Close Playing, a Meditation on Teaching (with) Video Games

born_digital_nativeTim Welsh and I have been putting together and co-teaching video game focus group courses (through the Comparative History of Ideas program) over the last year or so.  These 2-credit, non-graded, informal discussion sections (ostensibly a more “pure” seminar setting) have been an incredible opportunity for both of us to address an absence in the curricula of the university, to develop an intellectual community of fellow video game scholars and enthusiasts, to encourage undergraduates to pursue critical video game studies (a kind of digital humanities approach), and to challenge our own individual pedagogical and academic work.  One central recurring concern that runs through our conceptions and teachings of these CHID courses is: How do you teach students to critically, analytically play video games?

Akin the same sort of problem in the composition or literature classroom, the challenge of getting students to see, “read,” play a game beyond the level of enjoyment is all about training and practicing a skill with which they have little experience–even desire to learn.  When I broach the issue of reading practice with my writing or literature students, often couched in terms of “close reading,” the response is usually one of defensive denial (“I already know how to read”), distress (“I have never been a good reader”), resistance (“You’re reading too much into things”), and even hostility (“You’re trying to indoctrinate me”).  I sense that most of these responses result from the confusing messages students get about reading as constructed by (neo)liberal ideology as being one of the three basic intellectual and academic skills (reading, writing, and arithmetic), a tension that pits “you should know how to do this” against the logic that “unless you’re an English major, you don’t need to know how to do this.”  I am reminded of David Bartholomae’s oft cited essay “Inventing the University” and his central argument that every time a student writes–and I would argue reads–for our classes, “he [or she] has to invent the university for the occasion…[t]he student has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community.”  In this case, they also must learn to read our language, to read as we do, to see, select, paraphrase, digest, and analyze the various texts we present them–from assignment prompts to novels to academic essays to statistics to examples from popular culture.

(As an aside, I could very well be writing this post about the teaching of popular fiction like Harry Potter or Twilight or everyday texts like television commercials or mainstream movies.  There are differences, of course, across media and genre, but the trouble with reading closely and reading critically is analogous.)

Close reading needs to be framed in ways that translate the practice as more than just “reading between the lines” or “reading thematically.”  Rather, close reading like good writing is about purpose, relevance, focus, and stakes.  I teach close reading using a three-tiered model (the metaphor is simple enough though there are plenty of other ways to attend to this).  One: reading for fun.  Two: reading for information.  Three: reading for analysis or argumentation.  These generally overlap with my three tiers of close reading practice.  One: reading for literal or literary goals (e.g. plot, characters, themes, pleasure).  Two: reading for rhetorical analysis (e.g. articulating rhetorical features).  Three: reading for cultural or political analysis (e.g. how does the argument connect to a broader context).  I stress to students that close reading (for me) is more than just noticing what is going on in a text or what the text is about (this is what my colleague Jane Lee calls “birdwatching”).  Close reading is about drawing connections, making interpretative leaps, and analyzing how a text is making an argument and why these connections or analyses matter.  For the most part, students grasp the fact that they need to find details and explicate them, but they usually stop at summary and exemplification.  They are adept at picking out passages, quotations, claims, and evidence, but they are challenged by putting these things to use in their own arguments or transforming them from inert description to active analysis.

Herein is the extended challenge of teaching how to close read–or as I like to call it, close play–a video game.  The commonplace arguments made by pedagogues about the assumed skill and literacy that students of this day and age have with digital media is totally exaggerated or misplaced.  Claims about “digital natives” is not only techno-orientalist but also obscuring of the problems of “learning our language” as described by Bartholomae.  To assume that students, even students born in the 21st Century,  are plug-and-play ready to read and think and write critically about digital media invisibilizes and naturalizes technologies in problematic ways.  It also gives students the false impression that they have nothing to learn about their own relationship to the technology they have, use, buy, abuse, enfranchise, or ignore.  Familiarity is not the same as facility; acceptance is not the same thing as acumen.

In an online article I wrote about writing and gaming (see “Gaming as Writing, Or, World of Warcraft as World of Wordcraft” in Fall 2008 Computers and Composition Special Issue: Reading Games) I try my hand at trying to tackle, albeit sophmorically, a definition of close playing:

Close playing, like close reading, requires careful and critical attention to how the game is played (or not played), to what kind of game it is, to what the game looks like or sounds like, to what the game world is like, to what choices are offered (or not offered) to the player, to what the goals of the game are, to how the game interacts with and addresses the player, to how the game fits into the real world, and so on. Close playing is about revealing and analyzing what Galloway calls the diegetic and nondiegetic spaces and features of the game. The diegetic space of a video game “is the game’s total world of narrative action. As with cinema, video game diegesis includes both onscreen and offscreen elements” (Galloway, 2006, p. 7) including characters, settings, actions, and events shown or made reference to. The nondiegetic spaces of a video game are “those elements of the gaming apparatus that are external to the world of narrative action” (p. 7) including score, titles, heads-up displays, and pause buttons. In video games, the diegetic and nondiegetic are often interconnected and interdependent. Close playing reveals the ways these elements, these spaces are also connected and dependent on the logics, narratives, and histories of the real world. As Constance Steinkuehler (2007) says, MMORPGs are “indeed a constellation of literary practices” (p. 301). For example, close playing allows diegetic features like gun violence in the game and nondiegetic features like the real world Columbine shootings to be articulated and contextualized in ways that complicate notions of violence, gaming, identity, and sociality. As Henry Jenkins (2000) argues, “We should instead look at games as an emerging art form — one that does not simply simulate violence but increasingly offers new ways to understand violence — and talk about how to strike a balance between this form of expression and social responsibility” (p. 120). Close playing allows diegetic features like fantasy race and nondiegetic features like a menu of fantasy faces to select from to be described and critiqued in order to unpack racial or racist logics. Gee says, “Video games have an unmet potential to create complexity by letting people experience the world from different perspectives” (p. 151).

The takeaway here is that close playing is understanding the intersection of form, function, meaning, and action.  It is an attention to more than just the content of the game (which is often what students and mainstream game reviews and even Congressional hearings about video game violence privilege), more than just the mechanics, and more than the graphics.  Rather, it is an attention to how all of these things are in articulation or antagonism.  Knowing how to play a game is not enough.  Knowing what the game is about is not enough.  And know how the game works, even at the level of code or interface, is not enough.  The best close playing (and I think close reading, too) does in fact put into practice a kind of interdisciplinarity that is hard.  (Let’s face it: the best scholars and the best readers and the best writers summon a range of discourses, skills, and experiences to their aid.)

The students in Tim and my CHID courses or in my ENGL 207: Introduction to Cultural Studies courses on virtual worlds and video games begin the term with enthusiasm and engagement.  Their avocational interest in video games is often what leads them to self-select these classes.  However, after the first couple of meetings, that interest wanes often as a direct result of their fear or dismay over what they often describe as “taking the fun out of games” (or what I’d like to darkly call “murdering their childhood”).  Even the willing students, who want to pursue video game studies as a disciplinary and intellectual choice, often find themselves in a state of ambivalence.  Without careful framing, without guided practice, and without a little gentle cajoling, the quarter or semester can turn into a pitched battle between students defending their hobbies and you trying to convert the unwilling.

In fact, here is an occasion where “meeting students where they are” (a popular pedagogical imperative and desire) is fraught with intellectual, political, and personal territory battles.  Last year, the first course Tim and I taught together was on the immensely popular 2K title Bioshock (2007).  We designed the course to address “cyborg morality and posthuman choice” linking the playing of the game to the resurgence of the reading of Ayn Rand’s novels, the intensification of neoliberalism, and the theorizing of the posthuman.  It became clarionly clear by the second week that we had lost the majority of our students.  To quote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we chose poorly.  It wasn’t the choice of game, though.  It wasn’t the choice of readings per se.  And it wasn’t necessarily the choice of theme.  Rather, it was the way we chose to frame the class, to address the students’ comfort with video games in general and in terms of scholarly pursuit, and to scaffold how and more importantly why it is important to close play.  This failure on our part resulted in the aforementioned pitched battle.  The students simply wanted to talk about what happened within the game and how to best play the game.  Meanwhile, Tim and I fought to reclaim ground we never really had in the first place.  And when we did manage to turn the conversation to things like Randian politics and the notion of choice within the game (Bioshock‘s climax is all about the player/main character’s choice or lack thereof), the conversations spiraled into personal opinion, political defensiveness, frustration and anger over perceived loss of privilege or free will–the very neoliberal responses that we set out to critique became what students deployed as shields and safe havens.  (Here the students failed to be open to the possibilities or to be willing to even entertain the possibilities at hand.)

It wasn’t a complete disaster, though.  We both learned how to adapt the failings of the Bioshock class.  Our next class, to credit Tim’s foresight and thoughtfulness (who by the way has recently blogged about “How NOT to Teach Video Games“), took up the very problem of whether or not games could be persuasive or political as the guiding rubric for the class.  Therefore, “Why So Serious?: Video Games as Persuasion, Propaganda, and Politics” was born.  This class opened with questioning the power of video games as a rhetorical and political medium as well as games that were overtly about a “message” or a “stance.”  In other words, we gave them a much clearer entrance into the kinds of analyses we wanted to develop and discuss.  We provided the groundwork in how to play the games and talk about them.  All in all, the class went much more smoothly and was more satisfying to all.  (That isn’t to say there wasn’t any resistance, but the resistance was less vitriolic and easier to manage.)  The takeaway lesson for us was all about meeting students where they are in terms of their interest and curiosity but to build those stairs, tracks, handholds, or whatever metaphoric guides you choose to get them from interest to interrogating the medium, from curiosity to critical awareness.  Alas, there is no single formula for this transformative and multimodal work.  And each cohort of students will be differently capable and experienced.  But I think that as long as we as scholars and professional close readers can go back and look at our own development, our own process, and our own training (some of it self-taught and self-discovered) that led us to our own work, we can hopefully demonstrate and transmit and transform some of that to and for our students, who are just starting this journey.  There are no close reading or close playing “natives.”  Therefore, it is important that we not only teach video games but teach how to play them with a critical eye and thumb.

11 thoughts on “Close Playing, a Meditation on Teaching (with) Video Games

  1. I can imagine how frustrating it must be to try and teach someone how to “close play”. For most gamers, the act of playing a video game is primarily for amusement. They generally do not envelop themselves in a game in an attempt to understand some larger phenomenon. However, in this environment, the rare moments that unequivocally challenge the gamer to think about a larger issue are extremely powerful and memorable. I can’t think of a person who hasn’t had their perspective of an issue shift after playing Bioshock, Knights of the Old Republic, or Mass Effect. Games have the power to argue perspectives and ideologies in much the same way other media like books and movies do. The difference is that the gaming world does not have the benefit of having a history of critical analysis, nor does it arguably have a large enough audience to benefit from such work.

    This is the first course I have taken in the area of video game studies, and I will admit that it continues to be difficult for me to adjust to the mindset of playing a game critically. I imagine I would be in the same scenario if I were to take a film studies course due to my lack of background in the film world. The only reason I feel that I am able to analyze books more critically is that I have been trained to do so throughout my academic life. There has also always been a barrier between why I read and why I play video games. To use a meal analogy, reading has always been vegetables, and video games have always been desert. I would go as far to say that reading critically has been so entwined with the activity of reading in general that it has sort of become a default state. Reading critically is a skill that nobody naturally possesses, and gaming critically seems similar in that it requires an equal amount of practice and discipline.

    • @ Andrew: Thanks for being the first to respond. And, yes, I agree that these are all skills and habits of mind that take time, practice, and careful framing. Even the act of “critically reading” a novel is also fraught with problems. In part, it is because there isn’t one “standard” way to read critically. In part, it depends on the text. I think most people would acknowledge that we’re supposed to read Shakespeare’s Hamlet seriously, but Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight is totally pop fiction for fun. I am glad that you are getting to mix and mingle something you like to do for fun and something that you are doing to prepare you for your job, discipline, or life.

  2. Ed, this post was much needed. To be honest, I had no idea as to what challenges I would face when I took this class (other than actually playing videogames). For the most part, close playing the games we’re assigned to play are difficult, particularly in the first three weeks of class. As a person who does not play videogames on a day-to-day basis, I felt that I could not and was not well equipped to make critical analysis. Specifically, when my awesome classmates made references to videogames I have no clue what was about, I felt completely lost. Even down to playing the videogames we’re assigned to, I found myself having difficultly to adapt as at times, it bored me, frustrated me, or excited me to the point it became stressful. For example, when I played the CIV III game, every time a nation would declare war on me, I would be like, “Nooo…I just want to be friends!” Or when “my city” experienced a civil disorder, I started to freak out. However, it is due to these moments, that I felt most connected to videogames—more precisely, the videogames I was playing. It’s almost like when I’m in dance rehearsal and my instructor keeps telling me to do a certain move, I have to always find a way to connect that move in the larger picture of the dance than to think of the movement as an isolated form. Similarly, with videogames, I first thought of it as an isolated, autonomous form or art or entertainment, and thus, completely neglected the idea that videogames are integral to a larger cultural context. Of course, my emotional response to the videogames I played were only initial reaction and I wouldn’t really consider it as top-notch close playing, however, it completely changed my relationship with videogames in terms of how and why I play them. With that, I think that you and Tim have done a great job in making sure you both, as you say, meet us where we are in terms of our interest and curiosity by not focusing on just one entity of videogame studies and prodding us to make connections.

  3. I think that you did a great job explaining what it actually means to “close play” a game. Although this is the second of your classes I’ve taken, it’s still a challenge for me to close play. It’s like I need to take a step back from how I normally play a game and think about it from a different angle. In a way, it’s almost as though we’re required to stave off the immersion we covered in the most recent GIG, and find resonances between the game world and our world.
    Frankly, I wish that we discussed close playing more in class. It seems as though that we all draw from our personal experiences with occasional references to more universal titles, as opposed to having group experiences to draw from. By focusing more on the way we’ve played the games we’ve been assigned, I think it would add more voices and perspectives to the conversation.
    I’m looking forward to how we incorporate close playing throughout the rest of the class, and how we develop it as a skill. Thanks for the writeup!

  4. I really enjoyed reading this blog post. It’s interesting to hear about things from a teacher’s perspective in framing a class to encourage a rounded and scholarly approach, versus the students’ natural desire to talk more narrowly about game play, which is, like you mentioned, generally a more opinionated discussion that leaves out the larger questions of cultural impact, ideology, etc. I can see how that could be especially frustrating in a video game class, as people who consider themselves a part of the subculture have a particularly strong passion for the games they play and would therefore struggle more when instructed to “close play” video games. For the average gamer it’s emotionally different when they’re in a class and handed a book like “Humboldt’s Gift” and told to try a close reading of the material, as opposed to being asked to “close-play” a popular game like Bioshock. There’s already an emotional investment and, from my experience, even when playing a game title for the first time, the emotional response is still present simply from the fact that, “OH EM GEE I’m playing a video game!” Getting people to quell that passion and think about a game critically can really damper the spirits of some.

    It may also be more difficult for some gamers to embrace “close-play” if they have not had experience with close-reading, which seems to be very important in the English pathway in school. I feel the only reason I can say that I absolutely love the idea of trying to “close-play” a game is because of Creative Writing, which is just an offshoot of the English major, where students cultivate their interest in critically and analytically approaching texts. However, video games are a type of medium that the average person doesn’t connect to deep critical analysis, which may be why there’s a resistance to video games becoming “scholarly,” so to say. It’s awesome that by organizing video game discussion classes with an emphasis on the aspects of “close-play,” you and Tim are promoting an expanded way to look at the medium, which may not have been evident to students before, or at least not explored.

  5. I definitely agree with your statement that the biggest challenge in teaching students how to close read is that they have mostly had very little experience with it. I remember that during the first few weeks of your English 207 class I was freaking out because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to closely analyze a game the way you wanted us to. I would get through the first two tiers of your definition of close reading, reading for literary goals and rhetorical analysis, but I had a hard time figuring out how to read for cultural and political analysis. My English classes in high school and my English Composition class here at UW had only required me to delve into the first two tiers of close reading for its writing assignments, so I had little to no previous experience with connecting texts with broader cultural contexts. However, as the quarter progressed and I continued receiving comments and suggestions from you, I began to get the hang of it and slowly became more comfortable with close playing games and forming my own opinions about them.

    I feel that being able to close play games is an important skill to have in this day and age. If we ever want video games to be considered a form of art on the same level as literature and cinema by the general public, we need more people who are able to identify the cultural and political messages that games contain. As we have seen from games such as Super Columbine Massacre RPG and September 12th, games can convey important messages and evoke strong emotional reactions from players. If we had more people who knew how to close play and recognize connections between games and the real world working in the gaming industry as both developers and reviewers, I think that we would begin to see both “serious” games and reviews that actually go deeper than just graphics and gameplay becoming more popular. If this were to happen, maybe, just maybe, people would begin to stop saying, “it’s just a game.”

  6. I think the thing that people, and subsequently video game developers, don’t understand is that games are starting to break away from just being able to shoot and kill things. There needs to be greater depth in every aspect, from control to storyline. Few companies have achieved this, like BioWare with Mass Effect.

    I’ll be really honest: the idea of close playing, and sort of, stepping a long distance back from the game to really analyze it, is still foreign to me, but I’m open to it. I love immersion, and games that suck you in. However, immersion doesn’t mean loss of sense in the real world. An immersive game is not only one visually or emotionally, but also philosophically, encompassing the full range of the mind in terms of topic and opinion, and making you think of bigger issues addressed but not fully realized that exist outside the game. Just as well, the graphics/art direction and visuals in general go a long way into conveying certain messages, and the controls need to be well configured and feel natural so that they don’t detract from the experience.

    A lot of focus goes into stepping back and sort of assessing or proofreading the game, and sets a distinct differentiation from being fully immersed into the game. The question I want to ask, however, is why can’t we do both? I feel it is possible to do both; to immerse yourself and feel the game emotionally while playing, and then when not playing, being able to take those experiences and rationalize them in retrospect.

    This isn’t a criticism of the methodology or the class, or questioning the methods already explained. I just feel like to analyze something fully, we need to understand it fully, not only mechanically and from an outisde perspective, but also from deep inside as well.

    Or I could have read the article wrong and that’s exactly what you mean XD Regardless, some thought for… thought.
    -Jonathan

  7. There’s so much that I agree with Ed’s article, and most everything else has been covered by my classmates.

    However, Jonathan’s reply has a one major thing that bug me (no offense intended), mostly on the 2nd paragraph. Although Bioware has done some very interesting things with games, and has progressed the industry in the right direction, I’d argue that it is far from “achieving” greater depth; many of their games hit a certain genre, especially shooters and science fiction horror/dystopia.

    In my opinion, Bioware (or game companies like it) needs to break out of this stereotypical genre and be willing to go a more experimental route.

    What do I mean by this? I mean making more applications to what social areas are relevant now, or even a further focus on the social. Although there is something to be said about focusing on cinematic shooters, more and more games are starting to take this route, and only major changes will help to advance the games, the companies, and the gamers themselves.

    Games such as Super Columbine Massacre RPG! and September 12th do a good job at achieving this goal. There are simple game mechanics, integrated with strong social critique. Now, I’m not saying that game companies should dumb down their games (in fact, it could be argued that relying on the FPS is falling back on a simple game mechanic in this first place), but that the social critique should be the focus of the game.

    While close playing shouldn’t apply exclusively to games such as SCMRPG and Sep. 12th, I feel that doing so with games like those brings so much more to the forefront of artistry and analysis.

    I’m interested to see how the game plogs will look after a couple weeks during the Bioshock class, and how close playing has evolved over time. It would also be intriguing to look at how the first Bioshock’s classes plogs looked, and see how their views contrast with what we find.

  8. Walking back from class, I overheard someone talking about how we were “overanalyzing” the games and other media to a ridiculous point, and how there didn’t seem to be a reason to be doing so besides trying to find deeper meaning that doesn’t exist. It doesn’t bode well that there are people in the course who aren’t opening up.

    The point of this class isn’t to overanalyze: indeed, even if we were, it would be beneficial for two reasons:
    1.) By “overanalyzing,” we gain absolute understanding of a subject; not only in and of itself, but all things related to it, thus giving us understanding on every spectrum.
    2.) Even if overanalysis was wrong, we now know every way in which we are wrong about the subject, thus proving with certainty what was correct.

    The point of the class is not to necessarily accept the idea of close playing or overanalyzing as truth, but rather to be open to it. Not to accept, but to be receptive, and to open your ears and eyes to other forms of thinking. Even if you don’t agree, through understanding one can make a valid argument against it instead of turning to pre-dispositions and opinion for the answers.

  9. @Anonymous: This certainly is the very tension that close playing is trying to address. And, yes, it is often alienating and frustrating to “do” this kind of work to something that is often only seen as fun or entertainment. How can something fun or entertaining be anything more than that? Or even if it does have questionable logics or problematic content, it’s still just a game, right? For me, the very fact that we want to overlook these things in order to preserve the “fun” and the “entertainment” is why reading too much into things is necessary. It’s not the only way to work at the problem but it is one of important skill and strategy.

  10. I hope whoever made that comment gets used to analysis! reading this blog post was helpful to me before we had the first meeting. It kind of set the stage as far as what we would be doing throughout the quarter and I thought it was very clear on our expectations and what kind of resistance we might be asked to put aside for the sake of discussion.
    I admit, in English classes when asked to close read The Great Gatsby I would often think that I would enjoy the book much more if I wasn’t being forced to look for symbolism and themes (although I don’t think that I would appreciate The Sun Also Rises either way…) but I found that my attempt at close playing went better than I thought. It is hard to stop yourself in the middle of a level or confrontation, but fighting Dr. Steinman with his three crucified victims in the foreground begged to be paused and reflected on. I hope that if anyone is resistant now, that they reflect on why they’re resisting and if it’s really worth throwing away fairly straightforward and simple 2 credits. Plus you still get to play a really good game, right?

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