Blog Post

Close Playing, a Meditation on Teaching (with) Video Games

Tim Welsh (a fellow University of Washington PhD student and HASTAC Scholar) and I have been putting together and co-teaching video game focus group courses (through the Comparative History of Ideas program at UW) over the last year or so.  These 2-credit, non-graded, informal discussion sections (ostensibly a more “pure” seminar setting) have been an incredible opportunity for both of us to address an absence in the curricula of the university, to develop an intellectual community of fellow video game scholars and enthusiasts, to encourage undergraduates to pursue critical video game studies (a kind of digital humanities approach), and to challenge our own individual pedagogical and academic work.  One central recurring concern that runs through our conceptions and teachings of these CHID courses is: How do you teach students to critically, analytically play video games?

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.

(As an aside, I could very well be writing this post about the teaching of popular fiction like Harry Potter or Twilight or everyday texts like television commercials or mainstream movies.  There are differences, of course, across media and genre, but the trouble with reading closely and reading critically is analogous.)

Close reading needs to be framed in ways that translate the practice as more than just “reading between the lines” or “reading thematically.”  Rather, close reading like good writing is about purpose, relevance, focus, and stakes.  I teach close reading using a three-tiered model (the metaphor is simple enough though there are plenty of other ways to attend to this).  One: reading for fun.  Two: reading for information.  Three: reading for analysis or argumentation.  These generally overlap with my three tiers of close reading practice.  One: reading for literal or literary goals (e.g. plot, characters, themes, pleasure).  Two: reading for rhetorical analysis (e.g. articulating rhetorical features).  Three: reading for cultural or political analysis (e.g. how does the argument connect to a broader context).  I stress to students that close reading (for me) is more than just noticing what is going on in a text or what the text is about (this is what my colleague Jane Lee calls “birdwatching”).  Close reading is about drawing connections, making interpretative leaps, and analyzing how a text is making an argument and why these connections or analyses matter.  For the most part, students grasp the fact that they need to find details and explicate them, but they usually stop at summary and exemplification.  They are adept at picking out passages, quotations, claims, and evidence, but they are challenged by putting these things to use in their own arguments or transforming them from inert description to active analysis.

Herein is the extended challenge of teaching how to close read–or as I like to call it, close play–a video game.  The commonplace arguments made by pedagogues about the assumed skill and literacy that students of this day and age have with digital media is totally exaggerated or misplaced.  Claims about “digital natives” is not only techno-orientalist but also obscuring of the problems of “learning our language” as described by Bartholomae.  To assume that students, even students born in the 21st Century,  are plug-and-play ready to read and think and write critically about digital media invisibilizes and naturalizes technologies in problematic ways.  It also gives students the false impression that they have nothing to learn about their own relationship to the technology they have, use, buy, abuse, enfranchise, or ignore.  Familiarity is not the same as facility; acceptance is not the same thing as acumen.

Cross-posted from my blog (full text here): http://staff.washington.edu/changed/2010/11/close-playing-a-meditation/

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