Not all games are created with critical, political, and intellectual questions in mind, if at all, nor are all games played critically, politically, or intellectually. However, as Henry Jenkins (2000) writes, "We have not had time to codify what experienced game designers know, and we have certainly not yet established a canon of great works that might serve as exemplars. There have been real creative accomplishments in games, but we haven't really sorted out what they are and why they matter" (p. 120). Or to reiterate James Paul Gee (2003), "Video games have unmet potential" (p. 151). Part of why games matter and part of their potential is their ability to make connections between player and game, between game and world, between player and player—what Aarseth calls “creative involvement”—in ways that other art, other media, and other texts cannot make or imagine. Games make visible, make intelligible, make actionable the descriptions, interactions, and logics of the real world. It is this power and responsibility that critical gaming as practice and as theory must attend and realize.

One way that the potential and power of video games can be tapped is through writing and close playing. It is what Ian Bogost calls "love between ideas and computation" (as qtd. in Duffy, 2008). Gaming and writing can come together to produce much needed accounts of how games are played, why they are played, and what are the consequences of their play. As Alexander Galloway (2006) articulates, "One of the central theoretical issues in video gaming is how and in what way one can make connections between the gaming world and the real world, both from the inside outward...and from the outside inward" (p. 71). It is this crossing of the magic circle, this writing into and out of, this playing into and out of that needs to be pushed and developed. Gonzalo Frasca (2003), author of "Ideological videogames: Press left button to dissent," says, "If video games are indeed persuasive tools, then they can be used for conveying passionate ideas." Like Frasca, Galloway envisions a future of "countergaming," of critical gaming; he says, "We need an avant-garde of video gaming not just in visual form but also in actional form. We need radical gameplay, not just radical graphics" (p. 125).

In kind, Stuart Moulthrop (2005), in "After the last generation: Rethinking scholarship in the days of serious play," argues that scholars, teachers, and students must do more than simply play games, take games seriously, and write seriously about games. He says, "We play games, then we write about the experience. Play first, then write. If we remain true to this course, we will likely produce for game culture an academic field very much like literary studies, film studies, and other established specialties. No doubt such conformity has its advantages, but it would seriously restrict our horizons." Attention to games like WoW must be multimodal, like Gee’s definition of literacy, multidimensional, and come from multiple perspectives. He continues, "Now begins the time of contact and interaction of engagement and intervention, of ideas in action...Play somehow resumes, albeit under the new burden of seriousness that must come with any real cultural advance."

In writing classrooms in particular, Cynthia L. Selfe agrees and advances the following call-to-task: "Composition teachers, language arts teachers, and other literacy specialists need to recognize that the relevance of technology in the English studies disciplines is not simply a matter of helping students work effectively with communication software and hardware, but, rather, also a matter of helping them to understand and to be able to assess -- to pay attention to -- the social, economic, and pedagogical implications of new communication technologies and technological initiatives that affect their lives" (p. 432). In writing classrooms, to pay attention to video games is to play with attention, to close play. Here are possible "creative involvements" with or "close plays" of video games to be developed and deployed in the classroom:

Defining Games, Defining Play: Students can generate a definition of a game or of play; students can argue the value of games or of play; students can write a pro or con letter to the editor or to their congressional representative about video games and education; students can close read Huizinga's "magic circle" and respond; students can write a history or an encomium or a defense of a particular video game; students can demonstrate for and teach the class how to play a game; students can compare and contrast games like WoW to other video games and to other kinds of games as well; students can collaborative establish a serious game or serious play "philosophy" or "statement of goals" for studying and writing about video games.

Playing with Narrative: Students can write a narrative and backwards engineer the story of a game, particularly of games that are not ostensibly story-based like Tetris or Space Invaders; students can write a narrative of a particular scene or "clip" of a game, like a single task or quest or a minute of play; students can dramatize a scene of a game as a skit or performance; students can write a narrative, a "backstory" for their avatar, particularly from MMORPGs like WoW; students can take a short narrative like a short story or a scene of a play or a poem and generate a proposal of how to turn the narrative into a video game, including details about what the game looks like, how to play the game, challenges and rewards.

Close Playing and Critical Playing: Students can close read and analyze how cultural formations and ideological assumptions like race, gender, class, sexuality, citizen, and nation are rendered and enacted by a game; students can analyze how formations, stereotypes, and logics of race, gender, class, and so on are generated by a game not only through visuals but through text, chat, actions, and so on; students can analyze their avatar's "backstory" for cultural assumptions and stereotypes; students can analyze the discourses about video games, particularly the controversies over the dangers of video games or the pedagogical value of video games; students can close play and analyze particular aspects of a game like character creation, quests or rewards, mise en scène, even the packaging of and written materials for the game; students can close play and critique "serious games" from sites like the Serious Games Initiative <http://www.seriousgames.org/> or Water Cooler Games <http://www.watercoolergames.org/>; students can close play and critique overtly and problematically political or ideological games like the US Army’s game America’s Army <http://www.goarmy.com/aarmy/index.jsp>; students can play games to look for exploits and ways to resist the social or ideological logics of the game; students can look at critical responses to video games in scholarship, media, and art, particularly at groups like the Radical Software Group <http://r-s-g.org/> or Velvet Strike <http://www.opensorcery.net/velvet-strike/> or Critical Art Ensemble <http://www.critical-art.net/>; students can propose or create or write their own “serious” video game.

Transfering/Transcoding: Students can generate further ways to develop and extend the homology between gaming and writing; students can identify reading, analytical, and writing practices across different media, genres, and forms, transferring skills from written text to video to film to video game; students can close read and analyze the visual, narrative, and ideological logics of recent films based on video games like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) or Doom (2005) or films that adopt a video game aesthetic like eXistenZ (1999) or Elephant (2003) or Beowulf (2007); students can write strategy guides as study guides for games like WoW, revealing not just how to play the game but how to close play the game for particular critical exigencies.

The pedagogical and political potential of video games requires challenging the assumptions about gaming and writing, attending to the similarities and differences between gaming and writing, and articulating of stakes in reading, studying, playing, and writing about games. This kind of nuancing allows students, teachers, players, writers, scholars, parents, doctors, and pundits alike to take stock and not summarily dismiss video games as entertainment or mindless pop culture, to widen and deepen academic and popular attention beyond reductive claims about violence, illiteracy, or any other all-or-nothing "ism," and to create and nurture a richer, interdisciplinary, and "safer" media ecology where more "serious" games can be written, produced, and played. Frasca continues, "[A]cademics must join forces with developers and provide them with practical game theory or, even better, start making our own games...the potential of videogames for critical thinking and debate is, I believe, much larger. It lies, I think, in providing players with tools to contest the game's ideological assumptions by designing their own games. Eventually, games will allow us to model our ideas and let others play with them and vice versa." However, "safe" and "serious" must remain contingent like the magic circle of play; playing, producing, and writing about games cannot ever fully retreat into safety (opposition, conflict, and incommensurability can be productive) nor ludological seriousness (issues of theory, discipline, high or low culture, even canon can obscure fun).

Or, in other words, Katherine Hayles (2007) requires, "Whether inclined toward deep or hyper attention, toward one side or another of the generational divide separating print from digital culture, we cannot afford to ignore the frustrating, zesty, and intriguing ways in which the two cognitive modes interact. Our responsibilities as educators, not to mention our position as practioners of the literary arts, require nothing less" (p. 198). This is how gaming, writing, playing, and teaching must take play seriously, make new and critical and progressive choices, take the paths less traveled, and integrate algorithm, heuristic, and imagination as happenings.

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

World of Warcraft and Blizzard Entertainment are trademarks or registered trademarks of Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. in the U.S. and/or other countries.
All other material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License (2008)