Who says playing an MMORPG in the classroom is a bad thing? Not the authors of “A Pedagogy of Play: Integrating Computer Games into the Writing Classroom“, that’s for sure.
Colby and Colby’s article discusses how composition teachers might design a class centered around playing (and most crucially writing about) World of Warcraft. They offer a discussion of how and why students and educators have usually resisted crossover between class and videogames, including the traditional barrier dividing “work” from “play”, various stigmas associated with videogames in general, but also discuss the potential payoffs of bringing something like videogames into writing classrooms. They say “ideally, writing teachers encourage students to become immersed in their writing and research”, and videogames provide an intensely immersive experience for gamers. They also say that videogames offer opportunities for “emergent learning” in an authentic and accessible discourse, giving students the feeling that “they have expertise to move beyond what others have written because they are writing for those who are invested in reading the material they produce.”
This, I think is at the heart of what’s different about Colby and Colby’s approach compared to others who see videogames as another kind of “text” students can engage with. Instead of asking students to think of the game like a novel in a literature class (turning the game into the subject of their analytical essays), they ask students to participate in the very real and established written discourse communities that already exist surrounding the game. Their writing assignments ask them to create real documents, guides, or other writings for real audiences, and publish them in the appropriate places online. Whether those documents are in-depth guides to completing a section of the content, or proposals to the game’s developers regarding a missing feature for the game, students know that their writing means something to a wide audience beyond the class.
So, in a nutshell, the classroom becomes a kind of support and staging area for students who then go out and contribute to the conversations happening all around them, as well as a place for them to reflect on their activities and develop meta-knowledge of their learning and experiences. Pretty cool. 🙂
But WoW isn’t the only way I think teachers could transform their classrooms into authentic learning communities, or give students opportunities to engage in real discourse. Some would argue that this is exactly what most academic classrooms have been trying to get students to do all along: engage in discourse (albeit academic discourse), and contribute to existing real conversations and communities through their writing. However, the barrier to true entry into academic discourse may seem much too high for students to feel like their contributions matter. Using something that has a lower barrier to entry (such as video game communities) allows students to practice essentially the same skills scholars use but in a more accessible context.
Classrooms could be designed around a variety of different real and authentic discourses that are student-accessible besides World of Warcraft gamers. A class could be designed around a specific hobby with a rich online community, or an area of interest or a profession. Popular culture and media drive the creation of hundreds of active and vibrant discourse communities across the internet (e.g. Breaking Bad fan sites and discussion forums during the airing of the show), any of which could be just as rich in terms of the kinds of conversations and writing practices students could engage in for a class. A class could even be designed to allow students to select the discourse they plan to participate in during a class and share their assignments with the rest of the class as a way to introduce each other to what they’re focusing on and learn from each other.
In the end, I see Colby and Colby’s article as an example of a classroom whose goal isn’t simply to find a cool way to bring videogames into a classroom. It’s a way to make the classroom real and authentic, and blur the traditional boundaries between “work” and “play”, “classroom” and “real life”, and give students a safe place to experiment with writing that actually matters.