Hacking Our Game Jam

All, Teaching Tips

My Writing II classes were only halfway through our game-themed writing class when the pandemic disrupted education across the nation and specifically at Morehead State. I was not terribly concerned about the third of our four units as we had already begun brainstorming topics and I quickly managed to pivot other support activities from hybrid to fully online. However, I was terribly disappointed not to stage our final exam as a game jam as we did last year. Then, as the awful truth of our new reality set in, I realized that I just couldn’t hold an online version of our game jam either. It would simply not be fair for the large number of students truly struggling for a wide variety of reasons. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried a little bit that day, but then pandemic teaching leaves me weepy on even the best of days. How could I reinvent our game jam when we weren’t going to have an in-person final exam period?

Our game jam last year required three things of my students: creating/hacking a game inspired by their argument essay, actively participating in the game jam (playing their game and the games of others during our final exam period), and writing a reflection about their journey as a writer and learner that semester. After much reflection, and multiple consultations with my students, I settled on a new game plan. Everyone would still need to do the reflection and a satisfactory reflection would earn students a B on the unit. However, students who wanted to take on the challenge of creating/hacking a game and playing that game would earn an A on the unit (assuming good faith effort and satisfactory completion of the reflection). This decision meant that students who just couldn’t take on one more challenge this semester would have no impact on their grade (I checked the math) but students who wanted an opportunity to raise their overall grade or needed the distraction of the challenge could still participate. Some students had been planning their game since much earlier in the semester and I was gratified that a number of students have accepted the challenge even though they didn’t need to do so for their grade.

For those determined to participate in our revised game jam, I challenged them to consider the new rhetorical context for the game jam. While before their audience would be their classmates, now they would need to think about who their players could be when designing their game. Traditional tabletop games are popular choices for our game jam, but our new reality requires that students have people living in their house who are willing and able to play or access to Tabletop Simulator. Our new context did increase the motivation to learn how to create a digital breakout, choose your own adventure, or other electronic game (could be in existing environment such as Minecraft or Sims). I also suggested that students could be creative and consider how party games could be played via phone or digital hangout. I was also inspired by a member of my PLN to suggest that students could also create a sport that could be played virtually.

While some students are choosing Option B (pun intended), I have others interested in hacking the Game of Life and Clue to play with their family, inventing their own card game, and creating a themed-version of Jeopardy just to name a few. I am so pleased, because I consider this unit the most important rhetorical work we do all semester and I love how it brings all our work together in fun and interesting ways. Plus, it is nice to have one thing to look forward too as we wrap up an incredibly difficult semester. Do you see the value of using game design to teach rhetoric?

2021 Update: My Spring 2021 game-themed writing classes are online. Even though we are all exhausted I have decided not to give students the option to opt out of the game hack this time around. However, I am coaching students individually based on their current grades (and mental health which I know because Community Check-ins!). Many will be doing more of game plan than game hack although some of those plans involve hacking an existing electronic game (such as planning a Minecraft adventure or a Fortnite team challenge) for their purpose. In many ways these will be more thought experiments than games although I suspect many cannot resist trying out their plans even if they do not need to for the class.

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