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Introduction

As more and more compositionists and rhetoricians turn their attention to virtual worlds and computer games as rich rhetorical and pedagogical spaces for the teaching of writing and communication, it is important for researchers in writing studies to respond to and participate in the larger scholarly debate that has developed since James Paul Gee first argued that video games support many literacy practices and exemplify a model for successful situated learning in What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy.

Since the publication of Gee’s book and the popularization of its principles by Henry Jenkins and many others, a number of researchers – many within game studies – have begun to question how the literacy movement has attempted to colonize game culture by channeling subversive behaviors into supposedly productive and normative conduct.  They have also drawn attention to the naïveté of presuming that proprietary platforms and machine code would be transparent enough to novice learners to model the literacy practices of initiates.  For example, Mimi Ito has argued that children’s software is oriented around “engineering play” to suit ideologies about consumption and status in designing and marketing educational products, Ute Ritterfeld has presented research that casts doubt on the efficacy of games as learning tools, and Ian Bogost has complained that educational games often fail as meaningful play.  Using the debate between Plato and Aristotle about the influence of media on the young, Elizabeth Losh has asserted that advocates for game literacies often essentially want it both ways, so that games encourage mimetic behavior when the behavior is perceived as “good” (i.e. reading clues, collaborating with others, etc.) but not when the behavior is perceived as “bad” (i.e. stealing cars, beating up prostitutes, etc.).

At the same time, a number of designers and critics of interactive experiences have turned to more sophisticated theories about rhetorical awareness or written expression than Gee’s simple talking points to interpret what they call the complex “operational logics” at work in computer games.  Among those who describe themselves as part of the "software studies" movement, Ian Bogost was the first literally to write the book on “procedural rhetoric” in Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, which interrogated some of Gee's assumptions.  Noah Wardrip-Fruin followed with Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies, which looked at authoring systems and the playability of language from the perspective of computer code in ways very different from Gee's user-centered approach.  When attending to those in the software studies school, rhetoricians should also note that Michael Mateas has actually developed computational “rhetoric engines” that model rhetorical situations and conditions of production and reception, as he has incorporated sophisticated AI technologies into his interactive fictions..

Finally, as classroom or lab-based projects aimed at developing game literacies in K-12 education are launched, a schism in pedagogical philosophies has emerged. One camp, largely associated with Gee and the University of Wisconsin (Squire, Games, etc.) and the University of Arizona (Hayes, Robison, etc.) largely focuses on teaching game design with an emphasis on creating interfaces and user experiences with simple authoring tools, while another camp, largely associated with what Michael Mateas and others have called “the Georgia Tech approach,” claims that “procedural literacy” requires an ability to read lines of code in specific programming languages. Mateas insists that this form of literacy is a prerequisite for teaching about new media artifacts, as the following passage indicates:

By procedural literacy I mean the ability to read and write processes, to engage procedural representation and aesthetics, to understand the interplay between the culturally-embedded practices of human meaning-making and technically-mediated processes. With appropriate programming, a computer can embody any conceivable process; code is the most versatile, general process language ever created. Hence, the craft skill of programming is a fundamental component of procedural literacy, though it is not the details of any particular programming language that matters, but rather the more general tropes and structures that cut across all languages.

Mateas claims that new media practitioners who lack “an understanding of how code operates as an expressive medium” can never open the “black box” at the heart of any computer game or understand “the crucial relationship between authorship, code, and audience reception.” In addition to the work of Amy Bruckman and Fox Harrell at Georgia Tech who are involved in teaching code to middle school children using social network sites and virtual worlds as platforms, there are a number of projects aimed at teaching programming literacies to even younger children by encouraging them to create and share programmable animations, most notably the Scratch initiative at the MIT Media Lab and the ALICE project at Carnegie Mellon.

While research about both design-based and code-based instruction suggests that students can gain and develop numerous academic skills (critical thinking, logical organizing) and social skills that impact academic work (collaboration, working across numerous differences), few studies have yet taken up the issue of “gaming across the curriculum” in higher education or have attempted to inquire about what happens when different disciplines, with different methodological frameworks, assumptions, and questions, approach computer gaming as an object of study. What does a multi-disciplinary approach to gaming offer students, both in terms of their ability to think critically about games as games, but also in terms of their ability to reflect critically about complex contemporary communication practices and how different disciplines might use awareness of those literacy practices to build and communicate knowledge production?

In this essay, we profile and analyze a first-year, year-long course sequence focused on a multi-disciplinary approach to computer gaming. The sequence, entitled “Computer Games as Art, Culture, and Technology,” was designed and taught at the University of California, Irvine, from 2006-2009. The course brought together three faculty members—from Informatics, Computer Science, and Media Studies—to help students develop a critical approach to computer gaming and gaming studies. At the same time, this first-year, year-long sequence served to help students fulfill general education requirements in the humanities, the social sciences, and writing. That is, the sequence was designed to be both foundational and multi-disciplinary, showing students how different scholars in different fields approached a common topic, while also, at the same time, introducing students to the “basics” of academic inquiry, knowledge making, and researched writing. From our perspective as scholars interested in the pedagogical use of gaming, specifically in the teaching of writing, this course sequence, which ran for three consecutive years, seemed an ideal model through which to examine how games might be used multi-disciplinarily to help students develop academic writing skills.

To discover what this unique course offering may have actually offered students, we examined the course syllabi, interviewed the faculty involved in developing and delivering the course, and considered critically the rich course assessment procedures and reports developed specifically for this course, a procedure that included examination and evaluation of sample student writing. Our profile and consideration of “Computer Games as Art, Culture, and Technology” shows us that gaming, viewed from multi-disciplinary perspectives, has the potential to highlight for students (and faculty) both the importance of rhetorically-based approaches to communication and the diversity of literacies that students are confronted with—and asked to develop—in their college careers. That is, the multi-disciplinary study of gaming offered a rhetorically robust and engaging way for many students to develop a meta-cognitive awareness of the complexities of literacy and literate performance, particularly across and through disciplinary boundaries; such meta-cognition, we argue, should serve students well as they approach other discipline-based ways of knowing and communicating, both inside and outside the academy. But even more, and specifically in terms of gaming, we argue that the very nature of games themselves, as rhetorically rich and performative spaces, serves to help students, with the right guidance, become much more aware of, familiar with, and conversant with the varieties of literacy and literate performance that different rhetorical situations may demand, prompt, or require. At the same time, we acknowledge the pedagogical challenges posed by courses that attempt to teach programming and design to undergraduates who have received little high school preparation for these literacy experiences.

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