Why ARIS Works for Literature Classes

Picture of smartphone with text Than why is he so upset?


Cleve Wiese

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Cleve Wiese

So my Banned Books E314 class is wrapping up the ARIS project described in my recent lesson plan post, and as I reflect on the experience I find myself fending off the complaints of a reasonable (if imaginary) skeptic: Sure, games are rhetorical, so it makes sense to analyze them in a rhetoric class. And sure, procedural rhetoric is an important mode of argumentation, so game design makes sense – in a rhetoric class. And yes, given the proliferation of location based media, the creation of location based, augmented reality games is probably a valuable experience for students – again, in a rhetoric class. But why, this skeptic asks, would any of this be relevant to a literature class – a banned books class, no less – in which your texts are predetermined novels and poems? Aren’t you just driving a square peg into a round hole for the sake of a personal (read, selfish) interest?    

I have a few responses for this critic. To begin with, I see the E314 course as a general introduction to a variety of ways of reading and analyzing literature. For me, that means spending part of the semester focusing on writers and their historical contexts, part of the semester focused on new-crit-inspired modes of close-reading and formal analysis, and part of the semester focused on reader response (things don’t break down quite that cleanly, of course, but that’s the guiding, tripartite framework). This assignment emphasizes the third approach: Beginning with the Aristotelian idea that people can only experience things (fiction included) through the lenses of concrete real-world experiences, memories, and images anyway, the purpose here is not to analyze what a text means, in itself or in some particular historical context, but what can be done with it, right now, at UT Austin in April 2011. The novel or poem is merely the raw material for a new creation that is literally embedded by students on the real-world space of the UT Campus via the ARIS platform.

But, my critic counters, if you so completely de-emphasize the text itself, how can this assignment possibly teach literary analysis? And what about your responsibility to focus on the bannedness of these banned books?

This assignment teaches analysis because every ARIS game the students design has to make an argument. And although that argument isn’t limited by the text, it is an interpretation of the text, inspired by the text, in response to the text. From this point of view, it’s really not all that far from the kind of literary analysis we already ask students to do all the time. The difference here is that the games students create self-consciously filter source material through their own real world concerns and lived experiences. For example, one game based on Catcher in the Rye includes an exchange with NPCs inspired by peripheral characters from Holden’s West Village drinking binge – but in the game, these characters are virtually embedded on the South Mall, and the focus of their exchange with the PC (in the role of Holden) is refocused on a particular concern of a particular group of UT readers/English students/game designers: underage drinking. These connections – between personal experiences and Holden’s fictional night out – occurred to these students in their roles as readers. And in their roles as students in my course earlier in the semester, they were expected to filter this seemingly irrelevant association out of writing assignments. But in this assignment, in the new roles of game designers, they are encouraged to put that subjective “noise” at the center of a new product focused not on the text alone, but on the intersection of the text and their everyday lives.  

This may seem a counter-intuitive, or even self-indulgent, approach to teaching literature. But I find it strikingly appropriate for a Banned Books class: Most of the controversies we discuss have less to do with what disputed literary works mean in any objective sense than with what they are used for by different stakeholders in different cultural contexts. In some cases (such as The Satanic Verses, which we’re studying right now), the books themselves seem deliberately designed for this kind of fragmentation and re-mediation by a wide range of people in many places with a wide range of political, religious, or cultural agendas. In fact, this is the way books often work and have a measurable effect in the world. So I think it makes much more sense to give students the chance to engage in the same kind of openly rhetorical, subjective, irreverent appropriation of literature than to flatly condemn it as ignorant or wrong.

Finally, I think that playing with ARIS is an amazingly interesting way to get students thinking about persona and audience. In What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning, James Gee discusses three levels of identity operative in a role playing video games: Real-world identity (student, teacher, etc.), virtual identity, and the intersection of real and virtual identities in a “projective identity” (what the real world ‘me’ aspires to for the virtual ‘me’). Similarly, in this assignment students first have to think of themselves in the real-world identity of game designers with the confidence and authority to play with (that is, freely appropriate) previously sacrosanct literary texts. Second, they have to design a persona for players to adopt and they have to figure out to effectively convey this role through dialogue and gameplay (as you can see below, in dialogue situations the ARIS player is visually represented by only a silhouette and the word “YOU,” a limitation that forces designers to find other compelling ways to convey 1st person characterization). Finally, the students have to think about projective identity not so much in the aspirational sense that Gee talks about as in a closely related rhetorical sense: ‘What,’ they have to ask, ‘will players be encouraged to believe in their real world identities as a result of experiencing this game through the particular virtual identity I design.’ In other words, the projective identity becomes the interpretive thesis or argument.

Ok, my critic says, even if I buy all of what you’ve argued for here, I still think you’re trying to turn a literature assignment into a rhetoric assignment. To this I plead guilty, at least in part. But since every paper I ask my students to write requires them to make an argument for a particular audience, I’m not sure this is such a bad – or unusual – thing.


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