Just For Fun: Writing and Literacy Learning as Forms of Play

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  • Computers and Composition 25 (2008) 323340

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    Just For Fun: Writing and Literacy Learning as Forms of PlayDavid Michael Sheridan a,, William Hart-Davidson b

    a Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, Michigan State University, C210 Snyder Hall,East Lansing, MI 48825-1106, United States

    b WIDE (Writing in Digital Environments) Research Center, Department of Writing,Rhetoric, and American Cultures, Michigan State University, 7 Olds Hall, East Lansing,

    MI 48824-1047, United States


    This article focuses on Ink, a Multiplayer Online Game (MOG) being developed at Michigan StateUniversity. The design of Ink reflects the developers understanding of writing pedagogy and rhetoricaltheory. Ink allows players to enter into complex rhetorical situations that include exigencies, audiences,and rhetorical purposes. The developers of Ink hope that placing players in these rhetorical situationswill facilitate literacy learning while simultaneously providing a satisfying game experience. Playerswill hopefully learn while having fun. In order to test the effectiveness of Ink as a game and learn-ing environment, the authors designed a small-scale preliminary study with a focus group of studentplaytesters. The study was designed to answer three fundamental questions: Will players write? Willplayers have fun? Will players learn? The study generated some evidence that the answer to all threequestions is yes. 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

    Keywords: Games; Literacy; Rhetoric; Writing pedagogy; Instructional technology; Textual economy; Textualcirculation

    1. Introduction

    What if you could learn to write by playing a video game? No teachers, no classes, nogrades. Just a fun game that you play in a web browser. Maybe the game wouldnt evenexplicitly focus on writing. Maybe it would focus on fun stuff: imagining and building coolsocial venues like coffee shops, skating parks, and dance clubs; dabbling in politics (servingon city council, proposing new laws, managing the mayors re-election campaign); forminggroups and finding ways to get more money, power, and influence. You know, all the stuff

    Corresponding author.Email addresses: sherid16@msu.edu (D.M. Sheridan), hartdav2@msu.edu (W. Hart-Davidson).

    8755-4615/$ see front matter 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2008.04.008

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    most high schoolers and college kids cant do but wish they could. The writing happens (youmight not even notice it) in order to get the fun stuff done: the proposal that you submit to citycouncil; the brochure you distribute to elicit interest in your latest project; the manifesto youwrite with others to announce the philosophy of your new action group. This article exploressome of the design elements that such a game might include and presents some preliminaryevidence that such an approach might work.

    As writing teachers, we are committed to a pedagogy that embeds writing tasks in com-plex rhetorical situations; writing in these situations is not an end in and of itself, butrather a tool for addressing an exigency. Over the past three years, we have been workingwith other teacher-researchers as well as artists, game designers, playtesters, and program-mers to design a game in which rhetorical exigencies would emerge, providing playersopportunities to engage in rhetorical interventions. In this article, we report findings froma preliminary study focused on a small group of undergraduates who were invited to tryout a working prototype of this game called Ink. Our study began with very basic ques-tions: Will players write? Will they have fun? Will they learn? We present modest evidencethat the answers to all three questions is yes. Our findings suggest that not only willplayers write but that their decisions as writers will reflect the contextual factors likeaudience, purpose, and exigency that we (as writing teachers) hope they will take intoaccount.

    2. Correct commas = 50 points: Can video games teach writing?

    The attention of the Ink development team was piqued some months ago, at just aboutthe time that we were ready to begin basic playtesting, when an issue of Harpers Magazinefeatured a panel discussion focused on the possibility of teaching writing using video games.With a mixture of hope and fear, we read through the discussion quickly, eager to discoverhow close the panelists would come to the concepts we ourselves had arrived at. Perhaps theywould independently invent a game just like ours.

    The panel, a mixture of educators and game enthusiasts, began by considering therote elements of writinggrammar, punctuation, and spelling (Avrich, Johnson, Koster,de Zengotita, & Wasik, 2006, p. 32) and imagined relatively simple games that mightaddress these components. But they gradually talked their way to more complex gamesand more complex dimensions of writing, such as argument, structure, and aesthetic con-siderations. There are two ways you could do it, said panelist Steven Johnson, oneof which I think would potentially work, the other of which would not (p. 35). Thefirst option was to use the game as a way to broaden the realm of experiences the stu-dents have by immersing them in settings relevant to their writing (p. 35). In the secondoption,

    where the actual text of the story is being built and evaluated inside the gameyou would needa game engine that itself had some form of consciousness. You cant evaluate complex formsof writing without consciousness. And with our current technology, you know, my grammarchecker in Microsoft Word cant even tell if my subjects and verbs agree. (Avrich et al., 2006,p. 35).

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    Later Johnson asserted: Honestly, I doubt that video games are capable of dealing withpsychological depth at all (Avrich et al., 2006, p. 36). Eventually, however, the panel exploreda more fruitful possibility, that Multiplayer Online Games like Second Life1 might be able torecover some of the complexity demanded by good writing pedagogy. The panelists stop shortof sketching out a specific approach but they identify a number of salient features of this kindof game: an economy, an immersive environment, complex social interactionand exigenciesthat can be addressed by writing, which inevitably emerge when any group of people beginsto interact in complex ways.

    This conversation was striking to us because its general trajectory echoes the evolution inthinking that we went through in developing our own game. We knew that games could beused to teach spelling and grammar, but we werent interested in those things. But in our earlythinking, we kept running into the same dead-end: for a game to address deeper issues ofwriting like ideas and arguments, it would need full-blown consciousness, and we knew thatat least for the foreseeable future, this was not possible. How could a computer respond, inany meaningful way, to an essay or a poem? How could a writer win a game about writingif a computer were left to determine whether or not that writing was successful?

    The answer, of course, was that the game itself would not deploy sophisticated non-human intelligence; instead, it would leverage human intelligence by providing an immersiveenvironmenta worldthat included the kinds of structures necessary for rich social interac-tion. The game wouldnt be conscious, but it would invite consciousness into it. The machinewouldnt respond to writing; it would get players to respond to each others writing. A numberof Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), from Sims Online toSecond Life, were already demonstrating the potential of digital environments to facilitate thiskind of complex social interaction.

    3. What is Ink?

    Developed by the MSU Writing Center in collaboration with the Writing in Digital Envi-ronments (WIDE) Research Center, Ink is a MMORPG informed by scholarship on writinginstruction and by rhetorical theory. It is an experimental response to a persistent question: iflearning to write is a lifelong endeavor, what kinds of learning environments can we provide tofacilitate literacy learning that are viable, 24 7 365? We developed Ink to conduct researchto determine whether gaming environments can effectively facilitate literacy learningthat is,can students learn to write more effectively by interacting in a gaming environment? This repre-sents a fundamentally new approach to learning and teaching writing. As such, if learning takesplace, this research (and serious gaming environments) stands to make major contributionsboth to liberal education and to the scholarship on writing instruction.

    Ink (see Fig. 1 for a screen capture of the games interface) is what Kym Buchanan, thegames lead designer, calls a Persistent Alternate World (PAW). As a persistent alternate world,it supports multiple arcs of gameplay over long stretches of time. Players dont win games

    1 We are mindful that Second Life is not strictly speaking a game, but instead is an online environment thatsupports an array of activities, some more game-like than others.

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    Fig. 1. Screen capture of Ink.

    with the finality and closure of single-player video games like Pac-Man. There is no score,no game over. As a persistent alternate world, Ink offers multiple players the chance tobecome immersed in a socially, culturally, and sensorially complex ecology (for discussionsof the concept of immersion, see Dede, 1996; Buchanan, 2006). Accessible by the generalpublic through a web browser, Ink is available twenty-four hours a day to anyone with Internetaccess. This has important implications for delivering writing instruction: Ink has the potentialto make literacy learning a recreational activity that players voluntarily engage in.

    Adopting the metaphor of a city, Ink invites players to create neighborhoods and othergame spaces through a simple web interface. Ink has a currency (ink), an economy, tools forcommunication (e.g., a chat window), and for creating objects (such as documents, furniture,and toys). When they are not maintained by players, objects and spaces in Ink generate entropy.When entropy builds to a certain point, an entropy discharge can result, which means that theun-maintained space as well as surrounding spaces are compromised. This dynamic is meantto parallel real-world realities: if I dont maintain my home properly, not only does my ownhouse lose value, but surrounding homes lose value as well.

    We are often asked: How do you win? There is no simple winning or losing in Ink, just asthere is no simple winning or losing in life. Instead, there are a variety of markers of successand advancementsome of which are provided for within the structure of the game itself,some of which reflect the individual goals, values, and attitudes of players. Simple forms of

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    success are measured by earning ink and by creating and maintaining rooms that are popularand that therefore avoid entropy discharges. A more involved structure for marking successwithin the game is a feature called pathways. Pathways are a collection of activities that relateto a particular themethe Path of Government, for example, or the Path of Technologyandthese activities are organized into levels. An example of a Level One task on the Path ofGovernment might be attending a town hall meeting, while a Level Two task might be writinga fundraising letter for a political group, and a Level Three task might be running for citycouncil. Activities are documented in journals that are in turn reviewed by other players. Mostactivities also result in various forms of writing, so completing a level on a given path typicallyresults in producing a portfolio of documents.

    But players also set their own goals for succeeding within the game. For players who hopeto make the game world more satisfying, success might mean proposing legislation to citycouncil that fine-tune the ground rules of the game. Other players might consider themselvessuccessful if the social spaces they create in Ink are popular with other players and/or serve animportant function within the social life of the game. Still others might consider themselvessuccessful if they effectively secure leadership roles, such as organizing a large action groupor serving as mayor of Ink.

    4. Why a MMORPG game?

    In recent years, education researchers have become interested in the promise of gamesas a general framework for facilitating learning across grade levels and subjects (e.g., Gee,2003, 2005; Johnson, 2005; Kierrimuir & McFarlane, 2004; Ritterfeld, Weber, Fernandes,& Vorderer, 2004; Winn, Heeter & Dickson, 2004). MMORPGs have been of particularinterest because of their ability to create socially complex settings for learning (Dede, 1996;Gee, 2003; Young, 2004; Young, Schrader, Zheng, 2006). In this relatively new type of game,complex social ecologies develop, facilitating highly ordered social relationships and intensivesocial interaction. Players use digital communication tools like email and synchronous chat tocollaborate with other players, to organize into groups, and to accomplish mutual goals.

    We felt that a MMORPG was particularly consonant with a rich tradition of rhetorical theorythat emphasizes rhetoric as an intensely situated activity (see, for instance, Biesecker, 1989;Dias, Freedman, Medway, & Par, 1999; Dobrin & Weisser, 2002; Flower & Hayes, 1980;Gee, 2003; Miller, 1992; Porter, 1992; Vatz, 1973). If kairos, as James Kinneavy (1986) toldus, is the appropriateness of the discourse to the particular circumstances of the time, place,speaker, and audience involved (p. 84), MMORPGs can provide writers with a confluence ofkairotic elements.

    Lloyd Bitzer (1968) asked us to regard rhetorical situation as a natural context of persons,events, objects, relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterance; this invited utter-ance participates naturally in the situation, is in many instances necessary to the completion ofsituational activity, and by means of its participation with situation obtains its meaning and itsrhetorical character (p. 5). This observation is consistent with studies (e.g., Dias et al., 1999)that contend writing in contexts outside the classroom is a means to other ends, an activitythat occurs naturally in the process of achieving other goals: securing funding for a project,

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    structuring an organization, getting a group of collaborators to behave in productive ways. Butthese activities arent always easy to bring into the classroom. Its problematic, for instance, toask a student to become a project manager in a corporation so that the student can authenticallybe charged with the...