Computers and Writing Talk (2017)

When discussing games, composition scholars have long described the “literacies” that they highlight. James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Language and Learning (2003; 2007) acts as one of the anchor texts to this conversation, and Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’ On Multimodality (2014) provides a more recent example. Using classroom experiences with World of Warcraft, Alexander and Rhodes “argue that gaming offers a rich venue to see multiple literacies—the visual, the technological, and the textual—at play” (129). Doing so, they make some central additions, noting the social and contextual literacies that students draw from, “as students work collaboratively on one text” (146) and pointing to the critical and rhetorical literacies that students may develop as they critique games and the world views they present. The chapter also provides some concrete approaches to working with games in the composition classroom, like literacy narratives and examining games as rhetorical artifacts, fresh additions to the conversation on literacies and videogames.

This work on the practical application of gaming literacies in composition pedagogy—which includes work from Richard Colby, Alice Robinson, and others—offers potential, which I want to build on with this presentation. While many pieces point to the literacies offered by gaming and gamers, game integration with composition tends to rest on simply using games or talking about games in the writing classroom, despite broader models and concepts afforded by games and game studies. Or many pedagogy-based treatments of this nexus require extensive labor. Battlelines, for example, a brilliant multi-authored text on Kairos, offers one of the most complete treatments of gaming and pedagogy by detailing a whole class built on an alternative reality game, but the overhead required likely exceeds the abilities of most adjuncts, grad students, and teaching-heavy faculty positions. Instead, I want to offer a brief way to approach gaming literacies more generally, how they have affected my own pedagogy, and how one can create a reasonable synthesis between composition scholarship and game studies without a major knowledge base in gaming—particularly as these build from deeper ideas from game studies and not games themselves.

(Lit)eracy Review

Before moving fully to practical experiences, I do want to note some of the literacies exemplified in games, as outlined by scholars. On the surface, much of this work connects squarely with transfer approaches to composition pedagogy. As Gee argues, for example, language use is always situated in a particular context of practice, meaning, modalities, etc., which he calls “semiotic domains,” and each of those domains requires different literacies, different “practices” or knowledge to “communicate distinctive types of meanings” (17). With this situated approach, Gee argues we should teach a more reflective, critical set of skills to students, giving students a meta-awareness or flexibility to adapt across situations—not mere content knowledge—with videogames providing a solid model. As he writes, “video games are potentially particularly good places where people can learn to situate meanings through embodied experiences in a complex semiotic domain and meditate on the process” (25). The game makes the player engage, forcing them to work with and within a particularly designed system in order to succeed. And for a person to truly master this interaction, to become a “critical learner” in Gee’s taxonomy, one must learn “to think about the domain at a ‘meta’ level as a complex system of interrelated parts” (22).

Alexander Galloway (2006) puts this process clearest, I think, when discussing Civilization, a nation-building game: “The gamer is. . . learning, internalizing, and becoming intimate with a massive, multipart, global algorithm. To play the game means to play the code of the game. To win means to know the system.” (90). As Galloway shows, Gee is not alone in this outlook: learning to play a game, particularly if one masters the game, requires systems-level thinking and short-hand familiarity with sizing up situations and reacting appropriately, despite the unpredictable nature of those situations. In Half-Real (2005), another example, Jesper Juul argues that experienced players often have the ability to transfer familiarity with certain mechanics between situations, distinguish between valuable information and noise, and “chunk” information together into larger ideas to ease recall. And Alexander and Rhodes also describe the “transfer” ability and “critical” dimensions possible in gaming literacies.

Collectively, game studies has long noted the paradoxical nature of games that create a unique, emergent situation while carrying the same “rules” or “practices” across situations. Unlike a film or book, which always has the same words as one comes back to it hours or years apart, an individual gaming session can vary wildly, depending on the players involved, the algorithmic input, or the way rules and pieces get mustered in a single situation, despite being the same “game.” Note, I am not saying that books and other related media are a one-way street—reader-response theory and scholars like Michel de Certeau have complicated this fully—but games are uniquely interactive and ephemeral. As John Alberti (2008) writes, for instance, “From the perspective of print-based theories of literacy, gaming is an inherently dialogic discursive space, one that problematizes the distinction between ‘reading’ and ‘writing,’ ‘process’ and ‘product’” (267).

This interactive, uncertain element to gaming, and the literacy it requires, lies at the heart of what gaming can offer composition pedagogy. Games tend to value an adaptability and exploratory outlook, with players testing boundaries and “playing” within more rigid possibilities. This outlook has impacted my own pedagogy, and I want to briefly highlight two assignments drawn from this outlook.

In the Composition Class

The composition classroom is often in an odd, liminal position, where disciplinary genres, audiences, and exigencies mingle in artificial ways. As Elizabeth Wardel’s “Mutt Genres” observes, “When, in a classroom situation, students are asked to write genres outside of those genres’ natural contexts, those genres become pseudotransactional; they no longer do the same work in the world.” Abstracted and muddied by this abstraction, student writing in the composition classroom lacks the reality of writing “in the wild,” as Wardle and others argue, but for games, simulation has never been an issue. So the first obvious approach to writing in a composition class, particularly with genre, is to pursue simulation. In some ways, this approach captures some of the “deep gamification” in models like Battlelines, but one can downsize simulations. As scholarship shows, particularly work by Clay Spinuzzi and David Russell, writing occupies systems, and games, through their procedural nature provide ideal ways to model systems.

In my own pedagogy, this systems modeling takes two main forms. First, for a set of classes—often 2 days—I may put on a particular persona, like a project manager, a client, an administrative authority, a P.R. person, etc., communicating in the genres of a particular system and having students do the same. For a time, they must work with(in) the procedural simulation of a “real” system. In the P.R. example, I give students a few basic texts on the industry and the style of writing. I then give them (in groups) stories to write, one that often requires an exchange over e-mail or a call and a familiarity with University issues. They must write in genres mindful of the situation—professional e-mails, press releases, in-class conversations with “co-workers,” etc. Though it was a bit clunky at first, role-play has a strong tradition in game studies, starting with Huizinga’s emphasis on “disguises,” moving to Roger Caillois’ “imitation” play, and including Bernard Suits’ multiple examples of role-playing. The key, though, is to construct—and therefore simulate—a system.

Also involving the procedural nature of genre, I have also considered what Bernard Suits calls the “institution of a game,” elements of a game that carry across individual game sessions, as this echoes the genre’s own flexible persistence. For this, I employ an activity that often informs a unit project based on genre analysis, having them construct a genre for a particular situation or exigency, giving them a task and situation like a specific speech or application. To do this, much like any design problem, I have them actively consider the purpose, the users, the form the genre may take, etc. Unlike programming or actual game design, students can often employ similar UX and design-based thinking without the computational literacies—or proficiencies—those require. Doing this, I often employ teams, just as one may design an application, and increasingly employ an AGILE approach to design, which involves task management and checking in. As each team designs its “genre” for a particular situation, I have another team analyze it and provide feedback. At the end, we then discuss what populations the genre may be leaving out, what limitations it may have, and how genres are purpose-based and situational, not category-based and universal. My one stumbling block with this is trying to think further how to better contrast the messy ecological formation of genres in the wild with this designed one.

In any case, I am at time and would be happy to discuss this further in Q&A or e-e-mail.