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Writing and Gaming: "Literacy becomes a hydra-headed sort of thing"

From the very beginning of the FIP sequences, students recognize that they will be composing in a variety of genres and modalities, and that textual literacies, while important, are only a component of studying gaming.  Certainly, students wrote some traditional academic papers.  Dan Frost notes that students early on engaged in two different kinds of writing.  First, they documented and summarized basic principles of game design and how those principles were used in the development of games—a basic kind of analytical writing with a concrete object of study.  But students also spent time writing game design documents, the kind of documents that would be generated in the “pre-implementation” phase of the development of a game that are intended to document progress toward delivery of a collaboratively and iteratively generated product.  Envisioning the rhetorical situation around creating such documents also furthers the kind of situated learning experience that Gee advocates.  It also could potentially prepare future game designers for the work done by professional software development teams. 

Such documents necessitated that students include visuals and art “mock ups” of various dimensions of the games they envisioned.  Bill Tomlinson explains: “[i]n all of the students' projects, visual rhetoric and information design were relevant to their work, albeit often just implicitly.  In at least one of the classes, we asked students to create a ‘serious game’ -- one aimed at social change, education, training, or consciousness-raising.  This project in particular helped focus students' attention on visual rhetoric.” 

We can see the development of visual rhetorical awareness in any number of short and long assignments utilized in this course.  In one assignment that might seem fairly typical of a course in which the analysis of games are important, students were asked to comment upon and development an argument about the cultural significance or social usefulness of a particular game.  At the same time that students were performing their “starter kit” cultural analyses, they also had to comment specifically on the visual dimension of the game.  One student began her analysis of gaming by beginning with a non-digital card game and theorizing about, in the words of her title, “How Pokemon Influenced Human Interactivity in U.S. Kids’ Culture by Increasing Children’s Social Abilities.”  The essay not only argues for Pokemon as a useful game in developing certain kinds of social skills—an argument reminiscent of those offered by Gee, among others—but it also performs a visual analysis of Pokemon characters, commenting on their approachability, affability and charm—ingredients the author claims are important in setting a particular pedagogical stage for the social lessons children might glean from the game.  The author uses, and cites, images throughout her essay, commenting upon them at length, noting in particular how the visual dimension of the game is intimately tied to gameplay.  Such an analysis prepared this student for more in-depth and complex visual analysis of multi-dimensional computer games later in the sequence, and attention to the interactivity amongst textual and visual components in game development prepared her (and other students) for development of their own “serious games.”

In many ways, such a focus on multi-literacies is unsurprising, given both the multi-disciplinary approach and the technologically rich computational media under study.  Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher, in their edited collection, Gaming Lives in the Twenty-First Century: Literate Connections, reference the work of literacy scholar Deborah Brandt to suggest that “[t]he contested nature of gaming literacies at the beginning of the twenty-first century is indicative of a historical and cultural period undergoing not only rapid change, but also the ‘rapid proliferation and diversification of literacy” (32).  Some compositionists are tempted to resolve this contestation by having students merely write about games in traditional text-based academic genres; but FIP faculty in this sequence took the “contested nature of gaming literacies” as their point of departure, having students mix both text and art in their analysis and creation of games.  Frost notes that students would often have to draw pictures as part of the sequences’ examinations.  Such requirements often challenged first-year students, particularly those with meager artistic skills, but the experience reinforced for these freshmen how the study of gaming necessarily draws upon multiple ways of seeing and analyzing.  As Frost provocatively put it, literacy in this pedagogical context became a “hydra-headed sort of thing,” with multiple literacies at play in the course.  For the faculty involved, the play of multi-literacies spoke not only to the development of academic writing skills but to the necessity of students’ developing multi-media skills; Tomlinson maintains that “[h]elping students develop 21st century skills such as media literacy and cultural awareness is critical to an effective university education.  Games are one avenue through which this process can occur.”

Along such lines, some assignments actually asked students to speak across potential disciplinary divides, and in the process students had to grapple with how different disciplines construct knowledge and how such constructions may be contested with the emergence of new objects of study.  In this guise, gaming seems a subject rife and rich with possibilities.  For instance, one assignment asked students to analyze a computer game to determine whether it qualified as a work of art.  In the composition of such essays, students had to pay attention to both the technologically rich language and concepts of emerging gaming studies and informatics and to aesthetic considerations from the world of art criticism.  Such a definitional assignment pushes beyond merely asking students to comment on both the textual and visual dimensions of a game.  Rather, it asks students to consider challenges to knowledge production within and amongst disciplines when complex and intricately inter-disciplinary objects of study—like virtual worlds—come into focus.  One student paper, “An Immersive Digital World,” offered a critical analyses of Char Davies’ immersive virtual space Ephémère, which involves participants wearing body vests and NASA-designed Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) to experience the virtual world that Davies has created.  Throughout the essay, the author references, and takes issue, with the work of both art critics, such as Laurie McRobert, and literacy studies proponents of gaming, such as Henry Jenkins.  When considering potential counter arguments to the authors’ claim that Ephémère is indeed both a game space and a work of art, the author writes with no small rhetorical sophistication about both the technological and the aesthetic:

How can a piece of technology which runs off of algorithms and polygons successfully express the emotions of the human psyche? Although computers are algorithmic, human creativity and imagination is necessary in order to create effects on the computer screen which impact the viewer in a more meaningful way than shapes floating on screen. In the case of Ephémère, top of the line computer software was used in order to implement and design objects and effects which Davies felt would evoke feelings in the viewer which would convey her elegy. Although the transformations in Ephémère are based off of computational algorithms and polygons, the objects implemented in Ephémère contain characteristics of Davies’ previous works as painter.  For example, in her paintings, Davies often used special brush strokes in order “to give the impression of enveloping space” which, she believes, “can enhance the feeling of being bodily immersed in space” (McRobert, 2007, p. 28).

What impresses us about such a passage is the extent to which it parallels pressing debates in gaming studies and criticism.

In Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, Ian Bogost “attempt[s] to explore the nature of relations between computation, literature, and philosophy.”  He argues that

A practical marriage of literary theory and computation would not only give each field proper respect and attention from its counterpart, but also create a useful framework for the interrogation of cultural artifacts that straddle these fields.  The humanists who define intellectual approaches to such texts must get serious about technology.  Likewise, technologists ought to understand the precedents in critical theory, philosophy, and literature that trace, accompany, and inform the development of software technology.  (ix)

For Bogost, gaming is a prime example of a “cultural artifact that straddle[s]” both humanistic and technologically-oriented disciplines.  He argues that lessons can be applied from the study of literature – for example, about adaptation and translation – to computational media, but it is also important for humanists to be equally willing to examine theoretical works by their colleagues in computer science and technology studies.  As such, understanding gaming necessitates the analysis of different rhetorical tools, and Bogost’s work define procedural rhetoric to address the layered complexities of gaming literacies: “…procedural rhetoric is the practice of using processes persuasively, just as verbal rhetoric is the practice of using oratory persuasively and visual rhetoric is the practice of using images persuasively.  Procedural rhetoric is a general name for the practice of authoring arguments through processes” (28-9).  In Bogost’s view, “videogames mount arguments and influence players” (viii); procedural rhetoric, or “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word” (ix), offers a way to understand those arguments.  The emphasis here is not just on recognizing, à la Hawisher and Selfe, the multiple layers of literacy, but appreciating their interactivity in complex systems that may rely on many agents and rule sets, not all of whom may be accessible to easy explication.  As such, Bogost’s procedural rhetoric sees the processes of games as their rhetorically richest domain.  While the student writing about Ephémère doesn’t reference Bogost, his work nonetheless speaks powerfully to Bogost’s pressing claim that we think about games in terms of their procedural richness as simultaneously products (and processes!) of both computation and humanistic engagement. 

Just how complex these components of game rhetorics can be is demonstrated by the prompt for one of the class’s writing exercises, in which students must apply terms that come from literary criticism, computer science, and game criticism: 

Liz Losh [who had delivered a guest lecture on “serious games”] described what she thought was a problem with serious games: that players can play games in different ways than intended by developers, thus undermining the rhetorical strength of the game's argument or transfer of learned skills to real life situations. Apply concepts from [McKenzie] Wark's “Digital Allegories” article to make a clear argument about how this problem of serious games can be described through the interrelationships of allegory, allegorithm, algorithm, gamespace, gamer and game.  In other words, where exactly does this “problem” exist (in reference to allegory, allegorithm, algorithm, gamespace, gamer and game)? Could the problem be thought of as a disconnection between two or more of these variables?  Argue which variables you think are involved in this problem, and clearly describe the dynamics of Liz Losh's problem of serious games in reference to Wark's diagram.

This prompt encourages students to work with a spatial representation of the terms “allegory,” “allegorithm,” “algorithm,” “gamespace,” “gamer,” and “games.”


As Alexander Galloway explains these terms, to play a game “means to play the code of the game” and that to win “means to know the system,” but “to interpret a game means to interpret its algorithm (to discover its parallel “allegorithm”)” (90-91).  In the serious games prompt, the instructors of US12 are encouraging students to grapple with multiple literacies as they engage in inductive work based on their knowledge of play experiences, code, and systems.

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