1UP: Perspectives from Scholars/Practitioners of Video Games

1UP: Perspectives from Scholars/Practitioners of Video Games (CCCC 2006 Chicago — Day 1)

I arrived early at this session and spent some time reconnecting with Matt Barton, whom I know from previous conferences. Barton is working on a book on graphic adventure games, and gave me some suggestions on what I might do with my interactive fiction work. I really enjoy his work on Armchair Arcade.

Another early arrival was Matthew S. S. Johnson, a dyed-in-the-wool narratologist. I told him that Jesper Juul, whose dissertation slammed interactive fiction and the mythology surrounding it, has moderated his position in his new book, Half Real, which works towards integrating narratology and ludology.

The three of us discussed our hopes that the CCCC video gaming community, which is just beginning to form, will last.

The first speaker, Alice Robinson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke on, “What Videogame Designers Can Teach Writing Instructors.” She works under James Gee. She began with some statistics from a recent Pew study demonstrating how pervasive computer games are in mainstream popular culture. Since students are often casually gaming in one window while they are doing homework in another window, Robinson discussed the relationship between what happens in the brain when one plays a game, and what happens in the brain when one writes a composition. Finishing a four-hour session with Civ IV involves reviewing the charts and data that the game displays as part of the end-of-game debriefing. She touched on the “embodied cognition” aspect of video games, which I presume refers to the fact that people learn in many ways, and that the direct manipulation of the simulated environment ties into our hard-wired system that lets us learn through interaction with the real world. Robinson noted that good games have a “design grammar,” and compared the “designer/player” relationship to the “teacher/student” and “reader/writer” relationship. All the theory that identifies positive ways that the teacher/student and reader/writer dichotomy can interact with each other and enrich our understanding of texts, the designer/player relationship is perhaps even more suited to helping us understand the many positive ways that that barrier is transgressed (I’m using my own words here – she is going very quickly through the introductory material.) Her research involves interviewing professional game designers. She spoke positively about the connections between creating a world and teaching; notes that designers are interested in the metaskills their players develop. [But when I attended the Serious Games summit, it was very clear that the “fun vs. pedagogy” debate was alive and kicking, with the designers feeling pushed around by the authority that serious games projects gives to the curriculum designer.] that writers often fail many times, and games can help motivate us to try again.

Mark Mullen, from The George Washington University, presented “Designs on the Future: Student-Authored Game Design Documents in the First-Year Writing Class” looked at student-authored design documents (including help files). He taught a course called, “I’m Game: Exploring the Art, Science and Economics of Electronic Games,” as part of a first-year writing and research course, and spoke of it as a pre-disciplinary critical thinking course. (A little later he spoke of it as a technical writing course, and contrasted it to the literary analysis one finds in most other writing courses.) One of the two sections of this course was entirely female, the other was with two exceptions all male. While about 45% of women acknowledge playing games, women wouldn’t consider Solitaire or Freecell as “games,” when the dominant cultural paradigm for “computer games” involves combat and killing. The students also developed the criteria they used to evaluate their own assignments. All the students played American MaGee’s Alice, a nightmare version of Alice in Wonderland. Students developed a group contract, a design treatment, a “pitch meeting,” prep of the final draft, and the students scored each other’s proposals based on the criteria they had set up. AR2076 – a “horrifically violent” first-person shooter proposed by three women. Players had to recover each of the 10 original amendments in the Bill of Rights, and each level was themed on each of the original amendments. Bringing George Washington back from the dead to spew wooden teeth, etc. In writing classes, we only ask students to do simulation activities… asking them to create a design document pushed them beyond that paradigm. “Some of the best writing I’ve seen freshmen produce, bar none.”

Matthew S. S. Johnson, of Indiana University Bloomington: “Revisiting Rivalry: Computer Game Competition as an Invention Strategy.” (Matthew, do you have a home page?) The competitive spirit of gamers can encourage and inspire in online environments. Johnson noted that in the last 20 years, rhetoricians have lauded motions away from competition and “victor and vanquished,” towards a more nurturing model. But in MMORPGs, the competition is not the point – the point is personal improvement; such a game never “ends,” so nobody is ever a “loser.” All those who keep playing keep improving. Competition is seen as negative because of the victor/vanquished dichotomy; Johnson notes that there is joy, forgiveness, strength, action, and nobility in computer games. Competitive elements in MORGs are in the background, motivating characters, while players write to each other in forums, blogs, walkthroughs, guides, etc. The gamer community includes a way for players to give feedback to modders, whether feedback to aid in revision, or a review intended for other potential players. Mod contributors compete with other modders, but they also benefit. Collaboration is not opposed to competition; can serve as a valuable incentive to discuss and write.

Matthew Barton turned the discussion over to the audience of about 10. “Why are you here?”

The first comment from the audience was from a 1st year comp teacher at Fresno State Calif; he says that video games are legitimate texts that have been “completely ignored, almost to the point of humiliation, by academia,” and praised CCCC for scheduling such a session.

Another audience member said he was interested in methodology. “We want to teach them to look at things critically,” and was using for methods to integrate games rather than just show video clips. [I should look up Kurt Squire’s dissertation, on games in education.]

I piped up to invite attendees to look up “New Games Journalism,” and recommended “Bow, Nigger.” (Obviously, there’s offensive language on the other end of that link.)

Samantha Blackmon Somebody sitting near Samantha Blackmon mentioned her research on Second Life, and strongly recommended the wikis being written by gamers.

Another speaker says she has used games in intermediate comp classes. She says some students say they don’t really play games. [Chatter from the audience: I’m not a gamer, but… I’m not a writer, but… I’m not a feminist, but…] Her focus is on rhetorical representations of otherness in video games. (Race, gender, and sexual orientation.) Robinson asked this speaker to comment on what to do when the public expects all research on games to focus on the media effects, particularly on children. “Try to move them away from, ‘This is evil, and it must die.’” [Mullen’s ornery response: “Why are you so afraid of your children?”]

While everyone hadn’t yet had the chance to speak, Barton noted the time was nearly up, so we shifted briefly into strategizing mode, as group members ponder the challenges we will face from colleagues who don’t see videogames
as legitimate.

When the event broke up, those of us who hadn’t made other plans met up with Charlie Lowe and Bradley Bleck, and went out to get some Chicago pizza. (I could’ve used a third slice, but Brad looked very, very hungry.)

IMG_0768.JPGThe dress code at CCCCs varies. Matthew S. S. Johnson looks like The Man (though the pastel tie and the ponytail work against that image). Matthew Barton said the shirt he didn’t bring was even geekier:

load “*”,8,1

I’m proud to say I’m geek enough to recognize that as a Commodore 64 command. (Back then, we didn’t need no steenkin’ icons.)