Week 8 Reflections

Change is imminent in the two undergraduate courses I'm guiding this semester. The week after next will be witness to a rather significant shift. Students' responsibilities will no longer involve readings predetermined by me or their classmates. Blogging requirements will lessen to once a week. In place of this work will be a narrowed focus upon final projects comprised of three constituent parts. I think the pace of both courses will quicken as a result. This already leads me to feel as though more than half the semester is over, that I should already begin relating here some course revisions.

Foremost in my mind right now is how I wasn't prescriptive enough regarding the student reading groups in ENG 252. Future student groups will be required to come up with specific questions designed to promote discussion. Beginning a whole-class conversation with a generic "So, whaddya think of the readings?" is only successful for so long, even if the instructor asked. As mentioned in previous reflective posts, I find little fault falling upon the students who led these in-class discussions. It was much more my responsibility to provide adequate guidance and I simply didn't. There needs to be more of a balance struck between students' writing interests and my own course intentions. This semester has already been a significant witness to me erring too far on the side of caution in this regard. Overly concerned with not telling students how and what to think about writing and videogames, perhaps I've sacrificed having them learn in deeper, more meaningful ways. In other words, I fear these undergraduate courses are challenging only in terms of the required amount of written work (if at all).

This is a bit of a nagging concern for ENG 513, too, but it could just be that time in the semester. Literature reviews are due by the start of our next class, and I know how taxing such documents can be on graduate students' time. I should reserve any further judgment until after all literature reviews are in and I've had a moment or three to look over them.

A Rough Patch (Conclusion)

The agency and immediacy Fallout 3 provides to the player in terms of morality and survival and just how meaningful it can be to be good or evil in this particular post-apocalyptic environment are also characteristics noted by Allen Cook in the column, “Hero of the Wastes.” The player “can truly revel in the epic nature of [their] betrayal of humanity” or feel as though they have “contributed substantially to the well-being of mankind by simply handing some guy a cheap bottle of water.” Although Egocentric is a karmic title the game reserves for the player marking a neutral path through the Capital Wasteland, Cook implies that the entire experience is about ego: “I’m the hero because I’m the one with the tools, the knowledge, the know-how…I am the arbiter of history because I’m the only one who knows it, which means I’m the only one who can write it.” It is because of the greater agency and influence provided to the player from the beginning of the game that prompts the question of what they will do. This is a point on which Duncan Fyfe explains in the blog post, “Escape From Vault 101,” observing that “making moral decisions isn’t a feature designed to encourage replayability, it’s arguably the entire point [of playing the game].” All falls upon the quality of the character being developed by the player, and if they “try and approximate the moral and legal standards of today, then that’s a statement in itself.” In a way, the player becomes similar not only to Ellison’s Vic but also to J.G. Ballard’s Traven in “The Terminal Beach,” how the player’s time in the Capital Wasteland becomes “completely existential, an absolute break separating one moment from the next like two quantal events” (131). Furthermore, the player’s actions come to mirror those taken by Randy Bragg in Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, for “in everything he did, now, he found he looked into the needs of the future” (173). Such characteristics compose the essence of survival in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

In Dale Bailey’s referential and self-aware post-apocalyptic tale, “The End Of The World As We Know It,” he identifies three varieties of main characters typical to such stories: the rugged individualist whose self-reliance and knowledge of firearms puts them “on their way to Re-Establishing Western Civilization” (287), the post-apocalyptic bandit who is not “displeased by the expanded opportunities to rape and pillage” (287) and the world-weary sophisticate who needs no further description. With its strong elements of choice and freedom coupled with a simple, but effective system of morality, Fallout 3 allows, and perhaps even encourages, the player to be each of these characters, if not all three. No matter the player’s particular karmic bent, expertise will tend “towards the ultraviolent" (Langan 311). With myriad opportunities for damnation and salvation, maintaining neutrality in the Capital Wasteland can be a rather fruitless, if not futile, endeavor. Perhaps this is what the post-apocalyptic scenario offered by Fallout 3 is most suggestive of, that ascribing to a moral code, be it harmful or helpful to those encountered, is most essential for survival.

Invitation

...in focusing our and our students' reflections and writing on a practice such as gaming, we are both honoring an emerging interest among many students and helping students work in platforms that, in some cases, mimic the kinds of writing environments and situations that students might find themselves in outside our classes...Moreoever, my emphasis on inviting students to consider connections across modes of writing and writing environments cuts to the heart of what we as compositionists should be doing: offering students a diversity of writing experiences and encouraging them to become more conscious writers--that is, writers rhetorically aware of how audience, genre, and tone work in a variety of writing environments.

--Jonathan Alexander, "Gaming, Student Literacies, and the Classroom: Some Possibilities for Transformation"

Rough Bits & Pieces

There is often noticeable nostalgia and regret present in post-apocalyptic stories, and, writes Miller, "the underworld mood is there...because post-Megawar stories are about an afterlife" (Miller xv).
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Of dominant focus in this chapter is the idea of a nuclear apocalypse. While perhaps no longer as likely as an environmental catastrophe or the spread of some incurable disease (which may or may not turn us all into zombies), the notion of civilization and humanity decimated by nuclear war was once dominant.
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Within the medium of videogames, too, are post-apocalyptic scenarios becoming popular, and the latest in the Fallout series is no longer the most recent example. That might belong to Borderlands, a first-person shooter (FPS) with role-playing elements, or to Fallen Earth, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) set in the Grand Canyon after a series of natural disasters decimate the U.S. population. 2010 will see the release of at least two more videogames with a post-apocalyptic bent, id Software's Rage and Obsidian Entertainment's Fallout: New Vegas.
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Another possible, tangential inspiration involves Winston Churchill, who appears as an inspirational hologram in Jack McDevitt's "Never Despair," and a malfunctioning Protectron robot which believes itself to be Button Gwinnett, second signatory of the Declaration of Independence, in Fallout 3's "Stealing Indepence" side-quest.
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"Stealing Independence," though, represents a situation in which completion of the quest does not result in an automatic karma gain or loss. Dialogue options with Button include a self-destruct command and words of encouragement to keep fighting the good fight. As in most of the in-game situations, such options are rather black and white, but this still shows how the exertion of greater degrees of control and influence is often what causes the player to accrue good karma or evil karma.
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I make explicit reference to these past written works not only to reveal some of the potential inspirations for the design and development of Fallout 3 as well as its morality and survival elements but also because the authors of such important literature often impart particular aspects in words better than those I might have chosen myself.
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"If Megawar is committed by the superpowers, how long will survivors keep the illusion that somehow 'our' government is less our enemy than 'their' government, or that they are different from us?" (xix) Fallout 3 provides an answer to Miller's question, offering examples of human existence that are, to some degree, successful without government. Instead, the duality of morality and simple survival dominate, particularly in the smaller communities of Canterbury Commons and Megaton. Places with greater governmental control, like the Republic of Dave and Rivet City, have more evidence of conflicts of interest.
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Rather than make reference to this sub-genre of science fiction as 'post-holocaust,' a term which saw greater acceptance in years past, Miller introduces "Megawar...another barbaric neologism" (xiii) to not only identify war at the end of civilization but also to not diminish the memory of the mass murder of Jews living in Europe during World War II. I think this different term also adheres rather well to Miller's later layout of nuclear armageddon, how, more often than not in this sub-genre, Megawar "happens offstage, between stories, and the rest is about the survivors, the orphans of a psychopathic civilization" (xiv). This is as much the case in Fallout 3 as in other Megawar-type representations.

Delicious Every Other Day 10.20.09

The Age of the Essay
  • "The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature."

Three Tweets for the Web
  • "Many critics of contemporary life want our culture to remain like a long-distance relationship at a time when most of us are growing into something more mature. We assemble culture for ourselves, creating and committing ourselves to a fascinating brocade."

From North Carolina, a model of how to transform education
  • "Many conservatives savaged the plan as 'social engineering' and said it was doomed to fail. Some parents were angry, and a few decamped for the private school system – until the results came in. Within a decade, Raleigh went from one of the worst-performing districts in America to one of the best."

Avataritis
  • "In video games, then, we do become one with our character – at least as much as acting out a role in a play allows us to vicariously experience being an another being."

A Regular Writing Routine
  • "...waiting around until you have enough time is just another excuse not to write."

The future of college may be virtual
  • "Might finding the right class online become more important than which institution was offering it? What happens if colleges or even specialized online-only education companies provide essentially the same Economics 101 course? Does geography cease to matter and do low-cost providers win out?"

"He not busy being born is busy dying"
  • "As authors and publishers explore the new world of online reading and writing, we need to do more than just translate print books to an electronic screen. We have a future to invent!"

A Rough Patch (Karma)

Fallout 3's karma system is a method of maintaining and recording the player's moral actions and their consequences, representing inclination toward a good, neutral or evil overall in-game status. While measured in points, only a particular karmic title, not a numerical value, is available and visible to the player. Karma is also important in Fallout 3 as it determines how non-player characters (NPCs) receive the player. For instance, if a player has very good karma, an NPC in Megaton will talk to the player every day and provide free items, such as ammunition, food and/or medicine. A player with evil karma, though, has an opportunity for the same benefits in Paradise Falls, a former shopping mall converted into a enslavement camp. In addition, karma limits whichNPCs may join the player as a valuable companion in combat. Clover, a slave, and Jericho, a mercenary, are most loyal to the player with evil karma, and will express boredom should the player perform too many good actions. Butch, a Vault 101 dweller, and Sergeant RL-3, a military robot, can be recruited by the player with neutral karma, but will not leave should the player perform too many evil or good actions. Fawkes, a friendly Super Mutant, and Star Paladin Cross, a Brotherhood of Steel member, will follow the player with good karma of their own free will and without cost, but both will leave and refuse to follow again should the player develop evil karma. However, Charon, a ghoul, andDogmeat, a dog, are the lone two NPCs who will join the player regardless of karma.

The player's karmic status is never fixed, always in flux and dependent upon particular actions taken by the player. In addition to killing evil characters and performing good quest actions, positive karma choices include donating caps to any church, selling the fingers of evil characters to the Regulators, providing scrap metal toward the repair of Megaton's water purifier and offering purified water to beggars outside settlement limits. In addition to killing non-evil characters and performing evil quest actions, negative karma choices include stealing items fromNPCs, selling the ears of non-evil characters to Daniel Littlehorn, providing the drug psycho to Paulie Cantelli in Rivet City which results in his death, hacking locked computer terminals and enslaving NPCS, even Raiders. It should be noted, too, that the selling of ears or fingers is only possible if the player takes either the Contract Killer or Lawbringer perk at level 14 or above, thereby providing another moral choice that might determine one's continued survival in the Capital Wasteland. Of course, the player can perform a mixture of these actions to maintain neutrality, but an arguably more authentic and interesting experience awaits the player determined to earn as little good and evil karma as possible. And, as explained later, Fallout 3's karma system reveals much about a particular definition of morality and how survival can become more or less likely as a result.

Week 6 Reflections

In my previous reflections post, I noted some concerns about my undergraduate courses, that ENG 252 student reading groups might utilize class time better, that there's a visible gap in ENG 298 between the haves and the have-nots in terms of knowledge and experience. Of course, the latter issue carries a heavier weight, if only because I should have anticipated this in offering a survey-type course in writing about videogames. I see now that incorporating student reading groups in 298 might help close the gap, and there also might be less confusion about reading selections. Instead of the syllabus just declaring what's worth students' attention (culture/history, art, New Games Journalism, genre, sex, violence, racism, etc.), perhaps it should have been more of a series of suggestions for students to consider. One look at the 252 syllabus reveals how it is closer to this idea without going wholesale.

My graduate course, ENG 513, has evidence of this as well, although there is some confusion and/or disappointment regarding that course's focus (or lack thereof). An apparent expectation for some students was a greater focus on composition pedagogy and theory, that the course would not only get us thinking about identity construction online but also about "how the Internet has changed the way we write, including writing processes, and new ways of thinking about audience...What assumptions do we need to reconsider in light of the way we see texts produced online?" This could, of course, reveal simple miscommunication or mutual misunderstanding about particular aspects of my approach to guiding ENG 513. It could also be evidence of a course design problem, that I've provided too little/much opportunity for students to chart their own unique trajectories, that I've neglected important areas of emphases, that I didn't prepare or think enough about the course itself. Right now, I'm unsure of the reason (or reasons). Could it be that the course itself is too broad, too general?

Such broadness and generality is an apparent strength in ENG 252, though, as most students are enthusiastic in exploring and discussing various and sundry kinds of everyday writing. Perhaps such diversity just doesn't (or shouldn't) work as well when writing about video games or learning about identity construction online. I am quicker to provide context in 252, though, so perhaps that's the root of the issue in 513, or even in 298. Then again, maybe I'm nowhere near the heart of these concerns. Amidst regular work for all courses, these are the kinds of thoughts taking up residence in my mind. As always, I welcome comments and feedback.

A Rough Patch (Introduction)

The appealing immersion of post-apocalyptic stories increases through the newer media of videogames. By placing the game player at the center of a post-nuclear narrative, there's a greater experiential immediacy to certain speculative events of how civilization and life in general continues afterward. In fact, a particular series of games has a history of utilizing aspects of various and sundry post-apocalyptic tales. Fallout, Fallout 2 and, the most recent addition to the series, Fallout 3 present both an idealized past, one rife with technological advances from robots with fully functioning A.I. to nuclear-powered vehicles, and a nullified future, one complete with roving bands of marauders and radioactive ruins. While the player's experience in the first two games in the series was more removed in an isometric, third-person perspective, Fallout 3's gameplay is in the first person, making every action more immediate and present. Instead of viewing a limited amount of squares of space featuring the desert wastes of what were once parts of California and Nevada, the setting of the first two Fallout games, the player of Fallout 3 is able to survey the bombed-out suburban areas of Washington, D.C., capital buildings reduced to rubble and roads torn asunder by the passage of time. Fallout 3's atmosphere and visual aesthetic are not only reminiscent of post-World War II America and the prevalence of nuclear paranoia during that time, but this videogame also recalls the descriptions of a nuclear post-apocalypse in such classic science fiction as Carol Emswhiller's "Day at the Beach," "Poul Anderson's "Tomorrow's Children" and Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog." More than this, though, Fallout 3 captures the morality and survival evident in those same stories, building on the kinds of ethical quandaries they present. Fallout 3 is also unique in that it offers an amount of freedom of choice. As readers of the aforementioned stories, we can only accept their traumatic events; as Fallout players, however, we have a more active role in causing or preventing such events. This element of choice not only draws a separation from the stories that perhaps inspired the Fallout series, but it also draws my interest in Fallout 3 as a particular post-apocalyptic scenario.

Delicious Every Other Day 10.13.09

The End of the Email Era [WSJ]
"...email was better suited to the way we used to use the Internet—logging off and on, checking our messages in bursts. Now, we are always connected, whether we are sitting at a desk or on a mobile phone. The always-on connection, in turn, has created a host of new ways to communicate that are much faster than email, and more fun."

Computer program proves Shakespeare didn't work alone, researchers claim [Times Online]
"The 400-year-old mystery of whether William Shakespeare was the author of an unattributed play about Edward III may have been solved by a computer program designed to detect plagiarism."


Adaptive games promise high scores for everyone [New Scientist]
"For those who fret that their hard-earned money might be wasted on a dud computer game, help could soon be at hand. A new breed of game aims to suit everyone by adapting to an individual's playing style."

Death of the Author [Edge]
"From the Machiavellian wrangling of Eve Online’s player-sustained universe to that last, improbably perfect, sticky grenade that garners you a Killtacular, player expression is rapidly overshadowing the script and setting."

100 years of Big Content fearing technology--in their own words [Ars Technica]
"In 1906, famous composer John Philip Sousa took to Appleton's Magazine to pen an essay decrying the latest piratical threat to his livelihood, to the entire body politic, and to "musical taste" itself. His concern? The player piano and the gramophone, which stripped the life from real, human, soulful live performances."

Public Attitudes to New Technology: Lessons for Regulators [ScienceDaily]
"New technologies may change our lives for the better, but sometimes they have risks. Communicating those benefits and risks to the public, and developing regulations to deal with them, can be difficult — particularly if there's already public opposition to the technology."

Does your social class determine your online social network? [CNN]
"...almost 23 percent of Facebook users earn more than $100,000 a year, compared to slightly more than 16 percent of MySpace users. On the other end of the spectrum, 37 percent of MySpace members earn less than $50,000 annually, compared with about 28 percent of Facebook users."

They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They?
"There can be no mistake. This is when he breaks her. Her expression flattens. Her eyes go blank. She appears to be dissociating. Slowly, she turns from the camera, going somewhere else, inside herself, anywhere but here."

Book Sprints [FLOSS]
"This book describes how to carry out collaborative authoring in a short time with the express goal of having a publishable book at the end."

Employees skirting office web blocks to get Facebook, Twitter fix [Globe and Mail]
''...while the move by companies and school boards to block sites deemed productivity killers is on the rise, so are attempts by resourceful employees and students to dodge those barriers, using mobile devices or connecting through proxy servers."

Week 5 Reflections

In offering one course with substantial revisions and two new courses, I began the semester with some expectations of a blunder or three. I anticipated all kinds of potential problems, that perhaps some ENG 252 or ENG 298 students wouldn't buy the course approach, that maybe half the ENG 513 class would grow prematurely tired of the course focus (which could still happen). I was also concerned about student-led class sessions in 252 and that some of my reading selections for 298 were questionable. How fitting, then, that both concerns were manifest in Week 5.

In 252, we are to that point in the semester in which, each week, a student group is conducting a Thursday session, complete with assigned readings and discussion questions. This past week marked the first and it had some modicum of success. For instance, I learned how few of my advanced composition students learned anything at all about audience prior to that particular discussion. The readings and subsequent discussion were enlightening in that respect, but not much else happened. As I had no real expectations beforehand (and provided little prior guidance to the group), I can't level much criticism. The second group, though, has plans to utilize class time to a fuller extent, and I will be sure to include some pointers in the next course syllabus.

An amendment to ENG 298, though, will involve a different organization and overall selection of assigned readings as some students were confused about them this week. However, I also find an increasing disparity between those who have a wealth of experience with videogames and those who do not. I hear it in the whole-class discussions, and I worry that inviting both kinds of students was a mistake, that I'm doing all a disservice. My initial thought about having particular videogame experience requirements was that to do so would be a bad idea, that it would be an unfair parameter for this course, in particular for one I was trying to get off the ground. Now, though, I wonder if future students might be better served by a course that is less an introductory survey and more of a specific orientation to writing about videogames. Granted, this was part of my future plans from the beginning but I think there might be some additional requirements for taking the course.

However, ENG 513 remains a thoroughly fulfilling endeavor. The first student facilitation, in which we discussed LinkedIn and online professionalism, went very well, and it is with great interest that I look forward to the second next week.