By Steve Holmes
Steve Holmes is an Assistant Professor of English at George Mason University. His primary research areas include classical and contemporary rhetorical theory, continental philosophy, digital rhetoric, videogames, mobile and handheld media, and multimodal composition. His most recent publications appear in Rhetoric Review, Enculturation, and the Fibreculture Journal.
One aspect that writing teachers are increasingly facing is the need to address the role of medium in student composition. Our students communicate through different technologies (laptops, mobile phones, tablets) and social media (SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter, Yik Yak). In turn, a greater number of professional, industry, and academic communication situations are demanding ever greater familiarity with a variety of digital literacies. Since Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe published Gaming Lives in the 21st Century in 2007, a growing number of composition scholars have sought to make videogames an object of inquiry (Waggoner et al.; Colby-Shultz et al.). Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) scholarship has commendably begun to address these forms of digital writing, but lags behind in attention to videogames and gaming.
What I would like to do in this blog post is to suggest some new possibilities for thinking through videogames as forms of multimodal writing within the classroom, as well as to take stock briefly of some of the existing scholarship in relationship to WAC and gaming (see below). In identifying some of these past and emerging issues, it is my hope that readers might feel inspired to think through gaming as an important pedagogical tool for teaching both print-based and digital writing. When we include videogames alongside other media, we also need to ask about how non-print-based writing within videogame play might be a helpful addition when thinking about gaming-across-the-curriculum pedagogy. I have three suggestions in mind that I will briefly unpack:
- play is always a potential form of multimodal composition;
- play is a process of avatar-ing across different compositional platforms;
- and, finally, to play a videogame is also to play a material object.
With the new availability of software programs such as GameSalad and Scalpel, videogame design is now a viable option for writing teachers because these programs require no coding knowledge. They allow students to easily build games by repurposing and re-mixing design elements from existing videogames. In fact, the most recent Computers and Composition issue featured an essay on assessment for student videogame projects written by Richard S. Colby, The Journal for Undergraduate Media Projects has featured student videogame compositions, and Kairos has featured videogame design as writing research. However, for many reasons such as those pointed to by de Winter et al. in “Computer Games Across the Curriculum: A Critical Review of an Emerging Techno-Pedagogy,” game design as a compositional strategy faces several pragmatic obstacles in WAC initiatives. It is for this reason that my first claim is play is always a potential form of multimodal composition.
I believe that teachers of composition and disciplinary writing can always encourage students to see the recording, capturing, re-mixing, and transmitting of play as a distributed, cross-platform, and multimodal form of composition. Keith Morton’s essay in the Currents in Electronic Literacy collection describes how students compose through “machinema”—having students stage and record mostly (textual) discussions regarding an intercultural communication situation in Second Life. Yet, this idea can take even more radical turns. One of the most subscribed to YouTube channels is run by a user named PewDiePie (Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg). He uses vlogs, social media, audio recordings, and other multimedia forms to offer entertaining walkthroughs of horror and action videogames to over 28 million subscribers (as of June 2014). Sam Guetelle of Tubefilter reports that over 95% of gamers currently consult player-created YouTube videos—both as entertainment and as instructional walkthroughs—as a core part of their play experience. Cheap recording and streaming software such as Roxio GameCap HD Pro and sites such as YouTube, Let’s Play, and Twitch TV have made composing and posting these creations more accessible. “Brag clips” about in-game achievements and the public editing of an in-game performance for a range of communicative purposes now represent a central aspect of digital compositional activity.
Compositional meaning is not only constructed through the player’s immediate encounter with the rule-governed aims of the designer and the narrative content. Rather, many players actively compose new meanings for play as cross-platform authors who increasingly recognize one another by how they compose various avatars to document their gameplay experiences. Examining these practices helps students immediately see that writing in videogames involves a diversity of literacies, production techniques, and rhetorical appeals that are specific to these new emerging digital genres. See SB Nation blogger Jon Bois’s column, Breaking Madden, for an irreverent, satirical, and amazingly creative example of the use of game recording and .gif construction as a form of public rhetoric.
My second claim directly builds upon the first: play is a process of avatar-ing across multiple mediums. Media studies scholar Clay Shirky notes, “A profile on a social network, a photo we use when messaging one another, a brief bio tied to a YouTube account—all of these things have some aspect of the avatar around them” (xii). In an era of networked multimedia, an avatar is something we manipulate within a game or analyze and write about within a discrete player-game feedback loop. However, avatar-ing also constitutes active and ongoing cross-media processes of composition. Echoing Beth Coleman in Hello Avatar, players text message each other on mobile phones while playing in a virtual world; they post screen shots of their customized in-game avatars to guild Facebook groups; and, tweens post social media game achievements online to broadcast their successes to peers. When I was an assistant director of first-year composition at Clemson, I recall my director, Cynthia Haynes, even teaching a face-to-face class through her World of Warcraft avatar (Norandor) during a Composition Theory seminar!
To ask students to write about their experiences in playing videogames is simultaneously to ask them how they avatar through cross-networked forms of composition. This awareness helps students realize that new media technologies allow writers to creatively enable what Collin Gifford Brooke helpfully calls the “ecologies of practice.” To explain this point, I often think of space/place theorist Michel de Certeau’s example of citizens’ modification, appropriation, or experimentation with urban spaces, thereby illustrating the ways that meaning is constructed and negotiated in shared spaces. De Certeau offers the analogy renters transforming an apartment into their own use values, affects, and forms of habituation. By analogy, if we ask our students to start with a view of writing that resembles what we’re used to (print-based text norms), then we miss asking them to explore the vast range of actual multimodal composition practices that occur in the networks within and around videogames.
My third claim may seem initially unrelated to the previous two claims: to play a videogame is also to play a material object. Jody Shipka and Paul Prior talk about the importance of thinking through environment structuring and selection procedures in the process of composition. In my favorite example, they explain how an anthropologist uses a laundry timer buzzer to break up writing sessions. In their assessment, the writing process is not only cognitive and social, but also material, embodied, and environmental. In Toward a Composition Made Whole, Shipka shares how she asked students to list the various “nonhuman actors” that helped them compose a given text or multimedia project (chairs, pencils, laptops, libraries, clothes, music). Videogames similarly engage not just representation and narrative, but also feeling, touch, vision, hearing, and felt interactivity. Some of these felt affects are nonconscious and unintended by a game’s designer. Playing Tetris, for example, for three hours a day has been found to reduce cravings in smokers. Material objects—to borrow sociologist Bruno Latour’s idea—form assemblages and publics of humans and nonhuman actors.
Let me offer an example of how thinking about videogames as material objects can dramatically change the ways in which we discuss them. We can always talk about audience in different digital media. Videogames are no different. As Ian Bogost pointed out in his recent article in The Baffler, while parents worry about violent videogame representations in first-person shooters like Call of Duty 4, they ought to worry more about Candy Crush! As a “free-to-play game,” Candy Crush lets players advance quickly, but then the game becomes incrementally harder. Once players are emotionally invested in the amount of time spent, the levels become so hard that King, the game’s developer, hopes to tempt players into making in-game purchases. Candy Crush, which grossed over a billion in 2013, is rated “Ages 4+” by iTunes (“Rage” n.pag). Despite the fact that many adults (et tu, reader?) play Candy Crush, we often fail to realize that the reason why the graphics in Candy Crush are cartoonish is that the true audience is children. Ramin Sokrizade describes how the pre-frontal cortex, which weighs long-term opportunity cost versus short-term pain relief, is only fully developed by age 25. Children are more susceptible to in-game manipulation because of the unique ways that their thinking bodies and pre-frontal cortexes develop and relate to their digital environments. Current rating systems therefore fail to account for attempts to intervene in children’s embodied play habits. Thinking about videogames as material objects therefore enables us to question what group constitutes the “true” audience for Candy Crush. Imagine how a writing-intensive computer science class might analyze the ethical implications of coding and in-game purchases for their audience given the player’s state of neurocognitive development.
The connection between these three suggestions can be found in my conviction that when writing in or about videogames, we are simultaneously calling students’ attention to, as James Berlin put it best, a “version of reality.” As writing teachers, we do not just ask students to play or write about videogames. Rather, we argue for a version of how interactive multimodal meaning (reality) is created, recorded, circulated, and manifested through the agency of writers, designers, players, and technologies. When we teach videogames—or any technology of writing—we are also teaching students the “terministic screens,” as Kenneth Burke called it, for what to emphasize in a given technological interface: narrative, screens, bodies, print-based norms for writing, critique, hardware, algorithms, and many other factors. In as far as “delivery” and “medium” have become resurgent interests in the field (Welch; Yancey; Porter), the question about who we are as rhetorical beings when we write through various technologies should be a central consideration. Writing, as Jenny Rice noted in “Un/framing Models of Public Distribution,” is not a discrete and isolated rhetorical situation a la Lloyd Bitzer, but a dynamic event distributed across bodies, keyboards, technologies, places, and temporal moments.
Again, these are just suggestions. In my opinion, composition studies is at an amazing place with regard to thinking through videogames as a form of multimodal literacy in gaming-across-the-curriculum contexts. By offering a few new possibilities, my hope is that this blog entry will encourage new experiments and new possibilities for writing teachers. I’ve often found it useful to think through videogames as not merely a “continuation of writing as normal by another means,” but more radically as a way to call into question what writing is in the first place.
My motivation for thinking through these three points lies with respect to existing gaming-across-the curriculum scholarship. One of the main justifications for placing gaming and writing into conversation in the first place (as the Hawisher and Selfe collection testifies to) comes from the work of education theorist James Paul Gee. Gee’s goal was the belief that “applying the fruitful principles of learning that good game designers have hit on, whether or not we use a game as a carrier of these principles” could provide teachers with new ways to teach students about multimodal literacy (p. 6). His interest in a videogame was not primarily in its narrative content, but in the types of interactive and semiotic learning that the activity of play engendered. Designers, for example, “empowered learners” by allowing players to customize their avatars and otherwise see the immediate impact of their active efforts within a gamespace. By extension, he suggested that these mechanisms could be applied to other non-videogame principles through allowing students to customize aspects of their educational processes.
Echoing in part the sentiments of Gee, editors Jan Rune Holmevik and Haynes declared their desire to “blur the boundary between work and play as a first step toward reinventing education and educational spaces” in the context of WAC’s emerging interests in digital communication though a special issue of Currents in Electronic Literacy (hosted online by the Digital Writing and Rhetoric Lab at UT-Austin) in 2010. To the best of my knowledge, I believe this was one of the first attempts to argue for a relationship between gaming and WAC, or “gaming-across-the-curriculum,” in 2010. Jennifer de Winter, Daniel Griffin, Ken S. McAllister, Ryan M. Moeller, and Judd Ethan Ruggill’s essay in the Currents collection usefully described a broad range of pedagogical strategies to incorporate videogames into the writing classroom: “students can read, analyze, and write about the medium; study game artifacts as material objects within a critical cultural pedagogy; develop personalized game narratives with the help of computer game toolsets; [and] write technical walk-throughs” (para. 2). Other essays in the collection echoed many of the major ways in which composition studies has approached videogames (“procedural rhetoric,” Reed; multimodal literacy, Losh and Alexander). Other researchers explored how game design and “gamification”—the use of game design principles in non-game settings—could be used to develop entire courses (Meramidas) or just individual assignments. Gamification (not unproblematically, as Ian Bogost would remind us), for example, could be used to teach an argumentative essay by assigning points or levels. Critically, de Winter et al.’s essay in the Currents collection also raised concerns with employing videogames in the writing classroom (digital divide; student resistance). Simply put, this collection is still quite invaluable for any writing teachers who are wondering if or how they might address videogames in WAC contexts.
The one thing that strikes me in reading the Currents collection alongside past and contemporary scholarship on gaming in composition studies (and that motivated this blog post) is the fact that the Currents collection featured only three instances where writing included the actual activity of videogame design or the incorporation of multimodal elements (King; de la Pena; Weil; Morton). The remaining essays focused on print-based text (writing in games or writing about games). This previous comment is in no way meant to be critical. If we actually considered the Currents collection to be representative of the existing scholarship in compositions that explores videogames, then, arguably, the Currents collection would actually over-represent the proportionate amount of scholarship that has explored videogames as multimodal compositional forms. Such is unsurprising. As a field, we like to analyze the writing that players compose on wikis (Johnson), the technical documents which designers and programmers write, and remediated print-based writing in social media games (Alberti). Other researchers often ask students to write narratives or reflections about their experience in playing videogames (Shultz Colby). There is nothing wrong in the least with our field’s focus on print-based writing as we are, in fact, teachers of writing subject to a great number of institutional pressures and demands.
Alberti, John. “The Game of Facebook and the End(s) of Writing Pedagogy.”
Alexander, Jonathan, and Elizabeth Losh. “Whose Literacy Is it Anyway?” Currents in Electronic Literacy. (2010): n.pag. Web.
Colby, Rebekah Shultz. “Gender and Gaming in a First-Year Writing Class.” Rhetoric/Composition/Play through Video Games. Ed. Richard Colby, Matthew S.S. Johnson, and Rebekah Shultz Colby. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.123-138.
Colby, Richard, Matthew S.S. Johnson, and Rebekah Shultz Colby (eds.) Rhetoric/Composition/Play through Video Games. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Candy Crush Saga. King. 2012. Videogame.
de la Peña, Nonny, and Peggy Weil. “Interview.” Currents in Electronic Literacy. (2010): n.pag. Web.
de Winter, Jennifer, Daniel Griffin, Ken S. McAllister, Ryan M. Moeller, and Judd Ethan Ruggill, “Computer Games Across the Curriculum: A Critical Review of an Emerging Techno-Pedagogy.” Currents in Electronic Literacy. (2010): n.pag. Web.
Hawisher, Gail E., and Cynthia L. Selfe. (eds). Gaming Lives in the Twenty-First Century: Literate Connections. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Johnson, and Rebekah Shultz Colby. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.9-24.
Holmevik, Jan, and Cynthia Haynes (eds). “2010: Gaming Across the Curriculum.” Currents in Electronic Literacy. (2010): n.pag. Web.
King, Matt. “Procedural Rhetorics – Rhetoric’s Procedures: Rhetorical Peaks and What It Means to Win the Game.” Currents in Electronic Literacy. (2010): n.pag. Web.
Morton, Keith. “Machinema-to-Learn.” Currents in Electronic Literacy. (2010): n.pag. Web.
Prior, Paul, and Jody Shipka. “Chronotopic Lamination: Tracing the Contours of Literate Activity Theory.” Writing Selves/Writing Societies. Eds. Charles Bazerman and David Russell. Fort Collins, Col: WAC Clearinghouse, 2003. 180-238.
Reed, Scott. “Stings and Scalpels.” Currents in Electronic Literacy. (2010): n.pag. Web.
Shipka, Jody. Toward a Composition Made Whole. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh P, 2011.
Shokrizade, Ramin. “The Top F2P Monetization Tricks.” Gamasutra. June 26, 2013. Web.
Skorka-Brown, Jessica, Jackie Andrade, and Jon May. “Playing Tetris Reduces the Strength, Frequency, and Vividness of Naturally Occuring Cravings.” Appetite. 76.1 (May 2014): 161-165.
Waggoner, Zachary (ed). Terms of Play: Essays on the Words that Matter in Videogame Theory. New York, NY: Macfarland, 2013.