Epistemic Games and the Composition Classroom

I loved this week of getting to select from the readings, and what a great list of choices! I’m hoping to get to go back and read more than what I have so far. My first and biggest take-away from reading these articles was how important it is for educators to continue to engage in articles like this throughout their career, and to be continually in conversation with other educators about education research. That large take-away aside, I’ll focus my post on the Shaffer and Gee article and a discussion of gamification.

The Shaffer and Gee article really resonated with me. I think the authors do a great job summarizing concerns educators may have about both liberal and conservative education movements. They describe liberal movements as too student directed, and failing to reveal the “rules of the game” (9); thus, liberal education movements might advantage students who learn the rules of the “game” of success by virtue of their family’s socio-economic status (I’m thinking right now of a Montesori-based school a friend of mine teaches for; this assessment resonates exactly with her assessment). On the other hand, conservative education movements are too “standards” and testing driven, and don’t allow for creative problem solving; thus, they don’t ultimately lead to transfer of knowledge or innovation (9). I found both the problem, as they describe it, and the answer they propose – epistemic games – to be extremely compelling and my biggest question is, why it hasn’t caught on more?

I remember the days of Oregon Trail, a computer game we used to play at school—originally released in 1971—that taught us about the migration of settlers to the West Coast. If that dates all the way back to 1971, why aren’t there many more games like that now? (I’m interested to hear if others have played Oregon Train and what other similar games people have played in school.)

The principles of these games are so sound: having students engage with solving realistic problems and act as experts in a particular field, thus entering the community of those experts. This idea of the importance of entering the “community” of experts reminded me a lot of Frank Smith’s Joining the Literacy Club (1987) where he argues for the importance of literacy education highlighting students’ entry into a community of readers and writers. The idea of having students engage in challenging problems, what some teachers call “wicked” problems, reminds me a lot of what Ken Bain discusses in What the Best College Teachers Do (2004). (This is just two of the many authors whose work in ed theory explain why epistemic games have such excellent potential.)

Ok, so what might this look like in the composition classroom, and what do these games have to learn from composition pedagogy?

Last year, I had the opportunity to audit a course taught by a friend using Reacting to the Past games, which are intricately-designed multi-week role playing games where students are assigned roles that allow them to recreate historical events, though perhaps with new outcomes, depending on how the game goes. (If you’re interested in learning more, see the link above or this Inside Higher Ed article.) These games, I think, provide an excellent bridge between Shaffer and Gee’s idea of epistemic games and the composition classroom. The games invite students to read a variety of print text primary sources and then respond as their character, both through persuasive speeches and through writing.

Though I saw great potential for the games, my experience with them was that they fell short to some extent because I think that there was not enough composition (and general communication) pedagogy interwoven into the class: what better setting could there be to discuss audience and purpose? I also thought that the impact of the game would have been greatly increased by adding a reflective essay where students synthesized their experience and wrote about what it was like to speak and write as a historical figure. Without this reflection piece, I think it was difficult for students to synthesize their learning and figure out how they might transfer it to new contexts. Thus, I think the framework and structure created by Reacting to the Past could be greatly strengthened by the addition of techniques drawn from rhetoric, reflection, and transfer pedagogies. I think a course designed around Reacting to the Past games linked to a composition/research course could provide the perfect balance of composition studies and problem-solving application. I look forward to exploring this possibility with my colleague – perhaps one day we will teach these as linked classes!

2 thoughts on “Epistemic Games and the Composition Classroom

  1. Hi Jeni,

    I think you posed some interesting questions about gaming in writing classrooms. Personally, the games I played as a kid like Oregon Trail, Reader Rabbit, and various typing games have tainted my idea of educational games, so I cannot think of how these games would work in a fyw class. And this may be the reason why it hasn’t caught on either – these games are associated with children learning. Wouldn’t kids eventually outgrow wanting to play these games? How can the gaming formula change after ~12 years of educational gaming?

    However, I have learned about “real” games being used in writing courses, which is how I think games should be implemented in today’s classes, especially because a lot of students probably already know the material. For example, I learned about a student who wrote his doctorate on using Call of Duty in fyw. The purpose of using Call of Duty is to help students see that gaming is a rhetorical action as well as better understand traditional and multimodal writing processes; the key component here is that games are showing students how the traditional and multimodal writing processes are intertwined. Students may use the ideas behind this mixing in order to create better games or recognize rhetorical or composition aspects.

    As I mentioned before, I don’t know how a true writing game would look, so I cannot tell how the gaming community can learn from composition pedagogy. But in games like Call of Duty, the basics developers could do are pay attention to genre, particularly narratives, and learn about multimodality.



  2. Thanks for a great post, Jeni! Like you, I was struck by the way that Shaffer and Gee presented epistemic games as resolving shortcomings of both liberal and conservative approaches to education. His critique of both sides was very apt. And I think you’re spot on when you say that integrating reflection is key to making this approach work, regardless of the focus of the course.

    Like Maggie, as I read the article I was left wondering how I might implement a epistemic game approach in first-year writing. I love your idea for a linked or co-taught course with an instructor from history or some other discipline. And I see where Maggie is coming from when she describes how the writing course built around Call of Duty was able to facilitate conversations about audience, genre, rhetorical action, and multimodal composing. But if the purpose of an epistemic game for a writing course would be to get students to “think like a writer” within the game itself, what form might the game take? What sorts of writing-based problems would gamers tackle? Given that students are already writers and that writing happens so differently depending on the context, what would it mean for gamers to “do particular things in particular ways,” to be “assessed relative to a particular set of external norms” (p. 13)? I’m still having a hard time picturing what that might look like.


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