Courses I’d be into Teaching

Coding and Conventions for Online Writing (200-300 level)

The rise of new media has had profound effect on how and what we write – and professional writing is no exception. A successful digital writer does a lot more than cut and paste – they use uniquely digital resources to power up written language, creating texts that can speak directly to their online situations. This course will give you a strong set of digital composing strategies and teach you how to use them effectively with the ones already in your writing toolbox. You’ll research the history, conventions, and trends of online writing within a field or genre that interests you, and explore how individuals and organizations construct and distribute knowledge within electronic spaces. You’ll practice composing effective digital texts in a range of genres and styles, and complete a collaborative online project suitable for inclusion in a professional portfolio.

This course is designed around the belief that all digital code, including markup languages like HTML, is rhetorical – and therefore it is an essential part of effectively critiquing and composing digital texts. As such, you’ll practice the basics of composing with markup languages throughout the semester, and learn how to use these simple techniques to boost the rhetorical impact of your written language. It doesn’t take a computer science degree to write with code – just a grasp of the general principles and a willingness to seek out and experiment with more complex ones as the need arises.

 

Video Games and Learning (Subtitle: Everyone I Know Works in Digital Learning)

Video games are a powerful way to engage and inspire learning. They can also be a powerful medium for storytelling – one that many digital literacy scholars believe helps to drive that unique learning engagement. What does the power of video games to engage and instruct us mean for society? How might that power be used to transform learning both inside and beyond the classroom?

This course is designed to explore these questions the same way video games do themselves: through interdisciplinary, multimodal learning. We’ll read work from prominent games+learning scholars, and play a wide range of games – mostly independent or openware ones, but a few more prominent titles as well. Thanks to the magic of Skype, we’ll be able to talk directly to the designers for some of these games, as well as with other digital learning professionals – creating a unique chance for open dialogue between students, educators, and industry professionals. In addition to writing about the course’s ideas, you’ll also collaborate to produce games of your own using open-source platforms like Twine.

 

Opening the Archives: Digital and Cultural Logics

“The digital is the realm of the open. Anything that attempts to close this space should be recognized for what it is: the enemy.” – The Digital Humanities Manifesto (UCLA 2009)

This common view of information access as a moral imperative has led to some valuable and exciting digital knowledge projects – including Google itself. But this view can also blind us to the political and cultural implications of this openness. The information within those open-access bytes was created in a local context – one that isn’t necessarily compatible with the universal access missions that characterize digital curation today. How can we use digital technologies to unite people through information while also respecting their differences?

This class explores this question in both theory and practice. You’ll learn about theories of digital curation and information design. We’ll examine both the history and the results of the universal access movement, and consider what these digital advancements mean for the groups whose knowledge may eventually become part of these projects. Then, in the second half of the course, we’ll work with a pair of [University X] digital archivists to create a digital archive for a local community partner – one designed to respect their stories as well as preserve them. Partners for similar projects in the past have included community literacy programs, housing and farming cooperatives, and the Southern Wisconsin Hmong Organization. [inspiration shoutout: Kimberly Christen Withey and her amazing C&W keynote this summer]

Image Credit: Kentucky Route Zero, Cardboard Computer

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]

What Games Don’t Teach pt I: the Kelly Chambers Incident

Since Gee’s idea of Affinity Spaces is a major part of my dissertation’s conceptual frame, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff about the power of games as learning tools. (Also I date a Filament designer, which tends to bring with it a good dose of similarly themed conversations.) These arguments had been interesting in the abstract, but really came to life for me when I started playing myself. Because video games can be really complicated these days! Matt started me out relatively slow, with Knights of the Old Republic as my first fighting-style RPG, but even that felt dauntingly complex at the start. But the game made me want to play it despite the anxiety I felt about all this, and with a little help from Matt I learned the ropes before I was even off Taris. And now I’m playing Skyrim unassisted with only occasional anxiety about figuring out the skill trees.

Playing these games made me appreciate the conversation about games as uniquely powerful learning tools in a new and much more concrete way. Many of the games I played this past year are complicated by any definition, and yet make learning to harness and navigate those complications not only manageable but genuinely pleasurable. But in addition to teaching you the systems and rules specific to the particular game, video games also teach you how to navigate the rules of the genre overall. You learn how puzzle games work by playing a few of them, and then you have a leg up on the next one you come across. You learn that shotguns are for close range and rifles for long (or you’re supposed to – sometimes you’re an idiot and need your boyfriend to point it out to you); that sometimes you solve puzzles by trying every combination of action and object until something works; that levels and dungeons are usually one-way, and if you’re spending a lot of time backtracking through already-cleared environments you probably took a wrong turn. These conventions aren’t completely universal, of course – and expecting them to be sets you up to be caught by the inevitable moment when a game deliberately breaks them to mess with you (a practice that reached its purest and most meta form in The Stanley Parable).

But generally, by playing a bunch of games you learn not only how those games work, but what you can reasonably expect from other games like them.  This is both cool and useful, as it essentially gives you a headstart, even some shortcuts, for learning these new games in the future. It means that when you start a new game, you can, as Gee puts it in an account of playing real-time strategy games, “already know something, have a small foot up.”  Each game is “a precursor for later learning” as well as a learning experience in of itself. When you arrive at that later learning opportunity,  you’ll be able to make useful and cautiously dependable assumptions about new systems and situations even before you’ve finished learning the specifics.

Most of my game experiences (at least as measured in hours of play) are with RPGs, in a genre I’d describe as “combat/narrative blends” – they have a lot of fighting, but a decent chunk of story as well (sometimes very good ones). Over the last 18 months, I’ve experienced a lot of these “small foot up” moments Gee talks about, with the result that each new game I pick up is easier to learn – and, maybe even more important to my overall play experience, navigating their environments and situations is more and more intuitive. The best example I can think of deals with level conventions: I’ve learned that I can reasonable expect each dungeon/mission/whatever to have one relatively obvious route through it from start to finish, and how to recognize the conventional visual signals used to mark it. I used to get painfully disoriented in even simple level layouts, to the point that it was embarrassing; I’d be looking over my shoulder hoping no one was witness to my getting lost in the Presidium again. But now that I have a few more RPG notches in my belt, I have a much better instinct for the conventions and goals underlying level design, and (usually) have no trouble finding my way unless I’m supposed to. This, and a host of other accumulated lessons, suggest that by and large, combat/narrative RPGs are good at teaching about their genre as a whole as well as themselves.

Except there’s one convention that video games have completely failed to teach me – that of the time-sensitive mission.

In most RPGs, time-sensitive missions are the exception rather than the rule. Taking out the mafia kingpin, storming the lab on Virmire, starting up the water purifier, scoping out the dragon burial site for possible resurrecting dragons – no matter how high the narrative stakes for these tasks, or what your NPC companions are screaming in your ear, you’ve got all the time you need to take care of it. So check out that random hallway. Search every inch of the base. Heck, wander off on a side mission for a few days if you feel like it. It’ll be there when you get back, and no one will actually be any worse off than if you’d taken your sidekick at their word and raced through like this was all actually unfolding in real time. Unless there’s some kind of visible timer on the screen, or screamingly explicit narrative cue, there’s no rush.

This is pretty standard across the RPG genre (at least in my experience), and so presumably is something these games should be teaching players along with level conventions and appropriate small arms use. But if so, it’s in a way that my learning style doesn’t recognize, because I cannot seem to internalize it in any meaningful way. Like, at all.

My (admittedly limited) gaming lessons have consistently presented urgency as something explicitly signaled through visual markers (as in the very first Mass Effect mission, when the bombs must be disarmed before the timer reaches zero). Sometimes that marker isn’t precisely time – it might be shield strength, or a companion’s health – but it gives some visual cue that I can’t be screwing around. On the other hand, they’ve also taught me that narrative matters – that what people say and do around me has implications for what I will be able to say and do subsequently. Mass Effect and Fallout 3 taught me that the cues characters give about themselves and the stories around them are important for making decisions that build the narrative outcomes I want. Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite taught me that even seemingly insignificant background details in dialogue and story can turn out to be majorly important. These experiences have primed me to take narrative, including character dialogue, seriously. They have failed to teach me to ignore that dialogue when it’s rushing my character along – despite that being what I’d argue is a pretty necessary lesson.

Because this learning failure has a definite adverse affect on my play experience. I rush past gorgeously rendered vistas and valuable equipment upgrades. I miss entire side quests and quirky characters. I sometimes experience something akin to actual stress over reaching an objective I’ve been told is pressingly urgent when in reality I could wander off, clean my entire apartment, have a leisurely drink with friends, and then come back and finish the mission to exactly the same effect as my instinctive 15-minute bull rush. Just a few days ago I caught myself abandoning a Skyrim questline I was enjoying immensely because a character I’d just met told me I had to meet her at some random location right away. This didn’t have any negative effect on that original questline (of course). But it had an effect on my enjoyment of the game – I felt rushed and resentful. By the time I remembered that urgency is just a narrative trapping in RPG quests I was already at ground zero for the new quest’s first mission.

I’m not sure why I have so much difficulty resolving these conflicted learning objectives – why I can’t seem to learn that narrative tags about urgency are decorative and not declarative. I’m pretty sure it’s not a widespread problem; if it was, designers would already have switched up how they’re coding and scripting these moments to improve their games’ ability to teach both lessons effectively. I have a fairly conventional learning style – traditional school worked fine for me, I’m not unusually visual or tactile or anything like that. So the sensation of falling through a learning-styles crack (even one so laughably insignificant) is kind of a weird (and, because the stakes are so low, interesting) experience. It makes me wonder what a game would look like that did teach me this effectively. Additional tags about the importance of being thorough and exploring? A section in the tutorial mission that explicitly says “sometimes missions are timed; here’s what that looks like”? The latter seems clunky; the former could be too subtle. But then, even if such a game existed, there’s a chance I still wouldn’t learn. Because sometimes bad design reinforces the wrong lesson – and as Skinner taught us, inconsistent reinforcement is the most powerful kind. Which brings us to Mass Effect 2 and the Kelly Chambers Incident.

In its final stages, Mass Effect 2 breaks the rules that urgency gets exceptional markers: once the final mission becomes available a hidden clock starts, and the longer you wait before starting it, the more of your captured crewmates are killed by the enemy. This includes the peppy and, in Matt’s words, “really attractive” Kelly Chambers, a character who (if she survives) plays a role in the following game. A role I will probably never see, because my Shepard’s Kelly is Collector paste. I’d grown used to people telling me missions were urgent, vital, pressing; and nothing about the dialogue surrounding the final mission cued me to think it was any different in this regard, that this time it really was urgent.

So I dicked around and finished a few sidequests, and Kelly died, and I’m still super pissed about it. The ONE time my natural instinct to rush to the rescue would actually have been correct, I ignored it. Consciously. Because I remembered what the game(s) had taught me.

This seems like bad design to me. What good are stakes if you don’t know they’re there – and can’t reasonably be expected to have guessed it? By changing up a basic rule of the genre without warning, Mass Effect 2‘s final mission undercuts the lessons taught by the rest of the series, and other narrative-based RPGs as well. I would argue that this is an example of bad design on their part – of letting a narrative shock outweigh the game’s consistency as a learning tool of the genre. This is not to say games should never play with or flaunt our expectations – not at all. But that they need to do so in a way that’s consistent with the rules the game’s taught us govern its systems. In a good game, we shouldn’t be overly comfortable about what’s coming our way, but we shouldn’t feel cheated by it either.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I was told several days ago that I’m desperately needed at a dragon burial site, so I should probably look into that.