By Kristopher Purzycki, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
CCCC has dwelled on the theme of place recently which, for someone who focused their doctoral research on placemaking, has been motivating if not affirming. At such a time when several crises seem to be converging, we find ourselves struggling with questions of place. In the protests of #BlackLivesMatter, for instance, we see a reclamation of public places by those who have historically been displaced, or immigrants escaping the homeplace to rebuild one in a foreign nation. Confronting these collective acts of intentional, authentic placemaking are militarizing forces who see their places of power being usurped. At their disposal are segregationist codes of “law and order” intended to keep the citizenry “in their place.”
For many college instructors, we have found our place to be in the classroom. The collaborative spirit and free exchange of ideas we found at school motivated many of us to continue in academia. This genius loci or “sense of place,” was compromised by the pandemic. For those who continue to teach in-person, I anticipate the experience must feel like being in a strange place – one that is familiar but more discomfiting and ambiguous. Those of us who have had to move our classes online have been tasked with the fabrication of the conventional learning space from a hodgepodge of LMSs, communications services, and apps. But what about the other places we’ve lost? How do we conjure up the chance encounter or curiosity-piquing events of the campus for students – especially for those first-year students who are wrestling with additional uncertainty?
I won’t claim to answer these concerns in the paragraphs that follow. Instead, I offer an open reflection on composition pedagogy and play and the common places that nurture both. For my purposes here, I rely upon a conceptualization of place as the intersection of happening and community and the values both instill within a setting. Place, according to this definition, is divorced from geographical location and may be generated, articulated, or reclaimed anywhere. It is how we, as instructors, feel “in place” in almost any classroom. It is also why both students and instructors can feel displaced in an online version of this same classroom. In the case at present, I look at multiplayer games as models for distance learning.
The Loss of the Campus as Common Place
Despite having to overhaul the dining room into the distance-teaching lab, working from home this semester has been a privilege. I’ve taught several classes online so, if anything, the pandemic has rendered that experience into something less niche than it once was. It’s not the loss of specialization that has vexed me this semester, however. It’s the loss of the campus as a place of encounter and community. Our plazas and unions, abundant with charged and provocative activity, has been replaced with emails and newsletters. And more emails.
At the center of my home campus, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is Ernest Spaights Plaza, where most of these encounters occur. Functionally speaking, this concrete swath patched with islands of well-kept foliage connects the Student Union and the Golda Meir Library with the Arts buildings and Bolton Hall. Surrounded on all four sides by modernist architecture of brick and cement, this plaza can often feel inhospitable – much like a prison courtyard. What makes this space endearing is the confluence of individuals and groups from across campus as well as the surrounding city of Milwaukee. On any given day, for example, one can buy lunch from a fundraising student organization, chat with the iconic “Pen Guy,” or absorb the energy from among the periphery of raucous student protests.
These plazas also serve as pedagogical sandboxes and laboratories. My first semester at UWM, I took first-year writing students to Spaights Plaza to rhetorically analyze proselytizing evangelicals. Just prior to the week when COVID emptied our campus, my more austere tech comm classes are building snowmen outside of class to demonstrate their understanding of systems analysis (at least that’s what was claimed). While I miss the classroom experiences, it is those campus places and the happenings within them that I yearn for. Can computer games help recreate the authentic teaching and learning place? Looking at projects like the campus replica of UPenn created in Minecraft, we’ve seen how the spaces of campus can be created. But how do we instill the values of the campus into these shared, artificial worlds?
Not surprisingly, I’ve recently found myself drawn to online multiplayer computer games. Online games have been crucial for socialization during the pandemic. So much so that, back in April, the World Health Organization embraced games as a safe, physically-distanced way to socialize, working with 60 publishers as create the Play Apart Together campaign. Massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) have been especially popular for players seeking socialization.
For me, however, I’ve always had a difficult time committing to MMORPGs. Despite playing them since the days of MUDs and modems, some unknown quality rung hollow for me: I’ve owned a coveted plot of virtual real estate on Ultima Online and wandered the sparse wilderness of Everquest. I’ve uninstalled World of Warcraft and Guild Wars (and GW2) – only to reinstall them as soon as an expansion is released – more times than I want to admit. Across these and many others, I found combat and looting, resource gathering and management, and other well-trodden tropes, to be redundant. The environments struck me as lifeless, the simulations of nature betrayed by repetitive encounters and meaningless discoveries compressed to the 16:9 frame.
Those who are familiar with the genre are probably keen to pick up on the one quality I was missing: playing with others.
A good deal of research has been conducted on the social qualities of video games; most CPGS members have advocated for multiplayer games as supporting writing pedagogy objectives. (Hint: the CPGS Zotero library is a good resource to start.) Assuming we all appreciate how games and play can support work in the classroom, can games capture the values of the campus outside?
Venturing Into MMORPGS…again…
Shortly after the completion of the Spring semester, I reinstalled Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), an MMORPG I’d played in beta (2013) and ordered before release. ESO is the first MMORPG in the Elder Scrolls franchise. Although I enjoy the series overall, I discontinued ESO after a few short months of playing. In addition to graduate school, the tedium I’d experienced in all MMOs started creeping in.
With this install, however, the expansive world of Tamriel felt more active and engaging. After a couple weeks of reacquainting myself with the landscape and my fresh sorcerer, “Scratch Lee,” I began looking for a guild. It took some time to find one that felt appropriate but eventually joined the aptly-named Grey Manes, a year-old group aimed at “the older gamers among us” who prioritized life outside of the game.
After a couple months of membership, I’ve found the guild to be active, welcoming, and social. Much of the socialization takes place on the guild’s Discord server which contains dozens of topical channels dedicated to various interests and topics.
Discord is a communications platform, much like Slack or Microsoft Teams, that was initially aimed at gamers but has since targeted a more general audience. Discord’s cloud-based servers are often topical or maintained by an organization. These servers are organized by channels where (mostly) categorically relevant discourse happens. When the pandemic closed down the campus, it was also Discord that students and I used to maintain the trust that had been developing up to that point. Due to privacy concerns, I maintained the Discord server solely as an informal place for all of my classes to convene and ask questions.
With the addition of Microsoft Teams to our campus, I’ve since discontinued using Discord for classroom purposes. Teams is identical in many ways so I assumed it would foster place the same way Discord had. Even with Teams’ approximation of Discord’s look, however, there’s very little echo of the way Discord feels. Despite similar interfaces, facilities and options, the aesthetics of Discord is much friendlier than Teams. I’m not sure if the UWM Discord server is official or not but there few rules beyond a netiquette shortlist. Within the forums there are students organizing events, meeting up to play various games, recruiting for their respective orgs…much of what would be taking place in those currently vacant campus spaces.
For the Grey Manes, the Discord server is the foundation of the guild. Occasionally someone will pop in to request help with a quest. These requests are frequently responded to by those available. The #thank-you channel is a testimonial to these collaborations. Most of the conversation, however, has very little to do with ESO. Guild members exchange recipes on the #recipe channel, for example. During the early days of the pandemic, one guild member started #the-wiping-dead channel, recreating scenes from The Walking Dead using rolls of toilet paper as character stand-ins. One of the more active channels is #our-lives-out-of-eso where members discuss everything from venison to COVID; politics and religion are immediately routed to other channels through the deus-ex-machina of admins. It’s a congenial place where newcomers are welcomed by any guild members online at the time.
Although I’d been active in the Discord chats, I hadn’t actually done anything with the guild so I signed up for one of the several weekly events organized by various guild members. It had been awhile since I’d joined any scheduled MMO event (the last: a flash mob in Star Wars Galaxies). Once entering the guild hall (the decked-out mountain villa of one guild elder), the chaos of dozens of waiting avatars was immediately familiar. Once we set out, I realized I’d never figured out which Discord channel was being used by the group. We zipped through one of ESO’s regions, knocking off a half-dozen difficult world bosses in under half-an-hour. Once complete, the crowd dispersed in moments.
Without participating in the communication, I found there was very little in the way of meaning to be found in the event. While I was relieved to not have to deal with those bosses (learning objectives) myself, the lack of dialog left the exchange feeling hollow. Is this the experience of students in my online classes? Have I provided them with suitable events (boss hunt) to help them engage and make sense of the materials (Discord chat) provided?
My rediscovery of MMORPGs has alluded to a common place that is available to campus communities. While we may have temporarily lost our plazas and unions, students are actively taking it upon themselves to create their own places on communications platforms like Discord and social games like Among Us. Games inform us of the need for a space – a virtual classroom – in which we can impart the values of our community. Most game spaces are built to resist this (one can’t write on the walls of the guild hall!) but, combined with open and liberatory communications channels, maybe we can better approximate the revelatory uncertainty and chance – the place – of the classroom.
About the Author
Outside of his one spouse, Kristopher Purzycki likes to spend time with two of everything: cats, children, screens, webcams, microphones, easels, bikes, shoes, rums, and whisks. Otherwise he’s teaching with the English and Digital Arts & Culture programs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
This piece is part of a series written by CPGS members about current thoughts, reflections, or projects in and around games and gaming. If you are a CPGS member and would like to contribute to these musings, please contact Beth Caravella at email@example.com or via the CPGS Discord.