restricted access Video Games and Multimodality in First-Year Composition
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Video Games and Multimodality in First-Year Composition

Teaching writing requires instructors to address a question that does not have a clear answer: what type of writing should students consider good writing? Because the quality of writing can be judged only with an eye on the context in which it is read, writing instructors are forced into the unfortunate and impossible role of oracle when they are asked to foresee the future writing occasions and tasks that students will encounter. We would better serve students by equipping them with tools for navigating unfamiliar terrain themselves. Students need, as it were, a rhetorical map and compass in finding their way.

The availability of digital technologies has created a culture of communication in which textual forms take on diverse, creative, and difficult-to-define modes of representation. Many students are engaged in the consumption of these digital forms of communication, and the use of these forms has created additional literacy needs for future success inside and outside the classroom. Teachers of first-year composition (FYC) must rethink the types of texts they ask students to read if we want them to create multimodal projects. One approach is to offer a method for categorizing texts that helps students see the ways they are used to engage real readers. To address the problems and changing nature of FYC, new models of writing instruction are needed so that each student is capable of gaining independence and autonomy in the writing process.

To answer the changing nature of FYC, I have developed an approach based on a series of principles. First, courses need to ensure students become self-sufficient writers who can competently address writing tasks beyond the classroom as well as they can within it. Second, students need to develop what I call an evaluative approach to texts, which is an understanding of the text’s central claims, its relative credibility, and the ways writers might use the text for their own purposes. Finally, students need to become confident in their own abilities and be able to develop an authoritative role in the writing process. To facilitate these goals, I look for texts that are culturally accessible, multimodal, and relevant to a thriving set of discourses. For these reasons, I have been using a video game as a primary text—specifically, World of Warcraft (WOW), a game that is both a cultural icon and the subject of many texts in many contexts. [End Page 120]

Meaning, Texts, and Contexts

The selection of texts and how we approach them is about more than mere preference. Video games such as WOW can be used to contextualize a multitude of writing skills. A common complaint among composition instructors is the lack of academic seriousness or rigor in student writing. Essays lack depth because students rely on sweeping generalizations, selective evidence, or baseless assertions in the development of arguments. George Hillocks, in his Teaching Argument Writing, suggests that the reason for the lack of substantive arguments in student writing is the classroom focus on persuasive writing instead of logical argumentation. Often, students are eager to express their perspective, but when pressed for support and evidence, most struggle. In fact, many students admit to having a hard time developing a functional thesis statement, an essential component to developing a clear, well thought-out argument. Without students having this basic skill, it is no surprise that they fail to produce the quality of work we expect from them.

Knowing that the best form of expression varies dramatically from context to context, we must understand that instruction and curriculum should encourage students to take an active role in their own ways of thinking and in their abilities to engage audience expectations in a range of environments. James Paul Gee, in his Social Linguistics and Literacies, illustrates this point using as an example the variety of bars a person might frequent. In a bar frequented by lawyers or in a bar frequented by bikers, he explains, “it’s not just what you say or even just how you say it, it’s also who you are and what you’re doing while you say it” (3). Gee’s point about...