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Now You See It: Gamification of FYC?

Games are fun and educational. But can they be used in First-Year Composition? 

March 11, 2012


Let me be up front about this: I personally hate video games. At least, most video games. I was never very good at them because I had poor fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. I was what you would call a “masher”; I was reasonably decent at, say, Mortal Combat because I would mash at the buttons frantically, leading my fighter to inevitably pull some moves that helped me win. Sometimes. Forget about sports games or games that required spatial awareness; I was never very good at strategy or knowing where I was (even in real life).

I never really liked non-digital games all that much either. I’m not very good at card games, board games, games of skill, games of chance, or really any game at all, unless it involved holding my breath or swimming really fast. Or song lyrics.  Elementary school, for me, was one long humiliation because I could never win any of the schoolyard games or gym games. I liked tests and projects because they had clear and attainable objectives that I could accomplish. But any of that other stuff…

And, before you dismiss me as simply being old, I did grow up with videogames. We had a Nintendo, a GameBoy, and other gaming systems. Heck, I used to play JumpMan with a joystick on our old Commodore 64 (ok, that makes me sound ancient). My (only slightly) younger brother loves video games, as does my husband (which is why he refuses to buy a machine because it would distract him). Video games for me aren’t fun; they are stressful and more than a little humiliating. If it takes 10,000 hours for mastery, I personally rather spend it in the pool perfecting my technique rather than swearing loudly at a controller.

I say all this because we have just completed the chapter on (among other things) video games in Cathy Davidson’s book Now You See It in my Freshman Writing class. On Friday, we went to the computer lab, watched this video, and then spent the rest of the class playing and then discussing Ayiti: The Cost of Life and Spent (special thanks for Mark Sample for the suggestions). These two games were great because they were largely text based so didn’t rely on fine motor skills. They were like the Choose Your Own Adventure books I used to read (and throw across the room in frustration). The games were a huge success and largely unwinnable: it’s almost impossible to keep a family of five alive in rural Haiti for four years. Between a lecture about the economic realities of rural Haiti and playing an interactive video game about living in rural Haiti, I know which one would have more of an impact on the students.

And, telling your students that you’re going to spend time playing video games makes you instantly more popular. Your colleagues, however, look at your weird.

We have been talking about how school largely prepares you for being able to pass tests where there is one right answer, how to remember and reproduce a formula or formulaic procedure (like, say, the five-paragraph essay). The challenges and problems students will be facing in college and beyond are open-ended and don’t have one right answer. Video games are much the same, educational or not. There are seemingly endless possibilities and variables, forcing players to improvise, strategize, and experiment. And, when you fail at a video game, your life doesn’t end and your financial aid isn’t revoked – you start again, with new lives and another chance to learn from your mistakes. These are all skills that I wish my students had more of.

I also know how motivating games and contests are for students. At one of my former institutions, I developed a library scavenger hunt, as well as other “contests” for “bonus” marks (which is a whole other can of worms). But, problematically, it meant that there would be only one winner (and thus a lot of losers) and, as the games we played in class on Friday, sometimes it’s impossible to “win” a game the way we typically think of winning. It was also frustrating to see students work harder than they had all semester to “win” a few bonus marks. Is winning, then, the right motivation for students?

Add to that the trouble I have figuring out how to gamify my writing class. In my 200-level, peer-driven class, students create games as learning devices (on group this semester are creating a game much like Ayiti illustrating how hard it is to be a farmer). Writing and researching a game is a lot of hard work, but you also need to have the technical skills to create the gaming environment. But, as an instructor, how do I make writing essays more like a game? And, do I even want to? Do I work to make everything into a scavenger hunt, or Choose Your Own Adventure book?

I don’t mind that my kids play games on their iPod Touches and with me on my computer. My daughter in particular has learned basic math using a couple of educational apps. But I’m not sure if games are the answer for everyone when it comes to education. I’ve seen it work, but I also know that games can be as cruel as grades. Everyone can earn an A. There can only be one winner.

What do you think? Am I being too simplistic in my understanding of what games can do? I understand how they can be used as a learning tool. I don’t know, exactly, how I can use games to improve my teaching, especially in FYC. 


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