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Defamiliarizing the FYW Classroom: Teaching Writing Through Video Games

By Brianna Phillips

CoverDr. Joshua King has been playing and writing with video games since his doctoral days at the University of Georgia. In the First Year Writing department, Dr. King is known for his game-based writing courses that rely on video games and game design to “defamiliarize” students’ understandings of rhetorical choices and the “experiences” that texts offer. His initial interest in pairing writing/rhetoric with gaming began in a graduate course taught Dr. Iyengar in 2012. In that course, he designed a video game based on Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (1590), a project that radically changed how he experienced Spenser’s text. His Faerie Queen game inspired him to continue “thinking about the cross-over between games and literature” and “the process of creating something that someone else gets to play” throughout his PhD program. Since that initial encounter with writing and gaming, he has taught multiple iterations of his game-based writing course, both at the 3000- and 1000-level, at various institutions, including at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.

When “pitching” the course to students, Dr. King emphasizes the experiential nature of reading/writing a text and playing games. For him, game design is about choice and creating experiences for the player in the same way that texts implement specific rhetorical choices to shape a certain experience for the reader. When “you’re reading, you’re having the experience based on the words someone else wrote,” an experience “designed” by the writer. “Games do the same thing” because “when you’re playing a game, you’re having fun or you’re being frustrated or you’re competing with people because of rules that someone else made.” While “a read experience is kind of quiet. It’s so internalized, and reading is so familiar that we really don’t think about it,” “playing a game is a loud experience” that demonstrates how choice “create[s] experiences” that “move us.”

Even as he strives to revitalize rhetoric for students through video games, he notes that in many respects, his game-based writing classroom is still “a traditional writing and rhetoric class,” though you will see students playing games such as The Stanley Parable and What Remains of Edith Finch. Students learn about the writing process, rhetorical devices, and academic research as they discuss texts such as Richard Lamb’s Economies of Attention and Shira Chess’s Ready Player Two. Dr. King designs the course so that the “[video] games are happening alongside more traditional academic texts,” and students begin to see how both texts and video games construct meaning and “work as rhetoric.” He uses The Stanley Parable to “talk about how choice works” in game design and writing. When students play What Remains of Edith Finch, a “more narrative” and “story-based game,” they discuss how the game “create[s] meaning” and “work[s]…as storytelling.” Throughout the course, Dr. King emphasizes to students that “when they’re writing something, they’re still creating an experience” as they “think about an audience,” “structure something,” and “make rhetorical devices in…writing.” As students design their own games for the final project, they create these “experiences” through a platform that makes rhetorical choices “really noticeable,” a process that is often too “subtle” for students when their exposure to rhetoric is limited to traditional texts.

Intro to 3600Dr. King “sets apart” his most recent version of the course, a 3000-level class taught in Fall 2022, as the most “impressive” one because of a small change to the final project. What “sets this [class] apart from all other ones” is his decision to give students the whole semester to design their games instead of only 4-6 weeks. With only a month to work on their projects, students felt that their projects “were over before they really got to dig in.” In Fall 2022, Dr. King also tried out “Studio Mondays,” which were designated workdays that alternated between guided workshops, “guided play tests” between students, and individual, self-guided work time. He was prepared to “stop doing studio Mondays if it stops being productive,” but “it never did.” Every Monday, students were “doing amazing, impressive things. They had real questions, they had work lists, they divided things and used Monday…to assign themselves work for the rest of the week.” Seeing students actively guide themselves through their projects was one of the most rewarding aspects of the course for Dr. King.

The most constructive move that writing instructors can make, Dr. King suggests, is “defamiliarizing” the familiar for students. He “defamiliarizes rhetoric” through game-playing, urging students to question what it means to play a game and read a text or to design a game and write a text. There is value, he contends, in teaching writing “unconventionally” and “approaching it from [a] different angle” because an unfamiliar approach “takes this thing that we think is really normal and boring, like writing and reading and…dramatizes the fact that it’s not normal or boring at all. That it’s really sophisticated and complex.” Instructors should “[find] new ways of talking about [writing and rhetoric]” because it “keeps us limber and keeps us more aware of how texts we’re surrounded by work.” Students “think about rhetoric a little differently, maybe even a little bit more broadly after taking a class with a weird focus.” Defamiliarizing the First Year Writing classroom allows students to realize that rhetoric is built into everything we experience. In that way, defamiliarizing rhetoric simultaneously foregrounds how familiar rhetoric is by emphasizing how much our daily lives are “surrounded” by it. As students realize how “language moves us,” the fact that language moves the world and that we “move” language daily becomes tangibly, powerfully ordinary. For Dr. King, the First Year Writing classroom is a space in which the normal becomes as defamiliarized as it is familiarized. Only then can we “keep limber” our experiences of language.


Brianna Phillips is an English Ph.D. student and FYW Instructor in the English department at UGA.

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