Pedagogy and Video Games, Notes from the Field

It seems that thinking about pedagogy and video games is in the air.  As video game studies grows in intellectual, cultural, and institutional demesnes and more and more teachers, students, and courses integrate gamic texts and theories, the questions about and best practices of teaching with, teaching through, and studying video games come into relief.  In a broad sense, the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington grew out of a desire to explore and harness the pedagogical grist and grit of games.  Though thinking about video game learning and teaching is certainly not new, the topic has been (and continues to be ) revisited recently.  Here are some highlights locally and afar:

Earlier in the fall, as part of the blogrolls of the Humanites, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) Scholars program, Amanda Phillips, a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, blogged about teaching games for the first time:

Trial #1: It’s my first time.
This was my first solo class. I had never been solely responsible for the design of a syllabus or classroom instruction, so naturally I was overly optimistic about how much my students would a) read and b) talk. Shaming them into conversation with awkward silence only took me so far.

I have some ideas for changing up the syllabus (posted below) for next time. Some of the literature didn’t mesh well with the theory, and overall the reading was heavy for the students.

Trial #2: The quarter system.
Six weeks, four days a week. A grueling schedule for students taking one class, let alone the three or four that some of them piled on. The time crunch also made it difficult to choose games to work on. With the reading load, it was unreasonable to expect students to finish more than one game over the term, but no one game was a good example for all the topics I wanted to cover. My compromise was to have them choose one game to play over the course of the term and keep a weekly play blog dealing with the theme of the week. There would be smaller examples throughout the quarter, but they would only be required to familiarize themselves on a basic level with gameplay.

This meant choosing a list of games that were short enough to complete in the given time but still good and rich in content, that were available on a variety of hardware, and (VERY importantly, as I discovered) games with which I was already familiar. So heres the list they got:

  • Bioshock
  • Cave Story
  • ICO
  • Metroid Prime
  • Psychonauts

Trial #3: Too much nuts and bolts, not enough culture
Given the way I focused the course on structures like narrative, time, and so on, I was quite dissatisfied with the amount of ideological critique I was able to get the students to do. Most of it was reserved for the Avatar section, and ended up in boring conversations about gender and hostile ones about race. This is something that must be fixed for next time.

Trial #4: Non-gamers
These guys were a challenge for a variety of reasons: access to hardware, skill level, and anxiety about the medium. Not surprisingly, I had several students drop after introductions were made, and the ones that stayed had a lot of initial anxiety about gaming. But it turns out that once we really got into the meat of the course, most of them took quite naturally to gaming.

About the same time, our very own Tim Welsh participated in the first ever THATCamp PNW (hosted at the UW) and presented a workshop on “How NOT to Teach Video Games:”

The session opened with reference to recent iteration of the games-as-art debate and an assessment of the opportunities for digital humanists in the popular discussion of video games as cultural artifacts. The conversation, as in Roger Ebert’s reaction to Kellee Santiago’s TEDTalk, are typically held between reviewers, engineers, and the game-playing public and so often lacks a satisfactory definition of “art” or even of “game,” or a meta reflection on the purpose/desire to put games in the category of art in the first place. Moreover, as Ian Bogost has argued recently, the gaming Industry seems uninterested in the significance of gaming as a cultural artifact, except when such discussions prove valuable as a marketing strategy. At the same time, however, the gaming community’s rally in support of video games as an art form suggests that people want to have serious conversations about gaming. Its just when those conversations present themselves that the the obstacles make themselves known

We then looked at two online discussions about the critical treatment of gaming that each demonstrates a challenge to the kinds of interventions digital humanists would want to make. The first is the backlash against Abbie Heppe’s review of Metroid: Other M, which chastised the game for its depiction of Samus as emotionally weak and submissive to male characters. The second was more local, a response from some of our students who found our first Keywords for Video Game Studies roundtable to inaccessible to non-academics. Taken together, these conversations issue a double-sided challenge. On the one hand, as Michael Abbott notes, the response to Heppe’s critique demonstrates that “the greatest resistance to thinking critically about games comes not from academics, luddites, or old-school critics like Roger Ebert. The most vocal resistance comes from gamers.” At the same time, our own Keywords session demonstrates even those excited about joining a critical conversation often feel alienated by the way they are figured. In short, gaming “natives” often reject and feel rejected by critical gaming projects.

This realization represents a serious obstacle for bringing video games into the humanities classroom, for it challenges some base assumptions about teaching popular media. The suggestion that “digital natives” might have aptitudes for new media that can be leveraged toward pedagogical goals is a promising one; however it also assumes that the natives are willing to apply those aptitudes to academic inquiry and that we, as scholars and educators, are willing to make space in academic inquiry for their aptitudes.

More recently, pondering the successes and failures in the video game classes he has run, Ed Chang posted a meditation on the idea of close playing (like close reading) games and the kinds of “literacies” needed in order to be able to get students to engage the medium (which they often take for granted) critically:

Akin the same sort of problem in the composition or literature classroom, the challenge of getting students to see, “read,” play a game beyond the level of enjoyment is all about training and practicing a skill with which they have little experience–even desire to learn.  When I broach the issue of reading practice with my writing or literature students, often couched in terms of “close reading,” the response is usually one of defensive denial (“I already know how to read”), distress (“I have never been a good reader”), resistance (“You’re reading too much into things”), and even hostility (“You’re trying to indoctrinate me”).  I sense that most of these responses result from the confusing messages students get about reading as constructed by (neo)liberal ideology as being one of the three basic intellectual and academic skills (reading, writing, and arithmetic), a tension that pits “you should know how to do this” against the logic that “unless you’re an English major, you don’t need to know how to do this.”  I am reminded of David Bartholomae’s oft cited essay “Inventing the University” and his central argument that every time a student writes–and I would argue reads–for our classes, “he [or she] has to invent the university for the occasion…[t]he student has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community.”  In this case, they also must learn to read our language, to read as we do, to see, select, paraphrase, digest, and analyze the various texts we present them–from assignment prompts to novels to academic essays to statistics to examples from popular culture.

And, finally, most recently CGP member Mark Chen brought to our attention veteran high school history teacher and ancient history PhD Jeremiah McCall’s blog post at Play the Past called “The Unexamined Game is Not Worth Playing:”

Using simulation games effectively for the pursuit of forming, challenging, and understanding interpretations of the past (and present for that matter), must follow the dictates set out by Socrates. Clearly this dictate was followed practiced by my student when he wrote and the hosts of Three Moves Ahead that day. Simulation games are models, and representations, of no particular value for deep learning unless they are reflected upon, dissected and analyzed. In a very real sense, this is the primary goal of teachers, to get their students to pause, analyze, use, and reflect what they would otherwise have happily scanned and passed by.  Teachers of English literature ask students to make margin notes, follow themes, have discussions about character and plot and write papers about the works they read. Science teachers encourage students to ask why some people lose their hearing and others do not, why objects thrown up in the air come down the way they do, etc. Film study classes explore the meaning in a director’s choice of set pieces.

What are the implications of this idea, that from the perspective of teaching and learning about the past, the unexamined simulation game is not worth playing?

Overall, the perspectives above further the conversations about video games in and out of the classroom and validate the necessity for developing creative, practical, critical, and engaging ways to teach and talk about teaching games.

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4 Responses to Pedagogy and Video Games, Notes from the Field

  1. markchen says:

    McCall makes it a point to single out simulation and educational games, but I really wonder if the statement shouldn’t be said of all games. There’s a seductive quality to just playing a game for entertainment without critical reflection, of course. I feel it and desire it sometimes… do it sometimes… but I wonder if it is irresponsible of me, of gamers to continue to play without reflecting in our increasingly connected world.

  2. Excellent to see this survey and read a little more about what others are doing in the field. I hope it won’t be taken as a advertisement, but your last lines,
    “Overall, the perspectives above further the conversations about video games in and out of the classroom and validate the necessity for developing creative, practical, critical, and engaging ways to teach and talk about teaching games.”
    made me want to note that my book with Routledge, Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History is slated to be printed in June of 2011. Again, not meant to be an ad, but as far as I know, it’s the first and only of its kind insofar as it’s a practical guide for history teachers on selecting games, designing lessons, developing activities, etc. using computer simulation games. I confess I hope that other teachers will follow suit with practical works in their own disciplines — the field is so ripe, for example, for an English/Language arts teacher to develop a practical guide. So far there has been too little systematically available practical advice for classroom educators. Thanks for sharing some of the other ideas that teachers are pushing forward.
    –Jeremiah McCall

  3. Just responding to Mark’s thought. It seems to me it is likely theoretically virtuous to reflect on all gameplay experiences to the extent that the same can be said of reflecting on all life experiences. In practice however–and this is purely a statement of belief on my part rather than a formal argument–I think there can and must be times when it is okay just to play, not irresponsible. In the same way, it can be okay to enjoy a TV show, film, song, or even a work of visual art without any particular reflection. There is a distinction to be made, though I’m sure the line is not easily drawn, between recreative play and dedicated reflection and analysis. One can and should do both. Outside of formal education, perhaps the trick is to be sure to stop so often and think and talk about what one is doing with games. But there must be a place for fun for it’s own sake, I’m convinced.

  4. changed says:

    @Jeremiah, Thanks for your responses and for visiting our corner of cyberspace. I, too, am particularly interested in the pedagogical charms and conundrums of video games in the classroom (for me, the college classroom). My colleagues and I here at CGP/University of Washington have been developing syllabi and exercises for a few years now. But we keep coming back to the fact there needs to be some sort of foundation of critical awareness and analytical proficiency with video games as objects of study. It is heartening to see that there are people like yourself who are bringing these concerns into secondary school curricula because (like with other skills and knowledges) this will make the transition into the kinds of work we do at the post-secondary level more robust (though not necessarily easier). Please keep in touch! –Ed Chang

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