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A year in game-based writing

Written by Chad Sansing
May 18, 2011

Daniel Cook’s recent Lost Garden post about the need for a new taxonomy of game criticism inspired me to catalog the genres of writing we use in our play- and game-based learning. This week’s #engchat regarding struggling writers also prompted me to think about how our play- and game-based writing represents some of the work students and I share in discovering what it is we are willing and able to write about with honesty, specificity, and enthusiasm.

Truly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing or prompt that sepal to all writers. One reason I resist standardized testing is the inauthenticity of such measures. The prompts on state writing tests are not often authentic to students’ experiences – they are never authentic to struggling writers. Just as students can “read up” a level in topics they love, they can “write up” a level, at least in terms of structure and style, when writing in a genre they love or about a topic they love. We educators worry about such things as our own handwriting bias in assessing student work. We should be more concerned with students’ prompt bias in rejecting the writing we ask of them in any single-genre or -prompt situation. There is no way to begin to assess a student’s best writing outside of a portfolio filled with student-selected writing.

While we have a classroom culture that invites students to write about what they want to write about in their preferred genres, not all students are comfortable with or habituated to that freedom, and so conferencing and feedback about topics and organizing questions is still a vital part of our writing work.

Some students don’t want to write about anything personal until they feel safe in their classroom relationships. Some students can’t yet see a purpose in writing because of their relationships with school, teachers, their friends, families, or themselves. Some students resist writing without a model or tangible product connected to the writing, like a hands-on project. As I tweeted during the #engchat, I believe it’s part of our job as educators to find the useful constraints that give students enough impetus and confidence to write with the maximum amount of choice possible to offer. It’s also part of our job to stop assigning students traditional constraints that don’t help them write, such as single-genre and -prompt assignments. The single prompt is not the thing.

So how do play and games relate to writing in our classroom?

As I’ve posted before, we very often use a game or a project within a game to help us structure, compose, and revise design documents before we play. For us, this process begins with five essential questions:

  • What do I want to make?
  • How do I plan to make it?
  • Why do I want to make it?
  • What do I want to learn from it?
  • How will I know when it’s quality work?

These design prompts have been effective in helping us produce informational, multi-media, narrative, persuasive, and interactive texts like

  • Design documents for student-created games.
  • Design documents for in-game products.
  • Narrative self-assessments and project reflections.
  • Pokemon cards that represent North American land features and characters with language arts super powers.
  • Student-created, animated, game-based fan art (using Scratch).
  • Student-created games (using Scratch in the past and looking at GameMaker and Gamestar Mechanic for the future, and perhaps Kodu).
  • Soft-skills strategy guides for collaborating on multi-player platformers and puzzlers.
  • Video game reviews.

Moreover, we’ve used our questions to write about play objects that students enjoy. Students who write about their play have generally seen such writing and the structure it brings to their play as an acceptable trade-off for being able to play. I think the best example of this kind of work that we have to offer is one student’s discovery journal about the rules of electricity and circuitry he learned from playing with snap circuits for a station a day. I’ve also encouraged students to design their own papercraft monsters and to write instructions for their assembly, as well as to write their monsters’ back stories, a la Papertoy Monsters, but I have no takers so far. Perhaps next year.

Apart from those questions, we’ve also written analytical short papers cross-walking the elements of Monopoly to the economics terms we’ve been asked to learn, and then we used those terms to write economic analyses of games like kick-ball and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Not every student wants to play or to play games during class. Not every student wants to write a game or to write about games, and their writing must be discovered, valued, too. However, I think in traditional writing instruction, while we possess a broad tool kit of useful constraints, we sometimes rely on the traditional ones without reason – or perhaps to help us manage our adult work or to coerce resistant writers to write. Generally, students don’t approach writing as we approach writing instruction, and we don’t approach games as they do (I’m sure somebody said that better on Twitter).

Perhaps games and play could be the neutral grounds on which we meet to discover together new kinds of teaching and learning in writing, composition, and design.

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