In his SIGDOC article, Matteo outlines the theoretical motivations guiding the development of RP through the prototype stage. The game was designed as a “case study” that would “immerse students in fictional but concrete rhetorical situations in which they play particular roles and to which they must respond in appropriate ways” (63). Matteo notes that case studies can often be effective in teaching students discipline-specific writing by “mimicking some specific part of the professional world as closely as possible” (63). Although RP is designed for use in an introductory rhetoric and writing course and thus is not discipline-specific, it fits the case study model to the extent that it “drives students to develop a solution to the problem presented by the rhetorical situation by simulating and immersing them in that situation” (64). The goal was thus to make RP of general interest, mimicking an engaging rhetorical situation that allowed students to employ more general analytic and argumentative skills rather than discipline-specific skills.
Within this more general objective of designing RP on the model of a case study, Matteo identifies two objectives that the RP prototype sought to achieve, each rooted in pedagogical studies from the last few decades. The first objective was developed in response to Linda Flower and John Hayes’s “The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Situation.” Here Flower and Hayes challenge the notion of discovery as a metaphor for the writing process and argue that, “writers don’t find meanings, they make them” (63). Examining the mental processes lying behind discovery, Flower and Hayes focus on problem-solving, finding that “writers themselves create the problem they solve” (65). In this sense, a student’s writing situation is constructed not only by the writing assignment but also the student’s specific construction of a problem within the assignment: “People simply rewrite an assignment or a situation to make it commensurate with their own skills, habits, or fears” (65), and thus “good writers are simply solving a different problem than poor writers” (73). With this insight in mind, Matteo notes how, “RP explicitly presents itself as a problem to be solved” (65). In this sense, the prototype for RP attempted to assist students with creating and envisioning a problem by offering a more clearly stated problem in the game itself. For Matteo, this aspect of the game would shape the player’s writing experience as well: “Assigning a paper based on RP would, we hope, provide scaffolding for inexperienced writers as they begin to develop the ability to understand writing as problem solving” (65).
The revised version of the game similarly takes up this objective based on the metaphor of writing as problem solving. We hope that this new direction will be even more in line with Flower and Hayes’s findings. To elaborate, I will refer to the study outlined by Flower and Hayes in their article, a study addressing the specific rhetorical problems constructed by writers. This study observed which “aspects of a rhetorical problem…people actively represent to themselves” (65) with reference to two main categories: the rhetorical situation and the writer’s own goals. The situation includes the audience and the assignments; meanwhile, “The four dominant kinds of goals we observed involved affecting the reader, creating a persona or voice, building a meaning, and producing a formal text” (67). In their study, Flower and Hayes thus observed the way writers addressed these six categories, two of which referred to the rhetorical situation and four of which referred to the author’s goals. Taken together, these categories comprised the overall rhetorical problem. Flower and Hayes found that “one of the major differences between good and poor writers will be how many aspects of this total rhetorical problem they actually consider and how thoroughly they represent any aspect of it to themselves” (67).
It would be misleading to assume that simple changes in an assignment could help writers improve; Flower and Hayes’s study suggests that the assignment itself does not dictate the rhetorical problem writers create for themselves. Nonetheless, we believe that an assignment based on RP could help foreground the rhetorical situation and the goals constructed by the writer. Within the contexts of the game itself as well as class discussion and papers surrounding the game, students would be encouraged to address each of the categories contributing to the rhetorical problem. For example, students would be encouraged to think about audience both with reference to the NPCs and with reference to their classmates, the other detectives who need to be persuaded of a particular argument about the identity of the killer. By embodying the character of Agent Rederick, students would be asked to consider their own persona both within and outside of the game proper. The murder mystery itself asks students to build what Flower and Hayes refer to as “a meaning,” in this case an analysis of the evidence presented by the NPCs. The paper assignment corresponding to RP asks students to take on the challenge of producing a formal text. In this sense, not only does RP directly challenge students to build a complex rhetorical problem for themselves; indeed, many aspects of this problem—particularly those focused on the audience, the player’s persona, and the building of meaning—repeatedly arise throughout the gaming experience. These are the challenges put before the player with each new encounter within the game. While the possibility would remain for students to inadequately represent these range of challenges to themselves as aspects of the rhetorical problem, the game nonetheless provides more opportunities and more encouragement for students to complicate their understanding of the rhetorical problem than traditional assignments.
The second objective of the RP prototype outlined by Matteo refers to what Roger Schank, et al, described as Goal-Based Scenario (GSB) pedagogy in “The Design of Goal-Based Scenarios.” Matteo offers the following description of the article:
Basing their approach on a great deal of research on teaching and learning…[Schank, et al] outline a pedagogy in which students pursue a specific, well-defined goal, rather than directly studying particular knowledge or skills. The overall goal must be interesting and desirable to the students, so that they will be self-motivated to learn the particular skills necessary to achieve this goal. (65)
For Matteo, RP does not offer a specific GBS and in this resembles role-playing games and simulations such as World of Warcraft and The Sims. Although RP asks students to take on the murder mystery, the lack of a definite killer shifts the goal of the game away from a correct solution to a plausible argument. Matteo suggests that “The students’ main goal, in the case of RP, is to be entertained”; nevertheless, “this form of entertainment requires them to practice certain skills that are necessary for writing. In particular…they learn to gather, question, reconsider, and assemble evidence for an argument” (65). The challenge, both for the design of RP and for the instructor working with this game in the classroom, would be to foreground the murder mystery rather than the rhetorical skills necessary to make an argument about it. Still, games like RP present themselves more straightforwardly as GBSs than traditional writing assignments that ask students to demonstrate skills.
While both of these objectives—encouraging students to understand writing as problem solving and creating GBSs—could be addressed outside of the context of a video game, we believe that this context lends itself more fully to these objectives than traditional written assignments and texts. Perhaps most importantly, video games simply offer an entertaining addition and alternative to these traditional assignments. It is worth quoting Matteo at length on this point and giving him the final word:
Traditional ways of teaching basic rhetorical communication skills, though effective in some ways, are limited, in part, because they tend to engage students in argumentation via only one medium, writing. This is problematic, in part, because undergraduate students have increasingly developed literacies in communication media other than written text. When these students are confronted by courses that focus exclusively on writing, their pre-existing knowledge is invalidated or, at least, not productively built upon. Although they are competent in other media, they may feel alienated and have difficulty developing rhetorical skills in a writing-only course…[W]e hope to build productively on students’ literacy in media with which they may be more familiar and more comfortable than they are with written text. Students will, we hope, engage in argument more fully, develop communication skills more rapidly, and be more creative than in traditional writing-only classrooms. (63)