Research has proven the benefits of play for both children and adults, but this week my students showed me that games can also support critical thinking. This semester my students and I have spent a lot of time reading, thinking, and writing about games. Our semester has been roughly divided into four units with our first unit focusing on what we can learn from games — and we found that we could learn a lot! While that first unit taught us to look beneath the surface of an issue and push back against established narratives, it was during our second unit when we conducted a rhetorical analysis of a game that we started exploring the ins and outs of how rhetoric works and especially how arguments work. This provided a great foundation for our third unit which shifted the focus from games to the more traditional humanities-based argument expected from this class. But now, as we wrap up the semester by creating and playing games, we are pulling together all the ideas we have explored and bringing our journey full circle again as we consider what we can learn from the games that we hack or create to explore the enduring questions we raised during our argument unit. This week’s class was focused on two important questions: what type of game best supports the idea we want to explore and what standards should we use to measure the success of that design and execution. Both conversations (which took place in our usual feedback loop of writing prompt, small group discussion, and then large group discussion) demonstrated to me the lessons that my students have learned this semester.
As my students proposed and considered their individual ideas for our game jam (which is our final exam) I found us digging into our formal written arguments all over again to consider the obstacles that create the conflict, the problems and solutions explored, and the facts as well as preconceived ideas people carry into the debate. We were breaking our arguments apart and examining the parts from every angle which is exactly what rhetoric is all about. I didn’t pay attention at the time because we were focused on discussing how to create or hack a game that would be both fun and challenging, but long after class was over I found myself thinking about those conversations and the level of thinking about rhetoric and ideas that occurred because we needed to explore those ideas from every angle. What is more we have spent a lot of time exploring the ideas of genre and text which has been tremendously beneficial to us all. While my students might think they are getting off easy because their final exam period will be spent playing games, I am now convinced that our game jam will be the epitome of rhetoric.
I was nervous during our final class before students turned in their formal argument papers, because a number of my students were nervous (see Secret Ingredient). However, as I reviewed those argument papers and the student commentary about the argument unit I realized something very important. My students have learned to trust the writing process. This is one of my most important goals even though I don’t list it on my syllabi. Each unit is designed to feed and support the development of each writer’s individual process and the entire class is focused on helping students read and understand how that process changes with each unique writing task and context. The fact that my students now understand that process and can harness it to their own purposes is tremendously affirming to my pedagogical choices this semester and their increasing confidence in their ability to do so makes me so happy.
Things I regularly hear in my class: best English class ever, this is so much fun, I can’t wait to [insert next class task]. Yes, I am awesome and so is my class, but that is not my point. My students are responding to being granted agency and being encouraged to be creative. We did not skill and drill. We learned important skills as we encountered the need for them (such as choosing and evaluating sources, MLA format, and integrating source material into our arguments) and the written product of each unit reinforced important argument standards such as crafting a compelling, debatable, and defensible claim and supporting that claim. In other words, we did the work expected of us so that my students are prepared for more traditional college writing experiences. But because the framework and approach to that work was fun and creative and students were given the agency to choose topics and approaches that work for them within that framework they were more engaged. We had a lot of fun and we got a lot of serious work done. As a result some students chose to be more daring and inventive with their coursework. Some students took chances on tough topics and others stepped outside their safety zone with the rhetorical strategies they employed. When a required writing class can engage students in creative and interesting work then everyone is a winner.
I see a lot of evidence that our focus on games has led to serious rhetorical work throughout the semester and helped my students grow as readers, thinkers, and writers. My work here is done and now it is time to play!