Levelling Up: A Critical Feminist Pedagogy for Game Design
Introduction: The Case for Transforming Games Pedagogy
Imagine a game design classroom in which students not only hone artistic and technical design skills but also develop interpersonal awareness so that they form a commitment to address the systems of social inequalities in games. As the course progresses, students begin to take ownership of their inherent power as future game developers, reflect on their spheres of influence, and even consider where they can begin to effect change during their time in college. In this paper, we discuss our use of a feminist, dialogic approach to teaching in the games classroom. Our project is a response to the crisis of toxicity and harassment continually playing out throughout the games field. Evidence of this crisis continues to be revealed, with a recent Antidefamation League report on statistics regarding player experiences online, stating that
Sixty-five percent of players experience some form of severe harassment, which includes physical threats, stalking and sustained harassment. … Fifty-three percent of online multiplayer gamers who experience harassment believe they were targeted because of their race/ethnicity, religion, ability, gender or sexual orientation’. (ADL 2019: 6-7)
The report lists stakeholders who are encouraged to take action to change this situation, including the game industry, civil society, and government. Notably, game design education programs are not mentioned. This is an oversight.
The games industry has long struggled with issues related to diversity and inclusion, often lagging behind other industries, and is now entering its own reckoning with the #MeToo movement addressing sexual assault and abuse. (Lanier 2019) The workplace environment is not the only site of struggle; many commercial games are rife with offensive representations of marginalised people, sensationalised violence, and colonialist game mechanics. Exceptions to this norm do exist, and truly creative and progressive games are being made. However, episodes of notorious rupture, such as GamerGate (Sarkesian & Cross 2015) and the Penny Arcade Dickwolves controversy (Kocurek 2016) are often cited as evidence for how the games industry and wider role of games in culture are in desperate need of reshaping, as theorised by scholars such Kishonna Gray (2014) and Tanya DePass (2018) who, in their research, have collected the voices and experiences of players with marginalised identities.
Just as the game design industry and games themselves have a history of seriously underperforming with respect to issues of diversity and inclusion, these issues extend into the game design classroom as well. Recently, games faculty have shared how the toxicity long associated with so-called ‘gamer culture’ is present in their classrooms and not only makes learning difficult for other students, but also acts as a hateful force directed at instructors themselves. (Ruberg 2019) In Ruberg’s and others’ experiences, this hostility is designed to silence the instructor and preserve the status quo in games pedagogy as a handmaiden to the industry. This status quo education is skills-focused, instrumentalist, and, like much of Computer Science education, purportedly apolitical. (Malazita & Resetar 2019) This approach serves to reinforce dominant narratives, gate-keep the discipline, support the powerful, and supply industry with compliant workers.
Undergraduate programs in Game Design are young, with some of the oldest in the US established in the early 2000s at Rochester Institute of Technology, in 2006 at University of Southern California, and in 2007 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. While games education has evolved over the past fifteen years to efficiently teach students the nuts-and-bolts of building games and achieving job placements in the industry, the pedagogy in the field has engaged less fully with contemporary approaches such as critical theory and cultural studies. This reflects a general lack of engagement with cultural studies in the games field, as noted by Adrienne Shaw (2010), who points out that most games scholars study games ‘as’ culture, but not ‘in’ culture, neatly sidestepping a deeper interrogation of how games operate with and through larger social and cultural flows. This lack of engagement with cultural studies is unfortunate, as this body of scholarship provides a key to understanding artefacts of popular culture, such as games.
While an element of struggle may always be present in the study popular culture due to the close, uncritical relationships many may hold with the artefacts at hand, this challenge is magnified with games. Errki Huhtamo (2005) has critiqued the fan-based nature of much of games history scholarship and suggested media archaeology as a more rigorous approach. Indeed, games books, talks, and research papers often have titles many would find ridiculous in other disciplines and come under this heading of evangelism or apology, like ‘Why Video Games are Good For Your Soul’ (Gee 2005), ‘Why Games make us better and how they change the world’ (McGonigal 2011), and ‘Why game designers are better lovers’. (Rusch 2017) Sweeping claims are made for games, similar to those made about electricity when it was new (Marvin 1988) or other technology in early phases (Sconce 2000): games are democratising, foster empathy, are good for your health, are good for learning, and so forth. Of course, many of these claims are made for important practical reasons: to achieve funding; to bring games into the academy as its own discipline; to communicate the value of academic study in games to the games industry. However, this powerful rhetoric of love for the object of study is a double-edged sword and also contributes to a narrowing or insularity in the field around what constitutes an acceptable topic of study in games (i.e. don’t publish anything too critical of games; always be making the case for games as good), and who we imagine as a games scholar (i.e. the games scholar is a gamer). While scholars such as Shaw (2010 & 2015), Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux (2017), Jennifer Olive (2018), and Jack Denham, Steven Hirshler and Matthew Spokes (2019) are doing important work critiquing these claims, it is not yet the dominant approach in the field.
Even very well-intentioned work in games often holds the game object too closely and fails to address structural problems. Much of the games for change, games for good, serious games, persuasive games, and meaningful play research lacks a critical perspective on the work at hand. For example, most design research in this genre focuses on games that get people to do things a certain way or think a certain way. But there is very little discussion about the dangers of media that seek to persuade or simplify arguments or histories, or produce clear calls to action. It would be refreshing to see an analysis of these types of games and their professed design techniques that takes into account the particular cultural moment we are living through. In a golden age of propaganda, the current mediascape is rife with insular communities that intensify uncritical perspectives across the political spectrum, and games are participating here as well. Even the phrase ‘meaningful play’ is not without rhetorical problems and should be critiqued. The category of meaningful play implies that some play is meaningless, or just for fun, a designation that allows those games to go unexamined. This is particularly true of commercially and culturally dominant games, which are often violent, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, and racist. These games are also deeply meaningful, accomplishing the meaningful cultural work of reinforcing dominant structures and norms. The tacit agreement in the field to leave these games unexamined, as evidenced through the rhetoric of ‘meaningful’ play, is part of the larger dominant characterisation of the games researcher and educator as a games apologist. This ontology extends to the classroom as well, and is reflected in the lack of critical pedagogies in games.
With respect to teaching, José P. Zagal and Amy Bruckman (2008) have expressed surprise at the difficulty in teaching game design to students who identify as gamers. The difficulties outlined centre on students possessing a high level of consumer/player expertise and the accompanying uncritical closeness in their relationship to the game artefact. Perhaps some of this struggle to achieve critical distance in games stems from the game’s relationship to the toy, which may be held particularly closely by the player in an intimate relationship that begins in childhood. (Sutton-Smith 1986; Fleming 1996) Children, after all, begin to learn through play. However, as is made clear in the above section, powerful academic and industry forces are also at work in maintaining this close relationship as dearly held and fiercely unexamined. Unsurprisingly, we too have seen strong resistance from students in game design classes, as well as from fellow games faculty, to holding games under too critical of a lens for examination.
Dialogic Pedagogy for Feminist Teaching and Learning
In this paper, we present the use of a critical dialogic pedagogy through a feminist lens to transform game design education. Our approach brings together theory and practice, with students engaging complex scholarship through dialogues, writing, and in design. We have been inspired by work in other fields such as design and engineering, in which researchers have moved to fuse practices of making with critical approaches. Matt Ratto (2011) has coined the phrase ‘critical making’ to refer to this movement, which pushes back on the traditionally purely instrumentalist approaches to education in many STEM fields. It must also be highlighted here that well before white academics have come to be interested in this fusion of the critical, cultural, and STEM subjects, that there is a rich history in Black education prior to integration in critical approaches to all subjects, which has carried through in Black education at HBCUs today. (hooks 1994; Evans 2007 & MacMillan Cottom 2019) This tradition in critical Black education has also been an important source of inspiration to us. Led by women such as Mary McLeod Bethune and Anna Julia Cooper, pedagogical philosophies and practices were established as early as the 1800s that emphasise the importance of teaching against dominant narratives to present an anti-racist curriculum, the value in teaching students to be resilient, and the exciting synergies that result from combining industrial and liberal education. We propose that, like the critical turn in education occurring today with movements such as Critical Making, and highlighting this movement’s often unacknowledged roots in progressive Black education, Games must also undertake a similar shift in perspective to move the field forward. This means accepting the work of education as always already a political project and making the choice to teach toward liberation and social justice.
While the aim of social justice education might seem to lend itself to an advocacy approach in the classroom, we have not seen success with such strategies. In our experience, advocacy-based teaching has led students to both disengage with the learning process and respond with aggression to the instructors. While some of this failure may be due to the lack of diversity at our institution (Rensselaer is a PWI or predominantly white institution that is also roughly 70% male), it is interesting that other games instructors at more diverse institutions have experienced similar problems with advocacy strategies. (Ruberg 2019) Shifting away from an advocacy-based approach to mutli-partial facilitation with a feminist lens has helped to increase our effectiveness in the classroom. This does not mean creating a ‘safe’ space in the classroom, but rather a brave space, or safe-enough space, that values conflict within limits as constructive, as described by hooks:
Unfortunately, it is often professors and not students who want to maintain the ‘safe’ classroom because it is simply easier to demand that students cultivate an atmosphere of seamless harmony in the classroom and harder to teach them how to engage in meaningful critical dialogue. When we teach our students that there is safety in learning to cope with conflict, with differences of thought and opinion, we prepare their minds for radical openness. We teach them that it is possible to learn in diverse teaching settings. And in the long run, by teaching students to value dissent and to treasure critical exchange, we prepare them to face reality. (hooks 2010: 88)
To create this atmosphere of constructive conflict, resilience, and radical openness we have utilised a co-facilitated, multi-partial dialogue approach. Inspired by tenants of intergroup dialogue, this multi-partial approach illustrates alliance building at its core. Intergroup dialogue is a communication practice characterised by sustained face-to-face facilitated conversations between individuals who share two or more different social identities. (Zúñiga 2003) Through personal storytelling, active listening, and affirmative inquiry, dialogue seeks to build an understanding of one’s own and others’ perspectives on issues, and an appreciation of life experiences that created those perspectives. (Nagda & Maxwell 2011)
Through co-facilitation, instructors de-centre and share power with each other and with the rest of the group. Each participant is seen as an educator of their own lived experiences and instructors act as guides to create a joint learning experience. A multi-partial facilitation style encourages the group to push back on dominant narratives by naming and surfacing them, exploring their functions and impacts. Instead of erasing dominant narratives, as might be the practice in an advocacy-based pedagogy, the aim here is to make such narratives visible as participants within the dialogue. This is done by facilitating in a way that supports and welcomes all voices, both from relatively privileged groups and those who provide counter or alternative narratives from marginalised groups. (Fisher & Petryk 2017) This approach makes the dialogue more equitable and creates space for all participants to be engaged in joint learning. (Chesler 2009) In the games classroom specifically, this enables us to name and surface the myriad ways in which many kinds of oppression, including patriarchy, racism, homophobia, and ableism are pervasive in the games space. Dominant narratives that ‘work’ for many of our students can be challenged in a productive manner in this setting, so that students do not ‘shut down’ from learning, and interactions do not devolve into hate or violence directed toward fellow students or the instructors.
The History of ‘The History and Culture of Games’ Course, or A Queer Feminist Walks into a Games Classroom
As with many undergraduate games curricula, the presence of game studies scholarship had been minimal at Rensselaer and largely confined to a single course, the freshman (first year undergraduate) level ‘History and Culture of Games’. The class is a required course in the game design major. The major has roughly 200 students, and class sizes average about 20 students. After being asked to teach the History and Culture of Games course in 2017, Rebecca found the history materials in the course were basic and canonical (a chess-to-Pong-to-Mario narrative) and the only cultural discussion in the course was instruction on how to fit into the games industry’s culture, with assignments like how to make an effective elevator pitch for your game idea. Rebecca rewrote the syllabus to reflect a media archaeology approach to games history, investigating the complex lineages of games through multiple media like the Victorian arcade, panorama, early military training simulators from World War II, and immersive cinema formats like Cinerama and IMAX, as well as scholarship on cultural studies topics in games, particularly around issues of identities. In addition, Rebecca redesigned the course to include several projects in addition to written assessments. To provide an overview of the specific games content of the course, the topics covered in the course are examined through a range of readings, games, and other artefacts such as film screenings. (See Fig. 1) Students demonstrate their engagement with this material through in-class dialogues as well as several types of assessments, including both design work and written work: a series of short game play essays, a board game design assignment, a LARP (live action role play) design assignment, a memoir mini-game design assignment, and a final research paper.
Fig. 1 ‘History and Culture of Games’ Course Topics and Associated Resources
In the first semester that Rebecca taught the revised course the students’ reactions to these changes were swift and extremely negative. Over time the course had become very popular with non-majors who had no interest in design but saw themselves as gamers. These students from outside the game design major were mostly interested in the course as Seniors (final year undergraduates), as something fun and easy. Similarly, game design students were also annoyed with the course redesign, with some showing aggressively negative responses to the games that had been assigned as homework to play. For example, several cisgendered students responded with extreme transphobia after being assigned to play Anna Anthropy’s landmark memoir game Dys4ia. Rebecca’s teaching evaluations tanked, and she received comments questioning her qualifications as a faculty member, denouncing the class as a rip-off not worth the tuition money, and complaints that a game design major shouldn’t have to take a class with a third of the time devoted to ‘feminist theory’. Interestingly, in this initial semester the class contained no feminist theory. It was simply that Rebecca had included some games and scholarship by women, queer, and transgender designers and scholars, and as a queer woman herself had dared to enter the games classroom. While she did not agree with these students’ assessment of the course, she knew that something had to change. It was clear that the students did not have the skills to access cultural studies materials at all, much less engage in honest and open conversation on difficult topics like racism, transphobia, and misogyny in games.
Bringing Dialogic Pedagogy into the Games Classroom
We began our collaboration in co-teaching the Games course following that first semester, introducing dialogic pedagogy as a possible remedy to the initial frustrations. Our first stages of co-facilitation were more modularised, with Amy visiting Rebecca’s classroom to facilitate workshops focused on dialogic communication practices, self-reflection on social identities, exploration of social inequality, and connecting the role of identity in games and how games have informed our own socialisation. As the collaboration progressed across several semesters, it became clear that a more complete integration of dialogue throughout the course was most beneficial, and we moved away from discreet workshops to fully co-teaching.
We realised that for dialogue to be successfully used as a pedagogy, we could not contain the dialogue to individual sessions or even a module, but needed instead to situate the whole semester in dialogue. The workshops remained to build in time to learn about dialogue as a communication skill, practice dialogue together, and spend time exploring social identities and lived experiences of social inequality and how these relate to games and future work as game developers. We removed the specific modules, and laid out the course topically, co-facilitating dialogues about assigned readings, game play essays, out-of-class assignments and project designs. Throughout the semester, we were able to foster a co-created classroom environment with shared community agreements and disbanding of typical faculty and student power differentials. We jointly held the belief that all members of the class had valuable knowledge to share and that our aim as a class was to collectively build understandings across difference and consider all perspectives to increase our knowledge on the culture of games.
This fully integrated, co-facilitated dialogue approach has resulted in our most successful collaborations in terms of student engagement, strength and complexity in student design and written work, most complete achievement of course learning outcomes, and demonstrated ability for students to take risks and be uncomfortable while exploring issues of identity and games. Interestingly, these class sections also happened to be more diverse in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity demographics than the usual demographics at our campus. Two enrolment changes that impact demographics had been made in the course; first, the course became restricted to majors only, which helped to remove less interested non-majors as discussed above; and second, we learned anecdotally from students that shared information by word-of-mouth about our sections of the course had influenced some students’ decisions to enrol, and that those who were more interested in issues of social justice in games self-selected into our sections. We do not have empirical data on these shifts, and must be careful not to claim causation (i.e. we cannot fully claim that our revision of the course attracted a more diverse set of students). Regarding the demographic makeup of our classes, it is important to clarify that our classes cannot be composed in the same way that intergroup dialogue classes are traditionally constructed. Our classes are not balanced for specific social identity representation and our course is not focused solely on identity and intergroup conflict. However, we have successfully applied the same critical-dialogic pedagogical processes of multi-partial co-facilitation, sustained communication, critical social awareness, and bridge building, and woven the four stages of intergroup dialogue into our course. (See Fig. 2) These four stages are sequential and build on one another, pacing the movement of the group from getting started, to dialogue, and then to action. (Zúñiga 2003) The stages include: Creating a Shared Meaning of Dialogue; Identity, Social Relations, and Conflict; Practicing Dialogue with ‘Hot Topics’; Action Planning & Alliance Building. (University of Michigan Program on Intergroup Relations 2015)
Fig. 2 The Four Stages of Dialog as Implemented in the Games Classroom
The integration of these four stages begins in the first class meeting each semester. As we introduce the course and foundational topics, we also utilise a two-hour class session for the first dialogue workshop. The aim of this workshop is to create a space for dialogue as a part of the first stage. In each iteration of the course collaboration, we use this workshop to co-create community agreements, explore learning through discomfort, differentiate between dialogue, debate, and discussion, and begin to practice dialogue with each other.
This initial workshop session begins by collectively authoring community guidelines to help create a learning environment that allows participants to engage with one another on contentious topics with honesty and sensitivity. We frame this activity by sharing that we want our class to be a ‘brave space’ where we enact courage and take risks to learn across difference, share from our whole selves, and critically reflect on our own perspectives. (Arao & Clemens 2013) We then ask the students what they need from themselves and others in order to be brave, and generally how students would like to treat each other in the space. Some common examples of community guidelines include:
- only having one person speak at a time
- practice active listening
- challenge ideas not individuals
- working to suspend judgment
- naming intent and owning impact
- using ‘I’ statements
- being present
Often students respond to this activity by wanting to create a culture of respect and distancing personal self and feelings from the classroom environment. These norms limit students’ abilities to act courageously and are often used to avoid conflict and experiencing negative emotions. (Arao & Clemens 2013) Because the dialogue pedagogy we utilise values leaning into discomfort, we ask students to go deeper and describe what respect looks like and means to them. The subsequent responses provide reframing opportunities, leading to common ground rules as listed above. The ground rules are explicitly described as a living document, one that can be edited or adapted at any time throughout the semester, to guide our interactions and dialogues with one another.
Following this opening activity, we then utilise a physical activity called ‘Learning Edges’, sourced from the University of Michigan’s Program on Intergroup Relations (2014), which positions learning in moments of discomfort, as we often learn the most when we are pushed out of our comfort zones and approach the unknown or uncomfortable. Students collectively reflect on their level of comfort in certain situations, and create an awareness of their comfort zones, learning edges, and danger zones—situations where discomfort reaches such a high level that participants must attend to their safety and wellbeing needs and are no longer in a place to learn. The activity and debrief begin to create an environment that moves to engage in discomfort as an opportunity for learning and creates a foundation to engage in controversy instead of avoiding conflict and difference. This activity pairs particularly well with the David Takacs reading on positionality’s influence on epistemology (2003), which we usually assign for homework to read as preparation before the activity. We are able to reflect as a class on how we all have different ways of knowing, as well as different learning edges, and explore how we can create a classroom environment that acknowledges and welcomes these differences. Through the activity, reading, and discussion, students build awareness of their own positionality and that of their peers, and we reinforce that all members of our class community are valuable knowers with beneficial perspectives to share in order to grow our collective knowledge.
We continue this first workshop by having students differentiate between dialogue, debate, and discussion. Many of our students share familiarity with debate and discussion, especially in previous classrooms and educational experiences, and are curious about how to communicate through dialogue. We review and discuss a ‘Debate vs Discussion vs Dialogue’ handout (Kachwaha 2002) clarifying conclusions from the worksheet and sharing experiences when we have observed or been a part of each communication type. In small groups, students role-play for each other the same scenario using either debate, discussion, or dialogue. As a class, we then identify the communication method used and discuss characteristics illustrated in the role plays that highlight that particular communication style. We reinforce the characteristics of dialogue by watching a brief video of other students engaging in dialogue and comparing and contrasting their interactions with other conversations or classroom discussions.
Within the first four to six weeks of the course, while we begin to introduce dialogue for in-class conversations on readings and assignments, we have additional workshops that bring students into the second stage of learning about differences and commonalities of experiences specifically related to identity, social relations, and conflict. We utilise another two-hour class session to focus the students’ exploration of their social identities, how these identities have shaped their life experiences, and work to understand the lived experiences of those who share different identities. We start by reviewing definitions of various social identities and social justice terms in order for everyone to have a familiarity with the language we use when talking about identity and difference.
We then have everyone individually reflect on their own social identities, the salience of various social identities, and how their identities have played a role in their interaction with others. Amy has used a wide variety of activities and worksheets for this process, and has consistently found the University of Michigan’s Program on Intergroup Relations ‘Social Identity Profile’ (2017) to be an in-depth tool that encourages exploration of one’s identity in multiple areas and builds meaningful debriefing in small and large groups. Once students complete the profile, they share it with a partner, specifically how they make meaning of their identities and how their identities have contributed to their interactions with others. We encourage students to pair with someone different from themselves and to practice active listening to learn from each other’s experiences. As a large group, we come back together to discuss what it was like to fill out the profile and then share it with someone else, as well as any commonalities, differences, surprises, or takeaways that came out of the partner discussions. We have done this activity in every iteration of the course since starting to include dialogue and have repeatedly found students to be reflectively and critically engaged, and empowered to further deepen their identity awareness through subsequent dialogues after this initial exploration.
We continue our work on social identity in this workshop session with a ‘Social Identity Timeline’ activity from the University of Michigan’s Program on Intergroup Relations (2017). This activity asks participants to reflect on one of their social identities, and what messages they received about identity over time throughout their life. They consider what behaviours and activities were encouraged, as well as those that were discouraged, for their identity. They also contemplate what messages or associations were shared with them about their identity and where those messages came from, be it family, school, places of worship, media, or other sources. The timelines are once again shared with a partner or small group and debriefed as a large group. This activity assists students in investigating how social identities are socially and culturally constructed and externally defined. It is also often an important moment of discovery as students come to realise how large a role specific social identities have played in shaping their sense of self from early childhood.
Both the identity profile and timeline activities bring out themes of power, privilege, and oppression as we explore differences and social relations across identities. After the timeline activity, we conclude this workshop session by introducing the Cycle of Socialisation and the Cycle of Liberation. (Harro 2010) The Cycle of Socialisation demonstrates general themes that often come out of the timeline exercise, illustrating how we are born into institutions and systems that inform our identities and lived experiences in ways that uphold existing systems of power and social inequality. We discuss how we have all come into this cycle and recognise the agents in the cycle, including the role of games in socialisation. We work to recognise that the Cycle of Socialisation is ongoing and present in every aspect of our lives, including our class dialogue experiences together. Occasionally, we have found resistance to the reality of elements from the Cycle of Socialisation and have asked students to think about and share examples of how they have seen the cycle in their own lives.
We then have students review the Cycle of Liberation which illustrates an alternative to the Cycle of Socialisation, describing a flow of actions that disrupt and dismantle systems of power, privilege, and oppression. We connect points on the cycle to the types of engagement we have already had in class and consider how we can continue to build upon the work with one another to further progress through the cycle.
After facilitating these initial workshops covering the first two stages of dialogue in the opening of the semester, we spend a significant amount of time in the third stage of dialogue exploring conflicts and multiple perspectives by dialoguing about ‘hot topics’. This is when we begin to truly dialogue as a class and encounter topics specifically related to games. Examples include the military and colonial history of games, the power of roles, embedded values present in games, and identity issues in games and game culture. The course resources link to these topics, and act as the dialogue entry point as we base the foundation of the dialogue on reactions and interpretations of the readings and artefacts assigned for homework. We explore conflict, consistently surface unique perspectives, and work to understand across difference.
We take time after the dialogue to process together as a class how the dialogue went, asking questions such as: Were we following our community guidelines? Were there moments that were emotionally charging? Did we stay in dialogue? What are things we can improve in our next dialogue? This is certainly the part of the course where things feel messy and sometimes unfinished compared to a more traditional classroom experience, but it is also where Rebecca and Amy have witnessed the greatest student growth and learning. Through the strong foundation of the first two stages of dialogue workshops, students have built enough self-awareness and trust with one another to work and learn through conflict and grow their capacity to understand each other across difference, as well as increase their abilities to look critically at games. Through the unveiling of the Cycle of Socialisation, and continuous dialogues about alternative and oppositional narratives about games and game culture, students have come to be able to hold both their love of games alongside the recognition of how games perpetuate systems of inequality.
The fourth stage of dialogue culminates in action planning and alliance building. Through a final research paper, memoir game assignment, and concluding dialogues, students begin to take ownership of their inherent power as future game developers and form a commitment to address systems of inequality in games. Students reflect on their spheres of influence and consider where they can begin to influence change even during their time in college. In our final dialogue, we ask students to share their biggest takeaway or most impactful moment, as well as identify a class member who has had an effect on them in some way throughout the semester. We share that we hope these connections continue, and that the larger class community can work together to a more inclusive games community.
In every semester in which we collaborated to introduce dialogic pedagogy to the History and Culture of Games course, we saw positive results. Comparing comments from the official student teaching evaluations from the semester taught with no dialogue with later semesters shows a dramatic difference. In addition, we have also seen improvement in the quality of student work and achievement of learning outcomes. This improvement was visible not only in the students’ written work, but also in the quality of their design work. In the board game design assignment, students were tasked with designing a board game about a social issue they cared about that would teach or persuade. In the initial course offering, the students’ designs were lackluster and derivative. Students struggled to identify any social issues they could connect with. Game designs from this semester included College Survival, a monopoly-like game with cards that say things like, ‘You decide to host a party for your friends, lose $200,’ and Taking Down the Tyrant, a game that claimed to be about racism but never made the connection, and instead has players moving through a Candy Land type board to try and become the king themselves. In subsequent semesters, we have seen a wonderful range of strong games from this assignment. Examples include Grow: a Game on Food Deserts in which players work together to fill a community meter by developing green zones, preventing building on green areas, and learn about issues faced by communities that lack access to green space and fresh food, and The Class Mobility Game, a race to the top of a three-dimensional pyramidal board, on which those starting at lower levels experience a more difficult gameplay and those beginning from the top have more mobility.
In addition to improvements in the quality of the students’ design work, we have seen improvements in their written work and ability to deeply engage the course material. One dramatic difference has been in the ability of students to write gameplay responses to their experience playing Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia (2012) memoir game about some of her experiences transitioning as a transgender woman. In the initial semester, students expressed anger in their rejection of the game, and were not capable of addressing the content or fuller experience at all. In following semesters, students have been able to write detailed and thoughtful responses to their engagement with the game.
As our collaboration in the class progressed, we developed a memoir game assignment to connect the dots on the social identity work done in the dialogues in design practice. Students developed games that dealt with many different aspects of their social identities. One student’s memoir game focused on her intersectional experiences as a Black woman encountering racist micro-agressions. In this card game, called Insult or Compliment? players draw cards with statement they have to identify as insults or compliments, then revise to have the opposite impact. Statements include things like, ‘Your hair looks so good straight, you should straighten it more!’ and ‘You’re gorgeous! What are you?’ or ‘Where are you actually from? ‘According to the designer’s statement accompanying the game, the game is intended to open up conversation and build community with players who share the designer’s identity.
In addition to student work and official evaluations, we have seen an improvement in the classroom community and quality of in-class conversation. Some examples include:
- A student working in dialogue to surface the reasons why many in the class, including himself, had been resistant to identify overt racism in Grand Theft Auto and naming the complicity this could imply.
- The small group of women from the class staying after to connect and continue the dialogue, realising they felt it was easier to talk in the affinity group instead of as a minority in class.
- A positive email exchange with a student regarding the handling of a difficult day of dialogue on racism in games, and her opening up about why she did not feel comfortable speaking in class.
- A final class reflection with many students expressing grace and gratitude for a difficult member of the class, as someone who was true to themselves and shared difficult or unpopular opinions (in ways that were often aggressive, so this graciousness was quite remarkable!)
In summary, by iteratively integrating a dialogue-based pedagogy through a feminist lens in the games classroom, we have seen positive results across both student design work and written work, as well as the quality of in-class conversation and community. As we continue our co-facilitation and application of dialogic pedagogy in the History and Culture of Games course, we see greater student development, growth, and learning. Student achievement is seen both in academic course work, and also in personal and interpersonal capacity to understand social inequality and make meaningful connections across difference to affect change. Throughout our pedagogical research project, this has been the most rewarding result to witness, and we hope that the dialogue learning experience continues with the students’ remaining academic career at Rensselaer and beyond into work in the games industry.
The continued collaboration and success with our singular course has created an institutional impact, leading to further training on intergroup dialogue for other faculty and staff members and the possible inclusion of dialogic pedagogy in other courses across the institution. We are currently limited by the overarching curricular structure in the Games program, with our class as the only course to provide a dialogic learning experience. This means we only reach a small set of students and this form of learning is not yet reinforced in other classroom spaces or throughout the games curriculum at large. We are looking forward to further inclusion and systemic support of dialogue at Rensselaer, and the possibilities of greater student learning and development in areas of social justice education. In sharing our experiences and resources here, we are hopeful that others in games education will feel empowered to build on our work and innovate further.
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WHO SUPPORTS US
The team of MAI supporters and contributors is always expanding. We’re honoured to have a specialist collective of editors, whose enthusiasm & talent gave birth to MAI.
However, to turn our MAI dream into reality, we also relied on assistance from high-quality experts in web design, development and photography. Here we’d like to acknowledge their hard work and commitment to the feminist cause. Our feminist ‘thank you’ goes to:
Dots+Circles – a digital agency determined to make a difference, who’ve designed and built our MAI website. Their continuous support became a digital catalyst to our idealistic project.
Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers
Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey