Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Putting Games on the Reading List

Screenshot of Rule of Rose, © 2006 Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. 

A colleague of mine has added Portal to the reading list of one of his grad seminar courses this year, which is oh-so-awesome. It's a wonderful game, with mind-blowing gameplay mechanics and a deep and multilayered story that has a surprisingly lot to say (given the game's short length and puzzle-solving focus) about surveillance, corporate control, institutions, gender relations, paranoia, human behavior, and human-technology relations. Coincidently, this is the second time in less than a month that I've heard about a humanities-type university course incorporating Portal as a required reading. The first was announced on Michael Abbott's blog Brainy Gamer, wherein he describes how Portal came to be included alongside Gilgamesh, Aristotle's Politics, and  Shakespeare's Hamlet on the reading list for a core course at Wabash College on "Enduring Questions" in the humanities. If you read the comments section following Abbott's post, you'll see an unfortunate rehearsal of the whole ludology/narratology debate (are games "really" texts, etc.), which is so past its expiry date it's not even funny anymore. When people challenge the idea of games as texts, I think that we can point as much to the players themselves as to the mushrooming body of literature addressing them as such in terms of evidence supporting the notion that games contain important experiential and narrative dimensions (among many, many others), all of which can be analyzed and thought about. But for the most part, the idea now seems sufficiently accepted/normalized that it's generating a thoughtful discussion of how, rather than eternally focusing on why.

As Abbott points out, there are various unexpected logistics involved in putting a digital game on the reading list - from securing licenses and access, to grappling with whether or not one should or can assume a certain level of digital literacy among the students themselves (or will they need tutorials in basic gaming skills first, or is playing the games firsthand required, etc.). Having attempted to incorporate games as recommended readings in some of my previous courses (not required, just recommended), along with my experiment in using Metaplace as a teaching and learning tool last fall, I have a small idea of some of the unexpected challenges and assumptions that arise when bringing games into an otherwise not-game-based curriculum. As I plan on incorporating even more games in my future courses, in exercises and as required readings, I think that I should probably start looking into this a bit more seriously, and potentially try to delineate some guidelines or best practices for points/issues that may need to be addressed.

I've got to say, though, so far I'm finding a lot more support for the theory behind games as learning tools, as well as instructions on how to use games for teaching, rather than practical advice about things like logistics, copyright, which game companies might be willing to offer an educational discount, and what to do about varying literacy/gaming skills. Though for this latter item, I'm sure a bit more delving into the following sites will yield some good advice. Anyway, all this to say that for now, what I've got is primarily a short list of resources that would be the obvious starting points for finding tips and established entry points for games in/as teaching (e.g. great for formulating learning objectives, developing in-class strategies, etc.):

Future Lab: UK non-profit (but surely industry funded) group dedicated to facilitating the incorporation of games and other digital apps into the classroom, enabling tech-based innovation in the development of tech curriculum & pedagogical tools.

Katie Salen's Institute of PlayQuest to Learn: An entire think tank dedicated to harnessing play for education, along with an entire school based around digital interaction, gaming and play. Salen has also written (& edited) key texts within game studies, and both organizations are based on theory grounded principles (as well as, no doubt, intentions to write some new theory).

McDaniel, R. and Telep, P. (2009). Best Practices for Integrating Game-Based Learning into Online Teaching. MERLOT: Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(2). Link

Max Lieberman, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, is generously sharing his in-progress research (from proposal to lit review to findings) on the use of games in humanities. He has also launched a resource for educators, called The Educational Game Database/'s still in the early stages, but hopefully will produce some good material soon. In the meantime, check out his slide presentations on his Research Proposal (examining the use of and outcomes of using digital games "as texts" in college English courses), and his Lit Review on the use of games in humanities education.

Additional possible sources of interest:
Adams, M.G. (2009). Engaging 21st-century adolescents: Video games in the reading classroom. English Journal, 98(6), 56-9. Link (subscription required? not sure)

Clayton, J. and Hall, M. J. (2008). Worlds of Warcraft: class audio and video (Podcast). iTunes U.

Games as writing/narrative tools (rather than texts):
Colby, R.S. and Colby, R. (2008). A Pedagogy of Play: integrating computer games into the writing classroom. Computers and Composition, 25(3), 300-12.

James Paul Gee's copious work on games & learning (e.g. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy).

Jolley, K. (2008). Videogames to reading: Reaching out to reluctant readers. English Journal, 97(4), 81-6.

I've also found this massive list of resources exploring topics related to games in and for education/learning, which you can find here.

Not that I've lost sight of my original mission - I think that potentially some discussion with people who have done this before is the best way to proceed - learn from their mistakes and triumphs, as well as keep a good record of any admin and/or logistical hurdles my colleague (and later on myself) might have to clear this semester. I'm not sure though - was Abbott's experience typical? Have any of you who have incorporated games into a not-otherwise-or-entirely-games-focused course bothered to draft up established procedures for this, or have you even had to? Or has it been quite easy to bring games into a course reading list...both in terms of the associated admin and student response???? Any and all advice on this would be deeply appreciated (in comments or through email/DM).


Sara M. Grimes said...

Via said colleague, who contacted Valve about his course, it turns out that Valve is set up pretty well for academic licensing - they have their own system, called SourceU (Academic Licensing Program), which operates through Steam, and provides students "participating in approved programs access to the Source Software Development Kit (SDK)" and a number of game titles. They also have a number of private academic forums for instructors and can set up Steam Community Groups for their classes (with built-in calendar and chat features).

Very cool.

I'm thinking this has probably been set up for/by/with game design & computer programming instructors, but I'll have to join a forum and find out firsthand to see for myself. Can't wait!

Rule of Rose Mysteries said...

Thanks for honoring my blog, Rule of Rose Mysteries, with a reference (via link).

Sara M. Grimes said...

My pleasure - your blog is fascinating, and a real treasure trove of creativity/fandom/awesomeness.

Mark Zima said...

I put some pictures up for you in the comment section of Rule of Rose Mysteries... let me know what you think.

Sara M. Grimes said...

I love them - they're perfect!