Press Start: Video Games in the Composition Classroom

write-593333_1920What do video games have to offer writers? This is an important question that educators should ask when considering the implementation of video games as texts in the composition classroom. While the study of classic literature is a bit passe in writing classes, a wide variety of texts are regularly studied to instruct students regarding sound composing practices. Many composition approaches and pedagogies place an emphasis on voice, self expression, process, audience, purpose, genre, and collaboration (conferencing, peer review, workshopping, etc.).

I believe these classic concerns of rhetoric and composing practices can be questioned, explored, and demonstrated through the skillful use of video games. Which is why I would like to take a closer look at how video games can fit neatly as supplemental material and even as direct texts for study in writing courses.

Consider the following lists which I have compiled through general observations, my work as a tutor in a writing center and as an instructor of composition courses, and my experiences as an undergraduate student.

Common topics in composition courses:

  • citizenship
  • diversity
  • inclusion
  • freedom
  • ethics
  • morality
  • social media & technology
  • family
  • gender
  • culture
  • poverty
  • privilege
  • identity

Types (sometimes genres) of writing:

  • expressive, personal, and autobiographical writing
  • creative writing
  • summary writing (evaluative, objective, etc.)
  • expository writing
  • persuasive writing and argumentation
  • evaluative writing
  • analysis writing
  • synthesis writing
  • research writing

These topics and types of writing assignments are quite common in first-year college composition courses. I have seen many instructors used theme-based textbooks/readers (think of the Oxford University Press’ Readers for Writers series), newspaper articles, novels, films, essays and narrative pieces, academic articles, and a variety of other written texts as sources for these assignments. The question becomes “can video games facilitate these topics?” The simple answer is an enthusiastic “yes!”

Video games and their related texts (blogs, FAQs, wikis, walkthroughs, etc.) could easily be used for each of the above mentioned assignments. An objective summary could be written about a book, news article, song, YouTube video, and video game. Students could explore and analyze morality as it is presented in a video game, book, or film and then construct an argument. Depending on course outcomes, and the comfort level of both students and the instructor, potentially any text could be used as a basis for inquiry.

In my own more standard (without the use of video gamges) first-year writing courses, I often used news articles and reports on the hot topic issues of the time such as gun control, police violence, immigration reform, GMOs, stereotyped advertising, health care, etc. I chose online sources because of their accessibility and the typical level of literacy required for reading. It also helped to engage students with popular topics through a familiar mode: the Internet.

Many of these same topics, and the foundational ideas behind them, are readily found in video games. Stereotypes, violence by authority figures and even institutionalized violence, ramifications and fear of genetic modification, and ethical and moral dilemmas are prevelant in games such as Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Far Cry 4, The Walking Dead, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and many more.

Why not use, for at least a few assignments here and there, video games in writing classes? Many students are familiar with and play video games frequently. It is a literacy of comfort and play for many (not everyone, but many). If anything, reading sections of Thoreau’s Walden is far more foreign to students these days than using Minecraft. I am not saying that Walden lacks value, but to a certain extent the literacy levels and familiarities of students should matter to educators.

Clearly familiarity with texts isn’t everything, but the classroom-side of the college experience, especially in writing courses, often suffers from disinterest. How many students are actually excited about being required to take two or more writing classes? Realistically, the answer can be disheartening. Not to mention that, like it or not, we are surrounded daily by technology and media. To sanitize classes of this reality is akin to ignorance and denial. But more than the inevitability of technology, educators should be interested in what students are doing and even playing outside of class, where their interests lie, and the potential of video games as rich texts. Video games are popular and reach millions every single day.

In my own game-based writing class, I found that all but one of my students played video games. Even if all of them were not particularly interested in studying video games, their level of familiarity was high.

Educators may be hesitant with how to use video games as texts and even which texts to select. I encourage educators to start slow and begin gaming. You don’t have to be an avid gamer to use video games in the writing classroom, but educators should be knowledgeable enough to read video games and interpret their complexities. Pick a platform (PC, console, mobile), look into some game genres, select a title that appeals to you, and start playing! Games like Minecraft, Stardew Valley, This War of Mine, and The Walking Dead are fairly accessible for new or rusty players, and I view them as being good starter texts for the classroom.

Knowledge of gaming culture is also important and can easily be picked up by frequenting gaming news sites like Polygon, Gamasutra, IGN, and Kotaku. Oftentimes the comment sections on the articles is more telling of gamer attitudes than the articles themselves. However, don’t just accept the loudest voices in forums and content sections as being representative of all “gamers.” I encourage you to look around at various sources to get a sense of the nuances of gaming culture. And don’t forget that many times specific games have thier own communities and cultures.

If educators wish to use video games or other medias and technologies in their classrooms, it will take a willingness to learn about those medias and technologies. This may seem self-evident. But I would much rather see informed educators attempting such integration skillfully than to haphazardly string students along on an experiment. I doubt much would be gained from such an attempt, especially on the part of the students.

At the end of the day, students writing about and studying video games should be able to make the same rhetorical moves as their peers in more traditional writing classes. These students may be able to do so while working with texts that interest them and that engage them in digital literacy.

The potential for video games in education is great, but it will take a love of inquiry and some re-education on the part of students, educators, and administrators. 🙂

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