112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Playwriting: Mass Effect and the Use of Video Games as Digital Rhetoric

Jonathan Lee, Independent Scholar

This presentation will review the merits and potential roles of video games in a contemporary classroom with emphasis on composition and creative writing, using the Mass Effect series as a specific example and demonstrating how virtual spaces function as digital rhetoric.


Video games have long been seen as adversarial to academia: time-wasting flights of fancy and leisure that rot and desensitize the mind. Yet, with an education system still modeled on centuries-old pedagogy (i.e. factory mentality) and the rapid advancement of technology, educators are forced to keep up with the 21st century; we must constantly push for the evolution of curriculum in order to effectively connect to students. 

The main focus will be on four game series, each emphasizing a particular utility for 21st century education: the Mass Effect space opera trilogy (developed by Bioware), the Legend of Zelda adventure series (Nintendo), the Sims life simulation franchise (EA Games), and the massively-multiplayer online role-playing game Guild Wars 2 (ArenaNet). Mass Effect takes players to the frontlines of galactic survival while facing incredibly complex questions throughout the story: To what extent should artificial intelligence be deemed “alive”? Should companionship be bound by race or gender? What sacrifices must be paid in a war for the basic right to survive? The Legend of Zelda series employs a long-standing formula of high fantasy where a hero must travel the lengths of an entire world to vanquish evil. One of its staples is the development of analytical skills and critical thinking in the form of frequent logic puzzles within dungeons and fight sequences. Disabled players in particular can enjoy and intellectually grow with the games; a person with limited mobility, for example, can virtually traverse sea, sky, and earth and respond to the mental stimuli. The life simulation Sims does exactly that: players can virtually live a life in society and pursue whatever goals they have. Player-generated modifications to the software are widely distributed, displaying the extraordinary collaborative capabilities of such a mundane-sounding game. One mod, for instance, tweaks the game parameters to accurately portray life as a single parent whose goal is to get their child through college. The Sims thus allows players to conduct social experiments in a virtual world, creating excellent opportunities for expressive assignments and the development of empathy and voice. Finally, the presentation will use Guild Wars 2 as a model where multiple people can work together over the internet in real time, banding together and relying on each other’s skills and knowledge to overcome obstacles, then provide afterwards the chance to respond, critique, and improve upon one another.

This presentation will ground itself on observations and theories made by personal experience as well as by those such as professor and lecturer James Paul Gee, a sociolinguist and discourse analyst among other things. It is my goal to open a thoughtful conversation about a fledging means of educating students in a technological society as well as demonstrate ways to make the classroom more relevant and accessible, incorporating learning outside of the classroom into it.