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Beyond Writing: The Literacy of Programming

One challenging aspect of the multi-literacies that students engaged in this sequence is the recognition that gaming is not simply the texts appearing in chats or the visuals flashing across screens; it is also the coding that facilitates the merger of such surface-level literate engagement.  Krapp, Tomlinson, and Frost were well aware of the importance of teaching students about coding—and understanding coding as its own literacy—is students were to develop an appreciation of games as complex literacy and rhetorical events.  Krapp summarizes well the diversity of literacies engaged by the whole sequence: “One aspect to mention here is that there wrote not only academic essays, but also journalistic reviews of games, and most importantly perhaps, the design documents for their games. Design docs reflect highly detailed planning for teamwork, but also lay out back stories and character motivations, etc. The students had fun writing them. Last but not least, writing executable code is another form of writing they all practiced, certainly a ‘new genre’ in itself.”

In many significant ways, the faculty’s emphasis on coding cuts to the heart of debates about the study of gaming, and their curricular planning emphasized a very broad definition of “writing” from the start.  For example, Tomlinson interestingly equates the activities involved in writing and coding:

I consider programming to be a systematic way for getting a computer to form specific internal representations and behave in a certain way.  I consider writing to be a systematic way for getting a person to form specific internal representations and behave in a certain way.  Therefore, I consider both programming and writing to be subclasses of some broader category.

Moreover, Krapp agrees that “writing executable code is another form of writing they all practiced.”

This question of “executability” raises a number of important issues for rhetoricians and literacy theorists who consider being able to compose in computer language an essential part of a broadened definition of literacy.   For example, the artist, activist, and queer theorist Zach Blas created “transCoder” as a “queer programming anti-language,” which is designed to interrogate how computers code operations and draw attention to the heteronormative character of many commands by using disruptive terms like “finger,” “leaky,” “vBody,” and “nonteleo” in its computer language.  However, some like Mark Marino have questioned the effect of having this language not function and the ways that it might unintentionally imply that queerness can’t do procedural as well as communicative work.  On the practical level of student experience for those enrolled in the class, producing code that doesn’t run could generate a high level of frustration, and the third member of the faculty team, Dan Frost, described how some students expressed dissatisfaction with having to generate operational code as a requirement in the course. 

Students were not only resistant to approaching game literacy from the perspective of programming code, they were also hesitant to assume roles as would-be system or interface designers.  As Frost explains, the design doc assignment was “ditched in the third year” and replaced with a more tradition writing assignment within college composition, a critical paper.  Frost argued that such “docs didn’t lead to better games,” although we can assume that they were learning something. Indeed, the grading rubric with which students were confronted emphasized collaboration and workflow in the design process in ways that were probably alien to first-year college students.  Students were expected to demonstrate in the design document that “each team member has a clear set of responsibilities” and deliverables and that there is a “logical sequence for deliverables.”  Although statements, announcements, and promises are commonly prompted by project planning or productivity software, students who had never worked in high-tech industries were probably unfamiliar with the genre that they were expected to produce.  Furthermore, the emphasis on literacies of executability may have been intimidating.  The grading rubric specified that “all rules from game specs” must be “translated into an exceptionally clear, specific, unambiguous, and implementable format.”  This procedural literacy requirement may have compounded the difficulty of an assignment that already required considerable visual literacy, since they were expected to have “excellent use of screenshots / artwork,” and verbal literacy, since they were charged to use “sophisticated sentences effectively,” chose “words aptly,” observe the “conventions of written English and manuscript format,” and display “excellent document structure.”   Nonetheless, the presence of such an assignment in earlier iterations of the course suggests that it is a logical “next step” in developing and thickening students’ awareness of and abilities with multi-literacies.

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