Role Journals, Texts, Pedagogy, and Pragmatism

In her recent post on the Scholars’ Lab, Francesca gave a quick rundown on some of the similarities and differences between the approaches of our two wire-framing teams. I have to confess that I was surprised by a couple of her concerns, and I’d like here to clarify the reasoning behind our strong focus on the role journal and our sense of Ivanhoe as a textually centered game with significant multimedia capabilities. I’ll do so with two concerns in mind: teaching goals and practice and pragmatic concerns.

Role Journals and Pedagogy
Francesca makes a distinction between the “rationale” section that her own group built into their version, and the role journal which our group included. She understands the rationale section to be a place where “players had to justify why they made moves,” which might create a “restraint so players aren’t just making moves haphazardly.” This will be less “excessive” than the role journal, and will allow players to spend most of their time “devoted to playing/making moves and not writing.” As well, there is a concern that creating this extra bit of work for players will make the environment “less fun.”

I am certainly sympathetic with many of these concerns, but I think clarification of our idea of the role journal in terms of its pedagogical use will ameliorate these significantly. I and a few others have thought of Ivanhoe especially in terms of pedagogy. As such, Ivanhoe is an application that allows players to intervene in a discursive space (this will be familiar language to those acquainted with it from a decade ago) and facilitates critical reflection upon acts of interpretation. But what does that mean?

I’ll drop back to my own discipline in the hopes of giving a clear illustration. Suppose you are teaching a course in Reformation history and theology, and were teaching Martin Luther’s “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” In groups, you have your students engage this text through Ivanhoe. Each chooses a role. Perhaps one decides to be Luther himself, another Pope Leo X. Someone else chooses to write as Elector Frederick. All of these would be significant figures in the historical controversy. But someone else decides to write as Pope Francis, the current Pope, another as the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, and yet another as the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. Each of these roles will bring a distinct and interesting approach to the historical, political, and theological controversies which find expression in Luther’s text. As the game begins and then progresses, each player, maintaining his or her role, begins to make interventions. Perhaps in the guise of writing a history of the papacy, “Pope Francis” lays out in successive moves the critical development of the papacy throughout the medieval and early modern periods. Perhaps “Luther” submits as his or her moves autobiographical reflections which reveal Luther’s deep anxiety and distress in his own spiritual life. “Jon Stewart” provides short, witty, incisive engagements all the relevant figures, reacting especially to the moves of others, pointing out inconsistencies and moments of hypocrisy, expressing a voice of moral indignation at the faults of Luther, Leo X, and others. As the game progresses, the players attempt to respond more significantly to each other, all for the goal of understanding the initial text through the fusion of numerous horizons (do understand this in Gadamer’s terms).

As a teacher, while I want my students to be engaging creatively, analytically, and critically with Luther’s text, I want even more for them to understand and engage the way in which they think and interpret and form judgments. I want them to reflect on the interventions or moves of other players, to think about how those moves open up dimensions of the text which they now can engage, to consider how those moves of others capacitate their own critical and creative interventions. And I want them thinking about how the roles that they have chosen come with certain hermeneutic positions with which they must reckon in order to understand how to coherently embody that role in its engagement with the discursive space of the text.

To think about the text. To think about thinking about the text.

As a tool, Ivanhoe allows us to engage an object of concern, and while I’ve used a text as an example, it could be an image, a video, a sound file, a physical object, or almost anything else. Around that object of concern we engage in acts of interpretation which could take a vast number of forms and styles. And then we can think about what we’re doing when we’re playing. We can raise awareness of how we ourselves think and perhaps how others think as well.

This is the benefit of the role journal, to give our students the space to reflect consciously on what is happening in the game and what is happening in their own thinking. It is this second part, I think, which really takes us to the point of deep engagement with critical thinking. In the design my group offered, we placed a button on every page that had game content on it, and when you click that button it pops out a little no-frills text editor for the role journal. The idea was that while reading the interventions of others or one’s own interventions, the player could write quick notes and reflections. This method of quick entry was paired with a dedicated role journal page, with a more substantial WYSIWYG editor that would allow for more significant entries into the role journal. Could much of this be done with pen and paper, in a student’s notebook? Sure. But the idea of building it in is to give players a single environment in which the game and their production of content exists, and the idea of the pop out editor is to make critical reflection a common part of the experience of the game.

There are other details, of course, like whether the role journals are public or private. There are reasons for either, and I think it would be an option for each game to choose one or the other. I could certainly see an interesting activity where at the end of a game, the participants share their private role journals and reflect on others reflecting on the game as it progressed.

Is this a bit more work? Yes. But I think it is pedagogically worth it, and not so very different from the idea of a move “rationale.” I even think that for quite a few players, the critical, reflective activity of the role journal, and the sharing of them, might rather heighten the fun of the game.

Texts and Pragmatism
The example above and even my language of “reading” someone’s else moves undoubtedly reveal that I think of Ivanhoe in terms of texts. Working in philosophical theology, texts are my mainstay. Yet, I think Ivanhoe should be a game wherein we can play with any number of objects, whether they be texts or images, video or audio-clips, or anything else. I see Ivanhoe being incredibly flexible here and open to so many types of games. So, I was surprised to see the other group, and Francesca in her blog post, push for a non-textual game. I’ll focus my response on Francesca’s blog post.

She writes there that they proposed, “an image only game (in the form of pictures, music, and videos),” which she “really want[s] to push for.” Francesca notes that the original Ivanhoe game was primarily “manipulation of texts,” but suggests that Prism, the product of our forebears in Praxis, “essentially does this (although in a less playful way).” She suggests that we consider “embedding Prism tools in our gaming environment,” but asks whether those “familiar with the old Ivanhoe feel that a text based game is essential or do you like the idea of image only?”

I don’t know whether I count as one of those familiar with the old Ivanhoe, but as one of those building the new one, I have to say that I think the two options given are not the only ones. As I pointed out above, I think we need to build an application flexible enough to facilitate games of many varieties, some of which may involve a great deal of text and others which involve only a bit and others which involve not a whit. I’ll return to some of this reasoning in terms of pragmatism shortly.

I want take a moment, though, to address Prism. Francesca interestingly asked if we could embed Prism within our gaming environment, and, also interestingly, within my group’s presentation, Stephanie had built a mockup of how something very close to this could be done as an alternate way to play the Ivanhoe game, an alternate way to make textual interventions. But here’s the rub, it was an alternate way, meaning not the only way, nor perhaps even the primary way. What Prism allows one to do is “collaborative interpretation” through highlighting a text according to different categories, or “facets.” If we look at our most successful games of Ivanhoe as our cohort has experimented with Ivanhoe (primarily textually, I will admit), the most interest moves have involved writing text and including media with that text at times. This is a different thing than Prism though, and doesn’t involve the same sort of highlighted interpretation of a text through determined categories. Rather, textual moves in Ivanhoe are often products, literary creations of different forms, interwoven with different media. So I have to say that I don’t think embedding Prism is sufficient to grapple with the ways in which we might engage texts through Ivanhoe. The two tools are simpy different, with different goals and different means.

But why include text at all? Why not just build an image (very broadly conceived) game? Selfishly, I would want to play this game myself, to use it in thinking through theological and philosophical texts, and perhaps play it now and then with the science-fiction and fantasy literature I love. For me, that will mean writing text and incorporating others texts, as well as linking in images, videos, and sound clips. Disregarding my own interests, though, there is a significant pragmatic reason for making sure that Ivanhoe handles texts well. One of the tenets of the Praxis Program is to build a functioning tool or application that will actually be used. To do that latter part, we need to have an idea of our audience and what they might do with our tool. At the moment, while digital humanities is spreading, and while universities and colleges are pushing for innovative work in digital pedagogy, many of those who are incorporating digital tools in their teaching work within English, literature, and history departments. While all of these people probably engage with different media in their work and teaching, and would play games that incorporate different media, many of them substantively work with texts, and teach classes that are in a deep and abiding way about texts. These are the people who might be most open to embracing a tool such as Ivanhoe, that could enrich and enliven their teaching through productive, ludic engagements among students, especially if we can build a version of Ivanhoe that has a low-bar of entry to use. Understanding pragmatically who might buy in and use the tool we’re building more quickly and more thoroughly, then, I think it is necessary to make sure that Ivanhoe is text inclusive, just as it is inclusive of others forms of media.

Despite this rather lengthy engagement with Francesca’s concerns, I actually agree with her when she writes that she, “was struck by the similarities between our projects (and a bit relieved to see that we won’t really need to make too many compromises in either direction).” The differences I’ve addressed here are important, and I’ve tried to offer cogent arguments regarding both. But I don’t think either difference is enormous or prohibitive of our team, all six of us along with the folks of the Scholars’ Lab, moving forward. I certainly look forward to the days ahead.

I am a digital humanities developer in the Scholars' Lab and a Ph.D. candidate in philosophical theology, writing a dissertation looking at vulnerability at the intersection of theological anthropology and neuroscience. After years working heavily in theological ontology and metaphysics in contemporary theology, I find writing code to be a wonderfully concrete breath of fresh air.

2 comments on “Role Journals, Texts, Pedagogy, and Pragmatism

  1. Thanks for clarifying your team’s vision for the role journal. I agree that there are pedagogical benefits to having a role journal, but I still believe that many spaces already make this possible. Moreover, while I think that writing might be one of the most essential skills students learn in college, I think it is worthwhile for them to have a space where they create arguments & connections in a different way. Perhaps part of this is how I envision using something like Ivanhoe. As a teacher, I would only implement something like Ivanhoe as part of an overall classroom strategy. So students would be playing the game but also participating in classroom discussion where we talk about our moves and have a paper due at the end of class where they analyzed their game-play and role. We could easily have a “role journal” as you describe, but I just don’t think it should be the primary space for playing – perhaps it could be an option educators could choose to include? I mean we’ve now played about four games together and none of them have included a role journal. I think part of reason why is that none of us were really motivated to do them…why you ask? For me, I just didn’t think it was a fun or productive use of my time – or at least a lot less fun than pretending to be the Countess of Elgin. Clearly students will have to do them if it’s part of the assignment and I agree that there is a great deal to be learned from writing and more connections could be made if students read one another’s entries… but I wonder if they will do this? In the end I just hope we can build something that is both academically rigorous but also something students want to play, not just have to play.

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