Just For Fun: Writing and Literacy Learning as Forms of Play

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  • Computers and Composition 25 (2008) 323340

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    Just For Fun: Writing and Literacy Learning as Forms of PlayDavid Michael Sheridan a,, William Hart-Davidson b

    a Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, Michigan State University, C210 Snyder Hall,East Lansing, MI 48825-1106, United States

    b WIDE (Writing in Digital Environments) Research Center, Department of Writing,Rhetoric, and American Cultures, Michigan State University, 7 Olds Hall, East Lansing,

    MI 48824-1047, United States


    This article focuses on Ink, a Multiplayer Online Game (MOG) being developed at Michigan StateUniversity. The design of Ink reflects the developers understanding of writing pedagogy and rhetoricaltheory. Ink allows players to enter into complex rhetorical situations that include exigencies, audiences,and rhetorical purposes. The developers of Ink hope that placing players in these rhetorical situationswill facilitate literacy learning while simultaneously providing a satisfying game experience. Playerswill hopefully learn while having fun. In order to test the effectiveness of Ink as a game and learn-ing environment, the authors designed a small-scale preliminary study with a focus group of studentplaytesters. The study was designed to answer three fundamental questions: Will players write? Willplayers have fun? Will players learn? The study generated some evidence that the answer to all threequestions is yes. 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

    Keywords: Games; Literacy; Rhetoric; Writing pedagogy; Instructional technology; Textual economy; Textualcirculation

    1. Introduction

    What if you could learn to write by playing a video game? No teachers, no classes, nogrades. Just a fun game that you play in a web browser. Maybe the game wouldnt evenexplicitly focus on writing. Maybe it would focus on fun stuff: imagining and building coolsocial venues like coffee shops, skating parks, and dance clubs; dabbling in politics (servingon city council, proposing new laws, managing the mayors re-election campaign); forminggroups and finding ways to get more money, power, and influence. You know, all the stuff

    Corresponding author.Email addresses: sherid16@msu.edu (D.M. Sheridan), hartdav2@msu.edu (W. Hart-Davidson).

    8755-4615/$ see front matter 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2008.04.008

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    most high schoolers and college kids cant do but wish they could. The writing happens (youmight not even notice it) in order to get the fun stuff done: the proposal that you submit to citycouncil; the brochure you distribute to elicit interest in your latest project; the manifesto youwrite with others to announce the philosophy of your new action group. This article exploressome of the design elements that such a game might include and presents some preliminaryevidence that such an approach might work.

    As writing teachers, we are committed to a pedagogy that embeds writing tasks in com-plex rhetorical situations; writing in these situations is not an end in and of itself, butrather a tool for addressing an exigency. Over the past three years, we have been workingwith other teacher-researchers as well as artists, game designers, playtesters, and program-mers to design a game in which rhetorical exigencies would emerge, providing playersopportunities to engage in rhetorical interventions. In this article, we report findings froma preliminary study focused on a small group of undergraduates who were invited to tryout a working prototype of this game called Ink. Our study began with very basic ques-tions: Will players write? Will they have fun? Will they learn? We present modest evidencethat the answers to all three questions is yes. Our findings suggest that not only willplayers write but that their decisions as writers will reflect the contextual factors likeaudience, purpose, and exigency that we (as writing teachers) hope they will take intoaccount.

    2. Correct commas = 50 points: Can video games teach writing?

    The attention of the Ink development team was piqued some months ago, at just aboutthe time that we were ready to begin basic playtesting, when an issue of Harpers Magazinefeatured a panel discussion focused on the possibility of teaching writing using video games.With a mixture of hope and fear, we read through the discussion quickly, eager to discoverhow close the panelists would come to the concepts we ourselves had arrived at. Perhaps theywould independently invent a game just like ours.

    The panel, a mixture of educators and game enthusiasts, began by considering therote elements of writinggrammar, punctuation, and spelling (Avrich, Johnson, Koster,de Zengotita, & Wasik, 2006, p. 32) and imagined relatively simple games that mightaddress these components. But they gradually talked their way to more complex gamesand more complex dimensions of writing, such as argument, structure, and aesthetic con-siderations. There are two ways you could do it, said panelist Steven Johnson, oneof which I think would potentially work, the other of which would not (p. 35). Thefirst option was to use the game as a way to broaden the realm of experiences the stu-dents have by immersing them in settings relevant to their writing (p. 35). In the secondoption,

    where the actual text of the story is being built and evaluated inside the gameyou would needa game engine that itself had some form of consciousness. You cant evaluate complex formsof writing without consciousness. And with our current technology, you know, my grammarchecker in Microsoft Word cant even tell if my subjects and verbs agree. (Avrich et al., 2006,p. 35).

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    Later Johnson asserted: Honestly, I doubt that video games are capable of dealing withpsychological depth at all (Avrich et al., 2006, p. 36). Eventually, however, the panel exploreda more fruitful possibility, that Multiplayer Online Games like Second Life1 might be able torecover some of the complexity demanded by good writing pedagogy. The panelists stop shortof sketching out a specific approach but they identify a number of salient features of this kindof game: an economy, an immersive environment, complex social interactionand exigenciesthat can be addressed by writing, which inevitably emerge when any group of people beginsto interact in complex ways.

    This conversation was striking to us because its general trajectory echoes the evolution inthinking that we went through in developing our own game. We knew that games could beused to teach spelling and grammar, but we werent interested in those things. But in our earlythinking, we kept running into the same dead-end: for a game to address deeper issues ofwriting like ideas and arguments, it would need full-blown consciousness, and we knew thatat least for the foreseeable future, this was not possible. How could a computer respond, inany meaningful way, to an essay or a poem? How could a writer win a game about writingif a computer were left to determine whether or not that writing was successful?

    The answer, of course, was that the game itself would not deploy sophisticated non-human intelligence; instead, it would leverage human intelligence by providing an immersiveenvironmenta worldthat included the kinds of structures necessary for rich social interac-tion. The game wouldnt be conscious, but it would invite consciousness into it. The machinewouldnt respond to writing; it would get players to respond to each others writing. A numberof Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), from Sims Online toSecond Life, were already demonstrating the potential of digital environments to facilitate thiskind of complex social interaction.

    3. What is Ink?

    Developed by the MSU Writing Center in collaboration with the Writing in Digital Envi-ronments (WIDE) Research Center, Ink is a MMORPG informed by scholarship on writinginstruction and by rhetorical theory. It is an experimental response to a persistent question: iflearning to write is a lifelong endeavor, what kinds of learning environments can we provide tofacilitate literacy learning that are viable, 24 7 365? We developed Ink to conduct researchto determine whether gaming environments can effectively facilitate literacy learningthat is,can students learn to write more effectively by interacting in a gaming environment? This repre-sents a fundamentally new approach to learning and teaching writing. As such, if learning takesplace, this research (and serious gaming environments) stands to make major contributionsboth to liberal education and to the scholarship on writing instruction.

    Ink (see Fig. 1 for a screen capture of the games interface) is what Kym Buchanan, thegames lead designer, calls a Persistent Alternate World (PAW). As a persistent alternate world,it supports multiple arcs of gameplay over long stretches of time. Players dont win games

    1 We are mindful that Second Life is not strictly speaking a game, but instead is an online environment thatsupports an array of activities, some more game-like than others.

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    Fig. 1. Screen capture of Ink.

    with the finality and closure of single-player video games like Pac-Man. There is no score,no game over. As a persistent alternate world, Ink offers multiple players the chance tobecome immersed in a socially, culturally, and sensorially complex ecology (for discussionsof the concept of immersion, see Dede, 1996; Buchanan, 2006). Accessible by the generalpublic through a web browser, Ink is available twenty-four hours a day to anyone with Internetaccess. This has important implications for delivering writing instruction: Ink has the potentialto make literacy learning a recreational activity that players voluntarily engage in.

    Adopting the metaphor of a city, Ink invites players to create neighborhoods and othergame spaces through a simple web interface. Ink has a currency (ink), an economy, tools forcommunication (e.g., a chat window), and for creating objects (such as documents, furniture,and toys). When they are not maintained by players, objects and spaces in Ink generate entropy.When entropy builds to a certain point, an entropy discharge can result, which means that theun-maintained space as well as surrounding spaces are compromised. This dynamic is meantto parallel real-world realities: if I dont maintain my home properly, not only does my ownhouse lose value, but surrounding homes lose value as well.

    We are often asked: How do you win? There is no simple winning or losing in Ink, just asthere is no simple winning or losing in life. Instead, there are a variety of markers of successand advancementsome of which are provided for within the structure of the game itself,some of which reflect the individual goals, values, and attitudes of players. Simple forms of

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    success are measured by earning ink and by creating and maintaining rooms that are popularand that therefore avoid entropy discharges. A more involved structure for marking successwithin the game is a feature called pathways. Pathways are a collection of activities that relateto a particular themethe Path of Government, for example, or the Path of Technologyandthese activities are organized into levels. An example of a Level One task on the Path ofGovernment might be attending a town hall meeting, while a Level Two task might be writinga fundraising letter for a political group, and a Level Three task might be running for citycouncil. Activities are documented in journals that are in turn reviewed by other players. Mostactivities also result in various forms of writing, so completing a level on a given path typicallyresults in producing a portfolio of documents.

    But players also set their own goals for succeeding within the game. For players who hopeto make the game world more satisfying, success might mean proposing legislation to citycouncil that fine-tune the ground rules of the game. Other players might consider themselvessuccessful if the social spaces they create in Ink are popular with other players and/or serve animportant function within the social life of the game. Still others might consider themselvessuccessful if they effectively secure leadership roles, such as organizing a large action groupor serving as mayor of Ink.

    4. Why a MMORPG game?

    In recent years, education researchers have become interested in the promise of gamesas a general framework for facilitating learning across grade levels and subjects (e.g., Gee,2003, 2005; Johnson, 2005; Kierrimuir & McFarlane, 2004; Ritterfeld, Weber, Fernandes,& Vorderer, 2004; Winn, Heeter & Dickson, 2004). MMORPGs have been of particularinterest because of their ability to create socially complex settings for learning (Dede, 1996;Gee, 2003; Young, 2004; Young, Schrader, Zheng, 2006). In this relatively new type of game,complex social ecologies develop, facilitating highly ordered social relationships and intensivesocial interaction. Players use digital communication tools like email and synchronous chat tocollaborate with other players, to organize into groups, and to accomplish mutual goals.

    We felt that a MMORPG was particularly consonant with a rich tradition of rhetorical theorythat emphasizes rhetoric as an intensely situated activity (see, for instance, Biesecker, 1989;Dias, Freedman, Medway, & Par, 1999; Dobrin & Weisser, 2002; Flower & Hayes, 1980;Gee, 2003; Miller, 1992; Porter, 1992; Vatz, 1973). If kairos, as James Kinneavy (1986) toldus, is the appropriateness of the discourse to the particular circumstances of the time, place,speaker, and audience involved (p. 84), MMORPGs can provide writers with a confluence ofkairotic elements.

    Lloyd Bitzer (1968) asked us to regard rhetorical situation as a natural context of persons,events, objects, relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterance; this invited utter-ance participates naturally in the situation, is in many instances necessary to the completion ofsituational activity, and by means of its participation with situation obtains its meaning and itsrhetorical character (p. 5). This observation is consistent with studies (e.g., Dias et al., 1999)that contend writing in contexts outside the classroom is a means to other ends, an activitythat occurs naturally in the process of achieving other goals: securing funding for a project,

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    structuring an organization, getting a group of collaborators to behave in productive ways. Butthese activities arent always easy to bring into the classroom. Its problematic, for instance, toask a student to become a project manager in a corporation so that the student can authenticallybe charged with the task of writing a report whose function is to secure additional funding fromupper management; or to become an officer in a non-profit organization so that the studentcould be charged with writing the memo whose function is to accomplish a change in theorganizations mission; or to become a vice president in a construction corporation so that thestudent could be charged with developing a proposal for a new project. Writing instructors canask students to pretend to be these things and write as if they are in these rhetorical contexts.Alternatively, a service-learning approach (which we both value and use ourselves) helps toaddress this issue to some degree by inviting students to write with community partners inreal-world situations (see, for instance, Warschauer, 1999); but there are severe practical andethical limits to the amount of freedom students have. In an immersive game world like Ink,student-players could conceivably function as project managers or become officers in non-profit organizations or serve as vice presidents of construction firms and could engage in thekinds of rhetorical interventions that are essential to these roles.

    5. Research questions and our iterative, user-centered development process

    Our research questions during the early stages of development are modest in the sense thatthey reflect the fact that we are in the earliest stages of understanding games as environmentsfor learning rhetorical practices. We have three primary questions: Will players write? Willthey have fun? Will they learn? Each of these questions implies a cluster of related questions:

    (What) Will players write? What genres of writing will they engage in (e.g., reports, memos,analytical essays)? Will players produce sustained pieces of writing as opposed to short emailsand text messages? Will players engage in practices, such as analysis, research, and argumen-tation, that are valued by the academy? As writing teachers, we hope to prepare students toparticipate in academic, professional, and public contexts, so we are particularly interestedin whether or not Ink will elicit the kinds of writing valued in these contexts. Although thiswriting includes the short emails and text messages that students already produce in variouscontexts (e.g., Facebook, AIM, and various games), much of the writing in these contextsinvolves a more sustained performance. Academic essays, for instance, are much longer thana typical email.

    Will players have fun? Will players find the game engaging? Can a game be designed sothat it elicits writing from players and still provide a compelling framework for play (Pearce,2004)? Will games foster positive associations with writing? These are critical questions notjust for us but also for others in the field, because if games are not compelling, students willnot play them. If they dont play, no learning is possible.

    Will players learn? Is there evidence that players are improving as writers and thinkersas a result of gameplay? Is there evidence that players are able to articulate their ideas moreclearly, produce more compelling arguments, and synthesize information more effectively asthey spend more time in the game? Is there evidence that they are developing more sophis-ticated metacognitive frameworks for representing communicative tasks to themselves? Are

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    players more sensitive to fundamental features of the context for communicative tasks, such asaudience, exigency, purpose, and the material and cultural conditions of circulation? Is thereevidence that players are developing deeper understandings of the writing process?

    Developing Ink is the means by which we set out to answer these three sets of questions.Our approach to data collection has been to combine playtesting, a method that is similar tothe iterative development process associated with user-centered design, with more traditionalmethods of qualitative data gathering and analysis. Our data from participant-players duringour iterative development research cycle typically includes:

    samples of in-game writing surveys about gameplay expectations, experiences, and satisfaction follow-up interviews with players to probe more deeply into game experiences and strategies global activity statistics from the Ink web server.

    We analyze these data with two broad categories of outcomes in mind. First, we examine thedata for patterns of activity that indicate engagement and learning (or their opposites). Initialindications of such patterns are typically visible in the web server statistics and surveys. Thesepatterns indicate where we should seek out participants in-game writing for closer rhetoricalanalysis and suggest issues to address in interviews, such as the choices players made whenthey were creating, sharing, and revising their in-game writing.

    Another focus in examining playtesting results is to improve Ink. The design of Ink embod-ies expectations about the opportunities for literacy learning that we derive from theories ofrhetoric, writing, and interactive games as learning spaces. The data we collect during playtest-ing help us to explore some of these expectations in a way that creates new knowledge but thatalso hopefully points to concrete improvements to the gaming environment.

    6. Replicating the conditions for embedded rhetorical interventions

    At this stage in its development, Ink is not ready for full-scale testing as awritinglearningplaying environment. Ideally, exigencies will emerge from the social ecologyof the game and players will respond with rhetorical interventions that they deem appropriate.But right now the game is in alpha testing (small-scale testing of basic functions with selectgroups of users), so there is no social ecology and no persistent player base. Nevertheless, wehave devised small-scale preliminary testing scenarios to explore specific dimensions of thegame experience and to begin answering the basic research questions mentioned above.

    The current study focused on twelve undergraduates enrolled in a special course designed toprepare students to serve as Undergraduate Writing Consultants in the MSU Writing Center.Our study asked student-playtesters to enter a specific rhetorical context in the game. Ourtest cycle spanned three eighty-minute class meetings. Throughout the test cycle, we used amultifaceted approach to collect data. Four researchers took notes during the class meetings.We distributed a short survey at the end. And we (Bill and David) interviewed three studentsfor approximately one hour after the test cycle was complete.

    The rhetorical context we created for students asked them to assume the role of players inInk who specialized in helping neighborhoods thrive in the game world. We created and asked

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    students to visit a simple Ink neighborhood called Three Hills, comprised of three sparselydescribed spaces: a residential area, a park, and the offices of Three Hills Neighborhood Asso-ciation (THNA). Students were divided into two groups, each of which assumed the identityof an organization (Revitalize Ink! or Urban Renewal Specialists) devoted to creating plansfor helping neighborhoods within Ink realize their full potential. We created in-game officespace for each organization, including a simple mission statement and a logo. As membersof organizations devoted to revitalizing Ink neighborhoods, our group of student-players wasready to be invited into a rhetorical situation that mirrored the kind of situation which mightemerge once the game was made public and had attracted a substantial player base.

    During the first class period of the test cycle, we introduced students to the interface of thegame and presented them with an embedded rhetorical exigency. We distributed a Requestfor Proposals written from the perspective of THNA (see Fig. 2). The RFP announced thatthe THNA seeks proposals from development groups for improving our neighborhood. TheRFP informed players that Three Hills aspire[s] to be one of the games premier neighbor-hoods! but disclosed that Currently, however, we are not living up to our full potential.Few people visit us, leaving residents to pay large maintenance fees that are not sustain-able. Finally, the RFP specified that On the morning of 19 April 2007 representatives of theTHNA will [be] available in the Three Hills Welcome Center to receive proposals. We areasking groups to make a brief (five minute) presentation and to submit a brief written pro-posals [sic] outlining their basic ideas for neighborhood revitalization. In a limited attemptto generate a sense of immersion, we designed the RFP to look like an official organizationaldocument printed on letterhead with a simple logo. Student-players had a short time afterreceiving the RFP to meet as groups and brainstorm ideas for a proposal they might submit toTHNA.

    The second class-period was devoted entirely to developing proposals in working groups.One researcher who was familiar with Ink and could answer questions regarding game mechan-ics was assigned to each group. During the third and final class period, each group presentedits proposal in the THNA offices within the world of Ink. David logged into the game from amachine in a different room and played the role of the THNA representative.

    The rhetorical context focused on the THNA was characterized by several components thatrelate to what we consider to be fundamental aspects of Ink as a learning environment. Itincluded an exigency (a neighborhood that needed improvement), an audience (representa-tives of THNA), and a mild sense of competition (two groups were submitting a proposal,but only one would be accepted). The scenario also left certain dimensions unspecified, forc-ing group members to make certain rhetorical decisions on their own. We didnt specify, forinstance, what the proposal should look like, what documents might accompany it (e.g., Pow-erPoint presentations, brochures, mockups), what level of formality to adopt, or what stylisticapproach to take. The precise form of proposals was not dictated because we wanted players tomake decisions about what rhetorical strategies would be most effective within this particularrhetorical context.

    Given the compressed timeframe and the fact that this work was not an assignment specifiedon the syllabus, we expected that groups would generate brief or even incomplete proposals.Instead, both groups ended the work session not with a draft of a proposal but with a conceptand plan for how proposals would be completed as homework in the intervening time before

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    Fig. 2. The request for proposals distributed to playtesters.

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    the third class meeting. They divided the workload among themselves and came to the finalsession with relatively well-developed proposals.

    One group proposed The Fourth Hill, a multi-purpose park that would sponsor concerts,sporting events, and film festivals. The other group proposed The Three Hills Library, a placewhere Ink players could provide and receive comments on writing, as well as publish writing ofvarious types (creative, professional, journalistic, and academic). Both proposals were simplebrochures: multimodal documents in which text flowed around images downloaded from theweb.

    7. (What) Will players write? Responding to rhetorical exigencies in Ink

    The design of Ink reflects our belief that rhetoric is a strategy for addressing certain kindsof problems or exigencies that are always contextual. We believe rhetors are most successfulwhen they are able to create a rich profile of the exigencies they hope to address and thecontexts in which these exigencies are situated. This means that rhetorical interventions areinformed by awareness of audience, purpose, medium, genre, and other factors. If playerswrite in Ink, we hypothesize that it will be in response to some identifiable exigency and thatthe writing will be adapted to contextual realities perceived by players. Our test cycle providedsome evidence that this was indeed the case.

    Each group of students produced a more or less complete proposal in response to the RFPthey were given. While we expected simple proposals that relied mostly or exclusively onalphabetic text, students turned in multimodal compositions that combined text and imagesand that demonstrated attention to basic design and readability issues. Images were placedat regular intervals on alternating sides of the page, creating a sense of rhythm and balance.Further, these documents were scannable, favoring short chunks of text, bulleted lists, andsubheadings in bold fonts. Student-players established a visual hierarchy, using graphicaltools (such as font style and size) to help readers make distinctions between main headings,subheadings, and bullet points. In other words, the basic approach of these documents wasconsistent with a proposal for a professional audience whose needs would likely include theability to process the proposal quickly. This was true despite the fact that document design andvisual communication were not taught or thematized within the class. While it is likely thatthese students had been introduced to concerns of document design as a result of their workin the writing center and/or previous courses, the fact that Ink prompted them to activate thisknowledge is notable.

    One member of the group that proposed The Fourth Hill produced a web page meant toserve as a mockup of what players might see if they chose to visit the park (see Fig. 3 fora screen capture of this web mockup). In reporting on her composing process, this studentsaid that she first determined that a mockup would strengthen her proposal. This choice itselfdemonstrates a willingness to engage with the rhetorical situation, evidencing the studentsprocessing of exigency and the needs of the target audience. The form of mockup that sheproduced demonstrates an awareness of audience and purpose as well: bright, cheerful colorsand fonts; a clean professional design; a photograph of a park showing welcoming shade trees,green grass, and picnic tables; the logos of relevant organizations placed in the conventional

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    Fig. 3. Web mockup that accompanied the proposal of one group of playtesters.

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    location at the bottom of the page. The professionalism of her document is enhanced by theaddition of an attractive logo, which she created for the purpose.

    We are not arguing that the documents students produced in this test cycle are exceptionallywell written or that Ink is the only way such documents could be elicited from students. Instead,we are simply observing that within the limited test scenario, student-players seemed to makechoices about their rhetorical strategies that reflect fundamental aspects of their rhetoricalcontexts. These choices seem to emerge out of the embedded nature of the rhetorical tasksand were made explicit by the competitive nature of the game scenario. Given our goal thatInk is designed to be an alternative learning environment for writing, the amount and varietyof rhetorical engagement is encouraging to us. While far from definitive, we see evidence thatspaces like Ink can motivate student learning in ways that traditional classrooms struggle to.

    8. Will players have fun? Level of engagement and motivation

    We observed evidence of engagement during this test cycle. Discussion was lively as studentsgenerated ideas for their proposals. At one point during a moment of intense brainstorming,one student hushed his group because he was concerned that the other group would steal theirideas. During the second class-period (the work session), students stayed for several minutesafter the class was over. When one group overheard the ideas of another, they poked funsaying their ideas were way more cool. When the groups presented their ideas in the gameduring the third class meeting, there was evidence of nervousness even though they knewthe representative of THNA was just one of the researchers with whom theyd been workingthroughout the process.

    Students could have conceivably turned in much simpler proposals or have been satisfiedwith incomplete proposals. The fact that they elected to develop more complex and devel-oped proposals outside of class evidences motivation and engagement. In her account of hercomposing process, the student-player who created the web mockup informed us that shehad never made a webpage before. Spotting iWeba user-friendly web-editing applicationthat comes pre-installed on Mac computersin her applications bar, she speculated that thisapplication would accomplish what she needed and decided to open it. That a student waswilling to identify and learn a new application and compose in a new medium suggests shewas highly motivated and engaged by the task. Survey data confirm some students found thistest activity engaging (see Table 1). Out of ten respondents, six said they Agreed and twosaid they Strongly Agreed with the statement, In general I found this experience fun. Sixrespondents said that they Agreed with the statement, Once Ink has been publicly launched,I can imagine myself logging in and playing the game. Collectively, this evidence suggeststhat it is possible to create a writing-focused game that provides a compelling framework forplay (Pearce, 2004).

    9. Will players learn?

    Learning, of course, is notoriously difficult to measure, and at this stage our claims aboutlearning in Ink are very modest indeed. James Britton (1970) wrote that in order to become

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    Table 1Student response to using ink


    Disagree Neither agreenor disagree

    Agree Stronglyagree


    1. In general I found thisexperience fun

    0 1 1 6 2 10

    2. I would consider enrolling in acourse that used Ink as a majorcomponent (i.e., a course thatcentered on activities like thisone, but on a larger scale)

    0 3 3 4 0 10

    3. I feel that after this experience(interpreted broadly to includeframing materials anddiscussion as well as time inthe game itself), I have adeeper understanding of how aparticular composition canreflect key contextual factorssuch as genre, mode,audience, purpose, exigency

    0 1 3 5 1 10

    4. Once Ink has been publiclylaunched, I can imaginemyself logging in and playingthe game

    2 1 1 6 0 10

    more effective users of language, children must PRACTISE language in the sense in whicha doctor practises medicine and a lawyer practises law, and NOT in the sense in which ajuggler practises a new trick before he performs it (p. 130). Our study indicates that Inkcan potentially allow this kind of practice. Writers in Ink are not producing what Britton callsdummy runs or exercises but are using writing to solve problems in which they are invested.That students engaged in the process of identifying a rhetorical exigency and engaging in arhetorical intervention meant to address that exigency means that they engaged in the practice ofwriting as we understand it. Survey evidence indicates that some students perceived themselvesto be learning. Five Agreed and one Strongly Agreed with the statement, I feel that after thisexperience (interpreted broadly to include framing materials and discussion as well as timein the game itself), I have a deeper understanding of how a particular composition can reflectkey contextual factors such as genre, mode, audience, purpose, exigency. Whether or notstudents are critically reflecting on their practices in Ink is another matter (see our discussionof meta-cognitive awareness below).

    10. Limitations of this study

    There are several important limitations to this very preliminary and informal study, mostof which stem from the nature of our work as focused on the design of Ink rather than onresearch to produce generalizable results. Our test group consisted primarily of strong writers(mostly sophomores and juniors) who had expressed an interest in working at the MSU Writing

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    Center. Clearly this is not a typical group of college students, but selecting users who have aninterest in the central activity of the game is a useful strategy when evaluating gameplay usingearly prototypes. Our test case took the form of a class activity, so it is unclear to what extentstudents were motivated because they were eager to satisfy the expectations for a course andto what extent they were genuinely engaged by the game and the activity associated with it.This is true despite the fact that we were not instructors for the course and participation inthe test session did not influence their grades in the course. Finally, this activity was clearlyan artificial construction of the researchers: we created a neighborhood with problems; wepretended to represent that neighborhood. In actual gameplay, we hope that problems emergeorganically within the social ecology of the game and that players are motivated to addressthem as part of gameplay, not because a designer (or teacher) has asked them to.

    Despite the limitations of our study for producing generalizable results, the playtestingsessions demonstrated a number of problems associated with the game that we hope to addressas the game develops and as our pedagogy develops alongside it. This is a positive outcome,on the whole, because playtesting is meant to highlight areas in need of further development.One of the more interesting issues that arose included difficulties confronting the nature of thegames reality. For instance, when one student-player proposed creating a swimming pool inwhat became The Fourth Hill, another student-player rejected the idea, saying that swimmingpools are too costly to maintain. This comment seems to reflect the nature of swimming poolsoutside the game world; in Ink, the cost of object maintenance is determined by word-count andother rhetorical features, not by real-world maintenance costs. We take up this issue, amongothers, in the concluding section.

    11. What should a game that teaches writing look like?

    What kind of writing do we hope to teach?Raph Koster (Avrich et al., 2006, p. 39)In this final section, we would like to frame some contributions to the discussion begun in

    the Harpers forum on games, education, and literacy. Our contributions are informed not onlyby our orientation to writing and rhetoric and to writing and rhetoric in digital environmentsbut also more specifically by our experience designing and testing Ink. What have we learned?

    11.1. Writing may not be a focal activity for players. It may be, instead, a means to an end

    The attraction of MMORPGs as learning environments is their ability to create immer-sive spaces that facilitate complex social ecologies. Within these social ecologies, exigenciesemerge, and players are sometimes motivated to address these exigencies by engaging inrhetorical interventions. If a neighborhood isnt doing well, perhaps someone will form aneighborhood organization that will write a Request for Proposals. Other players, wanting tohelp the neighborhood and/or wanting to earn funding for their own projects, may be motivatedto develop proposals and submit them to the neighborhood association.

    Its possible, however, that players engaging in these rhetorical interventions will not becomereflective about their rhetorical choices. They may be so focused on achieving a particular end

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    that the means may become invisible. This would not be too surprising, as it echoes what oftenhappens in the world outside of Ink. In their study of workplace writers, for instance, Dias etal., 1999 noticed that writing was often invisible to the professionals they studied, even when itconstituted an important part of their work routines. Dias et al. contended that this reality maywarrant a shift in writing pedagogy: If as we argue, writing is a by-product of other activities,a means for getting something else done, we ought to consider how we might engage studentsin activities that commit them to write as necessary meansbut only as a means not an end(p. 235).

    This in turn might ask us to re-examine one goal that we have often made prominent inour classrooms: the goal of achieving meta-discursive reflection. Both of us, as teachers, havefelt that it is important for writers to become reflective about the choices they make withinrhetorical situations. Transference of learning seems to rely on students being able to abstractfrom what they do in one situation and apply this knowledge in another situation. But althoughthe players we observed and interviewed seemed to make rhetorical choices that reflected thecontexts in which they wrote, at least some of them claimed afterwards that they were notaware of making these choices. When we asked students why they had chosen to make abrochure and why their brochure had taken the specific form it had, one replied that it was notreally a conscious choice [it] just came into being. If meta-discursive awareness is indeed animportant part of learning to write, we may need to include game mechanics that specificallyencourage the development of such awareness.

    11.2. Participating in a textual economy is the likely source of realism, suspense, andtension in Ink

    One of the more compelling things about the Three Hills Neighborhood scenario for ourgroup of playtesters was the way that their texts were caught up in an explicit system ofvalue. Literally, writing a winning proposal could bring them in-game rewards (in the formof the games currency, which is known as ink in Ink). Indeed, it is this possibility thatmakes extended playing arcs seem plausible and enjoyable. Why would one write in Ink? Togarner the support of others that, in turn, leads to resources that would sustain a charactersdevelopment. This is not terribly different from other role-playing games that have currencyof one sort or another. So what do we mean by a textual economy?

    Textual economy is a term to describe the value that accrues as texts circulate and becomevalued by other players. Texts that do this earn ink for those that are connected to them invarious ways as originators, as authors or co-authors, as users or re-users. Ink is needed, inturn, to create and sustain a text in the game. Texts in the Ink world are subject to a gameplayphenomenon we call entropy. Texts that are not maintained go away over time. Withoutsomeones attention, they become harder and harder to find in the game world. Textual entropycreates tension in the Ink game world by magnifying the effects of a similar entropic functionin RL. Texts that are ignored lose social value and may not literally vanish, but they becomeincreasingly difficult to find and increasingly less important.

    One way that Ink may evolve, in the future, is to become more and more of a textual economysimulation experience, similar to simulation games like SimCity or SimEarth. Ink simulationswould likely take the shape of bureaucracies of various sorts.

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    11.3. The game is an intersection of the virtual world of Ink and various RL contexts inwhich that virtual world is encountered

    Much of the activity that our playtesters engaged in did not happen in the game: it didnot involve the graphical user interface of the game, nor did it happen in the virtual spacesof the game world. If you had watched our playtesters playing Ink, you would have, formuch of the time, seen two groups of students sitting at a table, talking, sketching, takingnotes. At times you would have seen them turn to a laptop computer, not to enter the spaceof Ink, but to email a file to a groupmate, to find an image using Google, or to look up adefinition in Wikipedia. We would like to suggest that this is not necessarily undesirable;indeed, it suggests that when we design writing games, we need to confront the complexrelationship between infrastructural resources (including technologies, physical spaces, andconceptual spaces) created specifically for the game and resources that already exist outside ofthe game (for a discussion of infrastructure and composing, see DeVoss, Cushman, & Grabill,2005).

    Because our game is still in development and the full set of features called for in our designdocument are not yet implemented and functional, we needed to rely on other, non-gameinfrastructural resourcesincluding F2F interaction. For instance, the game crashed as wewent to create the RFP, so we distributed it to student-players as a paper document.

    But these developmental contingencies simply made more visible dynamics that areinevitable. Reliance on non-game resources will always be integral to the game, and to someextent we always anticipated this. From the beginning we hoped, for instance, that playerswould use standard production tools like Photoshop and Flash to create multimodal doc-uments that would be used in the game. We never intended to replicate the functionality ofthese applications in the game. We also anticipated that players might want to create websitesoutside the game that would serve in-game purposes. They could, for instance, embed linksin rooms that would open a new browser window and load a website hosted on a differentserver.

    12. Conclusion

    We remain convinced that MMORPGs like Ink that are developed specifically to teach writ-ing can prompt pedagogical innovation and deserve funding for development and research.While one challenge is that fully exploring the potential of writing games may require sub-stantial investment, we hope our provisional study demonstrates that key game dynamics canbe tested on a modest budget, using a combination of in-game and out-of-game infrastructuralresources.


    Many people have contributed to this project over the last three years, including Andrew Det-skas, Andrew Koelewyn, Stephanie Sheffield, and Janet Swenson. We gratefully acknowledge

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    the support of the WIDE Research Center, the MSU Writing Center, the Red Cedar WritingProject, and the National Writing Project. As an undergraduate research assistant who madeimportant contributions to this study and to the game more generally, Seth Morton deservesspecial mention here. Kym Buchanan, now assistant professor of Education at University ofWisconsin-Stevens Point, is the lead designer for the game and was largely responsible fordeveloping the original concept and game mechanics of Ink.

    David Michael Sheridan is an assistant professor in Michigan State Universitys newResidential College in the Arts and Humanities. His research interests include visual andmultimodal communication, digital rhetoric and alternative learning spaces.

    William Hart-Davidson is an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric,and American Cultures at Michigan State University. He is also a Co-Director of MSUsWIDE (Writing in Digital Environments) Research Center. His research interests includetechnical communication, human-computer interaction, information design and usability,user-centered design, and rhetorical and social theory.


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    Just For Fun: Writing and Literacy Learning as Forms of PlayIntroductionCorrect commas=50 points: Can video games teach writing?What is Ink?Why a MMORPG game?Research questions and our iterative, user-centered development processReplicating the conditions for embedded rhetorical interventions(What) Will players write? Responding to rhetorical exigencies in InkWill players have fun? Level of engagement and motivationWill players learn?Limitations of this studyWhat should a game that teaches writing look like?Writing may not be a focal activity for players. It may be, instead, a means to an endParticipating in a textual economy is the likely source of realism, suspense, and tension in Ink"The game" is an intersection of the virtual world of Ink and various RL contexts in which that virtual world is encountered