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03. Pedagogy Project: Gaming Discourse Assignment

I've spent the past couple years swimming about in readings on gaming literacy, from Gee to Jones to Zimmerman. I even built a website describing a framework for integrating games into composition classrooms (, and I've presented my work at two conferences (last year's Games/Learning/Society Conference and, more recently, at the CUNY Games Festival). I think you could safely say that I've become rather convinced that there is something viable in this method of teaching writing to college students. But it isn't always an easy task. At GLS, the very first questions I received was: "How do you balance this with your institution's curriculum?" Ultimately, this is either a very easy or a very difficult question to answer. If we are only speaking about theming the class, about using a topic that creates some sort of surface engagement in (a subgroup) of students, then we might answer quite easily. It is possible to balance the work just as we might balance any other theme for a course. We replace our old objects of study with games and give our classes the exact same assignments we always have. But in doing this, we also are admitting that there is no specific value to the integration of games into our pedagogy, thus undermining our own work. The task becomes significantly more difficult once we move past theming and really seek to find ways to make our classes more “gamic,” by which I mean something that shares qualities with games and the act of gaming while not necessarily adopting the form or appearance of a game (I take this term from Alexander Galloway’s essays primarily due to more narrow or nuanced meanings of established terms like “gameful” and “game-like”), (Disclaimer: I do not and never have claimed to have a universal answer to this problem, but I’m happy to share what I’ve done as a conversational beginning.) 
For now, I want to focus on a single assignment, one that I conceptualize as a cooperative multi-player game of sorts. The best games of this type, in my mind, have always set tasks that are difficult if not impossible for an individual to complete. This often is due to constrained timing and high levels of overall difficulty. 
At my university, our composition courses are required to study discourse communities, a concept that students often take some time to grasp. In Freshman Composition, this most often means that we try to focus on community based (as opposed to academic or professional) groups. Given this standard, I find it hard to think of a set of stronger, more publicly available communities than gaming communities. 
My assignment asks students to produce three documents in a short period of time (approximately three and a half weeks) that together form an investigations of such a community. I’m sure to warn them from the outset about the difficulties of this task and even describe my thinking behind the assignment design.
First, they must investigate and explore a community, writing an analytic ethnography of the group’s members and practices. This is a foreshortened process of enculturation to the group. I ask students to spend some time exploring the sites of the groups communication and really getting to know all the different aspects of the group’s interactions. What type of language do they use? How do they establish authority? What forms do they use to communicate? How often are group members active? Etc. I also encourage them to contact the group, to speak with members and get to know them better. This usually (though not universally) works out just fine. The product of this first section of the assignment is fairly short (around 6 pages for a group of 3), but it demands a lot of time and effective coordination to manage successfully.
The second part of the assignment builds on the first. After investigating the communities as a whole, I ask that groups choose and critique one genre (another required concept in our curriculum) used by that community. The critique is specifically designed to explore how the genre might not be serving particular segments of the community well (thus feeding off of the understanding fostered by the first task). This work also requires us to spend some time working on the concepts of information design (I currently use three articles: one on traditional document design, another on web design, and a third that is a style manual for game guides) so that the students might have a theoretical background to bring to the critique. I specifically assign large chunks of reading here so that groups have to divide it and so each student brings different areas of expertise.
In the final section of the project, I ask students to draft their own document within the genre that they studied and to post it publically to the community. This hopefully helps the students get feedback from the community and to see how their writing is functioning socially. I also ask the students to provide an annotation of this document. What I don’t tell them initially about this document is that I won’t be grading it based on their actual success in creating an effective revised genre, but will, instead, grade it solely on their ability to explain the reasoning behind their changes in this annotation. 
Finally, students collect this work into a digital portfolio, on which they receive a collaborative grade. Typically, these portfolios are around 15-20 pages long—a fairly substantial document for students to create in this amount of time. And it doesn’t carry a very heavy grade for the course. This relation seems strange at first, but it fits into my overall conception of a gamic pedagogy. Students are encouraged to explore, to collaborate, to take risks. They are not punished heavily for falling short and are always working in a community that supports not only their learning, but also their work more directly. 

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