This I Believe: Using games to teach writing rocks

What’s New? This week I will kick off my fifth iteration of using games to teach writing and I continue to find this work both fun and useful. I do not anticipate making major changes to the structure of the class although I do want to lean more heavily into role-playing games and the social contract. We will use the social contract from day one to help us develop the rules for our class community as well as to inform our study of writing and our in-class play will primarily focus on RPGs. I hope to see more RPGs for our end-of-semester game jam. I am really excited to explore all the implications of the social contract for writing, living, and learning with my students. Note: Two weeks into the semester and we have played two role-playing games and it is helping us develop our community bonds, inspired our writing, and brought joy and whimsy to our class time. My students have impressed me with their creativity and made me laugh as they weave the inspirations of their classmates into their narratives. What’s not to love?

Original: This is my fourth year using games to teach writing and I have reached the deadly serious conclusion that teaching writing using games rocks. I wrote a lot of posts during my first year using games to teach writing (see 3 Writing Lessons We Learned From Games and Games Set Stage For Serious Rhetorical Work for a sampling) and have written a smattering of posts over the intervening years but it has been over a year since I wrote How To Begin Gaming Your Classroom. My commitment to using games to teach writing in my Writing II classes has only increased although some of my praxis has shifted over the years and so now a long overdue update.

Breaking Pattern

I explore my reasons for Gaming the Teaching of Writing in past blog posts, such as 3 Reasons You Should Bring Games Into Your Classroom, but quite simply games are a great vehicle for teaching rhetoric (which I define as the study of effective communication or persuasion). In specific, games push us to experience text in new and different ways but also to think about how others create and experience text. Thinking about text using games breaks some of the restrictive patterns taught to writers either explicitly or implicitly via traditional writing instruction. It is much easier for writers to understand the vast scope of the texts we create as humans when studying games. It is much easier for writers to understand the power and influence of the texts we create as humans when studying games. It is much easier for writers to understand the agency we have as writers and readers when studying games. I use games to challenge hidebound writing experience and invite the writers in my care to play and experiment with text.

Connecting Values

I regularly remind my students that I have three goals for them:

  1. To grow as a human
  2. To develop as a writer and rhetorician
  3. To advance as a reflective and self-regulating critical thinker

I teach first year writing at a small regional institution in Eastern Kentucky and many of my students are first-generation college students. Even before the pandemic broke education my students often came to college with a poor understanding of what it means to be a writer or the true purpose of education. To be honest I meet people of all ages from outside our region who don’t understand what it means to be a writer or the true purpose of education. The former has always been the overlooked stepchild and the latter has become a political football and for too long (always?) and those with training and experience are mostly (always?) left out of the conversation and instructional design, but that is a rant for another day. In truth I find it hard to separate my three goals. As I write in Good Faith Arguments we need to understand ourselves and our fellow humans before we can be good writers. Knowledge of self and humanity are not essential for style, but style alone is not enough to succeed as a writer – or human. I have written before that using themes in a writing class can give our writing focus and purpose by reducing the noise while still offering agency. But choosing the right theme is important and games offer so much potential to explore our humanity. Our narrative argument unit explored our personal history with games, but that work as well as our rhetorical analysis unit also taught us about our personal values.

In 2019 I began focusing on personal values as a community-building activity and then in 2020 as our nation’s divides widened I leaned heavily into our shared values. I find this work is important as it gives our writing more depth and purpose, but it is also important rhetorically as it helps us understand, connect, and communicate with other humans which is the primary function of rhetoric – despite all evidence to the contrary. Games are particularly helpful to this work as we learn a lot about our personal values through both playing and watching play yet discussing values in the context of play is less toxic than many other aspects of human life.

Challenging Viewpoints

One of my favorite things about using games to teach writing is that is easy to begin challenging common narratives and viewpoints which makes it easier for us to take the next step in information literacy – understanding that every text has an agenda and viewpoint. While the goal of our narrative argument unit is to explore our personal history with games we also explore several narratives (many supported by research) about the importance of play and games for human development and socialization. Our personal experience and enjoyment of games is supported by the research and yet most of us have been told all our lives that play is for children and games are a waste of time or even terrible for us and society. My students write This I Believe essays grounded in their personal experience and values that push against dominant narratives. I then use rhetorical analysis to help my students look beneath the surface of texts by exploring the historical, psychological, and philosophical origins of their favorite games. I believe that games can be a powerful tool for teaching literacy and rhetoric.

Playing With Genre

One of the ideas that first drew me to using games to teach writing was how games could be used to explore genre and break writers free. Many students have learned about genre as a reader, but I quickly use games to demonstrate that genre is not as fixed as they previously thought by exploring the question what is a game at the very beginning of the semester and then wrapping up with some playful game creation for our final unit. While the third of our four units is focused on meeting the requirement to write a formal argument, that unit relies on the critical thinking and rhetorical lessons learned in the narrative and rhetorical analysis units and must reflect the personal values identified through that work.

Studying games helps my student break through the restrictive patterns of traditional writing instruction. Studying games helps my students better understand the role of personal values in writing and rhetoric. Studying games helps my students grow as critical thinkers and humans. Studying games does all those things and more – while being fun and offering us the opportunity to write about our lives in meaningful ways and that my friends is authentic writing. Teaching writing using games not only rocks but it is authentic teaching. What do you think?

Author: Deanna Mascle
#TeachingWriting and leading #NWP site @ Morehead State (KY): Passionate about #AuthenticWriting, #DeeperLearning, #PBL, #Ungrading, and #HyperDocs.

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