What Games Don’t Teach pt II: Controller Woes

When Matt and I first started talking about videogames and education, one of the things that came up most prominently on his side was the idea of instructor illiteracy. Even if you can sell an instructor on the value of videogames for their teaching, there’s still the pragmatic obstacle posed by how foreign the medium is to many. Yes, teaching is a learning process for both students and instructors, admitting novice status can be a learning moment, etc etc. At the end of the day, teaching something you aren’t comfortable with yourself is much harder, and much less appealing a use of personal resources, than something you are. Such lesson units are challenges we actively set out to overcome, rather than accessible entry points for busy instructors on the fence.

I proposed a panel recently about this topic – how to present videogames to instructors (specifically in composition) as an effective learning tool for their classrooms. In putting it together, I thought a lot about this question of what these obstacles to videogame pedagogy might be for these instructors.

Being new to videogames brings a lot of stuff to learn, some of which I discussed in my last post: inventory management, puzzle-solving strategies (try everything with everything!), conventions for moving the plot along (talk to everyone you know!). But I think some of these new skills pose higher barriers for bringing videogames into the classroom than others. Adapting to the ways games signal narrative significance, for example, is a learning process we’re used to; we’re practiced at picking conceptual patterns out of the noise. It’s the backbone of most of our training, both pedagogically and within our specific subjects. Not to suggest it’s a piece of cake picking up these tropes. But they are, I would argue, relatively easy for even a new-to-gaming instructor to recognize. And that recognition, when combined with a little faith that there’s something to this “games for education” stuff, can lower the access barrier enough to jump in.

But learning to deal with a modern controller? Oh hell no.

Physically mastering a controller has proven, for me, to be by far the most frustrating aspect of learning to game. Learning to drive an *actual* car feels like it was easier than learning to drive in LA Noire. It’s not intuitive at all! So many buttons! At this point, I’ve essentially given up.  This difficulty mastering (or even adequate-ing) something that literally millions of people can do effortlessly is frustrating and embarrassing. So I can’t solve this puzzle – big deal. That’s what puzzles are for. The fact that manual un-dexerity prevents me from solving this puzzle despite knowing what to do, on the other hand – that’s so frustrating it almost cancels out the pleasure of play.

This is pretty much how I feel about controllers.
This is pretty much how I feel about controllers.

Learning to use a controller is not part of the fun and engaged learning that makes videogames so appealing to scholars and educators. It’s more like being presented with chopsticks for the first time when you are very very hungry, and the meal in front of you looks so good: you just have to master this one little set of movements to start enjoying yourself, but the stakes for that learning are high – your shirtfront; your character’s life. (Now granted, I can’t really use chopsticks well either so, you know, make of that what you will.)

My point here, though, is to ask how the physical difficulty of learning to play videogames might affect their adoption by instructors, especially those who are newer to digital teaching practices overall. This isn’t one of the obstacles I considered when writing my proposal, and that oversight seems so glaring now. The first time you pick up a controller or set your hands on AWSD is inevitably awkward and distracting. That memory is very fresh for me, in a way I’d cautiously guess it is not for many of videogame pedagogy’s advocates. Fumbling to navigate a digital world obscures its potential for both enjoyment and learning; it replaces immersion with self-consciousness. If this is all you experience of videogames, their pedagogy is going to be a hard sell.

I watched this self-consciousness play out during #eng177’s lectures on Braid this spring. Jim brought the game up on the main screen a few times for live playthroughs of the sections we were discussing, by either himself or a volunteer student. While both he and the student who took over did an admirable job staying cool and navigating through the levels, it was obviously a bit nerve-wracking for both of them. Even for experienced players, controlling a game is a delicate process, one that’s quick to be thrown off by outside factors like the pressure of an audience or the need to narrate your actions as you go. Only two students were willing to step up at all, with one of them shouldering most of the playing throughout the unit. Doing anything in front of 120 peers/students is nerve-wracking, of course – but this experienced suggested this is particularly true of liveplaying.

Game controls have a steep learning curve: they’re  foreign and challenging at first, but you catch on quickly. The trouble with steep learning curves for those long past them is that because they happens so quickly, it’s easy to forget how hard the initial experience can be. This probably doesn’t matter so much for teaching your mom or your Amish buddy to play Assassin’s Creed –  but for the instructor testing out a potential teaching tool, that learning curve matters. The resemblance of digital tools like blogging to practices we’re already comfortable with gives them a relatively shallow learning curve by comparison. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is an obstacle to encouraging wider experimentation in composition with videogame pedagogy.

Those of us who believe in videogames’ potential for composition instruction need to keep this curve in mind when we evangelize. To remember to acknowledge, when we talk to curious newcomers, the initial awkwardness of the physical learning process as well as the great potential of the intellectual one. To let them know, if only in passing, that the frustration passes quickly, and when it does – that’s when things get cool. And maybe steer them away from consoles.


[In-post image: IncarnateFilms]

Ode to #eng177

This past semester, I TA’d for Eng177: Literature and Videogames with my advisor, Jim Brown, as lecturer. I’ll probably be talking about my experience with this class in a number of posts over the next few months, but today I want specifically to reflect on the class’s Twitter component: five compulsory tweets per lecture on the class’s #eng177 hashtag, plus several assignments using Storify to turn those Tweets into curated reflections. This was an unexpectedly cool and complex addition to the course, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot as I think about a lot as the semester wraps up.

Now, the ideal way to do this reflection would clearly have been as a Storify! But many students have already deleted or privatized their accounts now that the semester is completed; it’s also difficult to draw on Tweets from several months back, which is something I’d have wanted to do for sure. I’ve got hopes of putting one together anyhow, but for now a hyperlink-heavy blog post will have to do. A big thank-you to Peter Wagner, Cooper Chell, and Kevin Fentress for allowing me to use their work here. (And if there’s an easy workaround for the time span issue, please point me to it in a comment!)

TL;DR – Mandatory livetweeing in this lecture course had a lot of benefits I didn’t necessarily expect, turned out to be pretty awesome.

When I learned from Jim that students would be livetweeting during lectures, I was a little skeptical. It’s not that I couldn’t imagine how livetweeting could possible benefit the course – Jim said he’d done it before to some success, and I could imagine how networked notetaking might do some cool things. But the idea of encouraging students to actively use social media during lectures themselves was new to me, and I admit it – I wasn’t convinced they’d use it productively. (In my defense, the students were skeptical at first too – most notably on the grounds that having to tweet five times per lecture would prove a multitasking overload.)

In hindsight I feel pretty guilty about this reaction. It shows the kind of assumptions about how students interact with technology (especially in the context of their educations) that I try to push against in my own research – this idea that what I might initially assume about their use of Twitter in a class setting necessarily mirrors reality. And it also made me realize that my policy of not allowing laptops during class unless the day’s activities specifically call for them, might be (/is probably) both outdated and based on the same kind of faulty assumptions.

Chris Gerben spoke really well to this concern in his 4C14 presentation; he made the point that, as is to some extent natural for academic disciplines, we tend to be behind the curve in the genres of communication we’re studying closely – that by the time we’re studying Facebook or blogs, students have moved on to using different spaces and forms, or at least using those ones differently. My own research bears this out so far; for example, while students are definitely still using Facebook regularly, they’re not using it for social networking or as a primary means of connecting with distant friends. If we’re going to keep up with the call to be thinking about, teaching, and engaging in composition in the newest of keys, Gerben argued, we really need to hurry ourselves along. We need to avoid getting our focus and assumptions stuck in how we tend to be composing digitally (she says in her blog post) and remember that students often do and see things differently. My experience Tweeting this semester wasn’t the most dramatic possible example of this, but it was enough to make me feel called out. To remind me that if I’m going to stay ahead of my assumptions, I need to be channeling Mad-Eye Moody.

#eng177 showed me that yes, students can use social media productively during class sessions themselves. It showed me how Twitter creates connections and facilitate interactions that wouldn’t happen otherwise within small, temporary communities like a semester-long course. It showed me how readily students will take up such opportunities and use them productively – and get into exactly the kind of exchanges, both argumentative and dialectic, that we hope for when we design the contents of each class meeting.

Exchanges weren’t the only way tweeting got used, of course. One of the primary practices was tweeting-as-notetaking – preserving important ideas from lecture. This was a reliable way to get in one’s five required Tweets without resorting to the kind of empty “here’s my last Tweet today” stuff we said wouldn’t receive credit. But in addition to being a good default, many students did seem to use them as a record of the lecture material – I saw such Tweets show up a lot in the final Storify assignments that asked them to connect lecture concepts to game playthroughs, pointing to these Tweets as an academic resource as well as an interactional tool. This practice also helped to allay students’ initial concerns that Tweeting combined with traditional notetaking would be too much to handle; by replacing “traditional” notes, either partially or completely, note-Tweeting helped ease the multitasking burden.

But the semester went on, #eng177 did see considerable interaction between students (and instructors as well!). This was probably my favorite thing about the hashtag – the way it created all these little exchanges between the members of the course community that wouldn’t otherwise have taken place. Sometimes these exchanges were implicit, the stream bubbling with related comments about some provocative or controversial topic from that day’s material. This Storify by Cooper Chell documents possibly the best example of this, our first lecture on the game Gone Home; note how even outside direct replies to each other, students created a stream rich in different opinions and crisscrossing perspectives. And here’s one by Peter Wagner that shows some more direct conversations on a controversial but slightly less argumentative topic: different takes on the end of the novel Ready Player One. Through these exchanges, students were able to see that even though the class liked this novel significantly more than the last one we read, they still found the ending controversial. The Twitter stream gave them a place to exchange these thoughts – and in a form that is quick, easy and relatively fun.

Unlike Blackboard-based discussion components, students seemed to relish the chance to post their opinions via Twitter, using language that was frequently informal but also active and expressive to do so. Having Twitter as a means of facilitating this kind of interaction was particularly welcome given the form of this particular class. It’s hard to make lectures of 100+ students discussion-friendly under any circumstances, and in this case it could be harder than usual in the discussions sections as well; the schedule of the class had the TAs meeting with students in double-sections of 40 students, held in the same space as the lecture, which while great for multimedia work wasn’t ideal for discussion. So having an extra forum for students to engage in back-and-forth with each other was really wonderful.

The livetweeting also led to a couple serendipitous encounters with figures outside the class community. Through the power of Twitter, it seems that game critics and developers can sometimes, Beetlejuice-like, be summoned by repeating their names. In this way, our class found itself interacting with Mike Bithell, creator of Thomas Was Alone; Porpentine, who wrote the Twine game Cyberqueen (among others); and game designer/scholar Ian Bogost.  These interactions were all unplanned, coming up solely through the designers hearing (seeing?) themselves invoked through the class hashtag. And they contributed materially to the course experience, especially in the latter two cases. Bogost chimed in with advice on what it means to imitate another person’s writing rather than paraphrasing it, provoking students in both the content and style of his advice to better efforts; Porpentine ended up graciously agreeing to do a guest lecture via Skype about her experiences and advice as a game designer. Twitter also made it easy for the class to interact with an in-person guest lecturer, Matt Haselton; by using the class hashtag Matt was able to keep participating in the conversations his lecture started even after he’d gone back to his day job at Filament Games. These are things that wouldn’t have happened with Twitter, and which were extremely cool – both from my perspective and, it seemed to me, the students’ as well.

Finally, #eng177 was a really productive learning experience for me, as both an instructor and a user of social media. Though I try very hard to stay on top of it, I know I’m prone to exactly what Chris Gerber poked at in his talk – thinking through the frame of the digital genres I know best and use most. I don’t embrace new ones as prolifically or adventurously as I should, and until this semester this reticence included ever something as relatively mainstream as Twitter. I had an account, but used it almost exclusively for following people in the field. Now, I know this is a perfectly legitimate use of Twitter – indeed, one that’s regarded by many as a best Tweeting practice. But having never really used it for interacting, I wasn’t really couscous of how it functioned – for example, how easily people are summoned into conversations when mentioned by name. Tweeting to #eng177 exposed me to how well Twitter can function for conversation between finite communities; how it can extend both digital and f2f conversations beyond the moment in which they initially take place; how they make it easy to pull in outside material to existing conversations; and how they can connect you with members of the community you wouldn’t otherwise talk to. This last on in particular I found very valuable. While I naturally felt a bit more affinity with and interest in what my own crew had to say, it was refreshing to not be limited to just interacting with half the class. I started to look out for certain students whose ideas regularly connected with me – many of whom were in other sections. This is something I’d certainly have missed out on without #eng177.

For all these reasons, #eng177 was a really cool experience, and a wonderful addition to the course. I haven’t seen the evaluations yet, so jury’s still out on exactly what the students thought – but from watching the stream and hearing them chatter before and after class, I think it was at least a reasonable success for them too. Of course, there’s always varying levels of involvement with a component like this – just like with any part of a course. Some students never rose above perfunctory use, going through the motions; others grasped it actively from day one. But mostly I saw active in-between: the majority of students used it in both ways, sharing actively and naturally when they had something to contribute – which happened more often than I’d ever have thought at the beginning of the semester. Students (and the general ever-growing magic of digital media) proved the skeptic in me wrong, and gave me a new tool for my digital pedagogy toolbox. Of course, by the time I teach a 100+ lecture of my own we might all be communicating directly via hivemind – in which case I look forward to designing my first course-specific neural stamp – five mental waves per lecture required.