“Sparklegate 2014”: When Rhetoric and Composition Felt Weird About the Game

CCCC ended on March 22, 2014. On March 25, a member of the rhetoric and composition community posted on her Facebook page the following question:

Anybody else come across the little booklets that the first-time attendees were filling out at CCCC, sort of scavenger-hunt style? My experience was limited to one person who said “here! sign where it says I schmoozed you. No, wait! Sign in the “meet a luminary” spot! No! Let's go with the schmooze!” I'm therefore not sure what else is in the booklet, so I could be wrong, but my first impression of this navigational aid was definitely not favorable. The booklets seemed kind of infantilizing, and they undercut the potential for any sort of meaningful exchange. Cheryl E. Ball this post is prompted by your recent Cs-related query.1

Of course, this exchange would be disconcerting for anyone. However, what is raised in the final observation is not the awkwardness of young men and women who lack the professional finesse at conferences; it is this idea of infantilization and meaningful change, which gets picked up in the subsequent exchange. What emerges on this semi-public forum is a number of ideologically laden claims:

From these two points, the conversation moves on to encompass the following:

Toward the end of the conversation, the original poster stepped in and explained that she was uncomfortable with the ways in which the thread evolved. It was not that the person bothered her when playing the game. It was that the original poster of the comment above did not understand the situation and therefore could not respond appropriately. And this is the trick of games and the magic circle—everyone involved needs to voluntarily participate or else it breaks, dissipates. However, game aside (very few people who participated in this conversation evolving via social media had even played the game), the negative conversation about C’s the Day provides a lens through which we can see a number of ideological tensions arise.

Games Are for Children

Within numerous Facebook threads that took up this issue, people often cycled back to this idea that the game was infantilizing, for children, or demeaning. Some posters even wrote that their own children would enjoy this game, insinuating that no others should. We are not trying to pick on these posters. The fact is that we have created an ideological construct that links games to childhood in very particular ways (see deWinter, 2014). Some of this has to do with the Victorian construction of childhood, one that is separate and dichotomous from adulthood. And even more so, it has to do with making games part of childhood training—making games productive. Brian Sutton-Smith (2001) discussed this in his chapter “Rhetoric of Animal Progress,” arguing that we want to see games as something that children and young animals do to learn something.

Young children playing a game in the classroom
Young children playing a game in the classroom

We can clearly link this to Victor Turner’s (1974) observations about the difference between liminal and liminoid. Liminal, according to Turner, is about moving from one state to another: We play games and enter the play space to become smarter, better at math, better at coordination, and so on. The liminal is suspended space and time as we transform. Liminoid, on the other hand, is removed space without intended transformation. Play is taken up for fun. As liminoid play, it is Johan Huizinga’s (1955) ideal play: non-productive. Adults are productive; children are in a more ambivalent state, both non-productive and progressing toward adulthood. Is it any surprise, then, that games are relegated to childhood no matter the personal experiences of any of the commentators (many of whom probably play card games, board games like Scrabble, or digital games like Candy Crush Saga)?

However, the danger in perpetuating this ideology is that it diminishes those people who play these games. Games provide structure to what would otherwise be situations that are too open and vague. They help us scale ourselves to our worlds. In fact, psychologists offer basic gamification as a possible strategy for people who are anxious in social situations: “If you go to this party, talk to three people, and then you can go” or “Have one drink and then you can leave.” By structuring social interactions with these simple goals, people who would otherwise be anxious have a mechanism to know what to do in situations that they either cannot read or do not know how to navigate at all times. So when C’s the Day is equated to a baby shower game, which makes it “gross” and “infantilizing” to the players, the people who participate in this game as a legitimate protective frame (see our discussion of Conway in the Serious Games section) are dismissed as “not grown up enough for our professional community.” This brings us to our next point.

Authentic Communication and Professionalization

Early in the unfolding of Sparklegate, one of the critiques against the types of interactions that were afforded by the games is that these were less meaningful or authentic. Advisors, the argument goes, should fulfill the role of the game, teaching graduate students to professionalize, introducing those students to a network, and overall mentoring those students through the process. Two points: (a) this vision relies on an ideal advisor who has limitless time at the conference and doesn’t mind handholding all students from the program who are there, and (b) this vision also anticipates an ideal graduate student who feels comfortable with a faculty advisor and knows how to mobilize said advisor into a mentoring role. (And as Richard Colby [2014] pointed out in his blog post on mentoring in the discipline, if the advisor doesn’t know about the existence of C’s the Day, that advisor can’t offer any advice regarding whether or how to play.) Cheryl E. Ball (2014) noted that this form of mentoring invokes “privilege and access to mentors at top research institutions who can introduce students to appropriate leaders, help students write their first academic article, tell students which parties to attend to meet the ‘right’ people at conferences, and provide funding for those students to get to such conferences.” From there, these points assume that all faculty from a program attend the same conference (although CCCC is the largest conference in our field, not everyone attends), and these points ignore the other large contingent of unconnected attendees: adjuncts and part-time composition faculty.

No matter the circumstances or judgments regarding this group of people, the fact remains that a number of rhetoric and composition teachers and faculty did not come through rhetoric and composition programs, let alone top-notch, well-connected PhD programs. Some of them have terminal MA degrees. Some were trained in literature. Some discovered a love of teaching writing after teaching biology and were allowed to institute writing classes in a biology department (yes, these people exist). And while not all of these people would play the game, the point here is that they could play the game. C’s the Day makes explicit what people should be doing to professionalize within a context that encourages play. In our interview with C’s the Day cofounder Wendi Sierra, below, she explained how the game makes visible—particularly for new attendees—a variety of conference activities and “increase[s] engagement and excitement around the CCCC conference.” (Transcript available here.)

Sierra Intro to the Game

In addition, the idea that there are authentic or meaningful (and, conversely, inauthentic or not meaningful) ways to communicate in these types of situations is based on a number of other assumptions concerning communication (this is a strange claim coming from communication scholars). Communication is contingent. Each situation has its own rules, and some people are better at parsing those out, some have figured them out through trial and error, and some continuously fail. Learning the kinds of professional communication privileged at, for example, a conference reminds us of C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards’ (1989) concept of feeding forward. We cannot see the next step on the stairs, but based on previous experience, we can assume that step is there and we reach out. We are constantly trying to anticipate error. In this sense, communication without a game is as much gamic. We are trying to figure out the rules. Some have mastery. For those who don’t have mastery, there are sparkleponies.

Rewards: Sparkleponies and Publications

The momentum of the social media conversation we reference had quickly turned to two elements of the C’s the Day rewards structure: sparkleponies and publications. First, sparkleponies. As we have discussed elsewhere in this webtext, people who play this game can gain a sparklepony. We both like ours. They are whimsical and charming. Students ask about them all of the time—a little glitter in an otherwise bookish office. Thus, we were both surprised when people took exception to the sparklepony, expressing disbelief on one hand and disgust on the other. Some in another Facebook thread were dumbfounded that there were multiple sizes of sparkleponies, as if this were a bad thing. Sparkleponies were then relegated to children. And then they became gendered. Now, we authors were both trained as rhetoricians, and the obvious (and disturbing) syllogism presented itself in this conversation: If sparkleponies are gendered as feminine, and if sparkleponies are for children, then women are children. Wait, what? The other supposition here is that gendering sparkleponies female makes this the marked category. Objects that are not covered in glitter or bedecked with jewels are masculine and therefore for everyone. We were pleased to see a person on the thread write, “I think your gender identity is pretty narrow if you’re made uncomfortable by a sparkle pony.”

Sparkleponies continue in this thread in many instantiations (these glittery little ponies become Mary Douglas’s [1966] definition of dirt, or matter out of place). They even become inseparable from another moral panic: publication as reward. Those who win C’s the Day are offered the opportunity to write a piece for one of three journals: Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy; Enculturation; or Computers and Composition Online. These pieces are not peer-reviewed in the traditional sense; for the Kairos piece published by Kyle Stedman—one of the first winners of C’s the Day—and Wendi Sierra (2012)—one of the game’s founders, it was published in the non-peer reviewed but editorially reviewed Disputatio section under the close mentorship of Kairos editors. Could there be anything more sacrilegious to an academic community? According to one of the social media threads about the game, it turns out “no.” These “pony-reviewed publications” (yes, that’s a real comment) are automatically dismissed.

What gets ignored is the way in which the game reaches beyond the moment of gameplay to continue to mentor people through a professionalization process. True, this is not professionalization via an institutional advisor. However, we would point out that other journals offer non-peer-reviewed publication opportunities at the discretion of the editor. These articles do not have the normal peer review acknowledgements, but that often tends to be the only thing that differentiates these articles from others in the issue. So we were confused about what the concern was here. Could it be that people were reacting to a supposed free pass made available only through gameplay—gameplay that required intense demonstration of learning-on-the-fly professoinalization to win? Or is there a sense of diminishing the ethos (and by this, we mean status) of composition? We would posit the answer is C: All of the above, and we say this based on the next two concerns that arose during Sparklegate.

Real Scholarship Happens in Rhetoric

The conversation then turned to offering meaningful mentoring, such as the Research Network Forum (RNF) or Rhetoric Scholars Network. Both of these offer workshops for first-time attendees, mentoring them through the professionalization process. And that’s a great idea for those people who would be best served by this. When the Facebook thread became particularly interesting is when this comment was posted: “Everyone should just go to the RSA [Rhetoric Society of America], where there are real conversations, no matter who you are.” And here’s the enthymeme spelled out: C’s the Day is childish, unprofessional, and doesn’t allow for real conversation; C’s the Day is at CCCC; therefore, if a person wants to be mature and professional and have real conversations, that person should avoid CCCC and go to RSA instead. And here we see a rhetoric and composition dichotomy present itself again through the professional conferences of the two fields and articulated over a game that is theoretically sound and thoughtfully implemented. Further, this supposition is more powerful because it is built on earlier ideological suppositions about childish versus mature and professional. As such, this claim carries with it much more subtext than it might otherwise, indicating some ideological assumptions that people may be uncomfortable admitting to without the game as a conduit for contempt. Yet this is nothing compared to the concern that other fields may not take us seriously.

The Anxieties of a Field: The Discipline of Rhetoric and Composition in University Ecologies

In the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) article’s comments section (Berrett, 2014), one person wrote: “If I were greeted with this I’d walk out. Its [sic] an unprofessional waste of time and money. It would say that clearly the event is not serious and not worth my time.” This is actually one of the few comments that are negative. Some comments are confused, and others are enthusiastic. One commenter even wished that they had been offered something like this when starting out in history conferences.

It is true that CHE comments are notoriously vitriolic and come from multiple disciplines. It’s one of the reasons that we authors tend not to read them unless we want to stare in disbelief at the screen and exclaim over what people have written in public forums. But what we found appearing again and again in the Facebook threads that attended to C’s the Day is this idea that rhetoric and composition had to work hard for its ethos, and games like this undermine it. Others will not take us seriously. This tends to be the anxiety of many departments and programs in university settings, reinforced by diminishing budgets and demands for assessment data that prove we are doing our jobs. Indeed, social media posters were concerned that the lack of seriousness in games makes us look like a lesser field, easier, and just plain silly. Literature faculty, for example, would not respect this work. In our interview with Scott Reed, a cofounder of C’s the Day, he described the game designers’ awareness of the challenges ahead in terms of helping the community understand the legitimacy of the game. (Transcript available here.)

Reed on Legitimacy

Conversations about legitimacy highlight what we think is the proverbial elephant in the room. Rhetoric and composition continues to have anxiety about status and place in a university, and we continue to see it as a burden that we bear alone (we don’t). Meanwhile, games programs are growing across the US, and all 50 states have a game program (ESA, 2015). These programs are being funded, are applying for grants, and are growing student majors and academic professionals. Games research within rhetoric and composition, too, is burgeoning. Here are just a few of the publications that showcase the marriage of games studies and rhetoric and composition:

These publications showcase a variety of scholarship from individuals who range from non-tenure-track continuing lecturers to early career professors on up through foundational members of the field who would indeed be considered luminaries in the C’s the Day game. Thus, we argue, games are not the flashpoint that lowers rhetoric and composition’s ethos.

Rather, this seems to be a situation in which some members of the field believe that games are frivolous and childish, and they have fought against being dismissed as frivolous and childish for so long. Any homology between games and perceived ethos, therefore, must be bad. Yet we raise the question about the audience for this perceived diminished ethos. Are we concerned that literature will not take us seriously? If so, that seems problematic as literature’s numbers and budgets are in decline, and they are in a more precarious position than rhetoric and composition. Is it with administrators? If so, then we should remember that administrators want games because they want to attract grant and fellowship monies associated with game studies. Or is it with our own attitudes about games? To this, we have no response.

1 This thread was posted as visible only to the original author’s friends and friends of the other person she linked in the original post. However, given that the person linked to has over nine hundred friends, many drawn from the rhetoric and composition community, the post was essentially rendered public to the disciplinary community. Additionally, as Junichi P. Semitsu (2011) has outlined, multiple courts have ruled that there is no expectation of privacy to be offered in Facebook. We explain this here to describe why we have quoted directly from a Facebook Timeline post in the context of this article.