With the publication of Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher’s (2007) edited collection Gaming Lives in the Twenty-first Century: Literate Connections examining whether or not videogames help increase writing and learning literacy in the ways James Paul Gee (2003) outlines in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, there has been increased interest within the field of writing studies in using videogames to teach and study writing. This increased interest has been evident in the publication of two special issues dedicated to videogame writing pedagogy in Computers and Composition (2008) and Computers and Composition Online (2008) as well as a recent article by Jonathan Alexander (2009) in College Composition and Communication. However, as a discipline, we need to more fully examine who readily has access to these videogame literacies and how gaming pedagogy can impact different types of students, particularly female students. In fact, both Gee and Alexander make a call for exploring more about how gaming impacts females. Recently, Gee has taken up this call with Elizabeth Hayes (2010) in a series of cases studies that explore how female gaming literacies can connect with educational ones. However, none of the case studies primarily examine how this learning can actually be used in the classroom but only extrapolate theories of learning from how the females in these studies play in their free time. And while Pamela Takayoshi (2007) also uses four case studies to investigate in detail how gender influences gaming literacies in Gaming Lives in the Twenty-first Century, these case studies, too, investigate family settings and not directly pedagogical classroom ones. In this webtext, I examine, through a series of six student case studies, how gaming pedagogy can motivate while often simultaneously complicating female learning in the classroom.
In 2009, Richard Colby and I designed a first year writing across the curriculum course around the computer game World of Warcraft (WoW) at the University of Denver. Inspired by Gee’s (2003) work on how videogames can help students acquire school-based literacies, we designed a class in which we wanted students to use the virtual world and player community of WoW as a research and writing space (Shultz Colby & Colby, 2008). Gee argues that as complex simulations, game spaces can create richer contexts for learning abstract principles because these principles are more embodied than they usually are in traditional classrooms: students not only memorize learning principles but they have to actively use them to succeed in the game. This embodiment of learning principles also creates deeper identity formation than just reading about these concepts. For writing instruction, this means that games spaces have the power to position students as researchers and writers who then begin to identify more deeply with professionals in these roles (Gee, 2000; Kress, 2010; Swartz, 2008). We hoped to position students as active researchers within the gamespace of WoW. We wanted students to use the WoW gamespace to qualitatively survey and interview players on social phenomenon within the game, quantitatively examine game mechanics, or discursively analyze the arguments made within gaming forums or the narratives that structure the game.
The class centered around teaching students the academic research traditions of qualitative, quantitative, and text-based research methods and the predominant disciplinary ways of writing within them, which are the primary writing across the curriculum goals at the University of Denver. Students were then responsible for designing two research projects, one collaborative and one individually written, using at least two of these three research traditions. Before students began a project, they had to complete a research plan in which they outlined in detail what their research question was and the possible research methods they were going to use to answer their research question. Student writing a research plan during studio time. Students then completed a genre analysis in which they analyzed the genre features of an academic journal article that was similar to the genre that they wanted to write in. The genre analysis also asked students questions about how they planned to write about their research. The genre analysis became a guided way for students to plan their own writing just as the research plan was a way for them to plan their research. After completing the research plan and genre analysis, students were then free to begin conducting their research and writing about it.
- additional course information
- research plan assignment sheet
- genre analysis assignment sheet
- The course WEBSITE featured opportunities for students to respond to structured blog prompts, share in-game character information, and for us to feature past student work so that our current students could see some possibilities.
The class was structured so that during the first half of the class, students learned about the three research traditions and the major academic genres within them. During this first half of the class, writing pedagogy followed common composition practice, with discussion of readings demonstrating specific genres within the three research traditions and reflective journal and in-class writing prompts that asked students to analyze these readings and critically apply them to their own research and writing plans. Then during the second half of the class, students were responsible for working on their projects in class either on their own or collaboratively in a sort of studio style. During studio time, I would walk around the room, conducting mini-conferences that gave individualized attention to each student’s writing and research plans. Research projects were assessed by examining how well students realized the research goals and writing strategies they had set out for themselves within their research plans and genre analyses. Revision of projects was not only encouraged with individualized instructor feedback but was also planned into the class schedule as well with both a rough and a final project draft assigned.
The following short video montage shows a typical WoW class during studio time in which students are working on various parts of projects:
And for the most part this pedagogy worked. Students were extremely enthusiastic about using WoW as a research and writing space, often turning in complex projects that evidenced a deep engagement in their research and writing. For instance, one male student wanted to quantitatively find out how the population on various servers or gaming realms affects its economy. So, for a week, he compared average prices for one of the most popular items at the time—glyphs—on 15 different Pacific time servers: five low, five medium, and five high population servers. He found that high population servers have the lowest auction prices because of supply and demand: more people creates more of a glut of relatively rare items in the economy, which drives down auction prices. After he conducted his research, he was able to critically think through his research process, noting that although he checked auction house prices at the same time every day, between 4 and 8 p.m., this was still a time range that could have affected prices: “Server sizes can differ depending on what time of day it is. For example, if it is 6:00 p.m. server time . . . then more people are on because that is the time to log on for raiding. The population size during this time could jump to ‘high’ while the server is typically a medium sized population. Because of this, item prices in the auction house could fluctuate a large amount throughout the day.” So, even though this student had carefully accounted for as many independent variables in his research as possible and had tried to standardize them for a fair quantitative comparison, he was still critically aware of the limitations in his research process: he could not physically research all 15 servers at exactly the same time and thus had to rely on a time range that could have affected his results. However, what is most notable here is that this student had to have both fairly complex academic and gaming literacies to both construct this research project and critique it. To construct the research project, he had to have at least a basic understanding of how the auction house worked and know what the most in-demand items were likely to be. To understand why the time range could have been a problem, he had to have an insider’s knowledge of the game in order to know that 6:00 p.m. is when most people log on to raid, or get in groups to play.
Even though the WoW class engaged students in complex research projects, females were still a sizable minority. Richard Colby and I have both offered WoW courses for four years, and in each of these classes of 15 students, five has been the largest number of females who have enrolled in a class at any one time. The female enrollment in our WoW classes contrasts with our traditional writing courses at the University of Denver, in which females often make up half to two-thirds of the class, and to the composition of the University of Denver’s in-coming first year class of 2009-2010 in general, in which females made up 57% (DeVigil, 2009).
To recruit students for the course, Colby and I had created fliers [PDF]that invited students to complete our Writing Program’s writing across the curriculum requirement by enrolling in our WoW course. We also emphasized that while students would be playing WoW, they would also be engaged in rigorous research and writing. We then emailed these fliers to faculty teaching the first course in our writing sequence, requesting that they tell their classes about our course, the second course in our writing sequence, and either distribute the fliers to their students or show the flier on an overhead projector in class.
The University of Denver is a private institution that requires all in-coming first-year students to own a laptop before they begin classes. While this laptop policy brings up larger issues of economic student privilege and access to expensive private universities as a whole, economic access to technology, although a crucial issue for teachers to be pedagogically aware of (Moran, 1999), was not an issue barring students who managed to afford attending the University of Denver from this specific course. WoW also costs around twenty dollars, with a subscription fee of fifteen dollars a month: a total cost of about fifty dollars, which is still cheaper than many textbooks.
So rather than technology access being an issue, Colby and I were concerned that gaming literacies might be a problem for some students. As a result, when students signed up for the class, we emailed them immediately, letting them know that, for this course, they would be expected to purchase WoW and have enough gaming literacy to play it in class, giving students enough time to drop and re-enroll in another course if they did not feel comfortable with playing the game. And although I encouraged both male and female students who emailed me with questions and hesitations about the game to take the course by explaining that they could be successful in the course if they took time to learn the game, I also made sure that they knew all their options so that they could re-enroll in another course if they wanted to. Sometimes, after receiving my email, both male and female students would drop the class; however, occasionally both males and females would decide to stay in the course and learn to play the game. Fortunately, my email must have done an adequate job of informing both male and female students of the gaming literacies required in the course since no students showed up to class on the first day and then dropped the course after learning that they would be required to play WoW.
Possibly, the small number of females who took our WoW classes may have been caused by the fact that we did not directly target females in our fliers advertising the class, although we did not intentionally target males either. In the flier though, there is an implicit assumption made that computer and gaming literacies are connected as the the computer specs for playing the game are included at the bottom of the flier. We did not include any explanation of these computer specs, and the implicit computer literacy needed to understand them may have intimidated both male and female students from enrolling in the class. Finally, although the computer specs needed to play WoW could have excluded extremely low-end laptops, possibly excluding poorer students from the class, the game designers have consistently tried to maintain a large player audience and have kept the computer system requirements much lower than most other comparable computer games on the market.
Five has been the largest number of women who have enrolled in a WoW class at a timeOriginally, when I had explored WoW as a gaming research and writing space, I had thought that the game world offered enough complexity and alternative forms of play that it could also appeal to third-wave female students. Living in a third-wave feminist world can be confusing as it often forces females to make conflicting and confusing choices. Cornelia Brunner, Dorothy Bennett, and Margaret Honey (1998) explain these inherent contradictions within third-wave femininity like this: “Girls are expected to be both frail and enduring, helpless and competent, fun loving and sensitive, emotional and available, needy and nurturing, vain and moral” (p. 87). Some of the choices that the game world offers come from the fact that much of the game is comprised of a series of quests or objectives (some that involve fighting and others that do not) that each bring with them their own narrative. These in-game narratives offer a compelling textual culture and history to the game and offer fascinating opportunities for further textual research both in and out of the game world. But as a social space, the game also offers many opportunities for those females who enjoy socializing, communicating, and collaborating. However, although collaborative play is encouraged in the game, it is not mandatory, and players can be successful playing alone. The game offers the opportunity to compete directly with other players, but this too remains optional. Finally, female students can choose from a range of either male or female characters, offering many options for representation, and female characters are just as powerful in the game as male characters.
As I examine further in this webtext, one of the reasons so few females may have consistently signed up for our WoW class was because, despite the many options that WoW’s game world offers for play and research, female students often had not learned the gaming literacies needed to fully explore these options, thus also complicating their engagement with the academic literacies of the course. For instance, like the male student mentioned above, Natalie also constructed a quantitative research project. She computed how many fire bolts it would take to kill kobolds per level, from level one to level 10. Like the male student, she was still able to position herself as a careful quantitative researcher. She also accounted for all independent variables that could affect her results, carefully noting her gear, level, and abilities at each level. She also made sure that the kobold was always the same level as her character. She found that the number of fire bolts is the least at two fire bolts at levels 1-2, but then quickly increases. It averages the most at levels 5-6 (five-six fire bolts), but levels out at about four fire bolts by level 10. However, because she was not as knowledgeable with the game and had yet to learn some of the gaming literacies needed in order to understand the game’s mechanics more fully, it was harder for her to draw out deeper implications for her findings and explain why she had discovered these trends. She was able to explain that the leveling out of fire bolts at higher levels was because players get a more powerful fire bolt spell at level 7. However, she was not able to explain the phenomenon beyond that. In the game, spells and abilities are usually supposed to “stack” or stay roughly equivalent as a character levels. However, as a new player, she was not aware that this discrepancy in fire bolt numbers in levels 5 and 6 could demonstrate a game design problem in stacking—even if it is only a small one. She also was not able to critically articulate how research limitations could have affected her results, noting only that kobolds were harder to find at higher levels and she died a lot.
However, even though Natalie’s study counting how many fire bolts were needed to kill kobolds was quite simple, she still demonstrated a growing awareness of quantitative research literacies by making sure that as many of her independent variables remained controlled and accounted for as possible and trying to conduct an experiment in as controlled an environment as was allowed for within the constraints of the gameworld. In conducting this study, she also demonstrated a high engagement with the game considering the amount of time she actually had to play and learn the game; she quickly had to learn what factors in the game would also influence her results. For instance, she learned that gear and spell levels made a difference in how much damage she was able to do as a mage, so she accounted for these factors in her research.
Not only can female gaming literacies be problematic pedagogically when teachers use games to teach writing but also potentially from a technological one as well. Even though according to recent Nielsen ratings (2009a), the number of females playing computer games is rising, with 58% of females playing casual online games, the numbers of females entering computer science careers has actually decreased in the past ten years (Jenkins & Cassell, 2008, p. 13, original italics). For instance, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, while the number of females entering all other fields keeps increasing, computer science and other technology-related majors has substantially decreased in the past 10 years. In 1999, the percentage of females majoring in computer and information sciences was 45%. This number decreased to 27% by 2003, and by 2009, the percentage of females majoring in computer and information sciences was 18%.
This technological gender divide in computer science careers is deepened by the fact that computer and videogames are predictors of success in computer science classes (Cantwell Wilson, 2002), but most games are usually created by male designers for an almost exclusively male audience, although this may eventually change as more females have begun entering the game design industry according to a recent BBC News report (Lee, 2010). As a recent Pew study (2009a ) on casual games indicates, while a majority of females are beginning to play casual games such as Bejeweled and card games such as Solitaire, (Jenkins & Cassell, 2008, p. 14), females are still not considered core gamers by game developers or the game industry at large, who define core games as role-playing games and first-person shooters, although many in the industry see casual games as a potential avenue to eventually get females more involved in core games as an article in Wired indicates (Kohler, 2006).
Despite these new hopes centering around casual games, many computer and videogame genres are still not made with females in mind. Henry Jenkins and Justine Cassell (2008) write that “there have been surprisingly limited shifts in the genres that dominate the game marketplace . . . The game industry is still designing games primarily for men, with females seen as—at best—a secondary market and more often as an afterthought” (p. 13). The lack of thoughtful design for females in most video and computer game genres is also reflected in the Nielsen (2009a) report, which indicated that 75% of first-person shooter players are men and 63% of players for role-playing games are men. As T. L. Taylor (2006) puts it, “There is a devastating cycle of invisibility at work here, one in which game designers, companies, and sometimes even players render an entire demographic as tangential” (p. 113). This cycle of invisibility creates a self-perpetuating production cycle where, because more men than females play what the game industry views as core videogames, company executives justify creating and marketing more games that are almost solely targeted toward men. Cassell and Jenkins (1998) report on an interview in which a male executive of a computer game company said, “I have more left handed players than I have female players and I don’t make games for left-handed people. Why should I make games for [females]?” (p. 5).
And while the numbers of females playing role-playing games like WoW have slowly increased over the years, WoW still illustrates a demographic gender disparity in core gaming, with females only comprising 25% of players (Nielsen 2009b). Even more importantly though is the fact that the number of females who played WoW previously in our classes was much less than 25%—none of the females who took our classes were previous players of the game. Before I taught the class, I had expected that female students who had previously played WoW would be in the minority in the class, mirroring more closely the 25% of female WoW players in the Nielsen study, and I was prepared to work with females who had never played the game before, but I was shocked to discover that none of the females who took my WoW class had played WoW before and that females were such a small minority in the class period. While there were certainly males in the class who had not played the game before, at least half to a third of the males who enrolled had played WoW previously. Also, as I explain later on in this webtext, it was easier for most of the males who had never played WoW before to acquire the gaming literacies needed to play because they were usually able to rely on a friend who had played the game before for guidance and the gaming literacies needed to play WoW often resembled other games that they had previously played. While there were some exceptions for the males, it seemed that females were consistently put at the most disadvantage in a class that used the gaming literacies of WoW to teach academic research and writing literacies. Instead of using gaming literacies to facilitate the learning of academic ones, using games in the classroom could actually have been complicating female learning of academic literacies.