Convergence: Theory into Practice


In this section, we would like to discuss our processes for designing the game. In software and game design terminology, what we do here could be referred to as a postmortem: we describe what went well, what went wrong, and why. Specifically, we will discuss why we chose a game to teach peer review, our struggle to keep it a game, and the ways in which we attempted to put the theories we describe in the previous section into practice in the game. Our hope is that this case study will help us understand some of the larger issues and opportunities that educational games offer.

KW: When Ryan and I talked about this section of the paper, we envisioned convergent narrative threads: How a publisher develops an educational game; how a scholar thinks about game development; and how those two perspectives come together. Since there are few precedents, at least in this field, for our particular collaboration, we thought that documenting our process might yield some useful insights. To avoid confusion, I’ve indicated my commentary with initials KW. My narrative will focus on how I attempted to merge the development process for traditional textbook content with the game development process. The goal of my commentary is to make transparent the thinking behind this project from a publisher’s perspective.

RM: My narrative will focus on how I attempted to keep my part of the project game—like and fun, while maintaining the best practices of peer review we developed as a design team. These best practices came from the Bedford/St. Martin’s archive, from published scholarship on peer review, and from years of practice teaching peer review in the composition classroom.

The Idea

KW: Many of the educational games I looked at before beginning work on Peer Factor had a lopsided feel. They fell into one of two categories. They were either, “mostly a game” with some pedagogy tacked on. Or they were “mostly a lesson” with some game elements tacked on. The obviousness of the intent—to teach a lesson or to be “fun”—seemed to get in the way of the learning experience. Our goal in developing Peer Factor was to see how invisibly we could knit these two elements together. We didn’t want it to be too “fun” and we didn’t want it to be too obviously “lesson.”

Perhaps this deficit can be attributed to interactive nature of peer review skills which are difficult to teach through non-interactive print text. This lack of pedagogical support may be the reason many instructors tend to let their students ‘dive in’ to peer review without much preparation. Instructors may also instinctively recognize that the only way to really learn an interpersonal skill, like peer review, is by doing it. This leaves instructors with a dilemma: how to prepare students for something that can only be learned by doing? Our answer was to create a simulation that allowed students to experience peer review in a mediated way.

RM: When Kim approached me with the concept, I was hesitant at first. I did not want to create another game that asked learners to solve problems and then get to do something “fun” as a reward. Game designer Ernest Adams (2005) put it a little differently:

Don’t make games that aren’t fun enough. These games are usually designed by teachers who don’t know enough about entertainment. They’re often poorly-disguised drills, or are insulting to a child’s intelligence (“Quick! Mr. Spock needs to know the sum of 2 and 2!”). Such games fail to engage the student’s imagination, and there’s little connection between the material to be studied and the (often rather feeble) game world in which it is supposedly being used. You must find a way to meaningfully and above all coherently incorporate the educational content into the gameplay. (n.p.)

At the same time, I have always taken a playful approach to teaching peer review in my classes. I have done several activities from having students list their greatest peer review fears to having peer response groups come up with specific protocol that would alleviate some of those fears. This echoes what Elbow and Belanoff (1995) advised student writers to do: “Spend some time talking about how the feedback process is working” (p. 16). In fact, I believe in the sentiment behind Elbow and Belanoff’s Sharing and Responding, insofar as they articulate communication and practice as the key elements in successful peer review: “if you leave it wide open…before readers have practiced all these responding techniques [and without building a relationship of trust], you often get nothing—or even something hurtful or harmful” (p. 17). In order to establish this trust and practice in my own classroom, I have generated worksheets for students, questionaires, and facilitated small group workshops. I would have students treat the peer review process as a game: a rule-based system in which players (students) play with various choices and test the consequences of those choices.

What ended up intriguing me about this project was Kim’s insistence on this being a game, through and through. While we struggled throughout the project to keep others mindful of its “gameness,” we remained committed to this grounding concept.