Starter Cities Tutorial


[Returns you to the Map]

[A link here will return you to the the starting point for each City]


[A link here will return you to the previous "mission" in each city]

James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy (2003) has justly been recognized by game scholars as providing a rich description of the way in which video and computer games employ sophisticated and pedagogically sound techniques to help players learn and refine complex tasks[1]. What has often been overlooked, however, is the fact that Gee’s argument for the effective learning environment of games is couched within a stinging critique of the standard educational practices of US high schools. Indeed, his book on electronic games was published almost simultaneously with Gee's Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling (2004) [2].

While such critiques of the US education system are hardly new, there is an operative assumption amongst rhetoric and composition teachers that we generally fall outside such criticism because we (usually) are not engaged in rote learning or No Child Left Untested methods. Yet our field not infrequently employs a problematic distinction between “academic” writing and other forms that serves to isolate the product we teach from a larger life world in a way that Gee would find deeply problematic. More importantly, our pedagogical practice often works against our insistence that writing has consequences and is a vehicle for influence and change.

Despite considerable research demonstrating that people learn most effectively when they are immersed in environments where there are real consequences to their actions, most composition and rhetoric programs are still resolutely traditional in their demand that students engage only in ersatz, or even simulacral scenes of writing and argument. Students are asked to assimilate principles of writing for specific target audiences and to engage in a discourse of civic participation while at the same time they are under no illusion that the real audience for their work is the instructor and that the only thing really at stake is their grade.

On the other hand, those writing instructors who do try to immerse their students in real world writing environments often face huge logistical, ideological and ethical challenges. This has come to the fore especially in the domain of new media where the initial mania among writing instructors for student blogging, for example, is now running into some of the sobering realities of public discourse on the Internet in the form of abuse, spam, sexual harassment, and information overload.

My aim in this web text is to explore a term that is rarely applied to the writing class except as a consumation devoutly to be avoided: simulation. Many writing teachers strenuously resist the idea that their classes are a simulation space; others consider the fact that many writing classes are simulations to be a problem to be overcome. My argument is that embracing simulation in regard to writing course design is neither something to be avoided nor to be combatted, but embraced. In this regard I want to extend Gee’s analysis, which focuses mainly on single-player games, to consider what we might learn from the extraordinary popularity of massively multiplayer online role-playing Games (MMORPGs), games that attract legions of players despite steep learning curves, the necessity for intricate systems management, and heavy time commitments. In particular I want to look at one of the central gameplay features of these environments, that of the starter city, in order to consider the larger issue of simulation in relation to the writing classroom. In online gaming, the starter city integrates players who are new to the demands of the game world by effectively balancing consequential action and safeguarded experimentation. It caters to the learning needs of a wide variety of players (for example, those who may be new to MMORPGs in general or only to the specific game) while still allowing them to intervene in the larger game world [3].

This web text was conceived as a series of linked essays exploring the intricacies and challenges afforded by conflicting definitions of simulation and the way first-year writing programs in particular find themselves snared by those definitions. Drawing explicitly upon two new MMORPGs (Destination Games’ Tabula Rasa (2007) and Flying Lab Software’s Pirates of the Burning Sea (2008)) in order to analyze the implications of the starter city gaming dynamic for writing instruction and rhet/comp program design, I look at both the opportunities and challenges that such an approach to teaching writing would involve. I also consider a number of fundamental assumptions about the nature and purpose of college composition that are called into question by the learning that takes place in many gaming environments.

Design Note: This project gave me the chance to experiment with a couple of ideas concerning formatting scholarly work for the web. It was not my intention, for example, that people would necessarily read everything on this site. There is a lot of material here! Consequently there is some redundancy across the sections. And some repetition. And some replication. And while Computers and Composition uses APA style, and I have generally adhered to that, I have on occasion departed from the style in order to pursue the system of parallel/conversational referencing I've utilized throughout.

I am presenting you here with a series of starter cities, and it’s my hope that by the time you’ve finished exploring this webtext you’ll be ready to level up, and take on the new, more hazardous, more challenging tasks that take place on other maps, in other times.

For those who would prefer to take the superhighway through this pastoral paradise, I would recommend visiting the cities in the following order: Simulata, Arpeggia, Pedagogia, and Programma


[References appear on this side]

1. Gee, J. P. (2003) What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

2. Gee, J. P. (2004) Situated learning: A critique of traditional schooling. New York: Routledge.





[Related Musings also appear over here]

3. This web text represents work in progress, an attempt to define the connections between simulation, the writing classroom, and the learning techniques employed by electronic games. I welcome any feedback concerning these ideas (I've included my e-mail on the home page for that purpose).

The balance of this essay is tilted unapologetically toward explication of the game environments I am discussing. I am assuming that the essential problems I define in relation to the design of writing classes and programs will at least be familiar to most readers in their broad outlines; I am assuming no such thing in relation to the world of MMORPGs. The idea of these games as effective learning environments and, moreover, environments from which we as teachers can learn useful design principles will be so alien to many people that some contextualization is no doubt required.

[Links to subsequent "missions" in each city appear here]    

Return to Starter Cities Map