In: Playing with Teaching
Ken Lindblom Professor of English, Stony Brook University

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You’re a teacher. Maybe you are a gamer. Then again, maybe you are not.

I am a teacher, but I am not a gamer. Then again, I remember as a child and an adolescent enjoying checkers, chess, Monopoly, Trouble, and a few others. I’ve also spent hours as an adult playing Trivial Pursuit, Apples to Apples, and Settlers of Catan. Now that I think about it, I also play Texas Hold ‘Em once in a while with friends. And, I like Blackjack now and then when I’m on vacation. And, I was pretty big into Dungeons & Dragons when I was in high school. I also loved Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels, which made reading a book from beginning to end an old-fashioned activity.

I am not a gamer. Then again, I remember how excited we kids were when we got Pong in the early 1970s, literally leaping in the air with glee when our grandparents brought it for Christmas. Who knew how exciting it could be to watch a small square of light move slowly from a rectangle of light (“thunk”) to another rectangle of light (“thunk”) and back? Atari arrived some years later with Space Invaders and Asteroids, which meant I could play without begging for quarters. The game Adventure taught me about Easter eggs, and Dragon’s Lair brought full animation and narrative to games. Later, I spent hours exploring the world of Myst, solving puzzles and reading secret volumes in an ever-evolving story with a book-slamming ending.

I am not a gamer. But then again, I meet with a financial manager once a year to plan for retirement, during which time we predict how the stock market will perform the following year. My very livelihood if I retire depends on how well I play the market.

I am not a gamer. But then again, I know that as Wittgenstein has taught us, much of oral communication can be described accurately as “language games”, which include turn taking, rule following, insider knowledge, and rhetorical strategy. As interlocutors, we compose new conversations with new players and new rules all the time.

I am not a gamer. But then again, I have participated in romantic and platonic relationships, some replete with what the British band Foreigner dubbed “Head Games”. Even in a quarter-century-old marriage, I play games. For example, The Making My Wife Laugh game, for which, sadly, laughs only count when I get them for something I do on purpose. Or the more strenuous How Can I Not Do the Dishes Tonight game.

I’m not a gamer. But then again, I was a dean for a few years, and I recall the power games I had to contend with. Emails became flaming swords with plus or minus points for charisma and experience. Collecting coins became more literal each semester, and at some point, I ran out of lives.

I am not a gamer. Then again, I send writing to different journals and publishers, each of which has a different set of rules and processes. Playing well doesn’t guarantee a publication, but playing poorly guarantees rejection. Getting enough publications can lead to bonuses at work, even leveling up (promotion), which increases one’s voting power and unlocks more choice of classes, and other quests.

I am not a gamer. Then again, I remember learning (and for a while teaching) the five-paragraph essay as a way to outsmart any standardized writing assignment. Use the essay prompt as the first sentence of the essay and make a simple thesis statement. Make three points with two reasons each. Restate the thesis at the end. This formula will work to pass any standardized exam. And will also game the system, rendering its results basically useless as an assessment of writing. As a teacher, I conducted way too many mock Jeopardy! tournaments to assess and review low-level knowledge (trivia) from my students.

When I started reading Playing with Teaching: Considerations for Implementing Gaming Literacies in the Classroom, I did not think of myself as a gamer. But as I read, I realized I may be a gamer after all. Maybe this is something I should take a bit more seriously as a teacher.

Much in our real lives can be considered a game, a first-person-perspective role play in which we apply knowledge and experience to make choices and then cope with the consequences of those actions. We learn from those adventures and better prepare ourselves for the next set of challenges.

If games are such powerful parts of our lives, “Why not apply that same level of real-world thought and adventure to English classes?” Garcia, Dail, and Witte’s book asks us. Great question!

Antero Garcia, Shelbie Witte, and Jennifer S. Dail have gathered a collection of essays that do several important things for us teachers:

  1. They remind us of the joy that really good games can elicit.
  2. They help us understand the innovative, rule-bound creativity involved in genuine critical thinking.
  3. They demonstrate for us ways to use games and gameful design to create classrooms that are more authentic, more rigorous, and more engaging than traditional instruction is or can be.

Drawing on English education, cognitive science, educational psychology, linguistics, game design, literary analysis, and other fields, the authors in Playing with Teaching make a compelling case for bringing a more serious form of gaming into ELA classes. Even better, they demonstrate options for successful implementation and explore how high-level critical-thinking games work in real classroom situations.

Summer campers come together and build their own games, some from stacks of pipe-cleaners, play money, and rubber animals, and others from software designed for game builders. In so doing, the young people learn how to design rules, regulate rigor, and vary activity to inspire genuine engagement in critical thinking, all with guidance from their National Writing Project-educated counselors.

Narrative-based games – and there are many – immerse young people in worlds of words, asking them to empathize with different kinds of people with different kinds of challenges. We can explore those narratives for how they define our world – even how they define the very concept of youth (as one chapter does). We can place narratives in games against narratives in novels, exploring their contrasts (as another chapter does). We can ask students to incorporate stories into their own games or use them to explore their own perspectives. We teachers can ensure that our incorporation of technology in games (and otherwise) aligns effectively with appropriate pedagogical content knowledge, as yet another chapter explores.

Teachers who are open to new ways of teaching, who want to ensure their students are doing a lot of thinking in their classes will appreciate this book’s approaches. There are games for low-tech and high-tech teachers. There are multi-player and single-player games that teachers can employ to help students with collaborative or more solitary literacies. There are ways to engage students in talk about games that don’t even require playing games in the classroom.

Readers will also find references to an amount of research on games and literacy that may surprise them. Thinking of learning as play is nothing new, but literal game play has become so ubiquitous and so absorbing for so many young people, it behooves us to think about it from a professional standpoint and to incorporate it more directly into our classes.

Playing games is serious work. But all work and no play makes us all very dull people. Gaming, gameful design, and gamification in and of English Language Arts classes can ensure that teachers and students are at work and at play at the same time.

Whether readers just check in or go all in, Garcia, Witte and Dail’s collection will inspire creative thinking and new ways of engaging students in the enduring skills and knowledge of literacy. Can you come out and play?

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Playing with Teaching

Considerations for Implementing Gaming Literacies in the Classroom

Series:  Gaming Ecologies and Pedagogies Series, Volume: 4


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