Watson Session D11: Games, Play, and Design: Composing Mobility in Genres, Learning, and Knowledge


Brett Keegan, Syracuse University
Nina Feng, University of Utah
Roger Graves, University of Alberta
Heather Graves, University of Alberta
Geoffrey Rockwell, University of Alberta

In the panel “Games, Play, and Design,” each of the presenters approached game integration into the composition classroom from different institutional contexts and theoretical perspectives. Yet, what tied these presentations together was the thoughtful level of research and discussion that explored how we, as instructors, may move beyond approaching games in the classroom as a single activity or even a more casual theme, toward creating games that encompass the goals of a particular course and the writing that takes place there.  

Brett Keegan’s talk “Tinkering with (Inter)textuality” connected understandings of rhetoric to play by pulling from game theory, rhetorical discussion on design and invention, and scholarship on genre. Keegan describes how genre and games are aligned since they both require a procedural rhetoric—or some set of implicit rules—that develop and change through circulation.

Quote from Eilola's "Living on the Surface" on play: "C: Yeah. But this is...this is just the first level. They're all Different. J: Wow...So how do you figure out what the rules are? C: Just play J: Just play? And then what happens? C: You just...play."

[from conference slides]

To show how these considerations of convention may be brought into the composition classroom, Keegan shared an assignment that asks students to select a writing genre and compose a text that resists, plays with, and/or attempts to break the conventions of that genre. Given the flexibility and play this activity embraces, students are provided the opportunity to demystify genre conventions and develop an increased awareness of the rules that circulate as we compose.

In the next presentation “Deep Gamification World Making in First-Year Writing,” Nina Feng described how she turned her first-year writing course into a game world as a response to Gee and Giroux’s critiques of standardized education. During the talk, Feng acknowledges some of the tension and debate around the term “gamification,” stating, “I hate this term…but it is useful.” Gamification, for Feng, is more about games than it is play, since it emphasizes the use of game design elements in non-game contexts. On the other hand, games that include the integration of play allow for freedom and for the “players” to make choices.

Whereas much past game design for education has been problematic and shallow since it has focused on features of a game—such as points, leaderboards, and badges—there have been less strives to make pedagogical environments that employ the deep features of a game that embrace play, wonder, and narrative possibilities.

In her own pedagogy, Feng took advantage of the affordances of games’ deep features by developing her first-year writing class as a sci-fi game space called “The Empathy Trials.” The features of “The Empathy Trials” are complex and go far beyond the simple integration of badge or point systems: for example, Feng performs as the planet’s leader by creating pre-recorded video narratives and even leaves clues under students’ desks to add to the narrative of the game experience.

Image of a broken building with shattered windows

[Image representing “The Empathy Trials” from conference slides]

Most importantly, the game world Feng creates resists the shallow features of gamification to more fully immerse students into a world of play and knowledge-building.

In the final presentation Roger Graves and Heather Graves described The Game of Writing, a software program developed specifically for the composition classroom at the University of Alberta. The Game of Writing automates gamification systems often used in classrooms, such as goal achievement, recognition through badges, and statistical feedback. The software also uses social networking theory to encourage commenting and feedback to students from other students, from the instructor, from writing tutors, and from graduate teaching assistants.

[Minutes 47-52 of this video from CCCC 2015 in Tampa, Florida offers another glimpse of “The Game of Writing”]

As opposed to a course learning management system or a competitive game, “The Game of Writing” is a composing system, where the primary goal is collaborating and emphasizing a writing feedback cycle.

Interface for The Game of Writing

[Interface for The Game of Writing from Conference Slides]

The software was designed as one solution to the budgetary constraints of a university that wanted students to receive writing education but lacked the funding to support small-scale, discussion-based composition courses. Whereas a large number of students in a single writing classroom is likely to have negative repercussions on students’ outcomes and success in the class, The Game of Writing courses allow up to two-hundred students per instructor, and the course, based on the integration of social media and gamification design, actually benefits from having a larger number of students per class.

Collectively, these three presentations on games, play, and design speak to the degree that games and gaming conventions are transforming not only how we teach, but also what we value when we teach writing. They also speak to very different versions of what a composition future that more fully embraces games and gamification may look like.

  (As of 2/2/2018 the Storify has been archived below.)

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About Author

Kristin Ravel

Dr. Kristin Ravel is an Assistant Professor of English at Rockford University. Her research interests encompass multimodality, digital media studies, ethics in communication, and feminist theory.

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