet to see substantial discussions surrounding the potential avenues videogames provide for fostering or filling research requirements in First Year Writing, so I am pleased to provide my materials for anyone interested in incorporating videogames into their pedagogy and, like myself, unsure how to integrate videogames into a research-intensive project or unit of a course. By using Bogost’s procedurality and exploring the power of videogames to represent and model real world systems, students are at once invited to perform research on a topic they find interesting while also rhetorically analyzing a game of their choosing. To date, I have received unexpected and fascinating projects on topics like how Super Mario Sunshine represents/models ecological consciousness, how Xcom: Enemy Unknown represents advances in military hardware, or how NCAA Football 14 represents the process of scouting new college football players, while answering questions about how these representations match or deviate from the general opinions or stances established based on formal research, and why those differences might matter to someone playing the game. Combining Bogost’s procedurality with gameplay inside and outside of the classroom space and a focus on research opens up several opportunities for students to explore, understand, and engage with digital rhetoric and research practices.

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