Queering workplaces and professions happens all the time, although we might not realize it! If we take a narrow definition of Queer or Queerness (which I will capitalize throughout this blog), one focusing solely on the aspects of Queer that denote sexuality or gender identity, we miss out on so much that the term Queer has to offer. It is the nature of Queerness, after all, to go against the grain and to defy definitions. Thus, I believe that any time we make the places that we work or the ways that we work or how we interact with fellow members of society new or different, we are in some ways Queering those interactions/places. Maybe we make these things "strange and unusual" or maybe we go against the status quo. Maybe we just have a work picnic on the floor of the office thats cooked and served by the CEO to relieve stress (like many companies in Japan are doing, see the cool show "Lunch On!" from NHK to see some examples); there is not one specific strategy that serves as a one-size-fits-all solution.
Instead, a compassionate, creative, humanistic approach, in the myriad of ways that such an approach can manifest is needed, just like C.R Miller proposed in 1979 with her “A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing" which still hasn't fully taken hold, it seems. 40 years later, for some of us, her position seems obvious, like something that should go without saying; humans write, therefore any form of writing is humanistic or has humanistic value. Yet, the conventions and traditions of formal academic writing still hold that professional, scientific, and "authentically" scholarly work should be without bias, without personal touches, as concise as possible, and meant for an audience that is supposed to be fully and truly knowable so they can be written to most effectively. For just a few of countless examples, see Walden University's "Scholarly Voice" writing guide, and UNC Chapel Hill's Science Writing Handout. Clearly, there is contention between these ideas and solutions of any kind are difficult to come by. It may forever be a game of chess where one player is "in check" and moves a space away to get out, only to be put in check again when the opponent moves one space closer, with neither player willing to take a draw. Nonetheless, I find making suggestions to be worthwhile. We never know which suggestion is going to spark a change for the better, for compromise.
How are objects like video games Queer, anyway? Is it nothing more than being "strange" or "different" or is there more to it that non-Queer folk wouldn't pick up on? An at least partial answer comes from Giffney and Hird's 2008 collection of essays Queering the Non/human. They relay to us that first and foremost, in 2003 Jeffrey J. Cohen wrote that Queering is "at its heart a process of wonder". They go on to explain the importance of using the term Queer. Giffney and Hird acknowledge that the word holds a heavy weight that has burdened many people far too greatly and that many people today feel ambivalent, or vehemently against its use, but they emphasize that these reasons make its continued use and reclamation all the more important. They mention the fluidity, the urgency, the non-normative and the embodied nature of Queerness, all of which I hope to engage in some ways throughout my work. Yet, all I think we need at forefront of our minds is wonder. If we can wonder about the possibilities for good that are out there and feel the wonder these possibilities could bring, we can know the unknowable and undefinable notion that is Queer.
Nonetheless, in this blog, I'll discuss ways in which research about video games, playing video games, and otherwise embracing our nerdiness about games can help Queer technical and professional writing and communication in both academic spaces and professional work spaces. My love of video games knows no bounds and most everything I do these days involves promoting the plethora of ways that they can improve the world, if they are just used correctly. That's why I decided to take on this particular project this semester. This blog is the (ongoing) culmination of the work I have done while learning about technical and professional communication and writing for the first time as a doctoral student.
My professor for this course, Dr. Matt Cox opens his recent work, "Working Closets: Mapping Queer Professional Discourses and Why Professional Communication Studies Need Queer Rhetorics" (2018) with the following assertion:
"In recent years, professional communication studies have begun to more fully turn to long-overdue conversations about the roles of gender and race (e.g., Frost, 2015, 2016; Haas, 2012; Herrick, 1999; Rohrer-Vanzo, Stern, Ponocny-Seliger, & Schwarzbauer, 2016) as they relate to professional communication. As a result, there have been meaningful conversations about how these historically marginalized groups have been negatively affected and a turn toward encouraging “cultural competence” in institutions and workplaces (Williams & Pimentel, 2016, pp. 1–2). Of course, our own professional organizations within professional communication studies (e.g., the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing, the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication, and the Special Interest Group on Design of Communication) have rich histories of women (although less so for people of color) in leadership and key roles. Those visible roles, however, have not always translated into in-depth and frequent conversations about gender and race in major publications and research (although, again, there have been instances of these going back many decades). And studies of sexuality and gender identity issues relating to professional communication and workplace practices remain significantly paltry." (p.2)
When he writes that the studies of gender identity in TPC are "significantly paltry" and a need for "cultural competence" in the workplace, I see myself trying to do that work of filling those gaps and building those competencies through the idea of using gaming to Queer our work spaces. Even though I'm taking an approach that, as I've stated, intends to go beyond gender and sexuality, the significance of gender and sexuality (and all other forms of positive and compassionate representation and equality like Shaw and others in my literature review mention below) shouldn't be ignored. Queer people are at the forefront of making positive change across societies in so many ways (and they have done so for so very long), including gaming. For examples, see Bonnie Ruberg and Amanda Phillips' “Not Gay as in Happy: Queer Resistance and Video Games” (2018); it is the introduction to the special issue Queerness and Video Games of Video Game Studies. That entire special issue of Game Studies, the Technical Communications Quarterly special issue in 2016, Games in Technical Communication (volume 25, issue 3), Winter Downs' "Trans Women, the Queer Games Scene, and DIY Game Design" (2015) for GeekGirlCon and "Taking Game Designers to School: Queerness in Games" (2017) by Eric Starker for Queer Space Magazine show that work like this to Queer TPC through games is groundbreaking and crucial work.
Luckily for me, the course that this project comes from was well scaffolded. I initially found myself intimidated by the idea of TPC because I had no experience in this sub-discipline of rhetoric. I worried that I would have to play catch-up to be on the same level as my classmates, who all had prior experience with business, communication, or the TPC program at ECU. Instead, our first project asked us to define TPC for ourselves, which lends itself well to this project. We can't Queer something if we don't know what it is and what it could become.
As a part of my search to find out what exactly TPC is, I turned to a source right beside me in my office: Technical Communications Quarterly. The journals are there because the journal used to be edited and housed at ECU. Although the spare print copies of the scholarly journal did not provide a clear answer, I thought the website might. The “Aims and Scope” page of the website gave me my first clues about what TPC is. The page details some of the topics that appear in the journal including: “…the role of digital technologies, ethics, the rhetoric of workplaces or professions… dialogue between academics and practitioners … and connections between social practices and organizational discourse” (Technical Communications Quarterly, 2018, para. 1). This list shows us some of the major points of interest for the field.
These points of interest demonstrate that technical writing and professional communication are not literary or the other types of writing students usually do in university; they are types of writing and communication concerns that occur in the workforce or that employees and professionals use to conduct business, and other workplace matters, especially those of a digital nature. Nonetheless, readers and I can probably glean all of that from the name of the discipline itself, “technical and professional communication and writing.” But, does that mean we (newcomers to the discipline) fully understand what it is? Not really! I realized that these aforementioned sources are less geared toward students and newcomers and more toward stakeholders or other administrative audiences for purposes of accreditation, which is not what I need. What I really wanted and needed was a textbook definition.
Luckily, I found just that. ASM International’s (ASMI) textbook Engineer’s Guide to Technical Writing (2001) provides chapter one online for free. This chapter, “What is Technical Writing?” defines technical writing for the introductory Engineering student. This chapter’s purpose aligns well with my purpose because technical writing began as a field for teaching engineering students (Connors, 1983). The chapter states that technical writing encompasses a variety of types of writing across the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields and across skilled trades. Reports constitute many of the everyday documents that members of these fields will create (ASMI, 2001). The chapter goes on to define technical writing based on ten main characteristics, which are as follows:
Another Engineering resource that I found helpful in understanding TPC is IEEE’s Professional Communication Society (IEEE PCS) website.
The IEEE PCS website includes a constitution for the society. In this constitution, the “Field of Interest” section (Article 2) gives better detail about what exactly some of the attributes from the ASMI chapter might be referring to: “the study, development, improvement, and promotion of effective techniques for preparing, organizing, processing, editing, collecting, conserving, teaching, and disseminating any form of technical information...” (2009, para. 1). Article 2 also lists some of the major types of documents IEEE PCS would use to communicate this information: “...Web sites, CD-ROMs, interactive video, online help, technical proposals, reports, and documentation, other printed and electronic publications...user interfaces, [and] usability evaluations” (2009, para. 2). With these two Engineering sources, I find a solid definition of TPC starting to form.
How to Elaborate?
Two ways to elaborate on what technical and professional communication and writing are involve looking back at the history of the field (which I just briefly mentioned above) and looking at what TPC is not. The Society for Technical Communication’s (STC) website outlines the histories of the society and technical communication on the “About STC” page (2018). Their brief version of the history pairs well with the more detailed account provided by Robert J. Connors in his chapter “The Rise of Technical Writing Instruction in America” (1983) because their passage continues into more recent history than the Connor’s chapter. Of particular interest is the fact that, in 2009, the STC succeeded in lobbying to have “technical writer” recognized as its own profession by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (STC, 2018). This fact leads to one idea about what technical communication was not: before 2009 it was not a profession that the Bureau officially recognized, and therefore they did not track statistics about working in that career. I was surprised by this fact, considering that the field has existed for over 100 years; scholars cite the booming era of technological growth from the Industrial Revolution to the World Wars as its starting point (STC, 2018; Connors, 1983; O’Hara, 2001). In addition, several common misconceptions represent what TPC is not.
It seems a fairly commonly-held misconception that TPC involves only manuals, pamphlets, or “Help” pages providing instructions and sometimes the misconception about these types of documents goes even further (which is also an aspect that intimidated me; I don't want to do these types of writing). In her article, "Why You Should Consider a Career in Technical Writing" (2016), Kate Schneider finds that some people do not even realize those manuals and help documents are actually written by real people. Yet, technical writing consists of so much more than these types of writing (and it is all written by real people). TPC is also more than just scientific reports and lofty business documents.
According to Julie Gerdes at Writing Commons (2014), even the caution signs on a construction site or the washing instructions tags on our clothes are forms of TPC that many people encounter all the time. Technical writing is also more than just alpha-numeric texts as well. STC (2018) writes that the as the field grows and changes, visual and responsive (to mobile devices) texts are increasing in use and popularity, which Schneider (2016) confirmed when she mentioned that one of the forms of writing that technical writers could be responsible for is video tutorials.
How to Go Beyond a Definition?
There are many ways to go beyond dictionary definitions of TPC. Often these ways of going further involve a researcher’s area of interests or a company or community’s writing needs. In fact, it is common for these two ways of going beyond a definition to overlap. Scholars in TPC are increasingly interested in social justice and community engagement work that not only further the academic side of the discipline, but also serve as models for company leaders and employees who may want to encourage others in their profession to become more engaged in the role that a business may play in its community and making that relationship about more than money.
Angela Haas and Michelle Eble’s (2018) newly edited collection, Key Theoretic Frameworks: Teaching Technical Communication in the Twenty-First Century (KTF) consists of twelve chapters contributed by TPC scholars who each approach TPC with the “social justice turn” in mind. In their introduction, Haas and Eble defined the social justice turn of TPC in terms of globalization. They wrote:
"Because globalization is continuously broadening our understanding of who we are as and pedagogues, we must systematically interrogate the relationships between globalization and technical communication…Thus, while technical communicators may appreciate the international, professional, and economic gains afforded to us by globalization, we must also interrogate how we may be complicit in, implicated by, and/or transgress the oppressive colonial and capitalistic influences and effects of globalization. As Carolyn Rude (2009) reminds us, we have the potential to both “function as agents of knowledge making, action, and change” for some and function as agents of oppression—albeit often unwittingly—for others (183)." (2018, Kindle Location 204-217).
In other words, the more globalization exposes technical writers and communicators to new and different people and ideas, there are two typical reactions: either learning from and embracing differences to grow together, or fearing and shunning differences to exert power. Faced with these possible reactions, the contributors to KTF have each shared a variety of ways that TPC writers can consciously choose the former reaction; a few examples of these are Erin Frost’s chapter on using the theory of apparent feminism as a means of acknowledging the role of embodiment (people’s identities and lived experiences) in what would constitute effective risk communication for various communities and Marcos Del Hierro’s chapter on how Hip Hop pedagogy and de-colonial theory can and should subvert the standard that TPC should be distant and “objective”, although, there is no true objectivity; there is always some kind of bent and the dominant bent only seems objective because it ignores marginalized peoples. Special issues of TPC academic journals are also a helpful place to look to see the current state of research interests and community needs in the field.
Some of the major journals in TPC are: Journal of Business and Technical Communication (JBTC), Technical Communications Quarterly (TQC), Technical Communication (TC), Journal of Technical Writing and Communication (JTWC), and IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication (IEEE TPC). Looking at the subject of all the most recent special issues from these journals would give beginners in the field an idea of where research is going. JBTC’s most recent special issue was Rhetoric of Entrepreneurship: Theories, Methodologies, and Practices (2017) whereas JTWC’s was Graduate Preparation for Research (2017). These two special issues show that across the field, different groups of scholars and professionals have different concerns: some with the training of graduate students and some with how entrepreneurs communicate. One of TCQ’s recent special issues was Games in Technical Communication (2016), which is of particular interest to my research and how I would like to enter the realm of TPC (as you can see from this blog!).
How Will I Contribute to the Definition?
I hope that this essay so far has at least suggested that I would like to contribute in much the same way as scholars I mentioned in the “How to Go Beyond a Definition?” section. Before this class and before this assignment, I was rather intimidated by the idea of technical and professional communication and writing and I honestly thought I might be able to skirt by without much effort in the professional communication aspect of the PhD program. I thought I was only interested in rhetoric and writing sans workplace, technical, or scientific forms of rhetoric and writing, but I have been proven wrong (thankfully). I now see that my interest in video games as educational tools aligns well with the goals of TPC. I cannot ignore the fact that video games are a form of technology with an entire discourse surrounding them and unique forms of communication used to create and disseminate them when I seek to use them in the classroom.
The social justice turns that I hope to engage as a part of my contribution to the field are the theories of feminisms, queer studies, and accessibility (or disability) studies. The voices of women, queer people, people of color, and disabled people in the video game discourse are still mostly silenced. Hints at this silencing are apparent in the names of authors that contributed to the special issue of TCQ. The first (main) authors are all men except one, but this disparity is not just an issue of whose name is listed first on an article; it is representative of the state of the discourse as a whole. After investigating a list of the top fifty video game development studios via GameDesigning.org (2019), I found that only one of them has a woman among their CEOs, presidents, heads of studio, or founders (Shannon Studstill who is head of studio for SCE Santa Monica Studio, creators of the God of War series of games) and the only non-white race represented among these company leaders were men of Eastern and Southern Asian heritages. Thus, whenever possible, I hope to use my work as a platform to research and privilege these voices where they have previously (and still currently are) disenfranchised.
Video Games in the Workplace?
In this section you'll find a literature review that provides suggestions and discusses some of the existing research about integrating games or gaming concepts into the workplace. Examples worth mentioning in academia/in the classroom/school setting include classroom gamification (links to Macie Hall's "What is Gamification and Why Use It in Teaching?" (2014) at Johns Hopkins' Innovative Instructor Blog) and having games available in student lounges. Here at my university, East Carolina University, our new student center has a gaming room with various consoles an arcade cabinets.
Having this respite for students is a great way to Queer the way we think about what a college campus should be or should contain, because students are working hard and deserve breaks just like professionals in the workforce; school can remain serious and appropriately rigorous without losing sight of the importance of rest for our growth and well-being, yet many schools across education levels do seem to inadvertently lose sight these truths because of the extreme pressures of standardization (links to Nichole Zhang's "Standardized Testing Hurts Students" (2018) for Duke Youth) and of maintaining funding (links to "Most States Have Cut School Funding, and Some Continue Cutting" (2016) from The Center for Budget Policy and Priorities).
We also have instructors who engage with gamification concepts such as skill badges and quests! For example, this semester I had the pleasure of being a TA for Dr. Erin Frost, who taught a gamified English class titled "Gender in Gamer Culture" (ENGL 1500: Topics in Words, Images, & Ideas ). The class utilized quests and a point system and I think it went incredibly well. Teaching a class about games in and of itself is considerably Queer, even in 2019 when games are almost totally ubiquitous, and gamifying the class management/grading system took the class to another level.
L.M. Fry's Master's dissertation: Video Game Walkthroughs as Instructional Texts (2012) is a genre analysis of video game walkthroughs. These are texts that instruct the players on (ideally) every detail of a game and how to achieve their in-game goals (such as finding special artifacts, beating the boss, winning the race, etc.). She connects her research on these tutorials to pedagogy by demonstrating how these texts can be models of instructional writing for technical and professional writers. This text is useful to me because I want my contributions to TPC to be very similar to hers. It also represents a Queering of what western society typically considers acceptable forms of educational examples. Most of the time, anything "fun," related to leisure time, or connected to video games in any way is not deemed educational by the majority. Yet Fry clearly demonstrates the value of game walkthroughs to be used like any other similar tutorial-style text. Julia Mason contributes to this conversation with her "Video Games as Technical Communication Ecology" (2013) in Technical Communications Quarterly.
Much of my work involves writing lesson plans using video games as educational tools, including the immense values of video game walkthroughs and play-throughs (video recordings of players playing games, sometimes with instructional commentary). Even with our work (mine and Fry's), and the work of many others (such as James Paul Gee), I find the value of video games for educational purposes is still highly debated and understanding of the positive experiences that games can foster in players is still often contested; for many, it seems like video games are still considered not only a questionable, but also a marginal pastime.
Then, as Shaw below points out, to be a gamer today who doesn’t fit the gamer stereotype, is even more marginalizing. Thus, a gamer who is a woman, or Wueer, or represents other identities other than straight, white, male, middle/upper class, conservative, healthy, Christian, etc. is to be somewhat doubly marginalized (or intersectionally marginalized), which, to me, could all be considered ways of Queering that stereotypical identity. So, to use games, and those games that embrace these identities as educational tools, we are queering TPC. In other words, any profession that uses tutorials of any kind could make use of video game walkthroughs and I guarantee they'll learn a thing or two that makes a positive different in the way they train employees or clients and countless video game scholars agree.
In her preface to Gaming at the Edge (2014), Adrienne Shaw identifies herself as a queer woman who grew up experiencing media and life in a society where others were not just like herself (as an American on a military base in Japan). She goes on to say that her experiences were rather different than the typical American experience, in which young white boys and men are the typified gamer; all around her were gamers of many genders, races, and other identities, which partially led to her investment in positive representation in gaming. Yet, later in her studies, she found that that students of gaming studies and gamers alike didn’t care about representation. This attitude, which she thought might be a form of cognitive dissonance, was the exigence for this novel. The novel will be useful for my research because Shaw addresses how the challenge with games and other new technologies is how quickly they change. Because they change so rapidly, so does the social and academic conversations about them. Nonetheless, Shaw demonstrates through her examples and experiences that even though many people are talking, even groups like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) or large game development studios say they don’t have the time or resources to proactively work on positive representation; they can only fix problems if they arise.
This work piqued my interest in relation to queering TPC because I feel that this mentality of "we'll fix it later" instead of "let's prevent it now" is common in professions. Employees are often so pressed for time and overworked that taking on any extra responsibility beyond the essentials that are required is often far too much. Diversity in the workplace is a hot topic at the moment and has been for some time. See for examples: Harvard Business Review's "Why Diversity Programs Fail" (2016) by Dobbin and Kalev, Jane Burnett's "Tech Companies Don't Need Any More Diversity, Say Employees" (2017) for The Ladders and Clare McGrane's "The 'Pipeline’ Isn’t Causing Tech’s Diversity Problem: The Workplace is, and Here are 3 Ways to Fix It" (2017) for GeekWire.
Two further works that provide insights into this area of research are O'Riordan and Phillips Queer Online: Media Technology & Sexuality (2007) and Pow's “Reaching Toward Home: Software Interface as Queer Orientation in the Video Game Curtain” (2018).
Together, I see these works demonstrating ways in which technical writers can use gaming concepts or games and their supplemental materials to Queer our understanding of what technical communication is and should be. I want to argue that a sort of playfulness, experimentation, and wonder that gaming encourages would be good for technical writing in both the workforce and in academia for a variety of reasons that appeal to both employees and employers.
One reason is that a recent study by Brigham Young University found that gaming with coworkers could increase employee productivity by 20%, as discussed in Jenny Darmody's "Playing Video Games at Work Could Make You More Productive" (2019) for Silicon Republic. Another reason, suggested by Kirsten Oberprieler is that playing games unlocks inner motivation and learning instincts in positive ways that encourage growth, which is discussed in "Gamification: Why Employers are Embracing Games in the Workplace" (2017) by Tegan Osborne. Another is that in an 8-year-long study conducted by the American Psychological Association, researchers found taking breaks at work to play games has positive impacts on cognitive fatigue (i.e. reducing it, therefore reducing stress and poor decision-making at work), which is discussed in "Scientists Say You Should Play Video Games on Your Breaks at Work" (2017) by Kelly Kasulis for Mic and see the study itself at "Search for Affective and Cognitive Restoration: Examining the Restorative Effects of Casual Video Game Play" (2017) by Rupp et al. Furthermore as of about ten years ago, studies were showing that a large majority of companies in the USA were already using interactive game-like training modules, discussed in the press release by the Environmental Software Association titled "Use of Video Game Technology in the Workplace Increasing" (2008) with companies reporting satisfactory results from these training modules and intention to increase their use even more.
Lastly, the reason I find most important involves the importance of trying new things and embracing people's differences for the benefit of us all. We are all individuals working together and it is our differences that allow us to strive for the most good together because we can combine our strengths. Discussions of our differences in this way is something scholars often refer to as embodiment. My personal embodiment, as a future technical writer and rhetoric scholar is that of a Queer gamer, a fat gender non-conforming woman, a PhD student, and much more. These parts of my identity don’t encompass all of me, but they do make up parts of me and influence how I navigate and view the world. The gamer side of my is almost always inclined to suggest something “fun” or “playful” or a game as a way to learn or solve a problem because I find that gaming, fun, and playfulness engage learners and encourage them to take a more active and creative role in what they are learning about. When we are able to share our embodiment in the workforce that is when our strengths allow us to do the most good; completing divorcing play, games, and fun from the work we do is utter misery. Even playing one game on one console for the rest of a person's life would quickly turn to tedium.
My image of a technical writer and of technical writing before this class was a drab one. I thought it was all about tedious manuals and instructional documentation that no one reads, but that some poor low-level employee must be forced to write (because no one else would want to undertake that kind of painstaking task). Yet, every class period I have seen that my prior stereotype couldn’t have been farther from the truth (which is often the case). Still, I wonder if there is some grain of truth to that idea because of the way technical writing might be taught at the undergraduate level or in employee training, if the methods of instruction have stagnated. This is something I still need to investigate, but I hypothesize that I’ll find instances where games or gaming could help change these stagnations, or to solve other potential problems. If nothing else, I hope this project will allow me to change that stereotypical image that I had in mind for others, to show others that technical writing is so much more than people outside of the discipline might think.
Tracing Phronesis from Present to Past through Video Game Guides
Once upon a time, there was no Internet! Gasp! How did people manage to learn with no Internet? How did they look up any information ranging from random trivia to concerns of dire importance? Sometimes as a starting point, they looked to books and other written documents. Then, if they couldn't find writing on the subject they were looking for, or they couldn't read, they would ask others who they considered wiser or more experienced than themselves. It is this pre-Internet way of learning that fascinates me and serves as the catalyst for this project. For two popular introductions to this topic, see PlayStation Access's video "7 Ways We Used to Beat Games Before the Internet" (2019), Kevin Garcia's Observation Deck article "How We Gamed: Playing Impossible Games Before the Internet" (2014) and the Reddit thread on r/Games "Whatever happened to good ol' text walkthroughs?" (2018).
People have been attracted to activities and pastimes that often need a bit of mentorship or experimentation when first starting out since the beginning of time. For example, many games, arts and crafts, sports, music, and other hobbies take time to initially understand and newcomers to these activities benefit from taking a playful and experimental stance toward the learning process. When it comes to games specifically, over time the way that new players/gamers/game players come to knowledge about their chosen activities has changed, particularly in recent years.
In the past, specifically before the advent of the Internet and its widespread use, gaming knowledge often involved a great deal of practical wisdom, called phronesis by the ancient Greeks, either passed down from mentors or learned through trial and error. Some necessary gaming minutia was documented in writing in guides for a newcomer to find own their own; however, much of the skills, secrets, and other practical knowledge (which I will use interchangeably with "practical wisdom" or "phronesis") had to be discovered and practiced. More about how players learned game in the past will come later in the blog.
The Acquisition of Practical Knowledge
Practical knowledge was once difficult to acquire without the help of a personal relationship with a more experienced game player, or without extensive experimentation (and often frequent failure and starting over); however, it is now readily available online in video tutorial format on websites like YouTube. Understanding this shift is useful because it could allow educators to see trends in how students choose to learn outside of the classroom or in informal settings, which may help educators better meet students where they are. If students gravitate toward certain ways of learning about what they enjoy, and teachers can start matching these ways of learning in the classroom, students would likely become more engaged and invested in their own learning in formal settings. In addition, it could help anyone interested in making educational materials and tutorials to better understand the skills and details learners are looking for, why they look for them (instead of just figuring them out through trial and error) why they want to learn about these hobbies in the first place.
As a child, I learned to game from my parents. I have rather clear memories of the first video games and card games my brother and I played with our parents. We played Mario games on the Super Nintendo (SNES), a few MS-DOS games, may games available for Windows 1998 and Go Fish and War with a deck of playing cards. My parents taught us these games and showed us how to overcome obstacles if we got stuck. To my brother and I, some of the best memories of these moments came when our father first showed us secrets that he had learned playing the original Mario Bros or when our mother finessed a seemingly perfect bridge when shuffling a deck of cards. One of the Mario Bros secrets our dad showed us was how to find the warp zones that lead to pipes to skip ahead from World 1-2 to World 4. The other secret was a way to collect almost-infinite lives by hitting a Koopa at the exact right moment as it descended the stairs from the flagpole so that Mario would keep landing on the the Koopa over and over, earning more lives. At the time (about age 5), these secrets and skills seemed like such mysteries; my brother and I had no idea how our parents figured them out, but we were so happy that they shared them with us, and we never forgot them.
Like almost everyone else who has stuck with video games over the past 20 years or so, I know utilize YouTube for most of my gaming instruction when I'm stuck. I will occasionally turn to written guides on websites like GameFAQs or video game wikis (such as The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages), but more often than not I am looking to YouTubers.
Some of the YouTubers I subscribe to for play-throughs ("Let's Plays"):
The Sage Encyclopedia of Action Research (2014) provides a reference definition of phronesis, accented as “phrónêsis.” The entry explains that sometimes it is translated as “prudence” but scholars more commonly call it practical wisdom or judgement. The entry tracks the “rediscovery” of the concept of phronesis (using that term) as happening in the 20th century (since it was originally coined by Aristotle in the mid-300s BC), mainly by Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer. The entry also describes the use of phronesis as something deliberative, as a part of kairos (timeliness in rhetoric/argument-making), and as a part of ethos (ethics or credibility in rhetoric/argument-making) and other rhetorical uses, including what it is not (it is not just rhetoric overall and it is not syllogistic reasoning).
Professor emeritus of the University of Idaho, Nick Grier, also has a webpage called "Aristotle on the Intellectual Virtues" (2001) that summarizes Aristotle's concept of intellectual and moral virtues (including phronesis) and how they interplay. Grier relays that Aristotle believed that phronesis has no "authority over" sophia (theoretical wisdom or reasoning). He adds that for Aristotle, phronesis was a moral virtue (instead of an intellectual one) and was not learned (or at least not in the way the other moral and intellectual virtues were). When I first read that phronesis wasn't learned, I found myself confused by the idea. Why wouldn't a form of wisdom be learned? So, after more research, I found the article "The Socratic Phonesis Today” (2015) by Juliana González in the Journal of Philosophical Research.
González’ article juxtaposes the classical concept of phronesis and Socratres’ ideas about the brain and morality with today’s concepts of neuro-biology and neuro-ethics. The author writes that a standard interpretation of Socratic thought does not involve dualism; there is no mind-body problem, because the soul is wholly contained within a person and that is where their ethics come from, not from external religiously or politically-driven influences. A person’s ethics tie well to phronesis because phronesis is “knowledge translated into a way of life” (p. 63) and our personal ethics or moral compasses drive how we live. Phronesis has a goal of helping a person realize their authentic self and of allowing a person to know and understand the differences between good and bad. The article goes on to explain where these concepts (especially of morality being internal) match with current understandings of neuroscience, which helps me understand the idea of virtue not being learned that I read from Grier; although others may try to teach us about what is good and bad, about decision-making, about skills, or other important life lessons, ultimately our personal moral code (or lack thereof) comes from within because we will believe what we want to believe; any time we change our mind, master a new skill, or come to a deeper understanding of something, it will be because we decide to do so and then put our mind to it.
Still, I didn't feel fully satisfied with these definitions and hoped to find something more clear and easy for me to grasp that fully represented the ancients' ways of viewing phronesis. Luckily, I found Richard R. Halverson's dissertation Representing Phronesis: Supporting Instructional Leadership Practice in Schools (2002) which provides a convenient, comprehensive, and accessible list of the features of phronesis according to Aristotle:
Below is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) (2019) definition of phronesis as well, which includes historic uses of the term.
For the purposes of this geneology project, I would like to demonstrate how the concept of phronesis can be applied to learning gaming skills (digital or analog), tips and tricks, insider knowledge, or secrets. In additional, I will trace the ways in which new gamers develop practical knowledge has changed over time, but I will work backward, from present to past.
To understand the myriad of ways that scholars apply phronesis to learning and skills today, I first looked for scholarly academic articles about phronesis in general. I found articles that presented the applications of phronesis in the workplace and in the classroom.
One such article, "Phronesis: A Model for Pedagogical Reflection" (2004) by Carrie Birmingham (Associate Professor of Teacher Education at Pepperdine University) uses the concept of phronesis as a part of reflection for educators. Birmingham finds that often reflection is still used as an incomplete and abstract notion that needs to be better solidified in the field of education, and phronesis may be the way to solidify it. She wrote:
" ...phronesis is not the simple application of educational theory, for educational situations are much too complex, ambiguous, and unpredictable to comply with an algorithmic application of educational theory. The knowing and thinking that phronesis calls for is concerned foremost with the particulars of the situation. This quality of phronesis is echoed in Schön’s (1992) seminal work on reflection, in which he coins the terms knowing-in-action, reflection-in-action, and conversation with the situation to characterize the process of reflection." (p. 315)
I like these ideas of knowing- or reflecting-in-action that she is citing from Donald A. Schön's "The Theory of Inquiry: Dewey’s Legacy to Education". At first glance, I imagine them to be tied to notions of fostering a community of practice in and out of the classroom (learn more about communities of practice/practitioners via Christopher Hoadley's "What is a Community of Practice and How Can We Support It?"). In other words, reflection is not some private and abstract activity for diaries only; it's about making meaningful plans for improvement once we've reflected on what we've done well and what we could do better next time, which should be for the benefit of everyone in the community/classroom.
Birmingham also paralleled and elaborated upon the above definitions from SAGE and Grier when she stated:
"In an educational context, Kessels and Korthagen (1996) explain that phronesis has to do with “the understanding of specific concrete cases and complex or ambiguous situations” (p. 19). Phronesis is situated in the particulars of a specific time and place and is concerned with specific events and persons. Episteme, in the form of educational theory can inform phronesis, but phronesis is not the simple application of educational theory, for educational situations are much too complex, ambiguous, and unpredictable to comply with an algorithmic application of educational theory. The knowing and thinking that phronesis calls for is concerned foremost with the particulars of the situation." (p. 315)
For example, when SAGE described phronesis as being tied to kairos, we see from Brimingham that one of the ways that it is kairotic is through the necessity for educators to understand the specific time and place of educational concerns because of the complexity these concerns.
To Birmingham, the value of reframing reflection as phronesis is four-fold:
She concludes with the following advice:
"Phronesis is not a moral panacea. It will not obliterate moral dilemmas, erase moral quandaries, or undo the damage that has been caused by immoral or incompetent decisions. However, the moral complexity of teaching requires phronesis to achieve moral goodness, promote excellence in teaching and learning, and advance human flourishing." (p. 321-322)
In addition, the previously mentioned dissertation from Halverson (2002) makes suggestions for teachers to use phronesis as a framework for creating educational materials for other local educators in leadership roles. For this project, he asked educators to create these materials with their practical wisdom in mind: what had they learned through trial and error, through play, or through observation that wasn't written anywhere else, especially when it came to problem-solving? Then he asked them to create instructional artifacts using multi-media and narrative for a series of low-stakes professional development gatherings called Breakfast Club. Through these gatherings, the educators realized that without the opportunity that Breakfast Club had provided, they had previously been too nervous to share their teaching strategies and advice with each other, and even though Breakfast Club took a long time to gain momentum, once it was in full swing the value of it to bring teachers together and help keep them up-to-date with current trends in pedagogical scholarship and with each other's practical knowledge was undeniable.
A third contemporary example of applying phronesis comes from Elizabeth A. Kinsella and Allan Pittman's Phronesis as Professional Knowledge: Practical Wisdom in the Professions (2012). These three works represent the current trend of practical wisdom being used for professional development purposes in the academy and in the workforce. There are many more works like these that I found, which take what I consider to be a more general (or perhaps mainstream or more predictable?) approach to applying phronesis. So, I also needed to start looking for how scholars are currently looking at phronesis in terms of games or play.
Phronesis and Gaming Today
From the scholarly sources I found that tied phronesis to gaming today, I noticed a few trends. Mostly, the applications were similar to that of phronesis in general (for professional development for those in the business of making games), but also for gamers coming to knowledge as well, which is the direction I wanted to focus on. I also noticed that the most recent of these that I was able to find via my university's library came from 2009.
What I thought might have been a ten-year lapse in any work regarding the subject was not so. Just last year in 2018, the Computer's and Writing conference took on the title of: Digital Phronesis: Code/Culture/Play and features what feels like countless works about the subject. The 100-page program demonstrates that scholars are continuing the work of tying phronesis to gaming, play, and the digital world. The proceedings just became available at the WAC Clearinghouse: Computers and Writing 2018.
Also, just two days ago, (April 20th), a popular source on YouTube called GameRanx posted a video titled "10 Things ONLY 2000s Gamers Will Understand" and the very first thing on their list is about how and where gamers learned about the games they were playing. The mention the shift from going to book stores to buy print game guides (they show an example of a Prima Game Guides, which is now going out of business) to utilizing websites like GameFAQS, and how these were the only options before the advent of YouTube, which now abounds with tutorials for everything imaginable and even some game tricks no one would ever imagine, except the one person who does it and posts it to YouTube for viral fame. To learn more about the scholarly work regarding how players now use YouTube to learn, see Aytar et al's "Playing Hard Exploration Games by Watching YouTube" (2018). To learn more about how scholars have viewed the video game instructional guides as models for training technical writers see Megan L. Fry's 2012's Master's dissertation: Video Game Walkthroughs as Instructional Texts. To learn about the motivations of text-based walkthrough writers, see Michael J. Hughes "What Motivates the Authors of Video Game Walkthroughs and FAQs?: A Study of Six GameFAQs Contributors" (hint: most of the motivations Hughes found were: "altruism, community belonging, self-expression, and recognition" (2018, abstract section).
The following academic sources are the ones I found:
Andreas Jahn-Sudmann and Ralf Stockmann's Computer games as a sociocultural phenomenon: games without frontiers, war without tears (2008) traces game studies up until 2008, with a chapter dedicated to “Ethics and Morality” as well as gamers’ cultural identities, ideology, experimentation in game playing and game design (which is an important part of coming to practical knowledge/wisdom) and more. It includes perspectives from literary studies, game developers and the social sciences to demonstrate the growing importance of games in culture. Of particular interest in this anthology is the chapter "'Moral Management': Dealing with Moral Concerns to Maintain Enjoyment of Violent Video Games" by Klimmt, et al. Something the authors mention briefly in the introduction is that violent video games, especially war games, have become so authentic in recent years that the armed forces are now using these games as training tools, which they cite from America's Army (2002) and Full Spectrum Warrior (2004). This fact was not the sort of information I expected to come across in this research, but it does demonstrate the power of gaming and phronesis when the two come together. These war simulation games are teaching things that are perhaps otherwise unlearnable without being at war; they provide the opportunity for trial and error and decision-making practice without risking lives.
Marcus Schulzke's “Moral Decision-Making in Fallout” (2009) pairs well with the above anthology, especially the article from Klimmt et al., because it shows how even games that are based on war, but are not intended to be realistic, still heavily rely on moral decision-making. Schulzke explains that although many games ask players to make moral decisions, few games make these decisions affect the rest of the game’s story/world in a significant way; however, he argues that the Fallout series of games (and he mentions Fallout 3 especially) does moral decision-making right through the use of what the game calls a Karma scale in which player decisions affect their karma with all other factions throughout the game. He writes:
"Games like Fallout cultivate what Aristotle called "phronesis" - the practical wisdom of knowing how to act morally in particular situations ... Practical wisdom ... is the skill that allows one to recognize when to apply a particular rule. By situating players in a virtual world in which they can test their phronesis and improve it without suffering from the adverse consequences actions real world, video games serve as an invaluable educational tool." (para. 4)
See YouTube user Cauldyr's video "Fallout 3 - Good Karma to Bad Karma in 70 seconds" (2008) where they use the Rock-It Launcher (a gun that shoots junk) to wreak havoc. See the Fallout Wiki on Fandom.com for the overview on Karma across the series (2018).
This "invaluable educational tool" as Schulzke puts it, might also be what Jane McGonigal calls "fiero" (the Italian word for pride) and it involves both pride at our gaming victories, but also a sense of accomplishment that makes us feel able to succeed in the real world as well. I think "fiero" is integral to experiences of developing phronesis. With trial and error, it is the hope for eventual success after the errors that leads us to keep trying. Then, the development of a working practical wisdom comes from those eventual successes. For me, ideally, the "fiero" we feel should also encourage us to share our wisdom with others so they can feel success too.
In Miguel Sicart's The Ethics of Computer Games (2009) he not only sees phronesis as a type of knowledge/wisdom or a way of coming to knowledge/wisdom, but also as a way of coming to be a gamer and a way of interacting with other gamers. He writes:
"Players use phronesis as a practical ability for the configuration of their being in the game. This moral wisdom is applied both to the experience of the game and to the other agents that are immersed in it. Other players’ well-being has to prevail in order to enjoy a successful game experience; also, the game experience’s well-being has to be respected for the experience of the game to take place. Winning is not always the most rational choice. This might be derived from the fact that players are moral beings who care for other players, acting with moral judgment when creating the game experience." (p.103)
This idea that practical wisdom is an inherent part of the gamer identity fascinates me, and at the same time makes perfect sense. My brother and I were enjoying our first video games at a time when we weren't yet readers and at a time when the Internet was not ubiquitous in homes or even schools or libraries. If it weren't for our parents, we wouldn't have learned the skills we needed to fully enjoy the games, so we may have gotten frustrated and given up for good. To learn about a gamer who didn't start playing until they were an adult and didn't get the sort of guidance I got as a child, see Roqayah Chamseddine's "Playing Games for the First Time as an Adult is Harder Than You Think" (2017) on Polygon.
There is also Zackariasson et al's “Phronesis and Creativity: Knowledge Work in Video Game Development” (2006). Although this article is more about developing games than playing them, the case study addressed found that dedicated gamers made for better people to hire to develop games. The study, which followed the hiring, first-day meeting and training, and subsequent work environment at a Swedish video game development studio, found that interaction and sharing of knowledge was key for the company’s operation, with innovation in gaming as their shared goal. To achieve innovation, “new computer development work unfolds as a process of continuous negotiation and testing of what works and what does not” (p. 426), which is exactly the sort of playfulness and experimentation I’ve addressed so far. Thus, it appears that although gamers don’t have to use/develop phronesis to play in a way that they used to, phronesis has not left the world of gaming today because game developers are hiring gamers as their employees, and looking for gamers with practical wisdom or “street smarts” to make games utilizing experimentation.
Phronesis and Gaming (or Playfulness) of the Past
At the advice of my professor, to find out how scholars were looking at phronesis in the past, and how to tie it to gaming before video games, I looked to the broader concept of play or playfulness and also to analog games. In particular, he suggested that rhetoric textbooks of the past might be useful, and as usual, he was absolutely right.
I began searching through the ULS Digital Collections via the University of Pittsburgh, which includes schoolbooks of the 1700s and 1800s (eighteenth and nineteenth century). This digital collection is an excellent resource for tracing genealogies of pegagy because researchers can search through the entire collection using keywords and a variety of filters. My search for "phronesis" didn't come back with any results, but "wisdom" and "practice" and "prudence" came back with plenty of results geared toward writing instruction (see the image of The Girl's Reading-Book for an example). In The Girl's Reading-Book (1838), a story teaches the readers of the importance of "Learning in the Field" (also the name of the chapter), of making observations and listening carefully in order to learn from nature (which she has been tasked with by a wise old man). The wisdom the author is imparting here is that of the importance of playfulness to come to knowledge, in this text called prudence. Even the text itself takes on a whimsical and playful tone/mood as the author describes the lives of dogs and hawks and snails and chickens and bees and many other creatures (and what we can learn from watching them), with the author concluding with the following:
"I thanked [the old man] for his tenderness and wisdom. And I took his precepts into my heart, that I might weigh them and find if they were true. And though I was then young, and now am old, I have never had reason to doubt these lessons of the fields were good..." (p. 39)
Even without naming phronesis as a concept, the idea of practical wisdom, and even of its ties to virtue, are clearly here in this book directed toward school-aged girls and also in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile, or On Education from over 70 years prior (1762). In this work, he is proposing a method of teaching children, which he situates around his character of an ideal man, Emile.
He opens his treatise with:
"I shall say very little about the value of a good education, nor shall I stop to prove that the customary method of education is bad; this has been done again and again, and I do not wish to fill my book with things which everyone knows. I will merely state that, go as far back as you will, you will find a continual outcry against the established method, but no attempt to suggest a better. The literature and science of our day tend rather to destroy than to build up. .... We know nothing of childhood; and with our mistaken notions the further we advance the further we go astray. The wisest writers devote themselves to what a man ought to know, without asking what a child is capable of learning. They are always looking for the man in the child, without considering what he is before he becomes a man. It is to this study that I have chiefly devoted myself, so that if my method is fanciful and unsound, my observations may still be of service....There are two things to be considered with regard to any scheme. In the first place, “Is it good in itself” In the second, “Can it be easily put into practice?” (1762, Author's Preface Section, para. 2-6)
Rousseau's investment in proving the inherent good and the ease of putting his educational suggestions into practice demonstrate the phronetic significance of his work, which goes onto propose a scheme of education based in nature, much like the girl's textbook above does.
Another historic textbook, The Institute Reader and Normal Class-Book (1870) by W.H. Cole comes up when using the search term "practical wisdom" in the ULS Digital Collection. Interestingly enough, this text shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I know this is a cliche, but it seems that this phrase in particular became cliche because it held some truth. Finding the familiar in the the distant (or not-so-distant) past is really enjoyable for me. This text books is a teacher's textbook that provides suggestions for classroom management and many other teacher needs. It even has example worksheets with pictures! I imagine it to be much like the artifacts created by the teachers in Halverson's Breakfast Club and much of the advice seems like the sort of practical wisdom one teacher (or several) would pass down from experience to future teachers. Although the text doesn't seem to take the route of suggesting play, it does indicate the importance of practice (which I will impose the connotation of playfulness on, for the sake of this project).
A third, Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses: For Use in the Kindergarten, School, and Home by J. R. Murray (1887) is chiefly a songbook (especially of hymns), but also includes hints and other instructions for the music teacher, including movements for the children to accompany their singing and the suggestion to consider including whistles or bells to enhance the music. I find these suggestions to be incredibly playful and practical; none of them are expensive or extravagant (or otherwise impractical), but can make the experience all the more enjoyable for the children and anyone watching them perform. It may be useful to note that I've never seen a children's song book like this one before, with suggestions like these, so to see it makes me very happy!
Each of these textbooks (and the treatise) stood out to me because they were different than many of the other textbooks and writings of education of the time (which Rousseau describes in further detail in his preface). Many of the others represent the scientific (empirical? industrial?) turn that occurred in the late 1700s and 1800s in the West. The scientific method was in. Rule books (that should be strictly followed) were in. The idea of play, perhaps, didn't align with the authority scholars were trying to impart with their work, but these works don't seem too concerned.
Looking further back into the past, I found two secondary sources about teh games people played and how they learned them in early modernity (approximately the 1100s-1700s) in Europe. The first is Allison Levy's edited collection Playthings in Early Modernity: Party Games, Word Games, Mind Games (2017). The abstract (which is also part of the opening of Levy's introduction) provides a useful framework for this project; it states:
"Why do we play games...How and to what end do we stretch the spaces of play? What happens when players go ‘out of bounds,’ or when games go ‘too far’? Moreover, what happens when we push the parameters of inquiry...? Playthings in Early Modernity emphasizes the rules of the game(s) as well as the breaking of those rules. Thus, the titular ‘plaything’ is understood as both an object and a person, and play, in the early modern world, is treated not merely as a pastime, a leisurely pursuit, but as a pivotal part of daily life, a strategic psychosocial endeavor." (p. 1)
I couldn't agree more about game play being "a strategic psychosocial endeavor" and "a pivotal part of daily life." Scholars consider something psychosocial when it relates to how people interact together and the thought processes involved in these interactions. For me, the definition of phronesis that I'm utilizing is all about the psychosocial because practical wisdom is all about learning from others and then passing knowledge on. I also find this type of learning to be in important part of day-to-day life because learning how to play games allows us to learn in a lowstakes and enjoyable way, making learning fun and engaging, which keeps us motivated when learning becomes more rigorous or formal.
An especially interesting figure in the book is from Jessica Marie Otis' chapter "Sportes and Pastimes, done by Number: Mathematical Games in Early Modern England." She explains that in this time period as the system of using Arabic numerals became more and more commonplace, math games became more and more prominent. Counting boards and tallying systems went from being the main way of expressing numbers for all mathematical needs to being playthings, and were discussed by writers of the time as being enjoyed by children to learn arithmetic, which they practiced together (p. 131-132). On the following page is the etching "Teaching a Child to Use a Counting Board" (1615) from Robert Recorde's The Ground for Artes, which is housed at the Bodleian Libraries at The University of Oxford.
The next, The History of Playing Cards: with Anecdotes of Their Use in Conjuring, Fortune-Telling, and Card-Sharping (1973) was edited by Taylor et al. Of use to my work is the chapter "The Application of Cards to Science." This chapter describes how cards have been used for more than for play at least since the 1500s with the Chartiludium Logicae (Cards for the Instruction in the Art of Reasoning) printed by Dr. Thomas Murner in 1507. These cards were used for memorizing and recalling facts by Dr. Murner's students, just like children's educational card games today. A footnote on page 187 also suggests that we might also consider certain Ancient Egyptian astrological cards to be similar as well, putting the beginning of cards as learning tools even further in the past. The chapter also mentions that history and geography in particular were taught with cards in the 1700 and 1800s.
Although the connection to phronesis is less obvious in this work, I think it serves a useful purpose in that it shows us how far back the ties to learning and games (cards) goes back into antiquity; it's nothing new.
Phronesis and Gaming...in the Future?
Although I personally have no idea how we might learn gaming (or learn through gaming) differently in the future, some folks are already looking ahead to try to find out. For example, see "The Future of Gaming: A Panel Dicussion" (2014) (strange how we are already five years in the future since this work) video hosted by Reason Magazine's Matt Welch who is interviewing the director of the Gaming Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, Professor Tracy Fullerton. Also, I'll be keeping an eye out on the works at the International Journal of Game-Based Learning to see the future as it unfolds!
So What? Phronesis, Gaming, and The Rhetoric Classroom
To me, these works demonstrate the importance of meeting students where they are, understanding how people learned before everyone had access to formal education (or the Internet) and how play improves learning. This is a topic of huge importance to me. My other significant work for the semester has been on a similar topic, and is also available on this blog: http://kelsey-burroughs.weebly.com/blog/queering-technical-professional-communication-tpc-through-video-games
In that work, I wrote that there is not always a clear-cut solution, or a one-size-fits-all answer to making changes for the better, yet, I think looking to games and play provides a treasure trove of options that educators can take in a variety of ways. One such way is a discussion of ethos and credibility, because both informal learning/practical knowledge, and gaming/play have had their validity and usefulness questioned time and again. So how would students make use of their own practical knowledge or wisdom successfully in their writing? They often don't, but why not? I think this is something that should change.
I'm just your average fictional creature, living in a swampland by the sea.