Research proposal: Video games as texts in college english courses

A research proposal for a pilot study on the use of video games as texts in college-level English courses. Focuses on the video game BioShock.I'm open to comments and critiques. This isn't ready for submission yet.
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  • 1. Running Head: VIDEO GAMES AS TEXTS IN COLLEGE ENGLISH COURSES <br />Video Games as Texts in College English Courses <br />Max Lieberman <br />University of Arizona South <br />Abstract <br />The question of whether video games can be taught in college English courses has gotten relatively little attention in academic literature. This paper proposes a quasi-experimental pilot study comparing two first-year college English classes, one of which would teach traditional texts (e.g. novels and films), while the other would also include a video game text. A common grading rubric based on established methods of assessment would be used for both classes. This research would provide educators with much-needed hard evidence about the value of video games as texts in English curricula. Past research and theory suggests that students in the experimental course would produce work of a quality at least as high as that of students in the traditional course. <br />Video Games as Texts in College English Courses <br />The subject of video games as texts that can be taught alongside traditional media in college-level English courses has gotten relatively little attention in academic literature. What has been written is largely theoretical, and case studies are rare (Alexander, 2009). The existing literature does suggest that games have the potential to motivate students, and that games will support the same sorts of critical literary analysis as other media. The quasi-experimental pilot study proposed in this paper would evaluate these claims by comparing the work produced by freshman-year college students in two similar English courses, one of which would examine a video game alongside traditional texts. <br />English as a discipline has long been open to nontraditional texts including non-fiction writing, films and television programs. Such texts are commonly used in college composition and comparative literature classes, as well as in general English courses that apply multiple analytical disciplines. Works in nontraditional mediums are used because educators have come to accept that they repay analysis to the same degree as written fiction. Institutions of higher education also recognize that it is important to maintain a focus on the wider culture as it constantly evolves (Aiex, 1999). Because student work can be evaluated by the same basic criteria regardless of the medium of the original text, there is no need for a radical restructuring of the curriculum (Alexander, 2009). <br />Video games show great potential to immerse and motivate players. This strength aligns closely with a clear need to engage college students in literacy activities. College reading and writing skills have declined to problematic levels, and test scores continue to drop (Jameson, 2007). Fewer than 40% of students arrive at college with adequate reading skills to do their work, while the numbers for writing are even lower (Alexander, 2009). Writers on this topic suggest several causes for this decline, and two related factors come up repeatedly: student motivation and the relevance of the literary material to students' lives (Jameson, 2007; Jolley, 2008; Adams, 2009). Anectodal evidence suggests that integrating video games into existing literature curricula increases student engagement, particularly among otherwise reluctant readers (Jolley, 2008; Adams, 2009). Colby and Colby, proposing a composition class based on World of Warcraft, write that video games excel at creating the immersion necessary for deep engagement with a text (2008). <br />Video games are relatively new as a technology, and even newer as an art form. It is difficult to make a case for games as texts worthy of serious study upon their commercial introduction in the 1970s, except insofar as their themes reflected the wider culture. Modern games are quite different, and are capable of telling sophisticated stories using words, images, sound, and interaction. In other words, they contain elements of new literacies alongside traditional ones. In a recent case study, Alexander analyzed the narratives constructed by two college undergraduate World of Warcraft players. He found that these players demonstrated numerous " high-level literacy skills" which manifested in " visual, technological and textual" modalities (Alexander, 2009). These results align closely with those of other researchers and theorists (Gee, 2007; Selfe, Hawisher & Ittersum, 2007). Alexander concluded that " we should seriously consider using complex video games as primary 'texts' in composition courses," highlighting the need for further research in this area (2009). <br />Evidence from other educators who have seen fit to use games as texts in English courses similarly suggests that students respond enthusiastically, and that the quality of student work produced is satisfactory (Clayton & Hall, 2008; Jolley, 2008; Adams, 2009). However, many of the studies conducted so far have focused on the creation of games by students as a form of literary composition (Robertson & Good, 2005; Carbonaro et al, 2007; Alexander, 2009; Owston, 2009). Arguments for games as texts worthy of study is largely theoretical, or at best anecdotal (Clayton & Hall, 2008; Colby & Colby, 2008; Jolley, 2008; Adams, 2009). There is a clear need for more research in this area. <br />The quasi-experimental study proposed here is intended to evaluate performance of college students in an English class that includes a video game alongside traditional texts as a work to experience and analyze. This study is conceived as a pilot study can be repeated with different populations and modified to fit different curriculums, using a variety of texts. In this way, it will serve as a first step towards the creation of a meaningful set of data with which to determine whether English courses that use video games as literary texts can provide the same quality of instruction as courses that do not. Past research and theory suggests that students in the experimental course would produce work of a quality at least as high as that of students in the traditional course, and this is what we would expect to find. <br />Methods<br />Each of the two English classes participating in this study would contain approximately 80 college freshmen, with an average age between 18 and 19, and a gender ratio of roughly 1:1. The sample selection would be quasi-experimental (cluster sampling), since students cannot be screened to equalize the groups for significant factors such as existing writing and reading skills.<br />This study would be a standard a nonequivalent control group design, including both control and experimental groups, as well as a pretest, " treatment" and posttest. Although it is impossible in a quasi-experimental study to ensure parity between groups for all moderator variables, we can at least determine the degree of discrepancy on these factors using a pre-treatment test. Possible moderator variables for this study include existing reading and writing skills, dedication to schoolwork, amount of experience playing video games and video game genre preferences. <br />Just as avid readers may prefer very different books, " gamer" is not a blanket descriptor covering all video game players. The video game proposed for use as a text in this study is BioShock, a first-person shooter with some mechanics reminiscent of role-playing games. Determining whether such a game is accessible to non-gamers is important, but no more important than determining whether it is accessible to regular or occasional game players unfamiliar with those game genres.<br />A fairly simple pretest, consisting of a 2-3 page essay on a short story or nonfiction article (the same one for each sample group) and a short in-class survey, could provide useful data on these variables.<br />Pretest survey questions would include the following: <br />How many hours do you spend on homework each week, on average? <br />What was your grade point average (GPA) in high school? <br />Do you consider yourself a (circle one): <br />below-average student <br />average student <br />above-average student <br />Do you play video games (circle one)? <br />Yes <br />No <br />If you answered " Yes" above, how many hours per week do you play video games, on average (circle one)? <br />1-2 hours <br />3-5 hours <br />5+ hours <br />Do you play video games with three-dimensional graphics?<br />Yes<br />No<br />Please rank your favorite video game genres from those listed below. Place a " 1" next to your favorite genre, a " 2" next to your second-favorite genre, and so on, for as many genres as you enjoy playing.<br />Action games<br />Adventure games<br />Simulation/management games<br />Strategy games<br />Role-playing games<br />Puzzle games<br />Shooters<br />Driving games<br />Other ___________<br />All of the questions above could be easily quantified and coded, as could letter grades on the pretest essay assignment. Although there is no clear way to correct for differences between the two classes that would be identified by this pretest, the data collected could suggest avenues for further research in the future. This is especially true if differences identified by the pretest appear to correspond with significant differences in the dependent variable, which will be measured as described below.<br />Aside from the moderator variable, this study design is fairly straightforward: the independent variable is the use of the video game BioShock as a text in the experimental class but not in the control class. The dependent variable is the quality of student work produced, which would be evaluated using a rubric based on established English writing course standards (College Board, 2002). This rubric would have no impact on teacher grades, and would be intended to provide a quantitative evaluation of the quality of student work. In order to ensure inter-rater reliability, both teachers as well as a researcher would evaluate each piece of student work, and the results of these evaluations would be averaged together.<br />The details of exactly how BioShock would be used in the experimental class depend on the teaching style of the course instructor, but what follows are general guidelines and suggestions. First, because BioShock is a complex game played from the first-person perspective, time must be taken to introduce students to the basic mechanics (movement, inventory, shooting, interacting with the environment). Students may be expected to arrive at college with fundamental reading skills in place to build upon, but the same is not true of what may be termed gaming literacy. Once this has been done, students should be provided with a short introduction to the intellectual context of the game, which includes numerous references to the work of author Ayn Rand and to her philosophy of Objectivism. A discussion of BioShock's unusual narrative structure, in which the story of the bizarre world entered by the player's in-game avatar is presented through fragmented audio logs scattered across the game world, should also be undertaken. Students should be instructed that their primary goal in playing game is to reconstruct this story, and to consider both the plot and the way that it is being told. Students should also be provided with a list of online resources including web-based strategy guides to the game and The BioShock Wiki, a Wikia-based website that features transcriptions of in-game story content like the aforementioned audio logs. Weekly journal assignments could be used to track students' progress through BioShock and their experience of the game as both game and text, providing invaluable information about unforeseen challenges for future researchers. A traditional essay could be assigned as a final project related to this video game text; a list of suggested topics could range from questions about character motivation in the game's story to arguments about how game narrative varies from written fiction due to the nature of each medium.<br />The 7-category evaluative rubric proposed for use in evaluating these essays (Table 1) is taken from the College Entrance Examination Board's AP Vertical Teams Guide for English handbook (2002). Scored using the point values provided below, an essay that is rated as exemplary for all characteristics would receive 98 points (the equivalent of an 'A'); a commendable essay would receive 84 points (a 'B'); an effective essay would receive 70 points (a 'C') and an essay that merely approaches effective would receive 56 points, a failing grade.<br />Table 1<br />Common Grading Rubric for Written Student Work<br />Writer’s ChoiceThinkingOrganizationContentSentence StructureLanguageMechanicsWriter’s choice of voice, audience, form, and purpose Development of ideas Clarity and logic details Supporting sentences Variety and quality Effective variety, figurative language, dialogue Spelling, punctuation, capitalization, paragraphing EXEMPLARY — 14 points Skillfully uses variety of voices Synthesizes complex ideas Clearly and artfully ordered Rich and substantive Variety enhances style and effect Rich, effective vocabulary Very few or no errors Sophisticated sense of audience Sophisticated evaluation of ideas Organization enhances meaning Stimulates new responses Sophisticated patterns Sophisticated figurative language Use of mechanics furthers meaning Sees complexities and implications Generates original insights Sophisticated integration of sources No errors in structure or usage Artful use of dialogue/ quotations   Breaks rules artfully Sophisticated choice of form Keen insight   Sophisticated use of title Elegant sentences     COMMENDABLE — 12 points Powerful and consistent voice Synthesizes ideas Clearly focused Interesting and meaningful Appropriate variety Effective, furthers meaning Few errors Clear sense of audience Careful evaluation of data Skillful transitions Effective/ ”telling” details Some use of sophisticated structures Generally uses rich language Capitalization and punctuation correct Ambitious purpose achieved Evidence of original thinking Skillful development of ideas Effective integration of sources Few errors in structure or usage Effective figurative language Effective paragraphs Effective choice of form Displays insight Effective introduction and conclusion Effective title Effective use of syntax Effective use of dialogue/ quotations   EFFECTIVE — 10 points Effective voice Attempts synthesis Generally focused Many details Some sentence variety Acceptable vocabulary Errors don’t interfere with meaning Sense of audience Evidence of evaluation Consistent point of view Details support focus Attempts sophisticated patterns Attempts sophisticated language Spelling generally correct Purpose stated and achieved Evidence of analysis Adequate introduction and conclusion Information is correct Errors do not interfere with meaning Generally correct usage Simple punctuation Appropriate use of form Some insight   Adequate integration of sources   Some figurative language         Adequate title       APPROACHES EFFECTIVE — 8 points Inappropriate or stilted voice Lacks original ideas Focus limited/ too broad Insufficient detail Little sentence variety Simple vocabulary Frequent errors distract Some sense of audience Recognizes important data Awkwardly organized Some details don’t support focus Relies on a few simple patterns Some errors in usage Errors in spelling, punctuation, or capitalization Some awareness of purpose Attempts analysis Needs additional transitions Information is correct Errors interfere with meaning Too wordy   Awkward use of form Little insight Awkward introduction or conclusion Attempts integration of sources Repetitive structure awkward syntax     <br />Because of the design of this study, data collected would be subjected to the t-test for dependent samples in order to determine the statistical significance of any differences between the two groups. The fact that we can then set the desired level of risk does not mean that the results of this study will be relevant to all questions about the usefulness of video games in classrooms. The results are generalizeable only to other situations in which games with strong narratives are used as texts in college-level English courses. <br />Results<br />The fictitious data set in Table 2 represents the results we might see were we unable to reject the null hypothesis (no significant difference between the groups).<br />Table 2<br />Hypothetical Grade Distribution, 3 Written Assigments for each Class of 80 Students<br />Were the research hypothesis supported to a statistically significant degree, the data in Table 2 would show greater variation between the control and experimental groups, with the grades trending generally higher for one class or the other. <br />Discussion<br />Were the results of this research to support the acceptance of the research hypothesis, the conclusions that must be drawn would depend on the direction of the statistically significant difference between the experimental and control groups. In the event that the experimental group which studied BioShock in addition to more traditional texts produced work of an inferior quality (and thus learned less) than the control group, this would suggest that video games are not interchangeable with traditional texts in a college-level English course format. A logical next step for researchers would be to begin asking questions about the ways that players engage with video games as texts, and how this engagement differs from the experience of reading a novel or watching a film. The debate between ludological (play-based) and narratological (story-based) understandings of games might be illustrative in this case. <br />However, the data might instead support the acceptance of the research hypothesis by showing that students in the experimental group outperformed students in the control group. In this case, the previous suggestion for research into the ways that players experience games as distinct from the ways that they experience other texts would remain valid, perhaps with an added emphasis on the relationship between immersion and motivation. Research into the kinds of games appropriate for use as texts, as described more fully below, could also prove fruitful. <br />In the event that the null hypothesis could not be rejected, this would serve as evidence that the use of games as texts in college-level literature curricula can be pedagogically sound. Further research into the advantages of and obstacles to such uses would be strongly recommended. Focusing on specific characteristics that make certain games or game genres strong candidates for use as texts would be a logical next step. For example: does a strongly linear narrative tend to correlate with good results, as opposed to a branching narrative? Does student success in courses that integrate games correlate strongly with any identified moderator variables?<br />Truthfully, even if this study produces interesting and statistically significant findings, it is not widely generalizeable. The sample size is simply too small. As a pilot study, though, it can point the way for further research on the subject of games as texts in college-level English courses—a great deal of hard and soft data will be generated about the immediate subject of the study, as well as
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