Kairos 17.3
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Designing Battle Lines and observing students play the game taught us to let go of our presuppositions about what our game taught. We would like to note how much the student-players privileged digital literacy skills over rhetorical and research skills, the latter two of which were sometimes relegated to the background. While we had planned for there to be a balance between digital literacy, rhetoric, and research, it was frequently the students’ attention to digital minutiae that got them to the next level. In the end, they gamed the game and the game designers in order to win without completing all of our desired objectives. They didn’t entirely neglect the game’s rhetorical dimensions, but they did tend to privilege the more concrete digital literacy skills as an approach to solving clues. Below we detail the students’ successes in a variety of categories and make recommendations for future researchers.

Rhetorical Goals

Student collage

Student collage made for level 3

Textual Description

Throughout Battle Lines’ narrative, students became aware of current and past debates regarding the involvement of government in education—the debate exemplified by the historical narrative between Battle and Ferguson, but also an ongoing debate between the president of their university, Bill Powers, and Governor of Texas Rick Perry. Their ability to analyze this debate and to join in—a result of playing the game—was of limited success. Students made visual arguments about funding university education in one level of the game and their final declamations also responded to this and related topics.

We were more pleased by the students’ static images than by their final videos, actually. With more time to complete their Photoshop-based arguments, we believe that the students reached a greater level of sophistication than they did in their videos. We also suggest that the difficult and time-intensive process of video editing made this final level difficult to complete in such a short time frame.

Research Goals

Some of our design intentions were to create a game structure that could be easily revised for use in classes besides the experimental one. Many of our research goals fit this category—players, throughout the game, learned basic skills that would be helpful to any college-level researcher, including web-based and library research.

Some of these skills were simple: getting the students to engage in research with their physical environments and with human beings in real life, for instance. Other skills involved navigating the Library of Congress classification system, searching the web for a variety of resources, evaluating websites for veracity, distinguishing between informative and evaluative statements, and paraphrasing with accuracy.

While successes in terms of research skills were mixed—students never did figure out that we were trying to teach them paraphrasing skills, instead solving this clue by trial and error—we were successful at getting students to navigate the world around them, even if that navigation took place as part of a delegation model of collaboration—with some students leaving the classroom to go to outside venues while others stayed behind. Our approach—making clues solvable only by visiting oft-overlooked resources on campus—certainly pushed our student-players to understand the number of textual and interpersonal resources available to them.

Digital Literacy Goals

The Battle Lines Blog

Screenshot from a student’s declamation blog

Textual Description

Our digital literacy goals went beyond web-based research, pushing students to engage with a variety of software available on classroom computers in the Digital Writing & Research Lab, including GarageBand, Photoshop, and iMovie, as well as video cameras used to record their final declamation projects. In order to solve the clues, students had to learn how to navigate these three programs and be comfortable with their basic functionality. Through collaborating with others, student-players learned to manipulate image layers and music tracks as well as perform basic video-editing tasks.

While not all students completed final projects, we had moderate success among those who did—they increased their mastery of these three programs to include manipulating the images themselves, editing sound files, as well as recording and editing their own videos.

Collaboration Goals

Student-players were particularly successful at collaborating online. From the start, the class wiki became a site of pure collaboration, but collaboration of a strikingly competitive kind: Students literally raced to share their work in this online document.

In the physical space of the classroom, however, the students tended to collaborate in small teams of 2–8 players formed through the convenience of proximity in the classroom. Despite the instructor's repeated “permission” to talk openly, open discussion was extremely rare. As a result, progress on clue-solving tended to progress in groups rather than en masse, despite the fact that, online, collaboration was practically absolute and almost all “solutions” were posted as soon as they were discovered.

Students additionally collaborated by delegating tasks, especially those that involved going outside the classroom. We also observed some students were operating on clues while their peers were researching solutions outside the classroom, and that they were not publishing their progress on the wiki or sharing with their classmates. The emergence of a more competitive approach to gameplay coincided with other students’ willingness to allow clues to be solved for them.

Final Words

For future developers, the designers of Battle Lines would recommend the following in order to increase attention to rhetorical goals:

  1. crafting a high-quality narrative that includes a satisfactory ending for the students, however difficult this might be even for professional game designers;
  2. designing each level based around a rhetorical or research goal in the hopes that students would give more attention to those goals than they did in our experiment;
  3. allowing more time for game completion so that students would have more time to revise their work, create high-quality arguments in each level, and improve their already excellent collaboration and digital literacy skills.

We hope our experience will be as highly instructive for you as it was for us. Battle Lines was our way of exploring the possibilities of educational games for rhetoric and digital writing, as well as experimenting with our own thinking about instruction, design, and play.