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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!

Storium, Collaborative Storytelling, Civic Identity

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog (and at the end of this podcast), my current research focuses on tabletop roleplaying games. (I type this with bloodshot eyes and a larger-than-usual cup-o-joe after a late night session of Deadlands). I am most interested in RPGs as tools for teaching powerful civic lessons for youth. The collaborative storytelling that is often shielded behind complex game mechanics and nerdish tropes of dragons, Cthulhu, and steam punk  (oh my!) are powerful spaces to consider for learning and engagement. Which is why, with just over two days left, I want to tell you about why I am excited about Storium. As described on the Kickstarter page, “Storium is a new kind of online game where you and your friends tell any story you can imagine, together.”


 

Anyone that backs the Kickstarter gains immediate beta access to play in/with Storium. And while the system is geared toward fantasy, genre-fiction, and roleplaying enthusiasts (there are some amazing worlds being written by a who’s who of notable authors and game designers), I am most thrilled by the pedagogical opportunities of Storium. And I’m not alone: the final, $200k stretch goal is “Storium for Schools

The connections with history and English are immediate. Think about learning about what is most foul in Denmark by retelling the stories of the titular Hamlet. Or for youth to explore affects of imperialism from globalized, student-constructed narratives. Having played around with the narrative engine that is running Storium, that stuff seems pretty easy to do. A bit of groundwork from educators can make a ton of content-specific modules at-the-ready for teachers.

However, I’m most interested in two things with regards to Storium:

1. Having youth world build and construct their own narratives. Storium encourages a systems thinking approach. Students will have to label their environment, set the stakes, identify assets, subplots, and challenges. Strip this stuff away from a high fantasy or cyberpunk setting and you’ve got an amazing opportunity for youth to label their reallived environment. The narrative possibilities here become lessons in civic identity and can foment action.

2. Building off of this, I want to explore how youth can explore their actual environment through virtual engagement and storytelling. I played around with this last night by creating a new story setting:

I woke up to find two players interested in this story with powerful character identities tied to politics and gender identity.

In creating a Storium world, you create character strengths, weaknesses, and other attributes (these are used as cards that are intuitively played throughout the game to help instigate narrative action). For my world, the attributes are grounded in the kinds of theories I believe are important for civic learning.

Likewise, “weaknesses” are framed around the real world challenges I’ve seen my own students face in the past.

I don’t know where this narrative will go (I’m still waiting for players, so come join me!). I am, however, enthused about this intersection of storytelling and civic engagement.

You can learn a whole lot more about Storium from the Kickstarter page. Likewise, the designers have been making the rounds on the ‘nets. Take a listen to this episode of Master Plan or this episode of Indie Talks to hear more nuanced discussion of the platform.

As I write this, the Kickstarter is currently hovering just about $167k. That’s an amazing number and signals that more than 4500 fans enthusiastic for telling stories and constructing worlds together.

Racial Politics and the Amazing Race

Last night I went on a mini (by Twitter standards) rant about the Amazing Race. Here’s a Storify recap:

The thing is, I like this show. It’s been an early player in shaping many of today’s reality TV tropes. And frankly, aside from a year or two as an undergrad, I’ve probably seen nearly every season of this show. I get the transmedia heroism of Boston Rob as he ventured from Survivor to the Amazing Race and back to Survivor to claim the prize over there. I get how Fast Forwards and U-Turns have been added and the pacing of the show has become more savvy from season to season. But I also get how terrible the racial politics on major network TV get emphasized when we think about what we’re watching as “real” in comparison to more clearly scripted television programs. Couple this with the essentializing of culture as foods, dances, and dangerous taxi drivers in the show and you’ve got something of a critical nightmare.

Again, more to come with regards to this (as always).

Thriving in Practice

Okay everyone, today I’ve been passed the digital baton in the blog tour celebrating Meenoo Rami’s book Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching.

If you haven’t caught wind of the energy and momentum with which Meenoo’s book arrived, I encourage you to look back at the various other digital stops of the online tour:

4/9/14: Teach Mentor Texts!

4/10/14: Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn at A Year of Reading

4/11/14: Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy

4/12/14: Kira Baker Doyle at Kira J Baker-Doyle, Ph.D.

4/13/14: Sarah Mulhern Gross at The Reading Zone

4/14/14: Christina Cantrill at Digital Is (National Writing Project)

4/16/14: Beth Shaum at Use Your Outside Voice

4/17/14: Linda Baie at Teacher Dance

4/18/14: Troy Hicks at Hickstro

4/19/14: Joy Kirr at Genius Hour

4/20/14: Tara Smith at A Teaching Life

4/21/14: Antero Garcia at The American Crawl

4/22/2014: John Spencer at Education Rethink

4/23: Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsberg at Unleashing Readers

That list, in and of itself, is emblematic of what I find so powerful about Thrive. Meenoo’s network of friends, colleagues, and collaborators helps generate and expand ideas that stemmed from the book. More than a parade of reviews, Meenoo’s work is sustaining some deep thinking and powerful dialogue across these blog stops. For example, instead simply rehashing the praise that is found on the back of the book, Troy Hicks uses his tour stop to encourage Meenoo to share her thinking regarding how digital writing affects her students’ work. Thrive encourages more than just reviews. There is a coming together of interested educators through this online tour that is a powerful meta-reflection of some of the key ideas in Thrive.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how Meenoo and I first met. It’s possible that we met at one of many NWP functions we’ve both been engaged in. It’s equally likely it was while she was hosting an #engchat discussion one night. Or perhaps it was at the NCTE annual conference. Or a NBPTS thing. Or a Connected Learning webinar. Or Educon. Or. Or. Or. Meenoo’s networks run deep! Her interactions are meaningful and lasting–both with her students and with her peers. And while this paragraph sounds mainly like I am gloating about being friends with such an awesome educator, I wanted to highlight how Meenoo’s professional life exemplifies the principles of renewal and connection that are so clear in her book.

In fact, one of the strongest aspects of Thrive is that Meenoo packs in the stories, voices, and ideas of so many of her peers. Whether it is sidebar profiles throughout, excerpts of Twitter discussions, or an integration of research in her own writing, Meenoo’s book is more than just her own work; it is a bound compendium. It is the closest you can get to seeing a living network breathe across pages.

Many of my students at CSU are reading Thrive for my colleague Cindy’s class. It is clear that the ideas that have been resonating with me have been doing the same for my students. More than any other testament of the book’s value is hearing students–often feeling burnt out as they prepare for student teaching next semester–share sentiments such as, “This book is unlike anything that I have read before.  It is simple, accessible, and focused.”

I look forward to this dialogue continuing to unfold  at tomorrow’s stop over at edrethink.

Updates: Linda Christensen’s Presentation on Tuesday and more ebook reviews

Just a quick reminder that the final speaker as part of the CSU English Department’s Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life Speaker Series, Linda Christensen, will be here on Tuesday. Professor Christensen’s work has been a foundational part of how I grew as a teacher and I am honored to get to learn from her in person next week. Here is a description of her upcoming presentation:

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.

As usual we will be in Clark A205 at 5:30 and the event is free. Please join us!

On an unrelated note, there are two new reviews of Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom. Here’s a review from School Library Journal.  And here’s another from Paul Oh using Graphite. (Send me a tweet or email if you review the book!)

If you haven’t caught any of the Connected Learning webinars this month related to the book, there’s still time!

Fandom, Ownership, and Improvisation: A Triptych on Improvisation

I

Last night Ally and I made the trek to Boulder to see the Brad Mehldau trio perform. I’d seen Mehldau a couple of times back in LA (he’s even released an album titled after my favorite venue). I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that the show was Mehldau performing as part of a trio (with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard on bass and drums respectively). I’d expected something closer to this (akin to the direction of his most recent album MehlianaTaming the Dragon):

Aside from beginning with an original song, the entire show was a set of covers. From the Beatles to Gillian Welch to Radiohead, Mehldau’s work weaves familiarity with the unexpected. It’s interesting to listen to the audience reactions during jazz performances (something Paul F. Tompkins lampoons here). There is usually laughter in two places in jazz shows. First, the audience will quietly laugh when they know a song. The excitement of familiarity when Mehldau launched into “And I Love Her,” for instance signaled that the audience knew this song. Conversely, the audience laughs when a line or solo goes in the complete opposite direction of where they expected. A mid-tempo solo that flies into high gear, a series of notes outside of the song’s key, a start-stop drum solo. We find pleasure, surprise, and laughter in the familiar and the unknown. It is the mixture of these two that builds pleasure in the consumer here.

II

Saturday, a day before the Mehldau show, I presented at the Colorado Teen Lit Conference. In my session, I mainly facilitated conversations around how participatory media can act as a tool of empowerment for YA readers. In one example (and as described in my book) I highlighted how Cassandra Clare practiced and developed her YA-oriented writing through engagement with fan fiction communities. At the heart of this discussion are a bunch of complex issues revolving ownership, plagiarism, marketing and capitalism. Several in the room (myself included) discussed how we have successfully gotten kids to write powerful stories through adapting fan fiction models for the classroom. The number of NaNoWriMo submissions I got from my students who inserted themselves in their favorite Cirque Du Freak or Vladamir Tod settings was a powerful testament to how fandom can initiate and sustain writing.

Writing is hard. Getting published even harder. Keynote speaker, A.S. King described the arduous process of getting her first novel in print:

 

Teachers steal all the time. Musicians cover as a staple of their own repetoires. Without consciously building on successful models (and remixing what makes them successful), how can young writers develop a personal voice?

III

Like Mehldau, last year when my colleague Leif and I saw Jason Moran in concert, his set was primarily a series of covers (including briefly schooling the attendees about the “Negro National Anthem”). Perhaps more striking is that Moran would begin many of his songs by scrolling through his iPod, playing a song through the house speakers and slowly begin playing along with the canonized recording. Eventually he would fade out the recorded song and he and his band mates would seamlessly move the song into a new, unexpected direction. Like Mehldau, this was a master of his craft playing along with canonical recordings. Thinking about this from a literacies perspective, I think there are (at least) two important reasons covers are so important in musical performance:

  • First: it is a signal to the audience familiarity. Audience members muttered and harrumphed when the first recognizable melodic lines of “And I Love Her” were played by Mehldau. Minutes later, the song was an unrecognizable, rejuvenating­–and highly original–samba.
  • Second: it grounds the artist in a political, historical, cultural, social, place. Just as the audience can understand and recognize the familiar tropes of a cover, a musician can adhere to, respond to, or redefine the emotional voice from which a cover comes from. By starting with something pre-established, a cover song can create pathways and constraints for new work to emerge.

When an audience member requested Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” at last night’s Mehldau show, it wasn’t because he thought he was getting  the ‘90s rock song version. It was because the piece was both familiar and utterly transformed. Likewise, when Moran launches into “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa it isn’t because they are expecting to hear a hip-hop classic.

All compositions are grounded in complex matrices. The social, historical, cultural, and political intersect in the words we write, the notes we play, the lessons we teach. A cover of a standard, or a Beatles song, or a Radiohead hit, or a Harry Potter setting is a more blatant signal for readers and a powerful starting place in tone or message for the composer. This is what we need to consider (and teach) within a literacy context. Even when we compose new work, our words and ideas are influenced by the world around us. We experience in ways that are shaped by the past.