Videogames in Composition & Rhetoric

Ditch the reader and have students purchase a choice game or two, or perhaps an anthology of classic games (which are also available for free). Have students play games and reflect on their experience rather than work with print texts. I would like to say to an incoming class, “We won’t be reading any novels in this class. We don’t be doing any reading, as a matter of fact. Instead, we’re going to play videogames.” Is this insane? —Matt BartonVideogames in Composition & Rhetoric (KairosNews)

Er… yes.

While I agree that it’s not necessary to read novels in order to learn freshman composition, students have to read essays if they are being asked to write essays.

I’d say about half of college students consider themselves “gamers,” though many of those who don’t say they used to play games. If there’s a meaningful selection process, by which students can select a section with an emphasis that appeals to them, then a games-focused freshman comp course sounds wonderful.

In passing, Matt suggests that Quake could help students learn how to drive the Martian rover. The distance between Earth and Mars results in such a great time delay (about 20 minutes) that the skills one develops in a twitch game really wouldn’t help much. Chess would probably be better (as it forces you to see multiple alternatives and plan ahead for them).

But, as Matt notes, the purpose of a rhet/comp course is not to train people for specific jobs. I think he’s much closer to the target when he mentions political simulations and other ideological games. I also like his observation that there is a demand for slide presentation skills, but that we aren’t doing a very good job teaching those skills.

While my school requires all students to demonstrate basic PowerPoint skills, I actively discourage slide shows in my classes, since I find them typically to be of such low quality and I haven’t the time to teach how to use a slide presentation effectively. I’ll be teaching a “Writing for the Internet” course this fall again… maybe that will be the right place to tackle this issue.

I felt one paragraph called for a more detailed response:

Perhaps videogames are the last tool available to modern compositionists that can actually inspire students to learn to write. Of course we could allow students to “play games” with the texts they produce, constructing choose your own adventures. I see things on a deeper level; teach programming (or at least a game making software tool) so that students may express themselves in the language of their generation.

The last tool? No, just the latest tool. And all that is playful is not games… that is, “playing games” with existing works of literature is completely different from what goes on when you interact with a computer game.

The narratological approach that Matt uses makes a great deal of sense in the particular branch of computer games that I study, namely interactive fiction. But I think it’s probably too much, at this point, to ask the average student to learn a computer programming language and construct a game in a freshman comp course. At an engineering school? Sure! But at a liberal arts school? Sadly, no.

See also a recent blog conversation under “Theory vs. Craft in Computer Game Studies.” Both kinds of scholarship are important, and I did spend one day introducing my upper-level English students to IF programming, but these were juniors and seniors, whom I could assume had already mastered the basic reading and writing skills that a freshman comp course is supposed to give them. But “user mods” and the “remix culture” are certainly valid and important topics to address, in terms of the attitude of today’s youth towards the dissemination of intellectual property, and the open source philosophy (of which Matt is a devoted supporter).

A college writing class is a good place to get students to think about their own creation of intellectual property. And having a freshman comp class create and peer review wiki articles may be a useful way to get them to think about the function (and limitations) of peer review.

If videogames have not yet risen to the elite status of famous novels, it is no fault of videogames, but rather money-hungry developers, narrow-minded players, and traditionalist literary critics unwilling to replace their pen with a joystick.

Don’t forget the importance of the cult of the author as celebrity. Modern videogames may be inspired by brilliant designers, but they are products of huge committees of highly-specialized workers and outsourced labor — including many people who have no narrative skills at all, and whose daily activities aren’t in the slightest comparable to what a novelist does. The people who do this work have to feed their families, so naturally a huge commercial videogame project is going to follow the corporate model.

Matt’s doing some important work getting people to talk about the issues. He’s not yet at the fist-shaking, “Fools! I shall crush them all!” stage, which is probably good for society in general.

I agree with him whole-heartedly when he writes the following:

It is of utmost importance that we teach people to see a videogame with the same critical apparatus they bring to bear on poems, novels, screenplays, and films.

You bet. But replacing the reader with videogames? That’s going too far.

It seems that what we really need is a reader, geared towards college freshmen, that covers videogames intelligently — along with reality TV, “cool hunting,” weblogs, text messaging, and other cultural practices that our students know well.