Using games to teach writing and research is complex, especially since teachers have to not only help students navigate traditional school literacies, but they have to help them navigate potentially complicating gaming ones as well. Ideally, games should be used in such a way that the gaming literacies players already possess should help them bridge more complex academic literacies. However, if students do not possess these gaming literacies to begin with, this pedagogical task is all the more difficult. So, not all composition teachers should teach writing with video and computer games, just as video and computer games should not be used to help all students learn. Ideally, if teachers use video and computer games to teach writing, they need an in-depth knowledge of the game so that they can better foresee places in which gaming literacies and the gaming community that surrounds those literacies can actually help students learn more traditional academic ones. And, obviously, if students who do not already possess gaming literacies still want to learn through gaming, teachers need to be familiar enough with these gaming literacies to be able to help them.
For instance, in order to help the females (and a few males) in my class who did not already possess the basic role-playing literacies inherent in WoW, I spent time explaining them: how to kill monsters, how to obtain quests, how to communicate in-game, how to get a character’s body back when it dies, and how to obtain the best equipment and skills/abilities for a character. I also sent students items in the game that would help them play and then showed them the literacies of how to use, obtain, and store these items by using the mailbox and bank. Without an introduction to these basic conventions in the game, the game is almost unplayable. While this basic gaming instruction does take up valuable writing instruction time, I tried to keep my in-class gaming instruction to a minimum by also offering tutorial sessions outside of class. These tutorials were informal and consisted of me answering any additional questions students had about playing the game that I knew would require a lot of time to answer. For instance, sometimes I helped students finish a complicated quest or sail to a distant city.
And this extra gaming instruction seemed to have had positive results. None of the females in my class gave up playing the game like Charlene, who was not in my class. Some of them, like Natalie, actually said that they enjoyed playing aspects of the game once they understood how to play them. However, when asked about how they would improve the class, most of them still expressed frustration with the fact that there was not enough time in class for them to play the game enough to master it to the point where they could discover an interesting research question to write about. Ally still wanted even more gaming instruction before she could feel comfortable playing the game, writing that there should be “a little bit more directions on getting started on playing the game.”
Even though the females in my class felt frustrated by how their lack of skill prohibited them from fully experiencing the complexities of the game world, they still were able to develop interesting research projects, some of which were based upon these very frustrations and lack of experience. For instance, Emma wanted to know why so many high level characters wanted to PvP against her brand new character.
Girls can form their own friendship groups in order to circulate gaming and academic literacies.If there are enough females in a class, they can also all work together and form their own community that circulates gaming literacies. While this may not happen if there are only one or two females in a class, there were enough females in my class for them to all work together and form a community that shared gaming literacies. After I showed Natalie some strategies for killing monsters and leveling, she in turn taught Ally some of these same strategies. Natalie also helped Ally complete the quests that she had already completed and knew well. They ended up leveling their characters together and helping each other for the rest of the class. Natalie and Ally worked together collaboratively to conduct qualitative research exploring what types of players use the underground tram from the cities of Stormwind to Ironforge and what their reasons were for doing so. They both communicated and worked well together, divvying out writing and research tasks and then setting deadlines for each other so that they could finish their project with more than enough time to allow several revisions.
However, in order to further help non-gaming female students enter a complex literacy and learning space such as WoW, I also need to develop ways of making a more integrated and welcoming social space than I was able to provide. My classroom was quite segregated, with males on one side of the classroom and females on the other. Ideally, males should have been freely working with and circulating their acquired gaming and academic writing knowledge with the females and vice versa. Unfortunately, with such segregated and self-contained groups, it was harder for any of the groups to learn. For instance, even though they lacked the advanced gaming literacies, Ally and Natalie knew more about traditional academic research and writing literacies than some of the male students who had been extensive WoW players before entering the class, and could have helped this group learn them better if communication had been more open. For example, in the discussion section of one collaborative project examining which classes were the most efficient in battle grounds, two hardcore male gamers wrote that Death Knights surpassed any other class in doing damage: “When it comes to which class contributes the most to the offense of the battleground group the class to dominate is the Death Knight. Death Knights surpass any class when it comes to doing damage[;] they have AoE effects, damage over time spells, slowing abilities that allow for the death knight to continually beat on their opponent, and to top it all off they get the capability of having a pet.” While they do a partial analysis of why Death Knights are able to deal more damage, they do not offer any numerical evidence for this finding. In contrast, while Ally and Natalie’s collaborative project counting who used the tram from Stormwind to Ironforge was a relatively simple study in comparison, they much more adequately support their findings in the discussion. They write:
Another hypothesis that was made concerning this data was that mostly higher level characters would be using the deeprun tram. This was predicted because higher level players are more knowledgeable about where they need to go in order to complete quests and other tasks. Higher level players also know more about the geography of the game and therefore will obviously know more about specific locations, such as places for quicker transportation between different locations. As predicted, higher level characters, 12 and above, were found most often using the deeprun tram. Fourteen players were found to be in this range and 11 of these 14 players were at a level higher than 20.
Natalie and Ally not only offer numerical evidence of their finding that higher level players ride the tram but also analyze why they formed this hypothesis and later discovered this finding. Although they do not clarify that 14 players was the total number of players they found using the tram during their observation, which means that only high level players used the tram, they do offer numerical evidence as proof. They also specify what they mean by the term “high level,” revealing a much more sophisticated understanding of how to use evidence to support findings in research writing and how to carefully define terms that could alter research results.
In order to desegregate my class more in the future, I plan on creating low-stakes, in-class writing projects where students have to work together in mixed, pre-assigned groups in the beginning of the class. In this way, perhaps students can learn more about each others’ strengths and begin to trust each other, opening up a potential dialogue and breaking down preconceptions. By doing this, perhaps gamers will realize that they can still learn more academically from non-gamers, and non-gamers will have somewhere else to turn to for gaming literacies. Most importantly, male preconceptions about female gamers can start breaking down as the males find out that some of the females, like Mandy, are actually expert gamers, or, like Natalie, quick learners.
Finally, my study raises some interesting implications for further research about females’ motivations to succeed within the larger institutional structures of the university, particularly when females can have some of the same motivations for succeeding in the classroom as they do in games. As Natalie demonstrates, some females may enjoy achieving in both games and in the classroom for the empowerment and sense of accomplishment that it brings. Some females may also enjoy competition both in games and in the classroom as three of my case studies seemed to indicate. While in many ways, the field of composition has attempted to make writing instruction more student-centered, especially for females, by emphasizing collaborative learning and minimizing the tremendous impact grades have on writing by focusing on the process of writing with pre-writing, drafting, and revision instead of merely grading a finished product—all important innovations for learning writing—composition has also struggled to implement these pedagogical philosophies upon a much older entrenched educational institutional structure that still privileges competitive uses of grades and hierarchichal learning systems. This often means that any student-centered pedagogies aimed at flattening learning hierarchies and minimizing competition do not always work out well in practice, fundamentally contradicted as they are by these older institutional structures. As my study seems to indicate though, once females have the academic literacies needed to succeed, many females still may continue to thrive even within an older, more masculine educational system that still privileges achievement and competition for grades over any other learning outcomes. Female’s success at achieving and competing within the university is evident by the fact that female students have a higher retention rate than men. According to 2009 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, “Gender gaps in educational attainment switched from favoring males in 1971 to favoring females in 2008. . . . [T]he percentage completing a bachelor's degree or higher shifted from favoring males by 7 percentage points to favoring females by 8 percentage points.” According to 2007-2008 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, more females are entering and excelling within the highly competitive fields of law and medicine and actually outnumber men by a small margin. After Title IX, more females are competing in college sports (Bertozzi & Lee, p. 180).
My study raises interesting pedagogical considerations for further study that indicate that females can enjoy learning with computer games as much as males, provided that they have access to the gaming literacies that the males have. If as a field, we continue to explore the use of games to teach writing, we need to pay more attention to discovering the gaming literacies females already possess as well as the literacies they are able to learn in ways that also increase their engagement and learning in the classroom.