"The Influence of the Environment": Climate Change Discourse and Game-based Learning

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I teach an environmental risk communication course, and a fundamental challenge of teaching the rhetoric of issues like climate change is that students struggle to approach the debate from multiple, and sometimes contradictory, perspectives. As a result, they have difficulty playing the role of a researcher, city planner, or risk communication expert. Because a number of undergraduates often have very little professional experience, they can have trouble developing a clear sense of audience, purpose, and context. This challenge is well-documented: many scholars in the field of professional writing pedagogy suggest that the divide between writing for the workplace and writing for the classroom is a difficult one for instructors and students to bridge (Freedman and Adam; Miller). Without direct experience, students cannot fully understand the motives of various stakeholders and the positions they hold within civic or environmental debates. The problem, therefore, stems from the relationship between identity, experience, and environment. It’s a role-playing problem.

Professional writing pedagogy scholars have called for an enculturation model as a means of resolving this issue. Within this model, faculty employ various methods, including apprenticeship or internship opportunities, case studies, client-based service learning projects, as well as story-telling, to contextualize workplace communication practices (Bridgeford). By introducing and situating an assignment within a narrative, for example, Tracy Bridgeford argues that students are better able to understand a given community and imagine the roles, relationships, and patterns within it – a fundamental understanding to the study of communication. I felt this thinking aligned with game studies scholar Mark J.P. Wolf in interesting ways. According to Wolf, “in many video games, narrative (…) becomes a way of providing a context for the games’ action” (30); likewise, Bridgeford’s narratives provide a context for actions within the course.

With game studies and professional writing pedagogy theories in mind, I applied Bridgeford’s story-telling approach to an interactive choose-your-adventure dynamic, using the open-source program, Twine. I tested the rough draft of my interactive, nonlinear narrative in the Fall 2014 Honors Crisis Communication and Climate Change course at Old Dominion University, accessible here: http://bit.ly/17albHZ. What you’ll see is the first draft of the first game I ever created, and it shows. It is a rough draft in every respect. I hoped it would succeed in contextualizing the rhetorical design processes for a wide spectrum of professional roles in environmental communication, but I believe it fell short.

This experience encouraged me to consider the theories at work here. According to Game Studies theorist, Brian Sutton-Smith, play is multifaceted, games are complex, and there’s an extraordinary diversity in the scholarship this field. He identifies seven different rhetorics of play; the first and foremost being the rhetoric of play as progress, where players “adapt and develop through their play,” and games are “primarily about development rather than enjoyment” (Sutton-Smith 304). The rhetoric of play as progress underlies much of game-based learning, but too narrow a focus on progress alone ignores the multi-dimensional nature of games and play (Sutton-Smith). That’s why some games designed for the classroom may be educational but not necessarily fun (or vice versa). Educators tend to operate according to the rhetoric of play as progress because they’re educators. According to Sutton-Smith, “all scholars are creatures of their personal disposition, which may become a motivating rhetoric for them” (Sutton-Smith 308). Roles define the way people view things. Educators tend to view objects according to the educational opportunities they afford (researchers, the research opportunities they afford, and so on). The issue, therefore, stems from the relationship between identity, experience, and environment. It’s a role-playing problem.

Sutton-Smith continues, though: scholars “are also, historically, inheritors of larger ideological or cultural patterns that affect their scholarship” (308), and I want to propose that at least some of the ideological patterns affecting this educational impulse to use games in the classroom are the result of Pragmatism and its influence on education. Throughout his influential works on learning, John Dewey emphasizes the importance of creating what he calls a “special environment” where students learn by doing. According to John Dewey, instructors “never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment” (Dewey 22). In Democracy and Education, Dewey writes, “it is the business of the school to set up an environment in which play and work shall be conducted with reference to facilitating desirable mental and moral growth. It is not enough to introduce plays and games, hand work and manual exercises. Everything depends upon the way in which they are employed” (Dewey 172). The best way to employ them, according to Dewey, is through the careful ordering of simplified activities that will support the habits instructors wish to develop – in other words, the design of a “special social environment” (Dewey 25). His description of a class environment sounds a lot like a game, and I hoped my game would serve as a “special social environment” for my students, but that would require a fair amount of revision. In regard to game-based learning, whether the instructor is using play or other methods that fit into the enculturation model, these ongoing efforts emphasize the influence of the environment and its role in shaping identities, making these pedagogical theories particularly Pragmatist.   

Whether instructors are aware of their Pragmatism or not, game-based pedagogues often wish to extract the “cash value” (a famous phrase from Pragmatism) out of games by exploring their practical effects in the classroom, and I want to see this work continue. I believe it’s beneficial for scholars to critically examine the practical effects of educational games, to study the efficacy of game-based learning and find a way to shape students’ experiences through games; however, in doing so, educators must acknowledge that these theories and ideologies can both expand and limit the power of games.

Works Cited

Bridgeford, Tracy. “Story Time: Teaching Technical Communication as a Narrative Way of Knowing.” Bridgeford, Tracy. et al., Innovative Approaches to Teaching Technical Communication. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2004. 111-134. Print.

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008.

Freedman, Aviva and Christine Adam. "Learning to Write Professionally: 'Situated Learning' and the Transition from University to Professional Discourse." Dubinsky, James M. Teaching Technical Communication. Boston: Bedford, 2004. 310-336. Print.

Miller, Carolyn. "A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing" Dubinsky, James M. Teaching Technical Communication. Boston: Bedford, 2004. 15-23. Print.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. “Play and Ambiguity.” Salen Tekinbas, Katie and Eric Zimmerman. The Game Design Reader. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2006. 296-313. Print.

Wolf, Mark J.P. Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.