Tag Archives: games

Keramidas: yay; Bogost: okay.

Keynote speech at 2015 CCCC by Adam Banks

In his article, “Persuasive Games: Exploitationware,” Ian Bogost grapples with (rants about) the political consequences of the rhetorical decisions we make in how we describe designing games for learning. In order to get a sense of the way in which game design is a radical departure from “many of the practices of industrialization that gamification silently endorses,” it’s useful to pair his discussion with the more in-depth attention to questions of design and pedagogy that Kimon Keramidas provides in “What Games Have to Teach us about Teaching and Learning: Game Design as a Model for Course Design and Curricular Development.” But first, for those of you who are reading this to get the gist of the articles, I’ll summarize Bogost’s beef with “gamification.” As implied above, gamification according to Bogost involves applying an abstract, therefore vague, concept to an already-existing set and structure of practices (in this case, pedagogical practices) instead of creating a new system. A new system, my best guess suggests, would involve reorienting pedagogy from what Freire called the “banking concept of education” (Freire 72) to designing a learning process through encounters in and with a context.


This seems to be the main difference in a game-design system: that of switching from the priority of a teacher-expert passing knowledge to a student to that of a student using the teacher as one of a number of tools in a rewarding, stimulating, and challenging learning environment designed by the instructor. This learning process, I gather from Keramidas, depends on the student making decisions and learning how to make better or wiser decisions in a context that periodically gives them “value assigned” outcomes and opportunities for “meaningful play.” This is what Keramidas has described as a learning environment compatible with game design. Using Jesper Juul’s definition of a game, he outlines the elements of game design that parallel, in some way, course design and learning environments; and those that could parallel game design more than they currently do; or that differ in an important way. Regarding difference, for example, Keramidas notes that games are isolated from real-world consequences for the player unlike the learning environments that explicitly prepare students for their activities beyond the classroom. These “non-negotiable outcomes,” for Keramidas, add to the relative worth of classrooms over games.


Keramidas is careful to point out that, in many ways, the description of a game, and its individual essentials, is already compatible with contemporary pedagogy. Like games, learning environments have rules that set these spaces apart from others. They have variable, quantifiable outcomes. They have “value assigned to possible outcomes,” such as grades or new challenges. As in both games and learning, the “player” must exert effort to get anything out of the process. However, they don’t necessarily have play: certainly not enough of it. Play, in this context, involves much more than having a light-hearted attitude or a variety of low-stakes, creative activities. Drawing from Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play, Keramidas stipulates that “meaningful play” includes multi-player interactions, an emphasis on interactivity in general; having tasks/work that are/is relevant to the next and future activities, as in the case of multi-staged assignments, and opportunities for the “player” to make choices. Keramidas also asserts, through Salen and Zimmerman, that the rules (or rule makers) of the learning environments could learn from games by including more student-led learning and more opportunities to negotiate outcomes and assessments for assignments.


If any of you are involved in the College Composition community, and if any of you have attended a Conference on College Composition and Communication, you already know about and put into practice the principles listed above, and you’ve probably done so without thinking about games or gamification. That’s why it’s surprising that Bogost characterizes the compositionists at the C’s the way that he does. Tweed and patches and twin sets? I don’t know what lenses he was wearing. Teachers come to the C’s dressed like they’re looking for a hip publisher or a “conference boyfriend.” He implies that it took them forever to catch on to his ideas, but compositionists have emphasized play and interactivity since the 1970’s, and books like Geoffrey Sirc’s Composition as a Happening (2002) and Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole (2011) trace and revise some of that history without ever even mentioning Ian Bogost.


Perhaps this historical precedent is why the conference organizers gave him one of the most prime spots for presenting—the second session of the first day. I was dismayed that Bogost took a long-time allay of responsive, interactive pedagogy with multi-staged assignment sequences, teacher-student collaborative assessment rubrics, and multimodal compositions that emphasize rhetorical decisions over mechanics, and turned this community into a straw man for his complaint about “gamification.” He must have been referring to the administrators (perhaps not present at C’s) who determine the budgets for those rad WPAs (writing program administrators) who provide the space and resources for composition classrooms to be some of the most playful and interdisciplinary spaces in the university. If we are to use criteria drawn up by Keramidas and Bogost, compositionists already are game designers. We are also extremely conscious of the real-world, non-negotiable outcomes and consequences of our courses, and therefore of our curriculum design. So, what kind of game is this? Calling compositionists the traditionalist keepers of poor practices? Perhaps it took him so long to get a spot at our conference because he didn’t bother to learn about it, or about us.





James Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy?

In 2003, the year that “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy?” was published, the prevailing sentiment about video games (at least in the culture of mainstream education) was that they were a waste of time at best, malicious influences, at worst. Most games were narrowly targeted to young, white, middle-class male players, and created overwhelmingly by designers fitting the same profile (they still are, but today to a lesser extent). The gaming habits of the perpetrators of the Columbine school shooting, which occurred just a few short years prior, were well-analyzed in the media. The games, supposedly, made the perpetrators “aggressive” and “anti-social” and allowed them to practice fantasies they would later enact in real life. This idea has certainly had its detractors over the years — with scores of think-pieces published about the tenuousness of the causal link between games and violence. I agree — these are the wrong questions to ask about violence and games in society.

But Gee’s work does locate “the theory of human learning built into good video games.” He draws connections between the kind of learning which happens through engagement in the semiotic domain of video game play, and the latest research on how people learn from situated cognition, New Literacy Studies, and connectionism. He extrapolates dozens of principles from games that promote learning.

First provocation, inspired by a talk I heard by Scott Price, now of BrainPOP: If we accept that games are powerful tools for active and critical learning, does that mean we accept that games can teach violence? What are the implications of that?

For Gee, active learning is when we learn to experience the world in a new way, gain the potential to join a new social group, and gain resources that prepare us for future learning and problem solving within the semiotic domain we are entering (video games, biology, etc), and related domains. Critical learning for Gee is active learning PLUS the idea that the learner comes to innovate within the semiotic domain in novel and unpredictable ways.

His argument is that games promote both active learning AND critical learning. The caveat — and it’s a big one from my perspective — is that when he says “games promote…” he means, well-designed games played in specific ways, and within communities that promote active and critical learning.

Second provocation: When are games NOT promoting active and critical learning? Think about the Bogost piece. Should we worry about half-baked principles from games based learning, and poorly designed “edu-tainment” games encroaching on education spaces?

Last year, I ran a game design club at a high school in the South Bronx. I would classify the students who selected into the club as the “hard core” gamer kids of the school. In reflecting on their gaming habits, it’s become very clear to me that they were active learners in the semiotic domain of video games, maybe even, as Gee writes “on their way” to being critical learners in that domain. They were passionately vested, had encyclopedic knowledge of the in-game worlds, they could explain status hierarchies in their gaming communities, they were taking part in online forums of players and fans, creating and watching their own game walkthroughs on YouTube, diving into texts well-beyond their “reading levels” so they might mod their own Minecraft worlds. A lot of learning was taking place.

But their arguments about why they liked their favorite games lacked reasoning, evidence, and formal vocabulary. It was difficult to see how they’d parlay the problem-solving they’d cultivated through gaming into problem-solving in other domains. They needed opportunities to make the connection between domains. That’s where we as facilitators came in. We taught vocabulary like mechanics, pace, components, and personality traits of gamers like “killers,” “socializers” and “explorers” and then guided them as they wrote and filmed their own video game reviews. It was clear that their knowledge gained from hours of play and engagement outside of school was crucial to their success on the assignment, but I do believe the facilitation work we did in the academic domain pushed them to a next level. The students needed all kinds of experiences in order to become active and critical learners: play experiences, social experiences (in and outside of games), AND academic experiences. That’s connected learning!

Third provocation: Can one be a critical learner solely through play, self-guided tutorials, socializing, and peer-to-peer exchanges within a semiotic domain? To what extent does critical learning require intentional facilitation, and to what extent does it happen in the juncture BETWEEN semiotic domains, rather than in one or another?

Finally, the high school students I worked with were all from the South Bronx, most of them Latino and/or Black, and low-income. Only one was female. Gee touches a little bit on the identity of the learner as an important factor in determining the extent to which one feels comfortable learning in a new semiotic domain, ie: the example of the African-American student who feels that learning science is “acting white.” He writes about how one can “repair” (and I don’t like that deficit based term, but I’m going with his words here), a students’ identity as a learner through “good teaching in socially and culturally diverse classrooms.” I welcome thoughts on Gee’s notions there, but I also want to know:

Fourth provocation: Teachers can work to control, to some extent, students’ introduction to semiotic domains like science, math, English, and Social Studies. But if we are using gaming as a model for learning principles, how do we reconcile the fact that the semiotic domain of video games, which students are engaging in on their own time, can be overtly sexist and racist spaces? (Just Google gamergate)

A lot going on for me this week in reading Gee — looking forward to the conversation!

Games for change…

Hello all,

Of course in reading Gee this week, all I want to do is procrastinate by playing games. At least there are some awesome “games for change” or the so-called “serious games” out there which might even provide interesting fodder for conversation next week. Here are some of my faves, in case you too, want to procrastinate:

LIM, about navigating the world as a transgender person, though its message can be more broadly applied to navigating the world with a difference of some kind.

The Republia Times

McVideo Game

Trauma, a game about bullying and discrimination

Ayiti, Cost of Life, a game made by some students in the program I used to work for at Global Kids (though before my time at the org)

Tampon Run, made by some teens at a Girls Who Code event.

A game created by some students of mine on Scratch in 2014!

Darfur is Dying 

The Migrant Trail – About undocumented immigrants

Click on the link on this page for some interactive fiction created by Auntie Pixelante in Twine

Please add to this list in the comments if you play any fun ones… these are all playable for free online!