Engaging Diverse Communities and Student Populations with Video Games: a Community College Perspective

Throughout the past three years, I have been involved in several projects at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) in Cleveland, Ohio, the largest community college in the state, that aim to engage and inform diverse students and communities through video games. Contrary to the leftover stigma attached to gaming from the 1990s—including the compulsory demonization of any new medium as a scapegoat for society’s ills (as earlier with film, television, comics, music, and even with the novel if one traces such resistance back far enough)—video games are sites of ideological encoding, cultural conflict, historical representations, and critical play in addition to their entertainment value. My efforts have been aimed at using video games as 1) a bridge between our college campus and larger off-campus communities, 2) as a mechanism to collapse social and ideological distance among students, fostering ongoing discourse among them, and 3) as content in sophomore-level English courses that analyze the rhetorics of digital games.

In late 2015, a few of my students decided to form a Gaming Club at Tri-C’s Westshore Campus, and I served as their faculty advisor. Within a year, the student-led Gaming Club became the largest and one of the most active clubs on campus. Holding biweekly meetings where students played Nintendo Wii and Switch games, hosting campus events around high-stress times like midterms and finals weeks, and organizing public events like our student-run Family Game Night, the Gaming Club serves as an effective conduit among students, and between the College and the Greater Cleveland Area. Among students, I observed games of competition (Mario Kart and Wii Sports), of role-playing (student-created RP games, Talisman, and others), and of colonial expansion (like Risk and The Oregon Trail) operate as channels for critical conversations about identity, history, contemporary politics, ethics, philosophy, and other complex issues. I witnessed conversations on race, gender, drug policy, eugenics, and colonialism happening between students on the political Right and political Left during and after gameplay: what was stunning was how these students engaged one another in civil and respectful—and at times passionate and heated—discussion without descending to ad hominem attacks, anger, or mere dismissiveness.

How a video game is designed can certainly shape the experience of critical play, to the attention of Mary Flanagan in her Critical Play as well as her book co-authored with Helen Nissenbaum, Values at Play in Digital Games. The timespace of gaming, however, also engenders a series of relations among players, and often a laughter that Mikhail Bakhtin describes as having the power to bring an object of thought or study “into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, turn it upside down, inside out, peer at it from above and take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare and expose it, examine it freely and experiment with it” (“Epic” 23). Like Bakhtin’s chronotope of the road that becomes a way of staging the “collapse of social distances” amongst characters who meet by chance on the road and in the encounter (“Forms” 243), video games also have the potential to become threshold zones of critical contact, wherein a solidarity and relation developed through laughter over a game can also provide the necessary rapport between people with disparate beliefs and values to have those crucial conversations so important to a society that espouses justice as one of its core values.

These students worked together to plan Family Game Night events that were free and open to the public at least once or twice a semester. In close collaboration with Amanda Fronek, Director of our Office of Student Engagement, we would order pizza and beverages, set up 3-4 TVs as video gaming stations, including one dedicated to smaller children (Just Dance: Disney Party and Wii Sports seemed popular), and have a few dozen tables set out with a selection of board and card games for people to play. During some of these events, we would host over 75 guests, mostly community members and their families. I recall a group of recent immigrants to the US attending and playing Scrabble to work on their English with one of their native English-speaking friends. I saw older and younger guests playing video games, teaching and learning from one another.

One of the Gaming Club’s Family Game Nights was hosted, in collaboration with Kara Copeland, Community Relations Liaison at Tri-C’s Westshore Campus, and The United Way of Greater Cleveland, at Gilles-Sweet Elementary School. Around 100 members the school community attended, allowing the student officers of the club to extend their leadership development, and practice community engagement through hosting an event off site, interacting with parents and community members, and facilitating healthy play among the children. Special thanks to the following student officers of the Gaming Club who planned, facilitated, and cultivated these events, in alphabetical order: Andrew Cannon, Jada Frye (President), Nathan Kime, Katie Laskowski, David Misurec (inaugural President), Sydney Rowan, and Eric Schweikert.

In the Spring of 2016, two Gaming Club members did an Honors independent study course with me titled “Reading Video Games and Culture.” They presented their final research essays for the course as our Spring 2016 Honors Program Lecture, a panel titled “Video Games and Culture: How Gaming Shapes Learning Outside the Classroom,” along with a third panelist, Dan Cox, who also graciously presented some of his research on gender performance in games with us via WebEx. As another bridge between campus and community, this event was free and open to the public, and panelists and I responded to a wide variety of different questions about games, many of them surrounding the popular stereotypes and myths related to violence, addiction, and sexual content in video games (even though none of the presentations dealt specifically with those topics). It was a great opportunity to engage communities whose primary source of information about digital games comes from personal experience and mass media news coverage.

Over the past year, I have worked to co-develop a new, permanent English course offering with my English colleague Emerson Lowell called “Rhetorics of Gaming: Introduction to Video Game Analysis.” Our hope is that this new course will engage students and video game enthusiasts on campus in ways that push them towards being “player-readers” in the sense of being more aware of how they make meaning during the act of digital play. Using rhetorical frameworks, critical theory, and game studies scholarship, the course shall run for the first time in Fall 2019. I also just received an internal Faculty Innovation Grant for Spring 2019 to develop a unit that uses video games as texts and sites of rhetorical inquiry in composition classes, on which a great deal of research has already been done (see Shultz-Colby and Colby, and Moberly, as primers). Our hope is that this new course, pedagogical innovations, and student-led community egagement become yet another avenue of showing how video games repackage and recirculate public histories, ideologies, values, and biases. As Lev Vygotsky writes regarding the role of play in child development, play is a cognitive process (94), related to imagination and free will (95-97), a meaning making practice in how rules become desire (95-99), and is possible of bringing about a zone of proximal development in which learning occurs (102). As an increasingly influential medium, video games require new public literacies about how they encode, influence, and teach worldviews. New literacies to “read” games as algorithmically-mediated texts are also needed, game-texts in which players are crucial in the active generation of meaning through the act of play.

As more undergraduate and graduate programs develop and integrate the digital humanities, and video games in particular, into their course offerings and community engagement activities, digital spaces for collaboration, resource sharing, and discussion will be needed to support one another in curriculum development and teaching practices. The Video Game Studies Scholarly Interest Group in the Society for Cinema & Media Studies is in the process of creating exactly such as space for teacher-scholars to share teaching resources, recommendations, and information. If you are interested in contributing to the VGSSIG website, please send along your name, department and university affiliation (if applicable) and what you'd like to share (see their CFP) to Whitney Pow (whitneypow@u.northwestern.edu) and Michael DeAnda (mdeanda@hawk.iit.edu). I will be submitting my forthcoming syllabus, lessons, and resources with the VGSSIG as well, and I look forward to seeing their digital space for game studies continue to take shape. I am fortunate to teach at a college that supports the digital humanities, has an exciting humanities program that emphasizes civic engagement through the humanities (The Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Humanities Center), and that encourages and incentivizes transdisciplinary work. Community colleges owe their very existence to the need within higher education to engage diverse populations and serve the communities that support them; and now, community colleges along with 4-year colleges and universities have the opportunity to collaborate together to engage our communities in enriching experiences, new knowledge and literacies, and critical play projects through video games. 


Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel.” The Dialogical Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. 3-40.

---.“Forms of Time and the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical Poetics.” The Dialogical Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. 84-258.

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009.

Flanagan, Mary and Helen Nissenbaum. Values at Play in Digital Games. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014.

Moberly, Kevin. “Composition, Computer Games, and the Absence of Writing.Computers and Composition 25 (2008): 284-299.

Shultz Colby, Rebekah and Richard Colby. “A Pedagogy of Play: Integrating Computer Games into the Writing Classroom.Computers and Composition 25 (2008): 300-312.

Vygotsky, L.S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978.

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