draft – to proceed: an exploration of games and learning

by ibull


In this paper I develop a methodology for thinking about the relationship between learning and gameplay that challenges popular rhetorical frameworks that situate games as either tools or texts. After making a game and discussing its limitations in this paper, I argue for a way of thinking about game design that centers the way designers construct literacies with which to network ideas together in context.



Playing The Oregon Trail on an Old World ROM Macintosh computer in the mid-1990s was one of the most memorable experiences I had as an elementary school student. My 4th grade class would take regular trips to the computer lab, and we would rotate in smaller groups to share time on the limited number of computers. I still have a nostalgia for the really big floppy disks—likely the 5.25 inch variety—that we’d put into the computer. I remember a satisfying *click* and flashing monitor that accompanied the “beginning” of the game. I remember needing to purchase supplies, shoot game animals, and navigate large rivers with a wagon train—I remember dying often, but I can also remember winning; surviving long enough with my wagon train and colonizing the West. Did we read about time period as we played along? Although such a pairing would make sense to arrange, I honestly don’t remember.


As a 5th grader I was privileged to learn about the Revolutionary War through an elaborate, historical role-play of the period. This simulation involved three 5th grade classes and their teachers—we used the cafeteria to hold town hall meetings. These town hall meetings became particularly exciting after students got a handle on the rules and procedures that determined “orderly” conduct. Our teachers, the game masters, helped to facilitate the simulation, and players collectively negotiated the narrative within a bounded system of possibility. I remember being targeted—the loyalists eventually tired of my revolutionary rhetoric and had me tarred and feathered—and I have a distinct memory of feeling simultaneously humiliated and proud. At recess, cliques of people would scheme—I think our teachers tried to encourage that we leave the game in the classroom, but as 10-year-olds I don’t remember that actually being the case. If I had an antagonistic relationship with someone before we started playing the game, that relationship seemed to inform how I negotiated my role in the simulation with other characters, my peers. Did my out-of-game relationships with loyalists contribute to the reasons behind my tar and feathering? My 10-year-old self thinks so.


I think we practiced multiplication tables and story problems, but all I really remember about the 5th-grade math curriculum is how we learned about statistics. My teacher situated our understanding of statistics in an ongoing season of the National Football League. Each student had a team, and we would individually track data about our teams to try to make competitive predictions about whose team would beat whose. So, it was possible for a friend to track the Cleveland Browns, predict that they would lose every game (indeed, they went 2(W)-14(L)-0(T) that year), and win in the class as one of the best evaluators. Students could submit predictions blindly, without struggling with the probabilities, but it was generally understood that if you could reason through your prediction on who was going to win, then you probably had a good chance of doing well on the tests. Caring about the win/loss record of the Pittsburgh Steelers was easier than caring about the story problems in the math textbook. I watched football games with my father, and read the Sports section of the weekly newspaper from time to time; so, it was easier to care because the abstract and practical knowledge about statistics was also situated outside of the classroom. Perhaps more importantly, my father used this as an opportunity to reinforce my learning of mathematic concepts—he almost went into the profession of teaching math before deciding on another career entirely. The game we played in class was designed to stimulate synthesis and application of knowledge outside of the classroom, but it probably didn’t mediate my experience of learning statistics more meaningfully than my textbook. It was in the feedback I sought from my father and my teacher that helped me relate abstract mathematical concepts to real-world phenomenon.


Games implicitly teach. What games teach, and how games are used as a technology for teaching, are questions for which I have found only a few answers on which there is any consensus. What a game does differs depending on who you talk to—a sociologist, an education specialist, a rhetorician, a computer scientist, an anthropologist, and on and on—largely because niche vocabularies mark different epistemological domains in which objects take on different aesthetic properties. Despite little consensus on what games do and what games are, educators have used games/simulations as teaching tools for decades (cf. Shelton & Scoresby, 2011; Butler & McCahan, 2005; Gee, 2003; Squire, 2002; Coleman, 1971).[1] Games are commonly used as part of pedagogical practice in many disciplines (e.g., business, economics, history, geography, biology, chemistry, physics, geology, etc.), but the perceived and measured efficacy of games, as mediators between students and curriculum knowledge, varies (cf. Afari et. al., 2013; Ke, 2008).

In the tableaus proceeding this essay, I relate three general types of games that might be familiar to a fair number of Americans—especially millennials. The Oregon Trail, in particular, has since become a cultural phenomena as a result of its widespread adoption in education curriculums in the 1990s (cf. Bigelow, 1997). Role-playing games for the classroom is apparently an industry of it’s own; I recently reached out to my 5th grade teacher to ask about the genesis of his curriculum, and he pointed me to the website for Interact, a subdivision of the Social Studies School Service company that has been designing educational resources for the last 45 years (2014). My teacher tells me that I was privileged to play “Independence 2,” but a cursory search of the Interact website suggests that the simulation guide is no longer available for sale. A cursory search online also suggests that my teacher was being fairly novel by using football games to motivate and excite students into learning more about the predictive powers of statistics (cf. Di Fino, 2008). My teacher verified that my affinity for the roleplaying exercises was unique; research suggests that not all students learn, or are motivated by, gameplay (cf. Squire, 2002). As a student, did a positive relationship with game objects or a literacy for playing games affect my learning experience? Was there something about the design of these games that presented a barrier to my peers who had different relationships with games and other media technologies?

To begin my study of games and their role in teaching, I made one. This paper explores what I’ve learned as a consequence of the experiment; in it, I will articulate a rhetorical gap that I perceive in scholarship that seeks to understand games as both tools and texts. My sense of this gap is a result of trying to engage in a self-reflexive discussion on the game design process, but finding the rhetoric of games as tools as unhelpful as rhetorical discussions of games as texts. Neither domain adequately discusses an ontological or epistemological framework from which to evaluate how players learn to interrelate narratological and ludological information in the production of knowledge about gameplay and/or a game/space. This is important to my study because, as a game designer, I need to be able to understand the parameters of what is possible and not possible in the transmission of information between game to player. The goals of my design may or may not be possible; how would I know what an acceptable learning outcome is from gameplay? When reduced to either a tool or a text, there isn’t room to understand how tools make texts and texts are symptomatic of tool design. This makes it inherently tricky to understand the very complex relationships game designers negotiate in the making of a game. While it might be easy to deconstruct a text to explore the ways in which gameplay is networked in the construction of whiteness, colonialism, or some such other cultural phenomena, it is much more difficult to understand how tools shape those realities and should be remade to construct other ends.

Before I can talk about my game as both a success and failure, an experiment in designing a “serious” game for mediating “serious” educational material, I will first propose a methodological approach for rhetorically analyzing the learning goals of a game. I will justify this approach by differently situating games and films as texts and tools. I will then relate how my proposed methodology demands a modest re-thinking of how players produce gameplay, and I will then relate how this rhetorical framework constitutes a player epistemology that describes how the design of games conditions some players to interpret their gameplay experiences. I then talk about the game that I’ve started to put together, More in Work than Words, and conclude with a reflection on the ways in which the game serves to “teach” players about migrant Mexican workers of the 1950s who traveled from Oaxaca, Mexico to El Paso, Texas to participate in the Bracero Program.


I have been surrounded by gameplay my entire life, so talking about games —what they are, what distinguishes good games from bad—is a bit like talking about the air that I breathe. I don’t mean to speak in hyperbole! Air is not simply a disembodied construct, an immaterial material that washes over me as I move about the world. Air is fundamental to my life; it is how my body sustains itself. It is also through air that I come to process information about my environment. In a commencement speech delivered in 2005, David Foster Wallace draws upon a similar, figurative parable in talking about two young fish who don’t perceive the presence of water. The moral of the fish story is that sometimes “the most obvious and important realities are the ones that are hardest to see and talk about” (cf. Wallace, 2005). It is in this way I feel tasked with describing my relationship to both games and video games (if there is a distinction to be made). It is not simply that much of my life is spent playing and studying games, nor that games mediate my understanding of abstract information, networked systems, and situated contexts. Games encourage me to move, to communicate, to extend myself into spaces that enrich my body, my professional career, and my personal relationships. Games challenge what I know and how I process local phenomena; games prepare me to talk about situated relationships between different mechanics, symbols, and schemes.

Tasking myself with making a game has provoked a myriad of philosophical questions that I didn’t anticipate at the onset; but these are, perhaps, representative of shortcomings inherent to critical discourse analysis and textual analysis when applied to better understand tools and their makings (cf. Gee 2011; Kennedy, 2002).[2] This essay, then, evidences my most recent existential crisis on what games are and how I can make them for educational purposes. In my study of how people talk about games, I struggled to identify an epistemological framework that situated how people produce knowledge and subjectivity through a game. I also questioned my paradigmatic relationship with technology and education, both as symbols of a process by which to understand phenomena and reveal subjective truth. These questions came about after wading into academic scholarship that seeks to understand games as either texts or tools, and grappling with the ambiguity scholars reason around in their descriptions of both what games are and what games do.

Contrary to scholarship that describes games as either texts or tools, I can only see More in Work than Words as both; it cannot be understood as one or the other, and any analysis that tries to extricate one dimension from the other will fail to understand how my design strategically informs the production of possible narratives. Struggling to identify a methodology by which to understand More in Work than Words as both text and tool, I’ve resorted to inventing one through the course of writing this essay. In the sense that my research is predicated and situated in the process of game design, my approach to analyzing the educational value of my game is similar to “design-based research” that seeks to understand potential relationships between pedagogy, learning environments, and games (cf. Shelby & Scoresby, 2011). However, I do not subdivide games into categories in order to understand how players learn through gameplay.

An assumption that I adopt in this essay, and that warrants further study, is that all games inherently provoke the production of a particular, networked configuration of both situated knowledges and cognitive awareness. Accounting for varied abilities and literacies that informs how a player perceives their environment, then, helps to stratify and differentiate permutations of gameplay. The process of iterative game design is done to figuratively unify a diverse population of people around a commonly shared experience when not all players work with the same cultural archive of sign and meaning (e.g., speaks English, knowledge of genres, etc.), and neither are players equipped with bodies that extend equally into the world (e.g., limited mobility, color-blindness, deafness, etc.). Assuming that such a transformative process is possible, the study of games needs to grapple with how game designers ask players to negotiate and collapse different ontological and epistemological understandings of cultural sign and physical ability. Fundamentally, games cannot discriminate who a “proper” subject is and what a “proper” subject knows, but game designers do by designing feedback loops that are supposed to generate particular, networked understandings of what to do and listen for, how to know, and who to be. In this essay I define play is the process of producing knowledge about the game, and gameplay as the product of playing. Gameplay is the textual object; it represents epistemic knowledge of a system in terms of place, language, and identity (among other possible terms). Gameplay evidences a relationship between a player and the complexity (number of possible permutations) of a system.

In my methodology I identify and analyze the relationships between three types of knowledge that game designers and players situate in the production of gameplay. The networking of these knowledges describes a literacy that a player requires to produce gameplay. If I, as a game designer, have learning goals for a player, then I must design a game that orchestrates the relationships between these three knowledges into a limited scope of possible networked configurations. To situate the player in the gameplay production process, I define player agency as the ability to do and listen, and to network and apply knowledge in the production of gameplay. A player has agency when they are able to perceive phenomenon, network/relate information contextually, and apply knowledge so as to produce gameplay. Another way of conceptualizing this methodology is to center and analyze how and why game designers scaffold player agency, and reflect on the outcomes of that architectural endeavor.

Techné, Epistêmê, and Phronêsis

Everything is phenomena; games are an object that both produce and process phenomena. As objects, games are fluid; games can be read or used differently depending on someone’s epistemological and ontological orientation. I can play with a chess board or a videogame cartridge without regard for the way they were designed to be played with; there is nothing inherent about a game object that informs how people interface with them. As a tool/text, a game mediates both the production of information through a strategic organization and representation of information, and processes pieces of information by networking them together. Categorically, this information can be organized as either techné, epistêmê, or phronêsis—technical, abstract, and literary knowledges.

Techné is a kind of knowledge defined by doing; it is the process of producing something and the knowledge of the thing produced (cf. Sterne, 2006). Techné is evidenced by technique, and we often talk about technique in the deployment of strategy. In the production of gameplay, techné can be a configuration of button-pressing or hand-waving; it can be the collection and use of cards or game pieces. Sometimes a game explicitly teaches a player how to move about or navigate the gamespace (or game ecosystem, if you prefer) through a tutorial or paratextual strategy guide. Techné is not necessarily the rules of a game, but is related to the knowledge of what the rules are and how to negotiate them. In Brenda Romero’s game Train, for example, players are given directions on how to play with the game pieces and what some of the possible “win conditions” are for gameplay; however, as players come to learn and understand the signification and meaning behind the strategies used to “finish” the game, players often invent novel strategies for affecting gameplay in ways that they desire, discovering their own interpretations of what a win condition is for their gameplay experience (cf. Brathwaite, 2010). One of the reason why I think many scholars want to disambiguate computer games from analog games is because not all players are afforded the same kinds of freedom or liberty to factor play in the production of techné. When a computer game player doesn’t have the resources or knowledge required to play with the parameters of acceptable gameplay, a different onus shapes game design decisions. What does it mean when the only way for a player to progress through a game is to kill signified others? The limitations of the computer game relate a different dimension of significance to a player’s ability to act according to an ethical and moral creed (cf. Sicart, 2011; Consalvo, 2008; Consalvo, 2005). But before a player can know what it means to act ethically, they must have an abstracted knowledge of what ethics are. Situating the significance or meaning of technique in relation to ethics requires that a player produce and network epistêmê in relation to other epistêmê or techné.

Epistêmê, by the very nature of being abstract, can be knowledge of a bounded idea or concept that relates to phenomenon or the phenomenological—things and the ways we feel about them. A player’s avatar or game player token, theoretical relationships between material and immaterial ideas (e.g., what it means to win, what is a “good” move), visual aesthetics and their meaning—all of these concepts can be epistêmê. Players negotiate the production of epistêmê and its relevance to their goals through play—a process of identification, organization, and representation.

Another approach to understanding epistêmê can be derived from a brief analysis of common practices in humanities-oriented classrooms, where some educators rely on a variety of media to help their students interface with different epistemologies and knowledges. In the teaching of history and sociology, for example, teachers may rely on access to primary and secondary sources of information to help students contextualize concepts that relate to people/bodies, translation/language, and geography/space. It is through reflective assignments designed to relate students to a variety of texts—oral histories, biographies, institutional documents, expert interpretations, video documentaries, artifact displays, performance art, fictional narratives, photography—that they may experience “playful,” “interactive,” “immersive,” and “affecting” relationships with their subject of study. Educators predicate cultural literacy with regard to epistêmê in the practice of comparing knowledges, deconstructing and reconstructing ways of knowing, and relating the similarities and dissimilarities between different logics that function within the same system (cf. Ratcliffe, 1999). In a classroom environment, a teacher provides feedback to a student by commenting on student work, but students are also able to negotiate what they know with a variety of authoritative sources. How students come to “know” epistêmê—concepts like microaggressive discrimination or fascism, for example—varies, but it is the role of a facilitator to negotiate interpretations of the evidence. In the absence of a facilitator, that negotiation is abstracted into a process by which abstracted ideas are strategically networked together; when discussed as a tool, this process is known as an epistemology. Whereas film, literature, and other media invite audiences to explore different knowledges and ideologies, it should be said that games also invite players to embody different epistemological positions from a general standpoint, an assumed player epistemology.[3]

A player epistemology assumes that knowledge is constituted by goals, rules, feedback, and active participation; and, it assumes that a working or workable system has an inherent solution in the event of an identified problem. If information processed by a game does not interface with this epistemological standpoint, then a reasonable conclusion is that something is inherently wrong with the game as a game—it may be buggy or a simulation. Variations on a general player epistemology lie situated in different game genres (e.g., first-person shooter, puzzle, role-playing game, etc); in this way, the gameplay for players will appear patterned, but the symbolic meaning will be influenced differently by (1) what a player already knows; (2) the range of possible outcomes and actions mediated by the game through play; and, (3) how external technologies (e.g., paratexts, affinity groups, guides) participate in the production of gameplay.

Player epistemology is a useful phrase in two ways; first, it helps to situate an aesthetic by which games are evaluated by players, and thus it is a framework from which game designers can anticipate the reception of possible gameplay outcomes. Second, the term situates players in relationship to each other, such that the negotiation of situated knowledges is consistent within a fixed ontological framework defined by the game/game designer. As a technique for both identifying problems and isolating solutions, player epistemology establishes a framework for processing information organized and represented within a closed and fixed system. Every system is gated by a game master; a game master can be a physical person or a representative figure defined by the rules, scripts, and conditions executed by the game. It is the game master who determines whether or not information contained within the system is valid or applicable, whether something is true. [4] 

The goals of mediation differ between the game master and the filmmaker; remember, gameplay is not like film watching. If a game master is to control the conclusions that players draw from gameplay, then they must design a system that utilizes player epistemology as a technique for uncovering and relating to epistêmê.

I don’t mean to suggest that game designers need to “re-invent the wheel” every time they embark on a game project. We already know that game designers take on certain liberties in the design process so that they don’t have to. Designers often contextualize their games within a genre or aesthetic that assumes a literacy of some kind—the ability to read English, knowing how to work a Wii Motion Controller, understanding what the implicit gameplay goals of a first-person shooter videogame are, for example. We layer, or network, these assumptions into a context from which, and to which, a player can process the possible relationships between techné and epistêmê. Another way to think about the practice of literacy is to situate that knowledge as phronêsis.

Briefly, I borrow from Jand Noel’s survey of phronêsis to refer to a knowledge situated in the constitution of learned ethical character as is called upon in a teacher’s self-examination of her own beliefs, desires, and actions (1999, p. 287). In the instance of a game, where a person is learning to master aspects of a system, the player acquires a kind of wisdom by playing the game. This wisdom informs a player of how they should act in certain situations. In order for the game to teach this wisdom to a player, the game designer must negotiate at least some aspects of this knowledge in figuring how players become literate in the mechanics and symbolic language of the game. Phronêsis contextualizes techné and epistêmê in particular locals; it informs a player’s performance in the game. Phronêsis is a kind of metadata that networks meaning between technique and abstract knowledge, and it is in a deconstruction of phronêsis that a context situates what to do with why a player does something. Another way of understanding phronêsis is  by describing how a player knows what to do in a particular context; we often ask questions about this kind of information by questioning a person’s literacy (without regard to the fact that literacy itself is not an object).   

Literacy is commonly talked about in the knowing of how to read and write; how to interpret the complex relationships between signs and abstract knowledge. Literacy is a dimension of communication writ large, and it is a means by which people are transcend and manipulate space-time configurations. Analyzing the literacy required to play through and interpret a game is necessarily an analysis of space-time relations and player agency. I borrow from Leander and Lovvorn’s articulation of literacy as a form of networked information that produces a relationship between space and time, wherein the “mind and the text transcend the constraints of the local situation” (2006, p. 291). Player agency is situated in the processing of information about a phenomena into a literacy network, a network of actor relations that constitutes a unique context despite each actor having independent space-time qualities (Leander and Lovvorn, 2006, p. 293). If we relate literacy to language, then we might say that a game teaches a player to read and speak linked-languages that are both symbolically abstract and technically embodied. It is knowledge of the linking—the networked relations—that we can come to understand phronêsis, what it means to be wise and act wisely in the context of game use and gameplay. Here, I want to extend Leander and Lovvorn’s argument that understanding the relationship individuals develop between literacy and space-time is both theoretically and practically relevant to the development of activities and technologies that structure and support learning (cf. 2006). If I want to manipulate phronêsis, I need to anticipate how a player’s epistemology will organize and interpret information that is presented as a game. In my anticipation, I need to predict how players will situate knowledge in a networked context given their literacy. If I anticipate presenting players with a learning goals for which the do not have the literacy to identify, I must extend to my player a new technique for relating abstract knowledge. Much in the same way that teachers do not presume that students have the language for processing their relationship to abstract concepts coherently, the game may be burdened with the added role of teaching players how to relate to ideas and experiences that are outside of what they know. Knowing how to situate a situatedness, to relate new experiences to oneself, is not simply a doing. Epistemologically, this process requires a capacity to listen.

Gameplay is already predicated on both a doing and a listening in order to proceed; the game system mediates the communication and reception of phenomena between player and game designer, and it is in processing—reconciling what is known, done, and perceived with what is true—that human experience is situated as knowledge. There is nothing to deconstruct, to interpret, to receive until after a player, a reader, begins the process of decompiling the code—the text that is compiled into rules and aesthetics. A player cannot engage with a game by independently listening to the game object (although, there is something to be said for listening to another person’s gameplay); in order to exist in the game universe, a player must engage actively in this way—a player must do something.[5] 

The situatedness of gameplay is both an acknowledgement and reflection of different ways of knowing and different kinds of knowledge. A game does not embody objectivity or facilitate in the learning of “objective” knowledge; a game symbolizes a range of equally valid subjectivities and situated knowledges. Donna Haraway describes situating knowledges as a technique to simultaneously account for radical, historical contingencies for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects; a critical practice for recognizing “semiotic technologies” in the manufacture of meaning; and, a “no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world, one that can be partially shared and that is friendly to earthwide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness” (1988, p. 579). Certainly games are not “feminist objects,” but Haraway’s conceptualization of negotiating situated knowledges is a useful guide to understanding why players necessarily negotiate different gameplay experiences. In a game, play is the process by which players relate and negotiate what they know with what the game supposes that they know, and it is through a process of reconciling what could be true from what is true that players produce gameplay. This sum process is not simply a doing; a player is also required to listen if they are to accomplish goals—to progress—through the game. Krista Ratcliffe’s articulation of rhetorical listening is useful, here; for Ratcliffe, rhetorical listening is

“a performance that occurs when listeners invoke both their capacity and their willingness (1) to promote an understanding of self and other that informs our culture’s politics and ethics, (2) to proceed from within a responsibility logic, not from within a defensive guilt/blame one, (3) to locate identification in discursive spaces of both commonalities and differences and (4) to accentuate commonalities and differences not only in claims but in cultural logics within which those claims function” (1999, p. 204; original emphasis maintained).

Players are not necessarily required to engage with a game in these ways, but there are many games that ask players to negotiate their gameplay with regard to these criteria. Many games ask that players create and intellectually wrestle with a character or assume the identity of an abstracted person that is apart from themselves. To understand, players must position themselves underneath the sum of both the game and their gameplay, and consciously acknowledge all particular and different standpoints from which truth or knowing how to proceed next might be derived.

Assuming that a game provides players with a means to progress, players generally assume a responsibility to reason through and with a game (and the various peripheries that inform gameplay). An assessment of aesthetic commonalities and differences is usually required for players to know how to proceed through a gamespace; players usually need to evaluate and act upon various contingencies that determine permutations of gameplay. Textual analysis and other forms of critique require a similar procedure by which one’s engagement with a text is situated in other contexts, and so gameplay is not necessarily more useful than other media as an educational tool. Rather, it should be instructional for educators to recognize what is active about  gameplay and what is passive about film watching. Further, just because games require that players rhetorically listen in order to progress, doesn’t mean that players know how to think critically about what games ask them to do. In order to critique gameplay, a player requires both a critical literacy with regard to how gameplay is produced, and something to compare that knowledge to—the player needs comparative knowledge that can be laid down side-by-side. Playing may be the process of laying discrete information side-by-side and deciphering meaning from a comparative analysis, and in this way it is never a totally complete or discrete activity.

More in work than in words

My earliest memory of designing a procedure is of a day when I was in second grade. My teacher brought bread, peanut butter, and jam to class, and proceeded to instruct us through an activity wherein we thought about the mechanics of building a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We wrote down our instructions, and she performed them in front of the classroom, demonstrating the effectiveness of those directions by following them verbatim. Making a game with strict notions of how I wanted players to experience the system felt a bit like this activity. The difference being, significantly, that I wanted to move people to empathizing and understanding the lives of migrant workers. The task of relating bread to jelly to peanut butter sounds like an exercise in sterility; however, the comparison is apt and demonstrates the risk I ran in objectifying the lives of people and communities I sought to represent.

The game I am working on is titled More in Work than Words, and it attempts to proceduralize the narratives of migrant farm workers who traveled from Oaxaca, Mexico to El Paso, Texas in the early 1950s. The project was inspired by my previous affiliation with the Latino Roots Project instituted at the University of Oregon. For the Latino Roots Project, I explored and telling of immigrant narratives that have been historically ignored by academic and popular study, I produced an oral history documentary about a friend whose family has a historical affiliation with the Bracero Program. The documentary focused on the role of education in her life, and it documented her experience as a first-generation, Latina college student, with a specific interest on how she found herself at the University of Oregon and what her first year was like at the institution.

The documentary was part of a larger pedagogical project, as well. Under the supervision of Gabriela Martínez and Lynn Stephen, I was immersed in a 20-week course that prefaced the documentary production work with an intensive anthropological and sociological study of Oregon history, with particular emphasis paid to Latino and Latin American immigration, settlement, social movements, and civic and political integration during the 20th century. As undergraduates, those of us in the class analyzed primary and secondary source materials; engaged in interpersonal class discussions about the intersections of race, gender, and identity; and, worked collaboratively in the production of our respective documentaries. To say that the experience was transformative does not do it justice. Martínez and Stephen designed the classroom environment as a space for mediating both the communication and relation of different kinds of knowledge, and the simultaneous validation and development of contentious race, ethnic, gender, and economic class identities. People from a variety of different backgrounds—with very varied levels of experience with regard to chicano studies, critical race theory, and sociology more broadly—had to come together on a regular basis and talk to one another about what they were learning, what their relationship was to their subject of study, and how their experiences related to the experiences of other people in the class. This was, as Gee would describe it, an affinity group; people who gathered to discuss the “ways of thinking, acting, interacting, valuing, and believing as well as the typical sorts of social practices associated with a given semiotic domain” (2003, p. 27). The Latino Roots class ran approximately from January 2012 through May 2012; the documentaries were screened publicly and published online in June 2012. In the last 2 years I have reflected on the experience often and with fondness, and it was as I came closer and closer to committing to a self-motivated game design project that continuing the ethos of the Latino Roots Project crystalized as a reasonable (and exciting) site from which to situate my work.[6]

Knowing what I know about games and their potential inspire similarly immersive and transformative learning communities, I want More in Work than Words to both inspire a relationship to, and educate players on, Latino and Latin American history. Anglo-/Caucasian/White Americans, in particular, have an intimate—yet often invisible—historical and contemporary relationship to these histories that should inform their every-day socio-political affiliations and priorities. This want desire is not particularly radical; and, in fact, it may work to further illuminate the way “educational games” already ask students to situate nationalist, racist, sexist, and heteronormative ideologies (cf. Bigelow, 1997). 

The first draft of More in Work than Words is available online (Bull, 2014). I rendered it using a web tool, Popplet.com, that I adapted for the needs of the project. The game rules and directions are embedded as a link on the game board, and accessible separately as an online PDF document. In conjunction with the game board and rules, players require dice and some means of tracking player information (e.g., pen and paper, digital spreadsheet document, etc.). In my design I chose to hybridize elements of both pen-and-paper style board games and role-playing dice games. In rendering a game board this way, the “content” of the text is available for varied kinds of reading and exploration. Popplet.com also allows for the play space to adapt to changes in real-time for all users, and I’m able to add collaborators to the project if I so desire. Eventually the game board needs to be adapted into different languages; presently it is only available in English because that is my native language.

In its current form, More in Work than Words proceduralizes a journey wherein players travel 1400 in-game miles. Players are tasked with securing a labor contract for themselves, and provided many possible ways in which to accomplish this task. Each turn, players can choose to travel in-game miles or work for in-game money; then, players roll dice to determine what happens to their characters each turn after traveling a little further north. It is possible for players to get sick, find money, meet strangers, and seduce consenting sex workers. Events are technically repeatable, but gameplay is fairly unique from player to player; and, I play to develop the game board to further elaborate on different possible opportunities. Players can also experience character death. The game also asks players to make decisions about how to cross the Mexico/United States border, and whether or not they will do so with proper documentation.

Since completing a version of the game, I’ve been able to reflect upon the goals I initially set to accomplish with the project. In some sense, I feel as though I have made progress in building a system that represents how migrant workers of the time period were systematically subjugated in terms of economic class and an assumed ethnic/racial background. I shape those systems with explicit outcomes that players navigate while they play through, sometimes asking players to make the best of choices that systematically disadvantage them in every way. Sometimes players will experience character death as a consequence of environmental contingencies that no one ever has control over, but that are necessarily part of any journey—experiencing tainted or spoiled food, for example, is fairly common regardless of where in the world a person is traveling. The act of rolling dice and interpreting decision trees, in particular, has proven to be a useful technique in situating players in a limbic state of potential space-time. Players are imbued with a sense of agency and asked to make decisions about how they complete their journey, while I, as game designer, am still afforded some control over how players network techné and epistêmê into a contextual configuration through the player’s decision making process. 

As easy as it may be for me to make observations on the qualities of a “good game,” I’m not sure that More in Work than Words educates or relates to players in ways that I wholly intend. In particular, I don’t think More in Work than Words challenges players to wrestle with moral or ethical scenarios that substantially affect their gameplay. Neither is it clear to me that players are asked to question what they know about the experience of migration. I also make assumptions about a player’s phronêsis that distance players from the reality that migrants faced along their journey; in particular, how players understand English and information economies. While I feel as though my study of Latino immigration has substantively affected my understanding of how people experienced migration, I’m fairly certain that More in Work than Words fails to relate players to the lived experiences of people and families whose identities were intimately shaped by the establishment and management of the Bracero Program.

Where as my teachers asked me to reflect on evidence that supported an epistemological standpoint from which to evaluate and understand lived experience, players of More in Work than Words are simply asked to role dice and keep track of barely relevant situational information. While players may compose a history of a particular kind, they are not guided in how to relate their experience to broader (and real) systems that affected (and continue to affect) real people. The memory of their experience is not situated in relating to epistêmê; rather, players situate the memory of their journey in relation to processing the game board, a conceptual abstraction disembodied from the experiences that inspired it. There is no way for players to explore how events and decision trees are inspired by historical texts, both primary and secondary sources. In particular, I need to address how players utilize the information economy implicitly available to them if (read: when, as it’s difficult for players I have observed to resist “reading ahead) they read in advance of registered gameplay.

It will take tens, if not hundreds, of hours to develop More in Work than Words into a game that matches the richness inherent to many of the texts I used to inform my understanding of what the in-game universe should look and feel like. I would like to find a way to better incorporate paratexts into the production of gameplay, so that players are processing different kinds of information, not just doing but rhetorically listening and feeding their analysis of different texts back into the gamespace. In adding to the game space, I hope to situate space-time differently. Asking players to perform the same iterative tasks over and over again, at this stage of development, is not presenting players with different kinds of information to process contextually and feedback into gameplay. Much in the same way that a person consumes a written text differently than a visual text, perhaps the game will need to ask a player to work through different scenarios and mini-games in order to develop a variety of situated knowledges within the same closed system.

To that end I also need to more clearly develop a concept for the literacy with which players use to move through the game and discover its contents. A more sophisticated model will require some extension or redevelopment of dice rolling as the primary game mechanic, such that players are situated in more tightly policed information economy. Without a doubt, many immigrants were dependent upon the knowledge and kindness of strangers and/or guides in order to successfully journey across the Mexico/United States border. At present, players are not asked to grapple with that systemic reality. Able to process the entirety of the game board, players are afforded a third-eye to the context of their experience; they are able to see as God might see, which is likely a barrier in trying to teach students how to recognize the impact of that  situational information.


In my exploration of the relationship between games, gameplay, and learning, I’ve embarked on a project that explores what it would mean to translate oral history documentaries to gameplay. It has been through a practice of making a game that I’ve played with what it means to render epistêmê, techné, and phronêsis. The process has also forced me to reflect on the relationship between different epistemological domains and the transmission of knowledge about the human experience. What is, necessarily, true about the experience related through oral histories? How do we ask students to analyze and relate to situated knowledges? In what ways does the telling of narrative elide the procedures that produce varied human experiences? A documentary film will not mediate these questions for an audience, so in what way must a game negotiate the interactions of many situated knowledges simultaneously?

Fundamentally, all tools—as opposed to “artifacts,” “things,” or “objects”—are used to mediate human experience in the processing of phenomena; tools are not flat, they are necessarily dynamic and transformable. Players use a game as a tool to process information about a phenomena; and, players assume both that the phenomena is inherently systematic, and that they can organize information about their experience through play. Games teach by requiring a player to extend themselves into the game environment, embody knowledge in order to perform gameplay, and reflect upon information revealed in the exploration of how a system works or executes. In this way, a game is a technology, a tool through which the human body can engage in a symbiotic relationship with its environment (cf. Brey, 2000). Games are also textual, in that they contextualize information in a network of relations that can and should be interrogated for a deeper understanding of human subjectivity, and moral and ethical behavior.

In designing a tool, game designers try to anticipate a how the game mediates interactions between the game system and a player. In anticipation of a text, game designers must anticipate how players situate gameplay as both a localized product of networked ideas, and a transcendent product inherently related to broader cultural and historical contexts. I propose that this is what game designers do, whether they write academically about it or not. Talking about games as both tools and texts provides more fidelity in understanding the relationship between rhetorical and phenomenological constitutions of subjectivity. While I don’t suppose that this essay will explain ed how it is we are in the world… I don’t think I can describe what I know about a game world without accounting for the limitations of my toolkit, the tools that mediate the production of my knowledge.

In this paper, I gestured towards the larger discussion about why games don’t consistently work as effective tools in the classroom, and argue that it is in adapting the language we use to describe what games are that educators, designers, and critics may think differently games and gameplay. Implicitly, I’ve argued that teaching is not simply a genre of design; it is also a mediation between in/compatible interfaces. Perhaps if we are to think of how games teach differently, we need to address the language that use to relate players to gameplay. If we want to reject terms like readplay, watchplay, to talk about the ways in which other media texts are tools for learning, then we need a term for games that acknowledges the subjective practice of listening.[7]


[1] Game is situated in scare-quotes here to simply flag you, dear reader, to the ongoing debate over what a game is. Self-identified “game formalists” and/or ludologists in and around academia have long contested the constitution of a game where educators and others do not. So, while educators might self-identify the activities they perform in a classroom as a game or simulation, the term is seldom disambiguated consistently in academic literature that discusses games in a pedagogical context.

[2] I lean on Gee’s survey of critical discourse analysis as a starting point by which to understand how communities, practices, and actor-actant network theories constitute the knowledge and subjectivity of agents involved in an acting of some kind (2011, p. 40). Kennedy’s reflexive analysis on the application of textual analysis in the study of Lara Croft subjectivities further underscores its limited utility as a method for studying games as tools (cf. 2002).

[3] I am hesitant to distinguish between different epistemological standpoints predicated on the doing of some technique because this technique for situating technique has the capacity to quickly spiral out to incorporate a great many standpoints that are inconsequential the design of technologies and/or interpretations of human experience. Is there, for example, a special epistemological standpoint from which to better understand cell phone use? Is there a “white epistemology” from which to better understand everyday racism in American mass media? Before the #GamerGate phenomenon I would have been quick to lampoon any attempt at territorializing the English lexicon. In an effort to understand the common epistemology under which people reason through and associate with #GamerGate, I found the current vocabulary—with which to describe “gamers” and gameplay behaviors outside of the normal working parameters of the game—insufficiently distinct or illuminating.

[4] Gendering the term game master is not necessarily a dynamic of player epistemology; however, it is critically important to call attention to both the social intersection of game design and gender, and the impact of gendering gate keepers on the ways players negotiate truth and reason in relation to the gender identity and politics of themselves and others. A contemporary example of this being the #GamerGate phenomenon. The gendering of “good” gate keepers as men also impacts both how gender informs a person’s economic class, and what capacity not-men have to participate (and excel) in the commercial game industry.

[5] It is from this reasoning that many scholars argue the importance of representational identity in game spaces; if certain identities are only ever relegated to a non-player role, the player is never able to relate to those subjectivities as constitutively equal to their own (cf. Jenson and de Castell, 2010; Dill and Thill, 2007).

[6] Making More in Work than Words was also inspired by a lecture I watched online by Brenda Romero, who talked about a series of non-digital “gallery games” designed to explore difficult topics (Brathwaite, 2010).

[7] When used to simply present epistêmê a game does not transform it into a technique, an embodied knowledge (cf. Sterne, 2006, for more on techné and epistêmê). It is not through a delivery mechanism by which knowledge is remade; if people are to use games as a means to transform epistêmê, they will need to strategically organize and represent information such that a player is able to summate epistêmê from active, patterned engagement. Asking a student to perform math problems on a computer screen, for example, hardly differs from asking them to work with pen and paper; varying the aesthetic representation of knowledge does not change its character. This distinction is, perhaps, an important one to make as scholars experiment with different approaches to STEM pedagogy (cf. Giannakos, 2013; Ke, 2008).


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