Comp on the Virtual Trail

In Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, Henry Jenkins, a former director of The Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, explores compelling reasons for inclusion of video games in the classroom. He states:

Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement. The new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking. These skills build on the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom.

So what does this participatory culture look like? I can go in thousands of directions here, but lets look at educational games, critical thinking exercises and play spaces. If you’re not familiar with The Oregon Trail, or Myst, or Civilization, or The Sims, you ought to be, because these games (and virtual play spaces like Second Life) are forming the building blocks of participatory culture in the virtual world.

ImageIn 1971, Don Rawitsch, a high school senior, developed The Oregon Trail using BASIC. His goal was simple: make learning history more fun. In 1974, Rawitsch adapted his game for the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium and it was featured on the state’s time-shared educational network. The first version of this game was text-based. NO graphics. The game was later picked up by John Cook, an Apple II developer in 1978. Cook enhanced the code and added simple graphics. The game was so popular it got another facelift and was released as a standalone game. It netted MECC $10mil annually. In 1992 a DOS version was developed, as well as several expansions and enhanced editions. 43 years later and the game is going strong with over 65 million copies sold, and now, there’s an app for that. Oregon Trail blazers continue to explore on iPads and Androids the world over. You can even find The Oregon Trail on WII — learn history and get a workout! Few of today’s video games can point to such a lengthy history and cycle of development… except maybe Pong.

The game’s staying power lies in simple concepts pointed out by Jenkins. Play is an obvious one. Play is nothing short of experimentation. Play consults the if/then/else flowchart of ideas in our heads, trying different strategies to come to a solution. Oregon Trail compels players to not only play but perform the identities of American frontier folk in 1840, adapting a persona (avatar), improvising and wondering what it would be like to live in that time. Every decision a player makes is a judgement and forces the player to evaluate her surroundings and environment. Negotiating various terrains, bartering with real players and NPCs (non-player characters) forces the player to see different perspectives and execute complex critical thinking. Jenkins says:

Children often feel locked out of the worlds described in their textbooks through the depersonalized and abstract prose used to describe them. Games construct compelling worlds players move through. Players feel a part of those worlds and have some stake in the events unfolding.

Its not just children. Gamers come in all ages, shapes and sizes. But that’s a subject for another post. How do we unleash the power of video games in the composition classroom? Well, chances are very good that your students are gamers, and in some cases, some of your colleagues are gamers. Why should you care? Gamers develop rich and colorful histories for their characters, inviting us into their “procedural stories” and narratives. Gamers are active members of a highly participatory culture and develop lengthy and sophisticated technical guides, wikis and blogs. Gamers develop their own literacy practices to understand the virtual roles and worlds they explore. Zoevera Ann Jackson of Illinois State University, writing for Kairos, shares some ideas for welcoming gamers into the classroom.

What other ways can we welcome the gamer into the classroom? What do gamers have to teach us about composition? As always, your response below is welcome and encouraged.


One comment on “Comp on the Virtual Trail

  1. Maybe I should pitch a video game based on Lord of the Flies. But seriously, there are plenty of simulations that we could take students through that are related to literature. I imagine a 1930s set for To Kill A Mockingbird…the streets of New York for The Catcher in the Rye…fanfic boards full of alternative endings for Romeo and Juliet…but none of these things exist! School has made these books uncool, and it’s sad. I think there are many possibilities for games based on good books, or strategic-planning games based in central African nations that would teach many skills at once, even as the whole place is literally blowing up around the gamer…but who’s going to buy that? I guess schools will, but it’s not going to gain the traction that WOW has.

    What rating would a game of Titus Andronicus get?

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