humanities gaming Rhetoric/Composition

Gaming and the Horizon Report

The 2011 Horizon Report is out today and once again, games are on it.

Not for nothing, but here's the history of gaming in the Horizon Report:

  • 2004: Educational Gaming 2-3 year window 
  • 2005: Educational Gaming 2-3 year window
  • 2006: Educational Gaming 2-3 year window (tick, tick, tick)
  • 2007: Massively Multiplayer Educational Gaming 4-5 year window (hmmmm)
  • 2008: Gaming not on the list (say what?)
  • 2009: Gaming not on the list (guess we were wrong about gaming, huh?)
  • 2010: Gaming is now extinct
  • 2011: Game-based learning 2-3 year window

Now maybe that isn't entirely fair, as what seems to happen from 2008-2010 is that talk of games gets embedded into many other categories: games for mobile phones, augmented reality games, etc. This year, however, they make a comeback as their own category. So there's a modestly interesting rhetorical movement here, right? I suppose, in theory, ideally what happens with an identified technology is that it moves closer to the horizon and then becomes ubiquitous or diversifies in the way mobile technologies generate a range of possible activities that might be at various points on the horizon. What I think is interesting in this case though, is that games return and are described in much the same way as they were in 2006.

Now I don't think anyone is suggesting that things haven't changed in five years, I guess. From the perspective of humanities, there has clearly been an increased scholarly interest in games. Even in my own field of computers and writing, that shift is clear. And maybe there are more individual faculty out there experimenting with gaming in the curriculum. Last year's NEH-funded Humanities Gaming Institute, which I attended, is evidence of that. Certainly there is grant money out there for game-based learning, even in the humanities, though STEM as always get's the lion's share. But I don't see the kind of broad adoption of gaming that I have seen with other technologies that have been in the Horizon Report. In particular, social media like blogs and wikis were quite rare in 2004 in the humanities. Now many of my TAs employ these in their classrooms. Today, no one would be interested in your conference presentation (or article) on "how I used blogging in my classroom" (as they would have 4 years ago) but a similar presentation on using games would still fly. Clearly blogs and wikis lent themselves to humanities (and composition) in a way that games have not.

There are a number of obvious reasons for this.

  1. Creating a digital game takes more technical skill than creating a blog or a wiki. So for most humanists, doing it on your own is not feasible. On the other hand, paper games require little technical skill, which leads to point two…
  2. As much as blogs or wikis demand a new pedagogy, games might require an even greater rethinking of how learning happens (let along how it might be measured). So even a paper game would demand some serious thinking if it were to be a substantive part of one's curriculum.
  3. There are few people in the humanities with this kind of expertise. Even if you have the desire to pursue such interests, it is difficult to find the resources you need (though maybe the growing presence of game studies will change this).

The Horizon Report continues to identify the MMORPG model as a kind of holy grail for educational gaming. MMORPG offer the potential of the game within the game–quests, puzzles, solo and group missions, etc–as well as providing a platform for extending content. Oddly, first-year composition makes sense as place to develop such humanities gaming because it is already "massively multiple." We already see educational technology companies and publishers (if such distinctions can still be made) spending money to develop online content, course management, and even their own curriculum for FYC. It would seem, potentially, that there could be financial resources there for game development. And I do think that one would need money as one would have to create something that was vaguely competitive with commercial game products in terms of look/feel, playability, etc. 

Solving problems with research and rhetoric may never be as inherently fun as solving them with a virtual broad sword or hand grenade. I too shudder to think what happens when/if the R in MMORPG becomes "rhetoric" and the P becomes "pedagogy." It is only because I am interested in experimenting that I find the notion worthy of consideration. I can barely glimpse a game where players have to work together to establish a community, address various communal problems (which require research), and perhaps deal with rival communities. These are the foundational problems from which classical rhetoric emerged, yes? However, I do think there are more modest games that are easier to imagine: searching/exploring AR games that facilitate research practices, puzzle-type games that work as heuristics for invention/revision, and social games that obligate players to writing.

There is another more important reason why composition makes sense as a place to experiment with humanities gaming. The problem that humanities games have, in general, is that they want to focus on content. The nightmare of this is where a textbook chapter gets cut up into scripts read by various NPCs that one has to search out and click on, followed by some movie clip. Of course games can benefit from content–some backstory, an immersive world to explore, etc. But let's face it, what's the content of a deck of cards? or dice? Content is a secondary feature. If the humanities curriculum has a challenge in games, it's that the primary activity of the humanities is digesting content. I.e., read this book. Composition however is focused on activity over content. That is, it's learning through doing. That just seems more logically amenable to a game activity.