Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Sandbox Project - Mini-Mapping

Inspired by Darcy Osheim's thesis that examines World of Warcraft from a pedagogical perspective, I'm launching a little experiment in paragraph-level writing that explores the intersection of pedagogy and sandbox style gaming, focusing mainly on console games like GTA, Red Dead Redemption, and LA Noire. Aside from common interest, my project and Darcy's thesis are unrelated. These 'graphs are written without an outline. Their connections may be tenuous or superfluous. I may never finish. 

Because of their expansive and apparently open-ended nature, sandbox games often provide a roving reference point in the form of a mini-map. The map "roves" to the extent that one may see it while walking, running, swimming, or flying. One may read it during a firefight or while exploring an unlit cave. In this way the map's roving quality becomes ironic, at least when one considers its ever-present placement on the screen (or at least its near instant accessibility via button click). Mini-maps come in handy when the larger world of the game gets too big and complex. But what if maps do more harm than good?

Kirk Hamilton has written that the consistency of a well-crafted gaming environment - augmented by landmarks, signs, and symbols - enables a player to master geography and navigate without always-on maps. Indeed these tools may limit a player's ability or inclination to engage an environment personally, richly, meaningfully, if only because the map distills an already abstract world to an even more detached manifestation, such as when threatening foes (actually animated pixel-pictures) become reduced to red dots. No matter how rewarding a game's premise, too much map-reliance risks transforming a world of experience into an exercise in button-mashing. Providing a point of comparison, Hamilton recalls his decision to forgo Grand Theft Auto's map feature:

"[I was struck by] how much more exciting combat became: wildly intense, visceral, and a bit terrifying. With no map and no HUD, the game's first large-scale shootout in Vlad's bar was as intense as the culminating sequence of a big-budget crime film. Walking into Comrade's, I felt as wired as Michael Corleone sitting down at the restaurant table on that fateful night in The Godfather. When Niko drew down, gunfire erupted with great chaos and bloodshed. In the immediate aftermath, Niko crouched behind a table as I wondered if the coast was clear. Was the armed bartender still crouching back there, waiting? Had I taken him out, or only clipped him?"

Reflecting on Hamilton's argument, I reflect on efforts to produce the equivalent of always-on maps in my classroom lectures, activities, and assignments. I recognize good reasons for the inclusion of these maps; many students grow frustrated by seemingly unstructured learning environments, and their how-do-I-do-this? questions can tax even the most patient professor. But I admit that my perpetual mapmaking and instruction-revision sometimes distracts me from time better spent trying to solidify ideas, inspire exploration, and encourage risk-taking.

No, I won't abandon the map just yet. I certainly don't anticipate refiguring my classes as open-ended "explorations" without navigation tools. A solidly written course description, syllabus, and daily agenda can be essential, no matter how open the class may be. Still, I can't help but ask: How might I better integrate mapless adventure into my students' (and my own) learning experiences? How can I help students learn to transcend the dismal science of taking directions, to start making maps themselves?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Burke: Separated From His Natural Condition

Tomorrow I'll introduce Kenneth Burke to my COMM 101 students. Naturally that discussion will include Burke's Definition of Man:

"Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order), and rotten with perfection." 

Something tells me this French commercial for toilet paper will be useful in illustrating the "separated from his natural condition" part!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Sandbox Project - Enhance

Inspired by Darcy Osheim's thesis that examines World of Warcraft from a pedagogical perspective, I'm launching a little experiment in paragraph-level writing that explores the intersection of pedagogy and sandbox style gaming, focusing mainly on console games like GTA, Red Dead Redemption, and LA Noire. Aside from common interest, my project and Darcy's thesis are unrelated. These 'graphs are written without an outline. Their connections may be tenuous or superfluous. I may never finish.

"Freeze and enhance."

This command, typically ordered up by the lead investigator in some neo-brutalist command center, conveys technological sophistication. Blade Runner was my first encounter with this fantasy of infinite gaze, back in '82. There's Decker with his Esper machine, trying to glean the truth from an old photograph: "Enhance 224 to 176. Enhance. Stop. Move in. Stop…" He commands and the image clicks, left then right. Closer. Left then… Decker's machine somehow manipulates a mirror's reflection to peer around a corner. "Enhance."

Image from The RPF
Halo's Theater option offers up a similar thrill, allowing the player a chance to halt gameplay and fly through the expansive battlespaces of previously saved missions, to click frame by frame through every minute of an encounter, to zoom and enhance - even the boring parts, such as when hero stands lazily in the hanger bay while marines are getting annihilated by aliens nearby ("Ah yeah, that's when I got up for a snack and forgot to pause the game"). Halo's narrative pathways are far too rigid to enact a sandbox experience. Yet in Theater-mode, the player becomes a director: tilting, panning, and advancing through scenes [sometimes racing, sometimes crawling], discovering previously unknown options. "So that's where the sniper was hiding!"

The player-as-director reveals an important dimension to the sandbox concept, one that might offer useful insights for anyone interested in teaching and learning. Instructors often deliver course concepts in dribs and drabs, epitomized by the click of phrases on a slideshow. Knowledge wasn't there; now it is. Better write it down. But what if all the information, all the tools, and all the toys are present in one open space, and the student isn't reliant upon the steady drip-drip of instructor-wit? What if the student can direct her or his learning narrative, or at least feel some sense of control and creativity in the process?

That latter proviso ["some sense" - italicize either word] is, of course, the point. After all we have such a world right now. Someone seeking knowledge could do far worse than to cruise the vast and growing Wikipedia data-sphere. Sure, there's plenty of dreck in those pages: vandalism, provincialism, and goofy editorial nonsense by folks who have more time than expertise. Still Wikipedia is undeniably able to offer up at least a semblance of knowledge, not to mention useful breadcrumbs to genuinely peer-reviewed research. Add YouTube educational videos, a decent local library, and the occasional free public lecture, and the determined student can learn nearly anything without setting foot in a school. Yet while a student may enter a grand and seemingly endless array of ideas [Isn't there something creepily antisocial about the much-hyped "Internet of Things?"], that person needs guidance and encouragement to make sense of it all.

An alarming number of university administrators dream of Intelligent Agents that whisk students from automated prompt to automated prompt. They envision a spreadsheet comprised of one hundred professionals, one thousand technicians, and one million students [clients? customers?]. For many of these folks, the long-form lecture and small group seminar makes no sense; it just costs too much. A few of us, particularly those who bemoan the de-professionalization of our craft, will guard the old barricades for another generation. We will practice the art of first-person learning. Few of our students, though, will replace us at the gate.

Our goal therefore should be to adapt the sandbox to our purposes. To "direct" student learning - dripping knowledge at our pace - is one approach. And sometimes such direction is the best way to teach. I merely hope we can practice a more experimental, more entrepreneurial ethos too, one not easily commodified into the MOOC model. We all have the tools, and goodness knows, there are plenty of people yearning to learn. What we must build is a practical and economical model to craft learning spaces that meet local needs. A hundred or so professionals can design the widgets and interfaces that enable our best creative efforts, But no one can know our students as we do. We can help students become directors of their own lives (and not cells on a spreadsheet), maybe to investigate the knowledge-space as they might fly through a Halo theater. The question that remains is a matter of will.

Will we master the games of our new world, or will we get played?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Communication Studies Questionnaire

Recently I was asked by some students at a nearby college to answer a survey about my experiences in the field of communication studies. Here's the result:

1. How did you get interested in studying rhetoric? 

Participation in college forensics inspired my love of rhetoric, especially when I learned to deliver a type of speech called rhetorical criticism (also known as communication analysis). Part of the appeal of this event was the chance to write and present a piece of original scholarship about contemporary communication. One year I analyzed a speech presented by Boris Yeltsin before the U.S. Congress; another year I tried to make sense out of the rhetoric of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosovic. In these speeches, I began to read published research in the field of communication studies in order to apply methods of analysis to topics that fascinated me. I really enjoyed the opportunity to solve the rhetorical criticism puzzle while competing with some of the smartest folks in the country. When I discovered that some college professors can dedicate their professional lives to solving these puzzles - getting paid to do so! - I was hooked.

2. What are you currently working on?

Having wrapped up a multiyear project of essays and a book built around the omnitopian framework, I'm just now thinking about the next five to ten years. I plan to build a research project around a new topic that reflects some of my current interests. This project might focus on gamification, studying ways to improve teaching and learning by applying insights from "sandbox style" video games. On the other hand, this project might expand on some in-progress research on world's fairs to focus on a broader intersection of architecture, mobility, rhetoric, and resistance. This work would include essays on augmented reality and street art. Of course I've also co-written an essay about rhetoric in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), following a research trip to that country last year. We've already submitted that essay to a journal for review. Depending on the response, DPRK research might become an increasingly central part of my scholarly profile.

3. What got you interested in researching omnitopia?

A number of experiences and conversations got me interested in omnitopia (a mashup of Latin and Greek roots that I've used but do not claim to "own"), but mostly the topic emerged from conversations during family road trips. Driving thousands of miles along interstate highways, we'd observe certain qualities to airports, shopping malls, theme restaurants, and casinos, and we noticed that these environments inspired different feelings within us, different forms of interaction. As is my practice, I found myself theorizing about the places we visited, positing ideas and concepts to make sense of the "placeless" vibe that both troubled and intrigued me. Jenny and Vienna, my patient and thoughtful companions during these lengthy sojourns, asked questions and pointed out errors in my thinking. Gradually I formed a framework that seemed to make sense. Back on campus, I found ways to build lessons and even an entire course around the questions I was seeking to answer. There I could count on students to pose more questions offer more challenges to my still inchoate ideas. By the time I published a few essays on the topic, it was clear that I'd be living in omnitopia for a long while.

4. Who was your faculty advisor in graduate school and what did they teach you?

My grad school advisor was Roger Aden, a professor at Ohio University specializing in rhetoric, popular culture, and a wide range of topics that include fandom and spatial practices. Among his principle lessons was a reminder that I should strive for simplicity and clarity in my planning, writing, and speaking. It's relatively easy to build a byzantine structure of thought and attempt to bamboozle readers with a dense fog of words. It's a much finer thing (and a much more rigorous challenge) to communicate plainly and directly. I continue to struggle with that goal, and I thank Roger for instilling its value in my life. I would merely add here that many women and men guided me through those years. Roger played a key role as my advisor, but he'd be the first to insist that my training was a team effort. [Additional note: My dissertation committee included Roger Aden (chair), Judith Yaross Lee, Raymie McKerrow, Tim Simpson, and Julie White.]

5. What do you fine most fascinating about studying communication?

The most fascinating thing about studying communication is always the most personal thing, the fact that you can follow your bliss and concentrate on any aspect of life that involves human sense-making. Folks in this field study a vast array of topics, each one drawn from some aspect of their life stories. Our goal is always to useful outcomes, not simply to gaze at our own navels. Yet I can think of few other professions where folks enjoy such freedom to explore ideas and follow them wherever they may lead.

6. What is the best piece of advice you can give a transfer student to your program? 

I fear that any advice I'd offer will be generic, given that the best guidance comes from one person speaking to another person's unique concerns and talents. Nonetheless I'll offer one tip that would apply to most transfer students: Get to know the faculty. Read their published works, attend their colloquia, and chat with them outside of class. Your education will include access to books and articles, syllabi and assignments, but there is no better resource than a professor who knows you. Such a person can direct you toward internships, travel opportunities, and other forms of professional development. Of course you must take the first step by learning about various faculty members' strengths and interests. Show a genuine interest and think about the relationship you seek to build - don't just fixate on what you want - and you'll have a chance to enter a collaboration that can transform your life. Some of my best friends are professors who instructed me at all levels of my schooling. Allow yourself such a meaningful gift by getting to know the folks who've dedicated much of their lives to teaching you.