It’s a truism in the game industry that a well-designed game should be playable immediately, with no instruction whatsoever. — Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World
I’ve struggled to make my college English composition course relevant to students. Moreover, I have really struggled to help students grasp the importance of concepts like revision, editing, rhetorical analysis, document design, and so on. Students often ignore the finer details of these topics, handing in what they believe to be their best effort — much to my consternation. I’ve seen papers with Comic Sans and Gothic-style fonts. I’ve seen handwritten papers, instead of typed essays. I’ve seen poorly constructed arguments galore, despite considerable class time dedicated to the construction of arguments, rhetorical analyses, revision, and editing. Students just weren’t connecting the dots, and I believed that the way I was approaching the content was the problem.
I began searching the Web, looking to see what its fickle wisdom had to say on the matter. I found an interesting blog article concerning game design and composition, but I have since lost that blog article. However, its impact cannot be understated. (I wish to thank the person who wrote this article, as she helped me develop a successful and unique curriculum for my ENGL 1120 or Composition II courses.) The article in question suggested that to teach students in the twenty-first century, we had to approach the subject matter in a friendly, consistent, and engaging way. The teacher in question had suffered from several setbacks when it came to teaching basic composition concepts to her students, something I’d experienced as well. She suggested, and I expanded on myself in my own classes, game design.
Game design, at a fundamental level, mirrors the composition process. Using iterative design, one of the many dominant design paradigms in game design, I was able to reach students in ways that I’d never imagined, and I have since implemented this curriculum across all my ENGL 1120 or Composition II courses.
We first began our foray into game design by talking about the implications of basic design. We discussed poor design (Edison Plugs), and we discussed great design (answers varied). We read seminal works on design and game design, including the first chapter of Psychopathology of Everyday Things (POET, now DOET). We read articles on MDA (i.e., mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics). We explored design in everyday games — Catan, Carcassonne, rummy, various dice games, chess, etc.
Students were assigned to groups, in order to work on, you guessed it, games of their own. They had to apply the concepts of game design they had learned from the assigned readings and classroom discussions to their games. This created a situation in which students had to apply and remember the content they’d learned. They could not forget this information, or their projects would (ultimately) fail.
Students were also expected to be able to understand the intricacies of rhetorical analyses (genre, medium, rhetorical situation, etc.) and relationships between author and audience, audience and product, and product and author (see a similar graphic below that is used in our English classes quite often). In other words, they need to understand how texts worked, how they failed, and how they were designed. Without this practical application through game design, I’ve seen students flounder with these very basic concepts. When I switched over to game design, students were able to connect the dots with relative ease.
While the students were concentrating on developing coherent rules, research game design concepts, and developing their own games, they were, in fact, practicing many of the skills we require students to know upon leaving ENGL 1120 or Composition II. In other words, they were learning concepts, honing skills, and engaging with ideas critically, all of which are prerequisites for performing in academia and beyond.
Our class put students to the test when they had to prototype their games in a public setting. They had to receive feedback from peers, and they were required to use this feedback to make a better game. In other words, students were encouraged to see the revision and editing process not as a chore but as an important aspect of any design, whether for written documents, games, or whatever that is consumed by the public.
The culmination of the semester’s work was showcased at a public showcasing hosted at our college. This showcasing allowed students to present what they had learned, what they had produced, and, more importantly, they had to convince members of the public to vote for their project. The voting added a bit of friendly competition and real-world reality to the situation. Students who designed poorly constructed games or convoluted games, were the ones who lost out. Those who designed engaging, unique, and understandable games, were the students who won out in the end.
On top of papers, game design projects can help students tackle the concepts we want them to be able to understand once they leave our composition classrooms. Moreover, game design offers a fun application of knowledge that is both challenging and relevant to students who will be going out into the real-world, the world beyond academia’s four walls. Student papers that semester, and beyond, have been interesting and well-constructed. Students now understand how many of the concepts I teach are relevant, especially outside of simply writing.
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