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Full recording of StoryCorp Interview

Recently, NPR re-ran the StoryCorp conversation Roger and I had several years ago.

I continue to think about and reflect on how Roger, like many of my students, transformed both my professional and personal life. Though it is raw and sometimes meandering, I wanted to offer curious readers access to the full recording of Roger and I. That’s a somewhat large MP3 file. If you find the conversation at all useful, please let me know.

Another Book Excerpt: Who Gets to Be Gay in YA?

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As instructors are pulling together syllabi for the upcoming school year, I wanted to share another excerpt from my recent book Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature: Challenging Genres. Like the excerpt shared earlier looking at depictions of female sexuality in Divergent and the Daughter of Smoke and Bone, this excerpt challenges assumptions developed over time in YA literature. I hope to post a few more excerpts in the coming months.

Who Gets to Be Gay in YA?

As the slow trickle of LGBTQI* books continues today, the titles most widely available help categorize what YA queer fiction looks like. That is, with so few books available, the ones that do get published create a patchwork picture of who is privileged as represented in queer YA fiction. With several significant exceptions (Alex Sanchez’s [2003] Rainbow Boys comes to mind), LGBTQI characters are often white and socioeconomically privileged. They may not be wealthy but Tiny in Will Grayson, Will Grayson or Holland Jaeger in Keeping You a Secret are anything but financially burdened in their stories.

And so, while I applaud the slowly diversifying representations of sexuality emerging in YA, I would argue that these books also identify who gets to be gay in YA. Likely based on increasing a wide readership, these books are about white and middle or upper-class individuals (reflecting the book buying audience).

In looking at the problematic representation of LGBTQI characters, I am intrigued by the trajectory of David Levithan’s novels. Over the many books that Levithan has authored through 2013, every single text includes LGBTQI characters, often they are at the center of the stories. For instance, Levithan’s (2003) first book, Boy Meets Boy is a warming love story about Paul, an openly gay 11th grader. Boy Meets Boy details Paul’s adventures as he falls in love and reconciles past relationships and friendships in a welcoming high school. It is playful, silly, touching, and campy. More than any other aspect of the book, the biggest pushback my college students that read this book in an adolescents’ literature class have is that the book is too unrealistic in its positive depictions of acceptance. The book plays with expectations of what takes place in high schools (the star quarterback at the school is also a popular cross-dressing homecoming queen named Infinite Darlene). The book plays out as fantasy or idealized and over-the-top visions of inclusion in school spaces.

In the decade that he has been publishing books, Levithan’s stories have become more fluid in their depictions of gender and identity. At the same time, the books’ forms tend to challenge how we read and understand novels. Though these can be seen as two separate stylistic decisions on Levithan’s part, I believe the uprooting of gender and sexuality can be tied to an uprooting of YA book structures as well. In the ten years since Boy Meets Boy was first published, a striking shift in Levithan’s novels becomes apparent. One of his next books, The Realm of Possibility (2006), also focused on gay characters. However, the form was strikingly abstract: a series of poems constructs a collage of narratives of love and growth. The book reads like a chorus of echoing voices speaking across and at each other.

In 2011, Levithan published The Lover’s Dictionary. As its name implies, the book’s short entries are organized alphabetically. They detail a cycle of a relationship: from attraction to love to dispute to separation. The narrative is one that the reader must cobble together. When did certain actions happen? Is this relationship concluded? Flourishing? Stewing in some sort of stasis? Arguments could be made in any direction. For some, this may make this an unfulfilling narrative. There lacks the kind of definitive plot and resolution that readers expect. However, on the other hand, this is also a book that offers powerful, liberating possibilities for readers. There is no set way to read the book. Want to read an entry from the letter R first? Go for it. The story is fluid in ways that makes relationships seem like extendedpossibilities and hiccups. There’s also something else significantly apparent the longer you spend time with The Lover’s Dictionary: there is no set gender in the book’s descriptions and entries.

A heteronormative view of the book could easily assume this is a detailed account of a romance between a male and a female. Readers more familiar with Levithan’s repertoire could likely infer that this is a book detailing a homosexual relationship. However, I do not see the structure of the book as one that was developed in an effort to please various readers. Instead, the book looks like an effort to blur our understanding of gender. The way conceptions of being male and female are created and defined by contemporary society can feel out of step for questioning young and not-so-young people alike. If the ways I enact my gender as a thirty-something male do not fall in-line with how society casts male gender and masculinity, my behaviors and actions are in discord with general social rules. The Lover’s Dictionary, then, is a challenge to these expectations. The universality of the feelings, experiences and emotions within the book establish that it doesn’t matter if a protagonist is male or female. Levithan’s book succeeds because of the structural conceit of veiling the text in a swath of second person pronouns: “you” and “your” replace the gendered labels “he” or “she” and “his” or “hers.” Levithan is able to create an engaging and critically lauded novel with few clues about gender.

The conceit of writing a book where gender is largely absent would seem like a singular experiment. However, Levithan followed up The Lovers Dictionary with a similar attempt: Every Day (2012). The fantastical premise of this novel is something like this: each morning the protagonist of the novel wakes up as someone new. This isn’t just anyone; the age of the person is consistent with the age of the protagonist. However, name, location, gender, and sense of identity are all that of a new person. In essence everyday the main character becomes someone new (while still preserving past memories). The protagonist refers to itself as “A.” Throughout the book, A embodies men, women, straight and queer identities. However, after a central turning point the protagonist finds an innate connection with a female character. And so begins a central question that is at work across Levithan’s books: how do we communicate and fall in love with those around us, regardless of gender and sexuality? These are not simply defining categories in which we are placed in Levithan’s texts, but fluid states we move between. Every Day follows A’s elusive search for this female character. Is this a romantic relationship? A spiritual one? As a female being sought, does this implicate that A’s true nature is a heterosexual one? That is, deep down inside, is A gendered as male? Conversely, is this an LGBTQI text that engenders A with female qualities? Levithan reaches beyond traditional expectations of gender and looks for human-to-human, individual connections.

With the above excerpt following a more sweeping account of LGBTQI representation in YA lit, the emphasis on Levithan looks at the stylistic moves and trajectory of one of the sub-genres most visible authors. Thanks for taking a look. Again, if you’re interested in class visits, guest lectures, or only-somewhat-rambling conversation (digitally or otherwise), please get in touch!

 

* I note and critique earlier in the chapter that I use the label of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Intersex, as this was the same terminology I would use in my high school classroom.

Critical Comics Presentation at San Diego Comic Con

Like last year, Peter Carlson and I will be presenting at this year’s San Diego Comic Con. If you’re going to San Diego next week, come join us on Thursday in room 26AB at 2:30 for our presentation, “Teaching Critical Comics in an Era of Standardization and the Common Core: The Pragmatics of a Transformative Pedagogy.”

This presentation expands on the introductory work we shared last year to focus on the pragmatics of critical pedagogy and comic books in classrooms today. This will be a 50-minute hands-on presentation, so we encourage teachers to bring and share ideas throughout.

 

(And yes, our presentation mashes up Shakespeare quotes and Extreme. It’s that awesome.)

Pose/Wobble/Flow in English Journal and the Next Digital Scholar

Throughout much of last year, Cindy O’Donnell-Allen and I have been working on a model of teacher development and support we call Pose/Wobble/Flow. We’ve used this model for personal reflection, within our teacher education classes, and at various conferences. A smattering of writing around this area has begun to trickle down the publication pipeline.

I’m pleased to share our article for the current issue of English Journal, “Wobbling in Public: Supporting New and Experienced Teachers.” The article is available as a free pdf from the above link, check it out!

Similarly, Cindy and I have a chapter in the recently released collection, The Next Digital Scholar: A Fresh Approach to the Common Core State Standards in Research and Writing edited by James Purdy and Randall McClure. Our chapter is called “The Saving Our Stories Project: Pushing Beyond the Culturally Neutral Digital Literacies of the Common Core State Standards.” Though not stated directly in this chapter, the writing here helped formulate the work around P/W/F shared in English Journal and a couple of future publications. Request it from your library!

Call for Chapters: Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay

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Please feel free to get in touch if you are interested/have questions. And please share and distribute widely!

Call for Chapters: Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay

Series: Approaches to Digital Game Studies, Bloomsbury

Editors: Antero Garcia, Colorado State University & Greg Niemeyer, University of California, Berkeley

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) challenge what players understand as “real.”
Though prominent examples of ARGs have persisted over the past two decades, only recently have ARGs come to the prominence as a unique and highly visible digital game genre. Adopting many of the same strategies as online video games, ARGs blur the distinction between the “real” and the “virtual.”

We seek chapter proposals for a proposed collection that explores and defines the possibilities of ARGs. With ARGs continuing to be an important and blurred space between digital and physical gameplay, this collection offers clear analysis of game design, implementation, and ramifications for game studies. Divided into three distinct sections (noted below), this collection emphasizes first hand accounts by leading ARG creators, scholarly analysis of the meaning behind ARGs from noted critics and researchers, and explication of emerging visualization and data collection methodologies. We are particularly interested in cultivating research from various disciplinary perspectives; by balancing the voices of designers, players, and researchers, this work highlights how the Alternate Reality Game genre is transforming the ways we play and interact today.

We seek chapter proposals that fit within one of the following three book sections:

Section One – Development and Execution
Chapters in this section of the book detail the design and implementation of ARGs. Authors pay attention to specific fictions, audiences, and goals within these ARGs and offer a clear step-by-step behind the scenes look at how these game designers engineer new modes of play and participation.

Section Two – Alternating Reality – how ARGs are changing games and society
These chapters focus on analysis and critique of ARGs. While some chapters may focus on specific games, other chapters in this section invoke larger trends in ARGs.

Section Three – Data Visualization and Collection
As the ARG genre is dependent on responding to the ways participants interact with one another and with a story’s content, this section of the book looks at how we interpret and construct data. In particular, the genre of digital games is reinventing new data visualization methodologies and this section should illuminate ways games display information during play and as synopsis after a game concludes.

This edited volume has received initial interest from the Digital Game Studies series editors and we are currently seeking additional chapters to share with the editors and secure a book contract. The deadline for proposals of 300-500 words is August 15, 2014. Please email your abstract and a 100 word biography to anterobot@gmail.com (please indicate to which section of the book your proposal is directed). All authors will be notified of acceptance by September 2nd and full chapter manuscripts would be due in April, 2015. Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions at the above address.

LRA Research to Practice: Gaming

Today I joined the Literacy Research Association’s Research to Practice webinar focused on gaming. Though it was fun talking to a bunch of other researchers, the highlight was definitely learning from bonafide students/YouTube star “Wild Card Garth.” Check out the webinar below (my comments deliberately focused on the role of critical theory in using games in classroom contexts):

 

The show notes can be found here.

“Now is the summer of our”… RPG content: Why you should care about D&D right now

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[tl;dr version: The next few months are going to redefine how we understand roleplaying games in popular culture. A sub-culture war of opinions and capitalism is playing out in a small sector of the board game industry and it will reverberate throughout society.]

 

Next month, the first in a series of releases will usher in the Fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The game will be published by Wizards of the Coast (publisher of the Magic: the Gathering collectible card game). Wizards, in turn, is owned by Hasbro (yes, like the publisher of Transformers and Monopoly products). For both companies, D&D is a relatively small-potatoes product. However, the game is engrained in today’s society in ways that extend far beyond the line of hardbound books that are the basic rules set for the game.

For example, when I have been telling people I have been studying roleplaying games lately, I usually have to offer a bit more context. It typically goes like this:

 Me: “Lately, my research has focused on stuff related to roleplaying games.”

Other person: blank look

Me: “Like Dungeons & Dragons… y’know, nerds rolling dice.”

Other person: look of recognition

For the general public, RPGs are tied to this specific brand: Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, Jon Peterson’s book makes the argument that the term “roleplaying game” was basically created so competitors in the ‘70s could publish products and claim they were “like D&D” without worry of litigation (even in those early days, D&D’s owners knew the value of brand recognition). For those not entrenched in the litany of robust titles and games available today, D&D is a signifier of a genre, a disposition, and a product rolled up in one. D&D is how most people understand RPGs (even vaguely) and its popularity – in recent books, TV shows like Community, and immeasurable influence on game and film industries – is huge.

However, if you haven’t been playing RPGs in the past few years you would be surprised to know that D&D – by the few, foggy metrics available – is not the top-selling or most popular RPG being played. Though there are many reasons behind the dwindling in popularity, the most central one is that D&D’s creators ended up fracturing their market base. Different editions of the game are more popular to different players. As illustration, note that when your phone or your computer’s operating system gets updated you inevitably shift over to the new platform (often when the dwindling lifecycle of your current device requires you to buy new hardware). We are naturally predisposed to upgrading to the next OS with digital tools. However, when your operating system is a set of books, these shifts aren’t required and – if you take umbrage with new system mechanics (such as many did when D&D 4th edition seemed to be paralleling game mechanics seen in World of Warcraft) – you could always just go back to an earlier, more familiar edition of the game.¹

 

The Rise of Pathfinder and OSR

At the same time that D&D’s creators fractured their market, they also opened the door to 3rd party publishing. This, by all accounts, was a good thing: it allowed other publishers to share their material and expand what is available for the game without fear of lawsuit.²  However, in doing so, one company, Paizo (once a publisher of official D&D magazines) published a cleaner, more refined version of the 3.5 edition ruleset. By setting a new path away from the 4th edition changes, this new game, Pathfinder, has become the dominating market force in RPGs. Pathfinder is a legal remix of D&D and is currently played and bought by more players than D&D products.

Similarly, with the rules for new editions of D&D getting evermore complex, older players have romanticized the simplicity of earlier incarnations of the game. The Old School Renaissance (OSR) movement also refines earlier rules from D&D and makes them more accessible.³

Throw into this mix popular RPGs related to recognized otaku culture like Star Wars and Firefly4 and you can see the way D&D has diminished for players. I should briefly add that the indie-RPG market is also booming. Kickstarter and crowd funding have done amazing work at democratizing the RPG industry in generally positive ways (my friend Calvin’s Kickstarter, for example, has a few more days to go!).

 

The Prodigal Son Returns

And so here we are in 2014:

It is the 40th anniversary of “the world’s oldest fantasy roleplaying game.”5 Starting this summer, D&D is returning with a new, fifth edition (simply called Dungeons and Dragons – probably in an effort to avoid the edition wars). Info about the new edition and an extensive open playtest of it have made this a speculative time for the RPG industry. When new products that are not D&D are announced to be released this summer (usually at the industry’s main convention, Gen Con) they do so not so much with an elephant in the room as with an elder red dragon that is devouring the elephant and lighting the room on fire.

By the time the game comes out there will be seven different editions of the game available (the pre-“advanced version, 1st, 2nd, 3, 3.5, 4, and then fifth) digitally6 . This new edition looks like it may simplify the rules for newer players and add flexibility for players to adjust complexity.

D&D has many different markets it is trying to address with this new edition and it will be interesting to see if it can reunite its fractured kingdom. As a researcher that’s been primarily interested in what happens at the gaming table (and less at the macro-level of RPG industry described in this post) I’m curious about a few things related to the release of the new edition:

  • How will the market power of Hasbro help expand the audience and reach of RPGs? (There aren’t any other companies in this industry that regularly sell in places like Target and Walmart.)
  • How will players of Pathfinder and other OGL-licenses respond to or pay attention to the new edition? (Pathfinder’s publisher, Paizo is basically taking an official stance of ignoring the new release and letting the buzz from the summer ride out while still releasing their own products like their new superdungeon.)
  • More generally, how will third part publishers affect my fifth edition experiences at the game table? (Wizards of the Coast has yet to explain what kind of 3rd part publisher support they will have for the new version of the game but have essentially said they are working on it.)
  • With added attention to the high fantasy world of D&D, will the stories and tropes being taken up by players shift? (In addition to my footnoted Sword and Sorcery game, I currently play in a Deadlands campaign (think Lovecraft meets the wild west… and coming to a TV near you!)
  • How will D&D support players’ use of technology? (Players today use tablets, dice-rolling apps, video conferencing, and a bevy of other tools to make playing analog RPGs easier than ever before. D&D’s character sheets used to be hidden behind a user login screen for earlier editions of the game, further isolating one market.)

 

For the niche market and culture of RPGs (which is actually a growing market along with board games), D&D’s new edition is not a big deal. It is the big deal of the summer.


Notes

  1. By the way, there is no easier way to incite nerd rage in a game store than by asking players to discuss if D&D 3.5 or D&D 4th edition is better. The times I’ve seen this happen I have been embarrassed by all parties.
  2. There is a longer post to write at some point about copyright, the Open Gaming License, and parallels with open source software.
  3. Point in fact, I have been running a D&D game this summer for friends and have been using a system called Swords and Sorcery it is an accessible, free text built on the backs of D&D’s original creators.
  4. Firefly is also caught up in confusing licensing deals, meaning there are two different RPG systems: one related to the film license for Serenity and one for the television show.
  5. That quote is an interesting one. Pathfinder can’t legally say D&D, so it hints at the product it is based upon. It signals to consumers that it is a D&D product to draw business to itself. And it works.
  6. Check out that pitch-line: “Every Edition Available Again!”

 

Co-Hosting #Engchat this Monday – Join me!

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This Monday I am thrilled to get to co-host the week’s #engchat with Nicole Mirra (also check out her latest DMLcentral post!). If you’re around in the evening, please join us. Here’s a description of the planned Twitter-chat:

The skills supported in today’s ELA classrooms are the skills that will mediate and foment the social and cultural revolutions of the future. The link between literacy and civic engagement for kids today is clearer than ever: tools like Twitter and Facebook are often leveraged for sweeping displays of civic action and protest. What is the role of ELA teachers in guiding civic learning and identity for students? What parallels do these responsibilities have with standards and traditional education reform? Join Antero Garcia (@anterobot) and Nicole Mirra (@Nicole_Mirra) for this engaging conversation on June 3rd at 7 p.m. ET as we explore the crucial intersection between ELA instruction and powerful youth civic engagement. 

Thanks, Meenoo, for letting us take the #engchat reins for the evening!

Talking about Fantaji with Calvin Johns

Today I got to talk with my friend and game designer (and academic nerd) Calvin Johns about his brand new Kickstarter campaign for the Fantaji Universal Role-Playing System. I loved Calvin’s work on Early Dark and I’m excited to play around with the flexibility of this new system. Take a look at our recent conversation:

While you’re at it, you might want to watch the Fantaji system in action on the Kickstarter video:

The campaign had a great first day and it sounds like there are some awesome stretch goals down the road. I’m looking forward to playing Fantaji and to talking to Calvin again about the academic-y stuff that shapes his thinking as a game designer (and vice versa)!

Linda Christensen’s Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life Presentation

I’m pleased to share the video from the final speaker in the Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life series at CSU. Two weeks ago, Linda Christensen visited our campus to present:

The Tulsa Race Riot: Raising Voices Silenced by History

The past is not dead, and it needs to be remembered for students to understand contemporary patterns of wealth and poverty, privilege and marginalization. Our curriculum should equip students to “talk back” to the world. Students must learn to pose essential critical questions: Who makes decisions and who is left out? Who benefits and who suffers?  What are the origins of today’s problems? What alternatives can we imagine? What is required to create change? In this presentation, Christensen will engage participants in an examination of a historical event from eyewitness accounts to revisit the history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. Through this workshop, she will demonstrate how she uses “silences” in history to construct solid literacy practices including persuasive essays and historical fiction, building a framework for critical literacy that helps students navigate an increasingly unequal world.

 The presentation was largely an interactive activity, so I did my best to take you-the viewer-on a tour of the various voices heard during the presentation. I hope you get a chance to watch!