A Review of rgMOOC, Rhetoric and Composition: The Persuasive Power of Video Games as Paratexts
Summertime and the living is easy, or so the song goes. Among many hobbies of mine, gaming usually absorbs much of my free time, but this summer it gave way to something different — studying games. I initially signed up for Rhetoric and Composition: The Persuasive Power of Video Games as Paratexts, also known as rgMOOC, because I was interested in the topic presented, but I quickly became fascinated by the argument that games can and should be taken seriously, something which non-gamers have a hard time accepting.
rgMOOC is taught by Sherry Jones and Kate Guthrie Caruso of Arapahoe Community college in Colorado and is based on one of their hybrid rhetoric and composition classes for on-campus students. They ran the 10-week MOOC over the summer. The official closure was scheduled for August 1, but we were given a much needed two-week extension to finish up on our final project. A new offering of the MOOC starts September 2.
rgMOOC is hosted on Canvas, a less well-known online course platform that many instructors use to build MOOCs on independently. This class was characterized as a cMOOC.
Prior to the opening week, all students had to do was register in the appropriate form, stating some of their professional and gaming background as well. Nevertheless, it was explicitly stated that the course is not aimed at hard core gamers alone. In fact, gaming was partially seen as a basis for analysis of game elements and their rhetorical constituents.
The final project was to create our very own game! This is my creation, called “Copy right.”
Each week followed a similar study routine. First, we had to visit the Canvas course page and receive our so-called “brief”, our intel on each week’s topic. For example, topics included the debate over games being perceived as art and the paratextual elements of games. The brief began with a 20 minute introductory video excerpt introducing and analyzing each week’s concepts.
We, the “agents,” next had to study a bundle of articles or textbook excerpts of our choice, depending on how much time we could devote to the class. The material mostly came from links to online game communities and free peer-reviewed articles. It should be noted that the quality of material and the selection provided was truly rewarding. For example, Ian Bogost’s writing on procedural rhetoric was very influential for me.
Then we choose a game to to play from a list of options spanning enough genres to satisfy almost everyone’s taste. Whether you like platform games like Super Mario Bros. or have a thing for Slenderman’s horror, there was an option tailored to your needs. The free-to-play games were derived mainly from independent developers. Those who wanted to take it a step further could opt for paid games like Bioshock’s first installment or simply download the free demo of those games to sample their material.
At the same time, the course’s Youtube channel featured tutorials for selected games, providing detailed walkthroughs, courtesy of the mysterious agent GameMole. After having studied the brief and chosen a game to play, we visited the course’s Mightybell space to submit a 200-word essay responding to a prompt from the instructors. The transition from the Canvas page to Mightybell was smooth since there were links provided, and after a while it became a sort of a habit, since everything ran exactly the same each week.
Posting your essay meant giving way to feedback either from the course facilitators or from fellow course agents in the form of comments below or in a sidebar chat. I found Mightybell an extremely useful tool to coordinate a collaborative endeavor such as a MOOC, making forum debates and chat way more interesting and productive than in some other MOOCs.
Here’s how a typical Mightbell weekly space looked like. The bubbles were the comments/posts made underneath each webcast. Hearts are Facebook-type likes.
When it comes to studying and analyzing gaming, playing the actual game at hand is only a portion of what it takes to delve into this particular field. The course features serious research areas, and one would surely benefit from a strong background in the humanities and/or art. For example, in week five, we questioned whether games make social or political claims, and the instruction helped us understand the difference between claims, assumptions and inferences. Week seven included a detailed presentation of the Aristotelian triangle – Ethos, Pathos, Logos – as applied to games and their rhetoric.These are fields of research you would normally expect to find in literature or perhaps even film studies.
The course is designed to feature games as mediums of art and to study them as such, so do not be misled into thinking this is a walk in the park. Naturally the element of fun is part of the course, but it will take quite some time and careful studying to complete the weekly reading and writing.
Notice that the course involves writing a relatively short but academically acceptable essay. During the first couple of weeks there didn’t seem to be any limit on writing styles, yet MLA referencing soon became a must. The course facilitators eventually uploaded a thorough tutorial on referencing sources and generally provided positive feedback and follow up questions after each submission. Moreover, finding credible, open-access research (e.g. MERLOT, DOAJ, etc) was strongly advised and promoted, especially during the final weeks so as to have good support for our claims in our final project.
Part of week 8: Rutger’s RIOT: Research Information Online Tutorial (Free Web Game, Online Research Learning)
Like other cMOOCs, this class relied on the use of many social networking tools. All our course progress was documented on Storify, which lists web page links, tweets, videos, etc. and presents them in a newspaper style.
Each Friday – with the exception of week ten – the instructors hosted a tweetchat (U.S. Mountain Time zone), using the hashtag #rgmooc. There we debated each week’s theoretical background and discussed the games we played. It was extremely helpful for preparing for the writing assignments, as we helped each other with queries.
During week five, as well as upon completion, badges were given as a token of our efforts. Badges are the most popular game element used in non-game context and are always welcome in a MOOC, especially when that itself involves games!
During weeks six and seven we hosted two collaborative essays using TitanPad. Basically, students contributed to one document, tweaking it so that it would have some kind of flow, as if it were written by one person. We were given relative freedom to complete the document at our own pace. I suppose week six went well, yet two such attempts – one after the other – were a bit overwhelming. Still participation was satisfactory.
Notice how different colors signaled different users of this collaborative essay
Last but not least, weeks nine and ten challenged agents to expand their creativity as well as use all their knowledge acquired through the course in order to create their own persuasive “serious game.” A serious game is one that tries to approach a social matter of concern as a challenge and provide solutions for it through the gaming process. Playing and winning the game makes one able to overcome or become more aware of what it needs to be done to remedy a difficult social challenge.
Making a game is a complicated process; no one would expect you to learn programming or render objects in 3D in a rhetoric and composition course. Luckily, Gamestar mechanic provided easy tools and infrastructure to develop our ideas. In the form of small “retro” game challenges, the player acquires mods and backgrounds as well as tips on how to build a small-scale game. It even provided music scores to complete the undertaking! Bear in mind that unlocking game content required quite a bit of time on its own, so it would be wise to plan accordingly. Premium membership was offered for free, for members of rgmooc, which enhanced game development options significantly.
The Decipher and the Scientist
A lot of praise ought to be given to the course’s main facilitators, Sherry Jones and Kate Guthrie Caruso. They were available when needed to provide feedback, help agents and support the overall work being done, and I was astounded by the course’s quality and design. Everything was right in place and working just as well as if I were attending a course designed by a major university. To be honest, I have been disappointed by MOOCs from “hyped” institutions too many times; I have even started questioning whether it’s the brand that makes a good MOOC or the opposite.
As I said above, Jones and Caruso teach this class at Arapahoe Community College. For readers like myself not from the U.S., a community college is a two-year higher education institution that enables students to acquire a so-called Associate’s degree, which is more of a professional orientated college certificate. They seem to labor under elitist stereotypes, with limited funding compared to other American colleges and universities, lower tuition and less competitive admissions. But if my experience is any indication — this was the second MOOC I took from a community college — the work being in them is more than respectable and deserves attention.
The course will run its second session from September 2 to November 10, and I’ve had a tip that Minecraft worshippers will have an advantage in this one. To be honest, rgMOOC is a great opportunity for people who love games to take their hobby a step further. The same goes for educators, gamification enthusiasts and plain curious learners who wish to discover why this emerging industry is worth the buzz.
As for me, rgMOOC made it clear that games are truly useful as well as entertaining. In fact, I went so far as to modify my research proposal in my Master’s program to language learning (German) through gaming, since there is plenty of material to go around (as opposed to German language learning MOOCs, which were hard to come by, alas). The future looks promising, as I enter rgMOOC, phase 2.