E.28: The Play’s the Thing: Cultivating Voice and Agency through a Gaming Pedagogy

Reviewed by Christopher Stuart, Clemson University (cstuar2@clemson.edu)

Chair: Angela Green, University of Mississippi “The Play’s the Thing; Teaching the Art of Persuasion through The Wire

Speakers: Thomas Bagwell, University of Mississippi
Dave Miller, University of Mississippi
Colleen Thorndike, University of Mississippi “Making the Writing Process Real through Game Pedagogy”

I want to preface this review by saying that I am a game-based learning enthusiast and have been using games in my classroom for the last six composition classes. I was excited to attend this panel because, before E.28, I had never attended a game-based learning panel in the humanities, but I have done extensive research on the subject and have seen both well and poorly executed versions of game-based learning in literature and composition classrooms. However, I left this panel a bit confused and frustrated.

First, this panel had the misfortune of being affected by weather and other travel-related issues. Only the chair, Angela Green, and Colleen Thorndike were in physical attendance, and Dave Miller sent in a difficult-to-hear podcast (more on this in a moment). Angela Green eagerly started her presentation, entitled “The Play’s the Thing; Teaching the Art of Persuasion through The Wire,” describing the HBO television show and how she used it in her classroom through two iterations: Green discussed experimenting with what seasons to use and how to present the material to students. She explained that The Wire was more relatable than other content she has used, which relates to ekphrasis, catharsis, and bearing witness for the students. Green wanted her students to develop critical thinking, research, and argumentation skills while also performing analyses of texts, synthesizing ideas, creating multimodal projects, and constructing a Commonplace Book. This discussion took up much of her 15-minute scheduled presentation before she started to discuss the game and play the title alluded to. 

Green defined a game as a mutually agreed upon goal and set of rules and described a player's entrance into a game space happening when the rules of ordinary life are replaced with the rules of a game and a goal. She commonly alluded to The Wire and the characters as different pieces of a game of chess, where certain characters can easily be cast as pawns, knights, etc., and how they were all just pieces in the game called the war on drugs. She pointed out that this was an “obvious” comparison that gave a solid framework of analysis for the students to spot the roles of each character in the larger picture, which she argued was a great way to get the students involved in the analysis of the show. She ended her presentation with quiz games, word problem-esque games of her own creation, and the online platform Kahoot. Unfortunately, I failed to see the impact of the games and pedagogy of play she was using outside of a textual analysis.

After Green, Dave Miller’s podcast was played, in which he explained how he used “podcast play” to have students engage in a real genre with real audiences. Unfortunately, due to it being late in the day and the room having poor acoustics and no visual aids or cues, it was very difficult to follow what Miller was discussing. Because of this difficulty, I have already exhausted what I have in my notes, though I wish I could comment more on this.

Finally, Colleen Thorndike started her presentation entitled, “Making the Writing Process Real through Game Pedagogy.” I was most excited for this presentation because it was discussing the blending of traditional composition assignments and structure with gaming pedagogy. Thorndike started her presentation with a profession of love for the convention game “C’s the Day,” which inspired her to teach using quests, adventures, and levels. She quickly moved into the debate between gamification and game-based pedagogy in which Wikipedia was her only reference. She ended her discussion of gamification and game-based pedagogy with “I don’t know, this is what Wikipedia says. If anyone wants to add anything, please do.” 

Thorndike quickly moved her research process into game-based learning through Jane McGonigal’s (2011) Reality is Broken, which is a popular New York Times bestselling text that focuses much more on the power of gaming in general rather than focusing specifically on the classroom and educational benefits. I’m not saying that this is a bad text, but there are many others out there that may be more helpful to configuring the classroom to a game, such as Lee Sheldon’s (2011) The Multiplayer Classroom; Douglas Eyman and Andréa Davis’s (2016) edited collection Play/Write: Digital Rhetoric, Writing, Games; Steffen Walz and Sebastian Deterding’s (2015) edited collection The Gameful World: Approaches, Issues, Applications, or many of the other books on games and play that MIT Press has published over the years. Thorndike explained the following important gaming mechanics that should be in the composition classroom: goals, rules, feedback systems, and voluntary participation. I agreed with this framework and most of the bullet points on her “why do it?” slide: 

  • Encourage students to do more process work; 
  • Demystify the process; Clarify expectations of quality writing; 
  • Curb grade-grubbing and complaints; 
  • Make writing fun; and 
  • Give students a sense of autonomy. 

Excusing the less critical “fun” criteria, something Thorndike reiterated throughout her entire presentation, these are good criteria for the game-based classroom. After establishing the foundation of the class, she then explained the quests and level system.

In Thorndike’s classroom, her quests were broken down into two types: general writing and unit-specific. The general quests were based on peer review, brainstorming, and other invention processes. The unit-specific quests were determined based on the projects, something that wasn’t fully explained. The quests, regardless of the task, were tallied up to determine levels, badges, and rewards, but had absolutely no effect on the student’s grade (though she told the students it did). The quests would earn students rewards such as a free excused absence or something of the like, which had students spamming the system to earn the rewards (an example she gave was a student submitting several different brainstorming maps for credit). Her data did not show any substantial correlation between the students completing the extra quests and better scores, although she stated that they had a large impact. Students surveyed also stated that they didn’t find them overly helpful. Thorndike repeatedly said that students thought it was fun and it made the process more enjoyable for all involved, but that is the primary argument against poorly implemented gamification: The fun greatly outweighs the lasting benefits of the course. It seemed that Thorndike only consulted Reality is Broken and Wikipedia and had not researched the extensive scholarship on game-based learning. 

After listening to the three presentations and the unproductive Q&A, I, like several others in attendance, left a bit confused and frustrated. Green had done research into play and ludic studies, but much of her presentation was about literary analysis and less about games and play. Thorndike relied on personal gaming experience, Wikipedia, and Reality is Broken, but relied on the “fun” aspect of gaming instead of the other potential classroom benefits of true game-based pedagogy. Unfortunately, after attending several other presentations and discussing this with other game scholars, this seems to be a trend with many game panels. Instead of professors and instructors engaging in the research, the fun of the game wins out and makes for sloppy, half-hearted pedagogy. Game scholars are willing to engage in conversation about game-based pedagogy and game studies; those who want to teach this way just need to make the effort. 


Eyman, Doug, & Davis, Andréa D. (Eds.). (2016). Play/write: Digital rhetoric, writing, games. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.

McGonigal, Jane. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. London: Vintage.

Sheldon, Lee. (2011). The multiplayer classroom: Designing coursework as a game. Boston, MA: Course Technology/Cengage Learning.

Walz, Steffen P. & Deterding, Sebastian. (Eds.). (2015). The gameful world: Approaches, issues, applications. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


Created by cheryl. Last Modification: Friday February 9, 2018 19:16:18 GMT-0000 by JenniferCarter.