Doug Eyman, the chair, introduced the panel (the full title being “Reading and Writing Virtual Realities”) by describing his excitment not just about writing about games in our composition courses, but about writing in games. In fact, Doug noted, one of the chief concerns of the panel was not just with reading games as texts, but with reading how games work and can work in writing instruction.
Stephanie Vie’s presentation was first. She described an activity she had developed for a tech writing course, based on the conventional and long-standing genre of writing a set of instructions. Many of us may be familiar with asking students to write a paper explaining how to make a peanut butter sandwich, or perform some similar task. Stephanie noted that many of her students are gamers, and so decided to ask them to work in groups to produce collaboratively-authored game walkthroughs that would instruct another group how to make it to a specific point in a game of their choice. The students chose games like Tomb Raider, Half Life, and Metal Gear Solid; ones that had interesting plots and characters and multiple ways of achieving certain objectives. Stephanie assigned them to groups of 3 or 4, and the groups’ first assignment was to figure out what point in the game to play to and how, specifically, to play the game. The method of gameplay was a specific requirement of the assignment: they couldn’t just play randomly, but had to choose whether to try to play most efficiently, to achieve the objective in the least amount of time, to amass the most points or kills or treasure or experience, or to complete specific in-game quests. Stephanie then had the students negotiate group dynamics in very particular ways, particularly given that some students were more skilled at the games and some less so, and that some were more interested and some less so.
So Stephanie assigned the roles of game-player, note-takers 1 and 2, and information seeker (the person who helps the player get un-stuck, looks up game FAQs, determines what types of puzzles the player’s facing, and so on), and each student was required to inhabit each of the four roles during the composition of the walkthrough. In composing the walkthrough, some students came to considerations of audience relatively late, and those considerations — or failures of consideration — emerged when other groups user-tested the walkthroughs: for example, one group failed to include in their instructions the keys that had to be used to control player movement, leaving their audience frustrated and unable to even begin playing the game. The group then realized they had been writing for themselves rather than others, revised their walkthrough, and user-tested again: in that sense, the assignment worked well for calling attention to audience, and the group negotiation of tasks, Stephanie suggested, was valuable.
Joanna Phillips then presented on “Thottbott.com and the Rhetorical Appeals.” She noted that students are often focused on improving their writing skills for the sake of writing papers rather than on learning how to transfer their writing skills to new environments, and she wanted to help students use what they learned in the composition classroom to adapt to new writing situations. So she posed two questions:
- What can we learn from the writing practices people engage in at Thotbott.com, a World of Warcraft (WoW) fan site with how-to instructions?
- How can those writing practices at Thottbott.com be harnessed for our classrooms?
To begin to answer the first question, she asked her students to look for the classical rhetorical appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos in the instructions for how to get through specific quests in the game. In particular, she looked at the Trial of the Sea Lion, a somewhat complex early-level quest (I think) in which the player has to find artifacts, follow instructions, and go to specific places. Her students did rhetorical analyses of the comments on the thottbott.com tutorial on how to get through the quest, focusing on experienced gamers’ extended comments on the tutorial, especially their sometimes insulting tone and language. There were arguments in the instruction over audience appropriateness, Joanna observed, and over which in-game factions or races the instructions were intended for. What she discovered, she said, was the need to be more careful in taking students through the terms associated with rhetorical analysis in more depth, and the need as well to work more on transferring critical thinking skills to new environments. For those reasons, she said, she wants to work on developing the assignment further.
Christopher Ritter began his presentation by asking: “How many of you are familiar with World of Warcraft?” Most hands went up. (Not mine. I mean, I know about it, but I don’t know it, in the sense of being familiar with it.) Often, Chris said (and as Joanna had pointed out before), one’s academic colleagues react derisively to the thought of asking students to engage games in class. In fact, though, there are good uses for WoW in class: it’s a rich space both socially and communicatively speaking, with a considerable volume of communication going on through typed chat as well as through gestures and fighting. The writing that goes on is affected by the gameplay’s constraints, but also by the evolving social constraints of the game. Game avatars are divided into 12 races, with the races divided between two competing factions, the Alliance and the Horde, and the factions can’t write to each other, form groups with each other, or trade with each other. This division produces in-game racist rhetoric that, as Chris showed, becomes easily conflated with real-world racism, as in a chat transcript where crude or objectionable remarks about the undead or gnome races were mixed with ugly comments about illegal mexicans and what it means to be black. As interesting as this transcript was, though, I confess I struggled to comprehend the argument Chris was making and its applicability to the writing classroom.
Finally, Phill Alexander was virtually present, projected on the screen in his in-game avatar form with glowing eyes, pointy ears, big muscles, and fearsome-looking weapons and armor. He began by noting Blizzard Software’s April 1 introduction of the new Bard class for WoW that obviously owed a debt to avatars from the game Guitar Hero: the humor of the prank, Phill explained, was in the crossing of genres from Guitar Hero, a music/rhythm game, to WoW, a MMORPG. Genre is as important to games as it is to the other texts we work with, and Phill used the work of Amy Devitt, Carolyn Miller, and Jacques Derrida to elaborate upon that importance. WoW, he asserted, exists in a set of nested genres: fantasy or swords-and-sorcery texts, MMORPGs, and the Warcraft universe — and anything that happens in the game is affected by those three genres. Furthermore, those three genres also affect the four genres of writing associated with the game. Those genres of writing are as follows:
- Extra-game writing, like fanfiction.
- Socialization, like making friends, learning game basics, and chatting for entertainment.
- Networking or task preparation, like forming teams, formulating strategies, and assigning roles.
- Mission and combat, either in role-playing mode or in chat mode, like following your team-assigned role (e.g., being a tank or a heal-bot) and establishing or solidifying that role.
Phill’s genre analysis was thoughtful and compelling, and pointed to a rhetorical complexity that I anticipate — somewhat like Joanna and Chris — many people wouldn’t be initially inclined to ascribe to video games, and I can see how asking students to attend to this complexity might be an engaging task.
At the same time, part of me is sympathetic to the concerns of those who aren’t sure about the pedagogical value of teaching with video games, and these were concerns that Doug, Joanna, Chris, and Phill all explicitly acknowledged. Certainly, we know that a significant component of the reason people become literature professors is that they like to read good books, and I don’t think any gaming scholars would deny that part of the appeal of what they do is that they get to investigate something that they like doing — and, in fact, they get investigate its complex and intellectually engaging aspects. The point of contention, I guess, is over reasons for bringing it into the classroom. I can see a games studies course as a cultural studies course, certainly. But what is the compelling argument for the connection between games studies and composition? What does game studies as an area of scholarly inquiry help us teach writing students to do that other areas of scholarly inquiry cannot do? There was some discussion of this in the Q&A, particularly in the concerns expressed about colonizing our students’ culture and appropriating it into a school genre, but I’d be curious to hear from the game scholars out there: why are games important to writing?