Technology, Play and Pedagogy: Video Gaming and New Literacies

Technology, Play and Pedagogy: Video Gaming and New Literacies (CCCC 2006 Chicago — Day 2)

As is always the case with a conference blogging exercise, these are my rough notes, typed as the speakers were talking, and lightly edited in my hotel room at the end of the day.

Matthew S. S. Johnson, Indiana University, Bloomington: “Communities in Playspace: Writing and Democracy in Online Communities.”

(I arrived a bit late… I’m going to ask Johnson to send me a copy of his paper so I can do it justice. He says that in the part I missed, he mostly went over composition theory, which is sort of presumed to be a priori knowledge at this conference, though there is only so much of the literary theory in which I was trained that translates into the world of rhetcomp. Thus, I wouldn’t mind seeing what Johnson sees is important for laying the groundwork for the use of video game culture in the writing classroom. But since I heard him speak last night and went to dinner with him afterwards, I think I can piece it together reasonably well.)

Johnson was discussing the unique design model of Seed. Developers aren’t stopping their work once the game is released. They will continue to develop the game based on the decisions made by the players. The more players choose a certain mode of interaction (in this game, which has no single conclusion), the more likely the developers will go in that direction.

Johnson also noted the fact that the developers of “Oblivion” courted and encouraged fans to give suggestions for where the previous incarnations of The Elder Scrolls fell short.

Many developers are providing web kits that permit players to make fan sites easily. Gaming corporations do this to garner interest in the games, and even maintain some sense of control over those websites. But the consumers produce fan fiction and other related texts that enhance and build upon the gaming experience. That mass of fan-produced writing does influence the designers as they create the next iteration of the product.

Programmers stand by waiting to see what players will do, and the player actions (in the game and in the writing they do about the game) forms a feedback loop.

Gaming communities create openings that are potential merger points for compositions.

Erin Smith, Michigan Technological University. “Semiotic Domains Reloaded: Literacy and Localization in Video Games.”

An excerpt from a longer work in a publcation edited by Cynthia Selfe and Gail Havisher, with chapters co-written by scholars and gamers. Gee’s What Video Games Have To Teach Us about Language and Learning presents literacy as a social practice. We need different literacies to function in different semiotic domains. Video games, for Gee, are marked with certain characteristics, shaped by the internal and external design grammar. Within the game world, learners test their cognitive models. Video games provide an environment that can foster active learning.

The game industry provides an extraordinary example of Jameson’s claims about global communication forces. Exemplifies the logic, strategies, and contradictions of a force striving to balance global reach and local appeal. To what extent can we lay claim to cultural information in the world of the game, without considering broader contexts. Sony coined “global localism” rather than forcing local cultures to adapt to global culture. Can range from making sure you have the local slang right, to completely re-writing the narrative. Microsoft has a “geopolitical product strategy team” that pays attention to cultural factors that affect the way their products might be received.

Game developers design game from the outside, with localization in mind. Plot lines that would require too much revision to be localized in other cultures, may be scrapped, or only released locally.

Gee: cultural models are images, storylines, or metaphor that we recognize as “normal.” They remain invisible to us unless we are challenged. For instance, most military games penalize players for killing civilians, but in a game whose name I didn’t catch, settlers are considered combatants, and may be shot without penalty.

Quoted a scholar (the name sounded like “EE woo BOO key”) who notes that Japanese electronic products don’t carry a “cultural odor” that leads consumers to associate those products with Japaneseness. Schoolchildren perceive Japan as “cool” because it created Pokemon, but Japanese computer games and other characters don’t look Japanese. There’s a term for the non-Japaneseness of these characters. (Smith didn’t spell it, so I won’t even try to reproduce it here.)

Referred to a student, Eve, who wrote to the author of David Freedman, Creating Emotions in Games, to challenge his reading of Final Fantasy X. “You stray so far from the reality of the game that it makes me wonder whether you were playing it blindfolded with earplugs.” Eve has a “culturally aware” position, quotes from details in the gameplay in order to defend her critique of Freedman.

Differences in the Japanese voice acting and the American voice acting. The original team’s work on the Japanese game “could have been blown to hell” by a bad translation or a radically different voice interpretation.

If we’re going to start bringing games into the classroom, contextualize them, and it will serve our literacy goals more fully if we do.

During the Q & A, an audience member asked about the idea that the Japanese are using their electronic products to represent themselves culturally as westernized, that therefore their products do have a “cultural odor.”

Alice Robinson, University of Wisconsin Madison. “Videogame Design as a Writing Process.”

Works with Jim Gee. Robinson’s goal is to determine designer intent. Do designers intend the active critical learning results that researchers note when they study gamers?

Gunther Kress, “Design shapes the future through production.” Design is a cognitively higher activity than critique, which looks backward at a text.

As a linguist, Gee looks at rule systems. The “internal design grammar” is a “complex system of interrelated parts meant to engage and even manipulate the player in certain ways.” You have to go beyond the internal design grammar if you ever want to get good at the game, and reach for the external design grammar. Players become readers of the IRD, but also a writer, since nothing happens unless you do something first. Players are demanding a lot more from game designers, demanding more from their interactive experiences with games as texts. Genre molding, mixing genres is part of the future of games.

Robinson repeated the designer/player, writer/reader, teacher/student slide that was a central part of her SIG presentation last night. Her research focus separates designers from marketers, artists, sound engineers, etc.

Quotes from one designer shows he is thinking very clearly about what people say, in a social environment, about the games they played. I think the audience responded meaningfully when Robinson invited us to imagine what our own authorship process would be like if we thought first and foremost about what our readers will say to each other. Paraphrasing the designer’s goal, Robinson said, “I want students [probably Robinson’s Freudian slip for “players” … speaking energetically from notes, she actually made this substitution several times] to have memories about playing my games, and I design my game to create those memories.”

The designer is not creating individual activities, but rather the environment. Killing a dragon is an isolated task, much like doing a worksheet. The task itself is part of a larger problem-solving effort. Designers want players to outsmart them.

[I like how
Robinson moves back and forth between the designer/player relationship and the teacher/student relationship. I wonder if “problem solver” makes sense.]

If the end statement is “I can’t believe you can set everything on fire!” that means something different from putting a flamethrower in the game. In curriculum design, starting with “I want students to write a research paper” is akin to putting a flamethrower in a game.

In response to my question about the function of pedagogy in game design, she admitted that she is focusing on “the most progressive designers,” whose games are instantiations of the new literacy studies theories.

During the Q & A, Cynthia Selfe expressed concern that English teachers are “going to muck it up.” She thought about that phrase, and came up with instead the delightfully oxymoronic notion that we will “muck it up” because we, as English teachers, “tidy up” the genres that we pull into the classroom. She encouraged us to think about this genre as the students’ space, and encouraged us to respect this genre and learn from the students.

Johnson noted that he’s very careful about writing about the gaming communities that he doesn’t participate in, so that he doesn’t “take the data” that belongs to the game world.