Why Game-Based Pedagogy? (Nov 30, 2015)

Disclaimer: This was the first piece I wrote about game-based pedagogy back in 2015. Since writing this post, and creating this new site, I have not yet updated this. Many of my ideas are the same, but the rationales, projects, and readings on the subject have improved. A new post will be published in the summer of 2018.

Original Post: https://thinkinginplay.wordpress.com/2015/11/30/why-game-based-pedagogy/

My current research has to do with game-based pedagogy, or typically called gamification, in which I engage college freshmen in 100 level composition classes with a multiplayer classroom built on gaming concepts and principles. This interest started a few years ago when I started to brainstorm ideas of how to get students more invested in their education while also being able to reach out to different style learners. At this point in time, I didn’t know that gamification was a thing, but many of the ideas I had (using experience points and issuing classes) were already being used in classrooms around the country. As I started to research this idea, I found that most iterations of game-based pedagogy were very surface level concepts and didn’t sound like a substantial teaching method. As I kept researching, I came across an Ian Bogost blog post called, “Gamification is Bullshit,” and I started to question how both academics and corporations were using gaming concepts. This set me onto a quest that has lead me to this point. Here, you will find how I have reimagined game-based pedagogy for the composition classroom.

Although I am still somewhat new to game-based pedagogy, I have linked gaming and rhetorical concepts together in my composition classes at Eastern Michigan University (WRTG 120 & WRTG121) and have recently presented at the Michigan Council of Teachers of English Conference and the WIDE-EMU Conference at Michigan State University, and I will be presenting at CUNY’s Game Fest in January 2016. Under the direction of Dr. Derek Mueller at Eastern Michigan University’s first year writing program, I have adapted my composition class into a multiplayer role-playing classroom, mixing gaming concepts with rhetoric and composition studies in game-based pedagogy with success. Some of what is discussed here may make more sense if you visit my course website: Game of Comp.

Before I get into the specifics of my course, I want to make it clear why I choose to use game-based pedagogy (GBP) instead of gamification. I use GBP instead of gamification or gamified classroom to emphasize the pedagogy and gaming elements instead of the “–ification” that signifies something formulaic that cheapens the pedagogy. This idea is partially inspired by the thoughts of Ian Bogost’s “Gamification is Bullshit,” where he discusses the shallow corporate model of gamification that uses very few, usually poorly thought out, gaming concepts to amplify engagement. Gamification definitely rolls off the tongue a little smoother, and there is a strong community of educators that rally behind gamification, but until I am more interested in the investment of GBP than the entertainment factor, so I will stick with GBP for the time being.

Game-Based Pedagogy

Inspired by Lee Sheldon’s book The Multiplayer Classroom, I started to do research into serious GBP. Through a mix of research and experience playing video games, I came up with nine key components of GBP: investment (engagement), identity, choice, exposition, reward, collaboration, flexibility, challenge, and reflection. Though several of these components are interdependent, all components must be present in order for students to completely invest into the game-based classroom. To explain how these components are present in the pedagogy, I will briefly explain each.

Investment (engagement). One of the first aspects of GBP and gamification discussed is engagement. I prefer to use the term investment, because it covers both the instructor and students’ investment into the classroom. After hearing several instructors attempt to discuss engagement, I started to ask how it was measured. Most have answered with, “attendance and homework submissions are up,” but I don’t think that is the best way to measure a student’s investment in a course with choice and flexibility as core principles. GBP takes a serious commitment in order for learning to be successful, something the term engagement undercuts significantly.

Identity. The first assignment my students undertake is to create an avatar that will represent themselves in the class/game for the rest of the semester. I preface the assignment with a discussion on identity and how the avatar can be any sex, style, or race they desire, and that the class will serve as a safe environment for all students and avatars. Being represented by avatars allows for the instructor to discuss leaderboards without giving away the actual identity of the students as well as a way of being accepting of identity choices.

Choice. In games, players are always left with a choice, whether it be to take action against a foe, to choose a level or mission, or approach to a challenge. In the classroom, students are often left with little to no choice, but in the game-based classroom, choice is the core of the pedagogy. Students can select their classification (warrior, bard, ranger, or mage); what quests to complete based on potential experience points and gold; how to approach a quest, and whether to attend a session (class). Allowing the student to see aspects of the classroom as choices gives them a stronger identity they can actively choose to embody.

Exposition. When I was trying to come up with an all-encompassing term for narrative elements of the class, I came across Scott Nicholson’s term exposition. In his article, “A RECIPE for Meaningful Gamification,” he explains the narrative elements of game-base pedagogy as: “the development of a meaningful narrative element, and the presentation of that narrative element to the player.” The narrative element of the course is imperative to show the transfer of learned skills, knowledge, and experience from chapter to chapter (units) as well as onto other courses and games.

Reward. Gamers would not risk failure and engage in challenges if there was no reward to claim at the end. Similarly, incremental rewards are important for investment in the classroom. Lee Sheldon states, “a player is always gaining [experience points] when he is victorious. This way of looking at achievement has something to teach us educators. Letter grades – the way we align them as penalties for failure – and how our educational system focuses on achievement learning can hinder student progress” (43). I found that reward in the form of in-game currency as well as experience points is important to keep students invested in the outcome of the class.

Collaboration. Not all iterations of the game-based classroom uses collaboration, but some do in the form of guilds, another link to Lee Sheldon’s incorporation of massive multiplayer online games in the classroom. Allowing the students to work together in role oriented guilds, encourages collaboration among the students that allows gifting of items and in-game currency to other players, among other shared efforts, creating a dynamic of companionship that is not always seen in a normal classroom setting. In their guilds, they write performance reviews after alpha and beta testing (peer review) to ensure accountability, as well as an evaluation of performance in guild projects.

Flexibility. In order to enable the other primary criteria, the GBP must be flexible, both for the instructor and the students. Since the course is intricate by design and requires ample preparation and planning, it seems unforgiving. However, like any game, the course must be well established, but flexible to adhere to the demands and needs of the students. The instructor is expected to be reactionary to the students’ needs, adding and eliminating quests and requirements for raids when needed, as well as support bonus quests for additional learning and experience points. The students need to figure out their identity in the game and how to navigate the rules and structures in play to optimize their learning.

Challenge. The challenging nature of games is what keeps players invested in order to earn rewards, however, the nature of the coursework does not have to be the only challenging aspect of the game-based classroom. The implementation of leaderboards for individuals as well as guilds makes the competition in the classroom more rewarding than a traditional class as students compete for a spot on the top five to earn extra in-game currency and experience. To ensure collaboration, I made my classroom leaderboards have rewards that can be gifted to other students which has resulted in mentorship among top-ranked and bottom-ranked students.

Reflection. Rhetorically, reflection is one of the more important principles in the composition classroom. In gaming, reflection is just as important. Since it is through reflection that we learn what strategies worked and how we can improve, I encourage reflection in the classroom through fast writes as well as debriefs on projects and bug reports on group testing of games in development. This reflection helps reinforce skills learned throughout the course, and allows the student to reflect on failures in order to readjust strategies to approach future problems. Additionally, it is important for the instructor to reflect on the pedagogy, so I have implemented quarterly surveys in the classroom to allow the students to reflect on the pedagogy as well as content of the course. These surveys aid in adjusting course materials to better align with outcomes, as well as give insight into what features of the game-based classroom work better than others.

Course Resources

Most of the research on GBP encouraged instructors of all levels to move towards software such as GradeCraft from the University of Michigan, Rezzly (3DGameLab), Virtual Locker, and ClassCraft to increase the level of engagement in the classroom as well as streamline the needed components for GBP to work. I take issue with these software installations at the college level for one important reason: alienation. At Eastern Michigan University, the student body is socioeconomically diverse, and due to this important principle at our institution, there is an inconsistency of technology ownership and skill among our students, making it near impossible to implement a game-based classroom with these technologies without alienating a large student body. Instead of pushing this burden on the students, I have elected to move towards an instructional method involving a simple Weebly website which hosts all the quest, raid, and class session information needed to succeed in the course. If one of the fundamentals of GBP is to encourage investment and participation, I find it counterintuitive to implement software and technology that in turn becomes exclusionary.

Gaming and Kairotic Opportunity

In addition to just modeling the course after gaming principles, we also study the link between gaming and rhetoric. I link my course to the three common rhetorical principles (ethos, pathos, and logos), but I also introduced my students to kairos and metanoia in order to link gaming and composition. Nearly all composition and speech classes at Eastern Michigan University address ethos, pathos, and logos, but these concepts don’t address timeliness and opportunity, something I believe is immensely important to writing, especially outside of academia. Using Kelly Meyers’ research on kairos and metanoia, I make the connection of timeliness, opportunity, and reflection after missed opportunity to talk about failure and success in gaming as well as composition.

In her essay “Metanoia and the Transformation of Opportunity,” Kelly A. Myers explains how it is more than just the guilt that follows a missed opportunity, but ”an active emotional state in which reflection, revelation, and transformation occur and thus expand the opportunities available in the concept of kairos” (“Metanoia” 2). Kairos may be a swift moment that is easily missed, but metanoia “can be engaged in as a process, one in which reflection leads to recognition” of the missed opportunity, resulting in probable change (“Metanoia” 8). Myers explains in her dissertation, “Changes of Mind and Heart: Navigating Emotion in an Expanded Theory of Kairos,” that seizing metanoia could be a conscious decision that is planned in advance to enter the inopportune which requires “an expanded notion of metis and the kairotic moment, one in which there are a variety of viable paths” (“Changes” 188). This inopportune, which she refers to as akairos, invokes emotions, such as fear, confusion, or anger.

I first came across metanoia in Kelly Meyers’s piece, and found it to be relevant to my interests in gaming and rhetoric. In gaming, this missed opportunity can range from a mistimed jump onto a platform to bringing the wrong gear into a battle, all requiring the gamer to reflect on their failure. These failures don’t necessarily have to be catastrophic endings to the narrative of a gamer’s session, however, the missed opportunity, only if acknowledged, can be internalized and analyzed in order to approach a similar situations differently in the next engagement. Oftentimes the choices to be made in a game are complex and incremental, but missing an opportunity allows the gamer to re-vision and re-act (for further reading, click here). Similarly in writing, if the writer reflects on their writing to acknowledge missed opportunities (I’m purposefully not using the word failure), they can see how to approach a similar situation (genre) differently in the future. The reflection process can tie directly into the invention process for future projects, making the metanoic process recursive, instead of end oriented. I require a reflection letter (debrief) from my students after each raid (three in total), as well as a final “bug report” for the entire course, so reflection and invention are repeated throughout the course.

Defining Rule-Based Systems

Using Jesper Juul’s definition of a game from his article, “The Game the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness,” I am exploring gaming and composition based off of Juul’s six criteria that make up a game: “A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable” (35). Using his definition, I have been able to explore rule-based systems and participatory events through the lenses of composition and gaming. After making the systems explicit, issues of agency and subjectivity arise. As a class, we have mapped each criteria onto an aspect of the course and the rule-based systems of writing. After making these aspects of writing and the institution of education explicit through these criteria, many students felt better prepared to approach their education due to the different framing.

Studies in agency all revolve around the idea that “an ability, power, or authority [can] be possessed by a subject or subjects” (Accardi 2). In writing studies, it “suggests a writer is a rational individual, capable of inventing ideas autonomously and pursuing an intention to engage or provoke an audience” (Accardi 2). Helen Ewald and David Wallace take a posthumanist perspective in writing studies and believe agency is not possessed, but instead constructed in the situation (qtd. In Accardi 3). In another posthumanist study, Carolyn Miller suggests a “decentering of the subject-the death of the author//agent-signals a crisis for agency, or perhaps more accurately, for rhetoric, since traditional rhetoric requires the possibility for influence that agency entails” (143). Both humanist and posthumanist theories debate how students, and gamers alike, possess agency and engage with subjectivity, explored more thoroughly by Marilyn M. Cooper.

Cooper, in her article “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted,” explains that agency is “interpellated, a role they can perform or a node they can occupy temporarily” which ties into Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (423). Thinking through gaming and composition as a network in a rule-based system, we can see that the player/student’s “actions are inevitably structured by the very norms that it attempts to resist” (424). Cooper explains agency in this context “as the process through which organisms create meanings through acting into the world and changing their structure in response to the perceived consequences of their actions” (426). To better understand agency, I want to explore Collin Brooke’s research on ecologies, as well as Latour’s Actor-Network Theory. If I can better articulate the connectivity in my game-based pedagogy I believe I can make better connections between rhetorical principles and composition/gaming studies.

Wrapping Up

This is just a tease of what I have been researching over the past year, but I am reaching out into new theories and reading new approaches to game-based pedagogy all the time. I want to further explore these ideas of agency, subjectivity, and connectivity in relation with composition and gaming, hopefully in a well-supported PhD program. I think I have synthesized a lot of what is currently out there for GBP, however, I know a lot more tinkering must be done.

Thank you for reading through some of my research. If you have any questions or concerns, I would love for you to start up a conversation. Reach out to me at cstuart7@emich.edu or christuartmail@gmail.com.

Selected Works Cited

Accardi, Steven. “Agency.” Ed. Paul Heilker and Peter Vandenberg. Keywords in Writing Studies. 1st ed. Boulder: Utah State UP, 2015. 1-5. Print.

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010. Print.

Juul, Jesper. The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. 1st Edition, 1st Printing edition. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2013. Print.

Cooper, Marilyn M. “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted.” College Composition and Communication 62.3 (2011): 420-49. Web.

Juul, Jesper. “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness”. Level Up:

Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings Ed. Marinka Copier and Joost

Raessens (2003): 30-45. Web. Oct 2015.

Kinneavy, James L. “Kairos in Classical and Modern Rhetorical Theory.” Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis. Ed. Phillip Sipiora and James S. Baumlin. Albany, NY: State U of New York, 2002. 58-76. Print.

Miller, Carolyn R. “What Can Automation Tell Us about Agency?” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 37.2 (2007): 137-57. JSTOR. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.

Myers, Kelly A. “Changes of Mind and Heart: Navigating Emotion in an Expanded Theory of

Kairos.” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2008. Web.

—. “Metanoia and the Transformation of Opportunity.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 41.1 (2011): Web. Oct 2015.

Nicholson, S. (Forthcoming). A RECIPE for Meaningful Gamification. To be published in Wood, L & Reiners, T., eds. Gamification in Education and Business, New York: Springer. Available online at http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/recipepreprint.pdf

Sheldon, Lee. The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game. 1 edition. Austrailia ; Boston, Mass: Cengage Learning PTR, 2011. Print.

Sicart, Miguel. Play Matters. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2014. Print.

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