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Computer Games Across the Curriculum: A Critical Review of an Emerging Techno-Pedagogy

In helping students become critically engaged in the world and able to communicate effectively, instructors invariably teach a variety of literacies in any classroom. Such literacies include written, verbal, critical – even visual and technological literacies – and thus instructors do more than simply help students learn how to "write good research papers" or "create clear lab reports." Indeed, instructors embody that part of the modern university that opens up "access to participation in public forms of communication . . . [and imparts] understandings of and the abilities to produce culturally valued texts" (Kress 67).

Computer games are increasingly among these texts, for the medium teaches multiple things in multiple ways, including the multiple forms of literacy that have long been the domain of composition classrooms (see, for example, the WPA Outcomes Statement). As James Paul Gee explains, "games are potentially particularly good places where people can learn to situate meanings through embodied experiences in a complex semiotic domain and meditate on the process" (26). This is especially true in the composition classroom: students can read, analyze, and write about the medium; study game artifacts as material objects within a critical cultural pedagogy; develop personalized game narratives with the help of computer game toolsets; write technical walk-throughs; and so on. Like all computerized technologies, however, computer games are neither neutral nor determining (Feenberg). They are imbued with numerous ideologies that are both purposefully and accidentally made invisible for the sake of compelling play.

To understand this nexus of pedagogical possibility and ideological richness, it is helpful to reflect on the techno-enthusiasm that dominated the field of computers and composition in the 1980s. As Sibylle Gruber notes, "Techno-enthusiastic scholars focused mainly on the positive impact computers would have on writing instruction, without being overly concerned with the complex issues involved when promoting new technologies for the classroom" (17). This very much echoes Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe’s 1991 warning and censure to all composition instructors: "writing instructors incorporate computers into their classes without the necessary scrutiny and careful planning that the use of any technology requires" (55). There is good reason to recall both techno-enthusiasm of the past and Hawisher and Selfe’s warning: not only are computer games ideologically-laden virtual environments over which instructors have little control, but even the most basic games require expensive pieces of machinery to run and the medium is often perceived by students and faculty alike as a toy or distraction. Games also depend upon fun, which is notoriously difficult to define, let alone assess. Instructors wanting to use games in the classroom thus potentially face a fair bit of resistance from students, faculty, and administrators.

This article analyzes some of the prominent problems that computer games exacerbate in the classroom. We draw upon our collective experiences teaching with games in writing and communication classrooms, and document the challenges we have faced in terms of funding, access, resistance, lesson planning and assessment, and ethics. We analyze the reasons certain challenges arise and offer strategies for anticipating, recognizing, and addressing these challenges. The purpose of this article is not to dampen enthusiasm for game-based pedagogy, however; we very much encourage using the medium because of its ability to teach both overtly and covertly. Rather, this article is meant more as a cautionary meditation: even though games are fun, they are not always fun to teach with.[1]



Researching and teaching with games can be a relatively expensive endeavor. Off-the-shelf games cost, on average, around $50, and generally require specialized machinery such as a console or high-end PC to run. Even if an institution already has the requisite platform, computer labs tend to be very carefully administered. It is not uncommon for instructors to face an uphill battle just to install a game in one of these labs, let alone teach with it.

Teachers interested in developing their own learning games have the additional problem of finding the money to pay faculty, research assistants, graphic artists, musicians, computer programmers, project managers, and other personnel needed take a game from concept to completion. Research and scholarship on games can likewise be costly because new games released for desktop computers tend not to run well (if at all) on older technology; this means that institutions must frequently reinvest in the latest hardware and maintain technical support personnel who can keep that hardware's drivers and software patches updated.

Yet game researchers are among the first to recognize the difficulties inherent in securing funds to pursue research projects that use words such as "play" or "game" as prominent concepts within their proposals. As Geoffrey Rockwell explains, "most games have no purpose other than their play and for that reason games are played voluntarily for their own sake. The point of playing a game is not some extrinsic end, but the absorbing interest of the play. This is what makes games fun and not purposeful activity. Funding agencies, however, discourage such 'pure' research and development" (94). Instead, words such as "learning," "literacy," "serious," "education," or "simulation" are used to indicate a significant level of productivity and research.

Theoretically speaking, play and games are often positioned as the opposite of work. They are seen as frivolous, unproductive, and apart from the "real" world. John Cohen describes the difference between play and work as the extent to which an activity is "disinterested or pleasurable or spontaneous or immediately fulfills a wish or free from conflict or predominantly assimilatory" (319). Chris Rojek challenges what he describes as the dominant traditions of play scholars, those who place "leisure as a realm of freedom and work as a realm of necessity" (18). He argues instead that "work typically provides leisurely experience for workers (such as gossiping, larking around, reading for pleasure or relaxation, gambling, and so on); and leisure typically entails necessarily labour (such as physical or mental exertion, training, the use of organizational skills, and so on)" (18). Newer game scholars are beginning to articulate the educational and otherwise productive elements of games. For example, Nick Yee posits that computer games are changing the nature of both play and work and are blurring the boundaries between the two. Whatever the angle or buzzword used to approach game studies, play researchers need to be aware that play and games are uniquely situated in a combat zone demarcated by polarized opposites: work/leisure, productivity/play, seriousness/entertainment.

Below we discuss three primary avenues by which to secure funds for studying, developing, and teaching with games. Naturally, each avenue has advantages and disadvantages.

Internal Funding

Internal funds are those that come from inside a researcher's institution. These are often obtained as "seed-funding" for larger projects, that is, as funding for time and equipment with which to go after external funds. Often, these funds are attached to curriculum and/or program development, to the creation of multimedia labs, or to projects that demonstrate the ability to secure additional money apart from the granting organization. A good example of this type of funding is a new faculty research grant awarded to Ryan Moeller at Utah State University, used to develop the educational game Aristotle's Assassins. The key concept put forward in the grant proposal was virtual environment prototyping, and the idea behind the grant was to attract potential corporate partners interested in having real environments constructed in virtual space very quickly. As the project summary explains, "This project establishes a team and resources for researching and developing virtual environments from a humanities perspective. Studying current practices in data visualization, spatial or visual archives, computer games production and use, and virtual learning environments is critical to understanding how these environments affect the ideological framework of culture." The grant funds ($14,000) were used to employ one graduate research assistant as project manager and two undergraduate environment developers, and to purchase 3D modeling and animation software. Among the project outcomes were a playable version of the game and 3D renderings of the prototyping lab.

Digital re-creation of lab environment

Figure 1: A high-quality image rendered from 3D modeling and animation software used to recreate the lab environment in a virtual space relatively cheaply and quickly. Applications for such spaces include low-budget games, teaching spaces (e.g., classrooms), and interactive websites.


Screen-shot from LGI game Aristotle's Assassins

Figure 2: An image capture from the LGI game module Aristotle's Assassins featuring custom graphics content (a Greek temple, army barracks, and an aqueduct).

Corporate Funding

Another significant source of potential funds for studying games is through both existing and new partnerships with corporate entities outside of the university. Microsoft Research External Research & Programs, for example, recently formed the Computer Gaming Curriculum Award, which funds innovative computer science curricula designed to attract students to the major. Hewlett-Packard, Xerox, and others have similar programs. In fact, technology companies are often willing to partner with academic programs as a way to develop and recruit potential employees.

The benefits of such partnerships are primarily technological, with the costs coming in the form of faculty research time, which must often be donated. Also, serious consideration should be given to the impact of corporate funding on curriculum to make sure that a given program does not become a service major to a particular company or industry.

External Funding

External funds from government agencies or non-profit educational agencies are by far the most prestigious and most difficult to secure. Researchers must demonstrate that the project is fundamentally collaborative, that the end-product can be scaled up and disseminated (either within educational institutions or marketed to groups with commercial interests), and that the project has a broad audience beyond the group or department that initiated it. Often, collaborators within the humanities must secure partnerships with K-12 school boards, community organizations, or research centers as a way to demonstrate significant research outcomes. Some possible topics for these sorts of partnership include:

  • Serious games that provide public response training to bio-terrorism and other weapons of mass destruction or disaster response;
  • Games that simulate global relations, immigration patterns, or epidemics such as SARS or avian influenza;
  • Educational games that teach strategic language acquisition and culture (for example, Middle East politics and languages).

Projects like these have many interesting connections with English composition, and writing scholars are uniquely poised to make significant contributions to such research.



One of the most serious myths about computer game-based pedagogies is access. The proliferation and pervasiveness of personal computers, the Internet, and other game-enabled/enabling digital technologies has made gameplay – and thus access to that play – seem ubiquitous. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, for example, "the majority of [U.S.] households have personal computers and internet access" (Day et al. 1), and "[e]ighty-three percent of children aged 3 to 17 with a computer at home [use] it to play games, the most common single use" (9). The Entertainment Software Association likewise notes that "[s]ixty-nine percent of American heads of households…[and] thirty-five percent of American parents say they play computer games" ("Top 10 Industry Facts").

The problem with these numbers is not their veracity but the lie implicit in their admixture of technology and use. While it is probably true that many (if not most) children and adults in North America play games, their play is facilitated and differentiated by a variety of devices and peripherals. Not everyone can afford to shell out the better part of $1000 for a PlayStation 3,[2] for example, and twice that for a high-definition television and surround sound system to make that console's games look and sound as they should. Similarly, the act of playing a simple, free, location-based cell phone game is very different from the experience of questing in a high-end, subscription-based, massively multiplayer online world. All games are not equal, and neither is their gameplay; both vary widely, as do the kinds of learning experiences they offer. The lie sanctioned by the aforementioned statistics and their naturalization in both popular and academic culture is that everyone is participating in the same kind of experience.

Teachers interested in computer game-based pedagogies thus need to attend to issues of difference, and one of the main loci of difference is access. Will the target student population need to own its own computers or game devices to play particular games? Will these devices need powerful processors, video cards, and network capabilities, or will the games be able to run on basic machines? Will users need certain computer literacies and experiences to play and learn? Are there off-the-shelf games that can produce the desired educational outcomes, or will custom games need to be developed? Who is going to deal with the question and expense of site licenses? How are fundamental instructional components such as teacher training going to be handled, and by whom?

Granted, many of the answers to these questions are ultimately determined by institutional vagaries and resources. Having little or no budget, for instance, means using off-the-shelf titles or developing small-scale learning games that can be produced for virtually nothing and accessed with basic technology and computer literacy (such as Flash-based games designed to help players visually make sense of certain places or objects). Having a large budget, by contrast, means much more flexibility: hardware purchases, custom content, hired hands, subject matter experts, and so forth. Indeed, like so much in academe, the question of access flows first through the budget officer (which, as we note in the following section, can make it quite difficult to pursue computer game-based pedagogies).

Perhaps the best way to deal with issues of access and their intimate relationship to funding is to prioritize scalability. For computer game-based pedagogies to be implemented successfully, their prevailing theories and practices should be modularized. That is, they should be conceptualized in such a way as to be easily scaled back or expanded depending on available resources. For example, it is generally much easier to add or subtract levels, characters, and artwork than it is to modify core play mechanics or retool the asset pipeline. Writing instructors are already expert at this kind of work; scalability is fundamental to teaching students how to develop an idea into a thesis, a thesis into a paragraph, and a paragraph into an essay. As with essay writing, the art of translating idea development into finished product in a computer game-based pedagogy lies in the application.

By way of example, several scholars in the Learning Games Initiative (LGI) are currently developing an educational title for Heritage Watch, a not-for-profit group dedicated to preserving Cambodia’s archaeological heritage. Titled Looter, the game puts the player into the role of a would-be grave robber in order to sensitize players to the complex problematic constellating around the rampant looting of Cambodian historic and prehistoric archaeological sites. Scalability is key to the project because Heritage Watch wants a platform-agnostic, web-delivered application – in essence, a downloadable game playable on everything from a cell phone to a high-end graphics workstation. This is a tall order given the radically different and evolving technological capabilities of today’s media platforms. In response, the Looter development team has focused on designing a game with limited audiovisual fireworks. The game is primarily text-based, with relatively low-resolution images, simple sound effects, and minimal processor-intensive components (such as collision detection, physics calculations, and so on). Looter is quite sophisticated, however, at least in the kinds of learning it encourages. Its power lies in its carefully crafted textual rhetoric, a rhetoric that essentially allows any reader access to that power from any machine, at any place, during any time. Between each of the game’s levels, the player must discuss a looting plan with buyers. It is during this text-based verbal exchange that the intentional rhetorics of the game are made most explicit: to stop cultural destruction, to understand the poverty that leads to looting, and to expose the power relationships that enable dealers to become rich on the hard work of poverty-stricken looters.

It is at the point of access where the rubber meets the road in computer game-based pedagogies. There simply is no possibility of such pedagogies if students, teachers, and institutions cannot easily and indeed pleasurably play. After all, play is the catalyzing component that enables games of all kinds to teach deeply and directly. Without play, games are just work, and thus no different from math problems, spelling lists, or any of the other mundane heuristics teachers as well as students have long grown tired of. And yet, play is "an intermezzo, an interlude in our daily lives" (Huizinga 9). It is a structuring force to be sure, but one "distinct from 'ordinary' life both as to locality and duration" (9). For computer game-based pedagogies to be effective, learners must be able to access this intermezzo, which is precisely why questions of access are so important.



Resistance to using computer games in the classroom comes from multiple sources: parents, legislators, administrators, faculty, and, probably most surprising, students. Parents complain that their kids get enough of that pastime at home either as a reward for doing their homework and chores (in which case teachers ought not to be ruining this bit of Pavlovian kibble), or as a preoccupation that distracts them from their studies (in which case teachers ought not to be exacerbating the problem by encouraging kids to play them in school). Administrators' and teachers' concerns, by contrast, lie in a different direction, one marked with a legitimate anxiety about litigation ("how dare you expose my children to that kind of garbage?") and pedagogical quality ("what happened to teaching reading, writing, and recitation?"). Legislators prevail upon parents and teachers alike to beware the hazards of computer games that feature sex and violence.

All this criticism is de rigeur, and parents, teachers, or legislators who openly endorse computer games come to expect stares of surprise and suspicion. The meaning of these looks is plain: pro-game parents must be lazy and irresponsible; pro-game teachers are cheating students by swapping rigor for novelty; and pro-game legislators are shills for the multi-billion computer game industry.

None of these resistant voices – parents, teachers, and legislators on either side of the issue – are particularly surprising to game studies scholars. Each group has a great deal at stake: the well being of their children, the advancement of their students, and the safety and goodwill of their constituents. What is surprising, however, is how often students resist the idea of computer games as educational aids. Commonly voiced student criticisms include concerns about the edifying potential of games that are full of false information dressed up as "realistic," worries that games contain inappropriate material for a classroom, and – most surprisingly of all – beliefs that games are just entertaining, not educational. In other words, despite their own investments in computer games – monetary and temporal – many students essentially accept the prominent media message that this favorite pastime of theirs is indeed a waste of time – possibly a dangerous one. In a recent informal survey we held, several students compared their gaming habits to such "excellent bad decisions" as smoking, binge drinking, and anonymous sex. As one student put it: "You know it's wrong when you're doing it, but you don’t care."

Such perceived recklessness is curious – clearly the risks associated with gaming are far less ominous than the threat of cancer, alcohol poisoning, and STDs – but it might help explain why students resist seeing computer games as educational. To some extent, it seems, students like to associate gaming with danger – the danger of failing, of becoming physically and mentally unhealthy, of being socially maladjusted, and so forth. As play and game theorists from Huizinga to Chris Crawford have noted, the possibility of taking safe risks is one of the key attractions of play: warfare without fatalities, loss and failure without significant personal repercussions. To institutionalize this dynamic arguably takes the edge off of play. When playing games becomes schoolwork, the activity loses the semblance of danger and arguably turns into play's opposites: bureaucratism and obligation.

Student resistance to gaming in the classroom, then, raises a serious question for educators to ponder: to what extent is student resistance to computer game-oriented pedagogy a complex performance of personal and societal ideologies, value sets and interpretive lenses that frame and limit how students think about the transformative power of education? Answers to this question might well signify how the game medium itself is becoming situated within a network of conservative transnational media practices that students are already sensitive to even if they are not fully conscious of how they work. To put it another way: one possible reason students resist playing games in the classroom is that they perceive games and other forms of new media as fundamentally radical and are uncomfortable with their formal education partaking of this radicality.

Consider, for example, the following explanations our students have offered for why the idea of incorporating computer gameplay into high school and college classes is illegitimate:

  1. Games take too long to play.
  2. Games are a waste of time.
  3. Games are too expensive.
  4. Games can be reviewed, but what’s to study?
  5. Games depend on exploitative imagery.
  6. Games tell stories badly.
  7. Games are all the same.
  8. Games are historically inaccurate and can’t be trusted.
  9. Games lead to addiction.
  10. Games? I don’t play computer games.
  11. Games? What could you possibly teach me about games?

On the surface, it seems that students present these barricades to new learning not because they are enacting an introspectively-motivated political stance but because they are restating the arguments made countless times on television, in magazines and newspapers, or by their guardians and teachers. To some observers, this resistance – regardless of its origins – might seem quite the coup. Trade organizations such as the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) work hard to provide quotable statistics that refute many of these popular criticisms. It is precisely at the nexus of celebration and condemnation, however, that a rather strange fact emerges, one that suggests a deeper dynamic than mass media regurgitation is at work. The computer game industry has enjoyed consistent and considerable expansion since its infamous crash in 1984, despite nearly a quarter century of harsh criticism at the familial, educational, and governmental levels. Such a contradiction suggests that influential mechanisms are at work behind students' resistance to computer game pedagogy and that these mechanisms are subtle and serious.

In the Learning Games Initiative, we are praxis-oriented, so when a conundrum like this one presents itself, we use a variety of resources to theorize the problem. We then test these theories in the educational contexts to which our members have access: high schools, colleges, community organizations, and so forth. In the perplexing matter of student resistance to computer games in the classroom, the radicality idea described above is the one that has the most traction. Looking back at the reasons offered by students for why using games in the classroom is a bad idea, a pattern emerges: computer games have the potential to upend traditional expectations about how education happens. In this light, student resistance to using computer games to teach may be read as a sign that students understand the medium's nature not superficially, but rather so well that they fear what it would mean to change the educational process so profoundly. Using computer games in the classroom does not elicit resistance simply because games are seen as violent or boring (though often enough they are both); the practice elicits resistance because it potentially violates an ingrained ideology that school is about work, discipline, propriety, and professionalization while games are always in some measure contrary to this mode. Life under the rigors of capitalism has compartmentalized and commodified play, especially the play of young people nearing their prime working years. Play for our students has been fetishized and made taboo outside certain well-policed and, in the case of resistant students, self-policed boundaries.

Yet here is the proverbial teachable moment. When students balk at the idea of learning with games and offer up the standard objections, asking them commit their arguments to paper is a worthwhile preliminary exercise. A subsequent and more transformative exercise in our experience is to have them explain why such arguments seem necessary in the first place. Answering this latter question often leads students to critical examinations of their unexpressed expectations of what is supposed to happen in the classroom generally and to challenge their own assumptions about how education is supposed to transform their lives.


Pedagogy and Assessment

As we mentioned earlier, games teach multiple things in multiple ways, which unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on perspective) complicates the process of incorporating games into the composition classroom. In essence, students cannot help but learn more than what is stated on the lesson plan. This is, of course, not a new problem. In learning how to write, students learn more than just putting words onto a page. In What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee observes that playing computer games involves new semiotic domains learned through experience, affiliation, and preparation. "We always learn something," asserts Gee, "[a]nd that something is always connected, in some way, to some semiotic domain or other" (22). These semiotic domains, however, are not so easily or precisely apprehended. Thus, composition instructors need be wary that they do not ignore all of the teaching and learning in gameplay and focus only on those areas in which they hold expertise, such as "reading" the computer game as a cultural text or "writing" a computer game by manipulating only the dialog or narrative aspects of a game. Students are savvy; they know when their instructors are unsure how to use a new medium in the classroom (which may be yet another reason for student resistance).

What to Teach

The challenge of deciding what to teach is also compounded by the fact that there are so many computer game formats available (first-person shooters, role playing games, action-adventures, puzzles, card games, serious games, and the like) and platforms (console, PC, handheld, cell phone, and so on). Furthermore, playing is only one pedagogical use for games. Students can also create machinimations (animated movies using computer game technologies),[3] Flash-based games, game design documents,[4] and more. Finally, students can study the cultures and surrounding rhetorics of computer games. In Game Work: Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture, for example, Ken McAllister identifies five lenses through which computer games can be studied:

  1. As mass culture, where games are investigated for their power to override local and subcultural significations;
  2. As mass media, where games can be seen as representing real-world information that recast computer games as sources for news and commentary on society and world events;
  3. As psychological force, where the actual psychological effects of computer games are investigated and then placed in relation to their larger non-game concerns;
  4. As economic force, where the business behind games and larger questions of ownership, hardware and software development, and other industrial practices are brought to the forefront of the investigation;
  5. As instructional force, where games are investigated according to the ways in which computer games teach people ideas, concepts, behaviors, and so forth through the patterns, practices, and rubrics of play, educational computing, textual, social, historical, and cultural analysis, and so on.

Like other ubiquitous media, computer games affect all levels of society from the creation and contestation of certain hegemonies to the formation and revision of individual subjectivities. Composition students can critically engage in these processes, critiquing them and understanding their own relationship to them.

What to Assess

The old adage "if you value it, assess it" holds just as true for game-based pedagogies as for others. As Edward White argues, "assessment can improve our teaching, make our jobs easier and more rewarding, and demonstrate the value of what we do" (8). However, the challenge of assessment in game-based pedagogies is compounded by the fact that there are few computer-game experts in composition. Fortunately, learner-centered pedagogical theories offer a manageable approach for incorporating computer games into the classroom. In "Working with Faculty toward Universally Designed Instruction: The Process of Dynamic Course Design," Elizabeth Harrison provides a worksheet that walks instructors through the process of designing a lesson plan using learner-centered principles. First, instructors need to identify overall goals or learning outcomes and classify them within three categories: knowledge goals (What do you want your students to know?), skill goals (What do you want your students to do?), and affective goals (What kind of people do you want your students to become?) (156). Second, instructors must determine learning objectives or performance measures that identify "what an instructor will look for in student behavior or work that demonstrates achievement of particular goals" (160). Third, instructors need to design assessment activities that reflect learning objectives in order to ensure that students are learning what they are supposed to (161). By taking the time to articulate specific learning goals and measurable learning objectives at the beginning and making them explicit to students on the first day of class, teachers and students can collaborate in instructive evaluation, a process that empowers students by enabling them to achieve self-articulated rhetorical and linguistic objectives (Huot). This has the additional benefit of mitigating certain types of student resistance to using games in the classroom.

If a composition instructor chooses to have students write about a computer game that they have played, then the challenges of assessment are familiar. However, if an instructor wants students to create an education-oriented modification of an existing computer game using a set of game-customization tools, then assessment becomes more complicated. Are students in this latter case to be graded only on the writing of their narratives and dialogue, or will gameplay, visual representation, complex dialogue trees, and the like also be graded? More complicated still are the processes by which such ephemeral experiences as "fun" and "immersion" are assessed. The Learning Games Initiative has attempted to address these issues through a series of workshops on pedagogy, teaching students to create their own narratives in a computer game format. Integral to these workshops is the idea that computer games need to be grounded in a fully articulated pedagogical vision. Game-based pedagogies can quickly spiral out of control if the lesson plan is based on a loosely articulated idea. Further, if students become confused about how computer games fit into a class, unit, or lesson plan, then they will begin to perceive using games as irrelevant and a waste of time. Some questions for the composition instructor interested in game-based pedagogies to consider include:

  1. What am I thinking about doing or teaching?
  2. How do education-oriented game customizations fit into my current pedagogy? What classroom practices do I value? What systems of thought inform these practices?
  3. How can game customizations complement my other classroom practices? How do I imagine game-based teaching will change the way I conceive of education generally? What do I expect to gain? What am I willing to give up?
  4. What new goals and objectives might emerge once game-based teaching has been fully integrated into my curriculum? What should students know by the end of my course? What are my first-order and subordinate goals?
  5. How will I prepare students? What do students need to know before they start? What are the levels of literacy in my class? How will I use roles to accommodate students' abilities?
  6. How will I pace my lesson plan? How much time do I have? What will I and my students do and when? What role will critical reflection play? How will I prepare for unforeseen challenges?
  7. How will I assess this lesson plan? What aspects of the game-based learning experience will I assess? Will I tell students what the goals are and how I will assess them? What tools will I use for assessment?
  8. How does this lesson fit into my teaching philosophy? Do I foresee this course as a capstone? Will my game-based pedagogy be integrated with other technologies or literacies?

Regardless of whether a computer game is used as a text to "read" or a platform on which to "write," there are always glitches with computer game-based pedagogies. It is important to be aware that there are different levels of technological skill in the classroom, that using computer games increases the amount of class preparation teachers must do, and that students may not quickly recognize the reason for playing. Again, because games teach multiple things in multiple ways, there are innumerable possibilities for assessing learning outcomes. The challenge becomes narrowing down what to teach and then aligning the assessment tools to that articulation.



In addition to finding funding, addressing access and resistance, and planning and assessing their lessons, composition instructors must also attend to the complex power dynamics that occur in and around computer games. Games have a reputation in the popular media as being violent and filled with sexist and racist images. While this is not true of all games, there are many games that are indeed sexist, racist and violent. A frequently cited early instance of such offensive material is Custer's Revenge (Mystique 1982), which has players dodging an arrow attack in order to be rewarded with the opportunity to rape a Native American woman.

More often, of course, the embedded sexist and racist imagery is subtler. For example, the fact that Lara Croft from the successful Tomb Raider franchise is a sexy and smart woman accounts for a large part of the franchise's success. However, as Helen Kennedy notes, feminist scholarship on Lara Croft "is often reduced to trying to decide whether she is a positive role model for young girls or just that perfect combination of eye and thumb candy for the boys." Furthermore, Kennedy argues, "It is also increasingly difficult to distinguish between Lara Croft the character in Tomb Raider and Lara Croft the ubiquitous virtual commodity used to sell products as diverse as the hardware to play the game itself, Lucozade or Seat cars." Such ambivalence marks the representational complexity in computer games and other media texts. Computer games join other discourses to create what Michel Foucault identifies as power/knowledge – the control of power through the reproductions of knowledge. As Foucault explains, discourses resist cohesion; they are always created through contradiction or "spaces of dissention" (152). Representations in computer games, too, are composed of these contradictions – Lara Croft as sex object, Lara Croft as a powerful female role model – and the ethics and power structures underlying these representations are difficult to address in a meaningful way.

In addition to the ethics of content-based representations, computer games exemplify the complications of computer ethics. Computer games are software applications in the same way that word processors are, and as such they warrant a similar kind of critical attention: analyses of their reproduction of dominant discourses, their sociopolitical complications, and their overt and covert means of exercising power among users, distributors, and developers. When the context for such analyses is the composition classroom, the ethical concerns that undergird all of the caveats and advice we have so far offered above come to light.

In "What is Computer Ethics," James Moore disagrees with the earlier idea put forth by others that computers do not bring up new ethical concerns but merely complicate accepted philosophical ideals from the likes of Immanuel Kant and Thomas Hobbes. Instead, Moore offers up the following, more expansive definition of "computer ethics":

A typical problem in computer ethics arises because there is a policy vacuum about how computer technology should be used. Computers provide us with new capabilities and these in turn give us new choices for action. Often, either no policies for conduct in these situations exist or existing policies seem inadequate. A central task of computer ethics is to determine what we should do in such cases, that is, formulate policies to guide our actions. (266)

Moore goes on to explain that along with policy vacuums one will most likely find what he terms a "conceptual muddle": "One difficulty is that along with a policy vacuum there is often a conceptual vacuum. Although a problem in computer ethics may seem clear initially, a little reflection reveals a conceptual muddle. What is needed in such cases is an analysis that provides a coherent conceptual framework within which to formulate a policy for action" (266). Moore's perspective on what computer ethics should address is particularly useful for thinking about the relationship between computer games and the classroom. Much of what we have discussed above turns, at a fundamental level, on the presence of policy vacuums (funding, assessment) and conceptual muddles (access, resistance, and representations). Drawing on Moore's work on computer ethics in general, we suggest that at the heart of any inquiry into the viability of computer game-based pedagogies for writing classrooms must be questions concerning ethics and ethical responsibilities.

Such questions need to address the possibility of appropriating commercial products for critiquing commercial ideology. For philosophers Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, such appropriation does not successfully call anything into question; rather, it only serves to further legitimate commercialism while simultaneously placating those who desire to critique it. This argument certainly holds true for computer games in the classroom: when game systems and software are brought into an educational environment they will inevitably serve as a latent (and in some cases manifest) advertisement for the makers of these materials. Composition classes already take place in an increasingly commercialized educational environment, and the influx of even more corporate influence in the classroom is at best ethically complicated.

The complicated technological workings of games themselves raise a number of other ethical challenges. For example, if an instructor does not possess the requisite technical literacy to comprehend how games work, how can that instructor evaluate students based on the work they do with these technologies? Or what if a highly game-savvy instructor inadvertently selects a game title with a learning curve that exceeds most students' abilities? These questions are complicated further by considerations of the primary purpose of the composition classroom: to teach academic writing. In most academic contexts, composition classes – generally seen as service courses that teach students how to write for their other classes – have no business requiring students to learn esoterica so far outside the purview of the established curriculum. On the other hand, as academic argumentation increasingly calls for skills in "reading" new media – databases imbued with political agendas, court-sanctioned and client-biased photorealistic computer animations depicting crime scenes, ubiquitous digital surveillance techniques – whose job is it to teach these skills to students? So far, few have stepped forward to assume this ethical and pedagogical responsibility. As has happened so many times in the past – with newspapers, radio, broadcast and cable television, and film – composition teachers have been the ones to blaze the path.

Composition instructors – and writing program administrators – must decide which ethical responsibility will win out; should the students' maturation as critical citizens in an increasingly technologically-mediated and media-saturated society prevail over the more pragmatic functions that orthodox composition courses are intended to serve? Or will the critical study of this society's most complex new medium, the computer game, be left to the arguably better trained but unfortunately far less common media political economists and techno-rhetoricians? In either case, both game studies and writing instruction are always already contextually-based, and there is no easy resolution to the ethical perplexity that composition instructors will have to engage when they consider using computer games in their classrooms. Our experience suggests that one of the few effective ways to deal with this perplexity is to dance with it relentlessly, sometimes leading, sometimes following, and always remaining attentive to where the dance has come from and where the dance is going.


A Final Thought

While this has been an article full of warnings, we do not mean to suggest that computer games should not be used in the composition classroom. We have had great success using computer games to teach a variety of literacies. However, the process of using computer games is not necessarily a smooth one. This is partly because computer-game studies is expansive and ranges from pedagogies based on games as analyzable texts to those based on games as various kinds of products. Computer games are also part of a dynamic entertainment industry that requires constant and expensive technological upgrades to keep up with a never-ending flow of new games. In order to provide students with up-to-date games to play and consider, instructors must both raise funds for "frivolous games" and spend countless hours playing them in a pre-screening process. These hours and monies can be, we believe, well spent. Computer games synergize multiple literacies into a format that students not only can but want to play with, experiment on, disassemble, and reinvent. Undertaken thoughtfully, computer game-based composition pedagogy can parlay students' playfulness into marked advances in their abilities to read, write, and critique both traditional and new media texts.



[1] A case
in point: well-known game researcher Edward Castronova recently
abandoned his MacArthur Foundation-funded project, Arden: The World
of William Shakespeare
, precisely because “it’s no fun” (Naone).

[2] While the list price of
an entry-level PlayStation 3 is only $399, different console
configurations, games, and accessories for the system can raise the
purchase price to well near $1000.

[3] For more information on machinima and
performativity, refer to Henry Lowood’s “Real-Time Performance:
Machinima and Game Studies.”

[4] For an annotated walkthrough of a game design
document, see Tim Ryan’s “The Anatomy of Game Design.”


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