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Final Portfolio Essay


Journey by flickr user Noushad P

When I was asked what part of English I considered as my weakness, my answer was always “writing”. I struggled with phrasing of words and the arrangement of thoughts into a uniform and logical structure. I wondered whether I would ever be able to free myself from this stressful textual battle before I came across this course. English 181 Read | Write | Play has contributed substantially to my writing ability, through which I enhanced my understanding of composition from multiple perspectives and gradually improved on the path to become an effective writer.

The highlight of this course is its theme — Gaming. Before the course I never associated writing with gaming, nor did I notice the great potential and meanings embedded inside what many people perceive as merely a tool for entertainment. The first game we played, Gone Home, presented the culture and lives from a specific past era — the U.S. in the 90s. As a foreigner I was delighted to explore the antiques and fashion different from those of my homeland, which granted me an exclusive experience of engaging in another culture while reflecting upon mine. The second game Dear Esther shows its distinctiveness by incorporating literary concepts into gaming. Its obscure narrative forms a dense package of religious, emotional and cultural metaphors, through which I unravelled underlying meanings and scraped together a heart-rending story. Furthermore, the game gives birth to a cascade of the so-called “blank spaces” through artistically composed narratives. “Blank space” denotes the interval left in literary work for audience to openly interpret in their own sense. Dear Esther features a great deal of “blank spaces”, in which the purposeful ambiguity evokes a broad variation in responses. It is clear that both Gone Home and Dear Esther cast a glow on the huge capacity of gaming in encompassing a much richer set of knowledge and values than we previously expected. It is also clear that the two are blended with cultural issues, metaphorical uses and philosophical strategies, themes that embody literature and offered insights to my writing throughout this semester.


Microphone by flickr user Ernest Duffoo

As a result, my skill in rhetorical composition was significantly improved by observing the close relationship between gaming and writing. Games I played served as useful examples of how narratives are constructed under different conditions facing multiple audiences. Habituation games such as the Atari games cater to players who might just want to kill time. These games characterize handy mechanisms and concise principles. Depression Quest and Dys4ia which call for concerns on groups undergoing certain “abnormal” situations invite players to the internal states of these members, molding a sense of empathy through composing or simulating their biographies. I applied what I have learned from these games through various assignments such as liveblogging (simultaneously posting reactions as we played the game), Fiasco (a collective brainstorming process), among which the most inspiring are the two podcasts (Cytus and 2048) I published with my partner Niky. Contrary to the usual English assignments in which ideas were conveyed through written contexts, in podcasts we verbalized analytical information using a vast array of discourses including short dramas, prologues and sometimes light music. One difficulty we underwent was the mediation between the casualness of spoken language and the formality of the content we intended to present. Such conflict was not found in writing assignments. However, as broadcasters we were bound to provide informative messages in an intriguing and relaxing fashion. One of our solutions was to add a dramatic prologue and a play at the beginning of our podcasts, attracting the audience to future engage in our conversation. We pondered ways to include analyses into simple dialogues, and included seemingly random yet deliberate words that could guide our main arguments. For instance, the complaint “But I don’t see how 2048 can help with my calculus” opened up the discussion on whether 2048 can increase one’s math and reasoning ability. We also considered carefully what potential listeners would favor and what a professional podcast should comprise of (such as a Q&A corner, which we put into our second podcast). Gradually, we became able to rethink the context, the audience and the medium involved before we composed the texts and delivered our voice.

Letter wolf

Letter Wolf by flickr user Sarita0205

While the project on podcasts situated me in a new rhetorical condition, the writing assignment in which I analyzed Wolf in White Van reinforced the fundamental abilities of critical thinking and reading resulting in writing. In this assignment we were asked to read John Darnielle’s novel about games and traumas, and design our own argument on how he connected gaming with healing. This was a major challenge for me since the non-linear structure of the book made it extremely demanding to pull out important ideas and supporting evidence. At first my essay merely addressed the protagonist’s vulnerability to “bad thoughts” and his lack of mental refuge that brought about the tragedy in his life. However, I didn’t feel very connected with what the author intended to express. I sought for a more comprehensive idea that could represent my personal view but also further one’s understanding of the novel. I felt my eureka moment when my anthropology professor informed me that “Humans are social beings. However we want to be alone, we are biologically programmed to seek attachment.” The key lay in the dual aspects of Sean’s personality, not just his dependence upon a mental asylum, but also the intrinsic motive to attach to the outside world. Therefore, I modified my essay by adding:

Sean’s trauma, both physical and mental, roots in the widening disparity between his pursuit for a mentally isolated Xanadu — a peaceful paradise — and the inevitability to socialize and live as a normal human being. The game he created bridged the gap between the two realms, enabling him to travel freely between the fantastical world and the reality.

The new argument clarified what was covertly implied in the story. It especially articulated the reason why Sean attempted suicide after he developed an intimate relationship with his new girl friend Kimmy: He longed for an engaging relationship without intrusion into his personal safe place. Through this assignment I critically examined the validity of my argument by utilizing the knowledge I gained from other resources and negotiated these thoughts with the connotations of the book, exploring the middle path where the two interwove as a complete image that enhanced our comprehension towards the novel.

Manuel's Tavern

Manuel’s Tavern by Jeff Shipman

It always took me a long time before I handed in every one of my drafts. I learned from the course that writing is a gradual process. My first work Unpacking Manuel’s Tavern blocked me with twists and turns before I reached to my final draft. As a Chinese student whose culture is to generate “blank spaces” in writing, I wasn’t used to English composition which favors explanation and evidence. I had to break my long sentences into shorter but clearer pieces of information; I also reshaped my thesis statement repeatedly to make it solid and strong without any ambiguity. The research taken place in the assignment helped me greatly to embody the western style of writing, where I first learned to adapt peer-reviewed sources and official documents into my essay to support my main argument. Yet the little information left for the objects I analyzed again prompted me to include “blank spaces” in order to increase my writing’s interpretability, so the readers are allowed the freedom to reflect on their own culture and lives. Therefore, I furthered my analysis by saying:

The relationship among Kurfees Paints, the lumber sign and the antiquated thermometer remain cryptic, but the three create a harmony given their similar cultural and historical meanings: All three exhibit a small piece of civilization embedded in the lives of ordinary human beings who belonged to a particular historical era.

What I learned from this assignment is that one needs a long and toiling process to improve his or her writing skill. Furthermore, the ultimate goal is not merely to abide by a defined style (the Western or the Chinese style), but to explore the best that one fits the most. In this case, the best for me is the combination of substantial evidence and an openness for interpretation, which coincides with my identity as a Chinese in a Western society. From this writing process I also learned how to correctly cite the sources I used. I demonstrated my digital citizenship by citing different forms of sources such as novels (Wolf in White Van), newspapers, documents (Unpacking Manuel’s Tavern) and pictures (Posts). The MLA style of citing was confusing at first, but I gradually understood the principles and obeyed them in my work. One of the most important point I learned was to insert links instead of posting URLs, which I believe is critical for a qualified digital citizen.


Dice by flickr user Alex Myczko

I was delighted by the collaboration carried in this gradual writing process. The course itself epitomized gaming perfectly in the sense that every student participated in the collaboration for a collective enhancement, engaging in and impacting other’s writing experiences. We developed rubrics for grading together, critiqued each other’s work, and each scheduled individual meetings with the professor for further suggestions. Such collaboration was enclosed in class discussions and podcasts, and reiterated in the gameplay of Fiasco. In Fiasco we composed a narrative together, aligning our thoughts and reconciling mutual conflicts for the completion of the story. Through this socialization we exchanged useful advice and ideas that eventually contributed to the progress of our writing.

Overall, the annex of gaming and composition generated an unpredictable effect on my writing ability. It unveiled a graceful landscape allowing me to see the slow yet real progress in place and to exploit the quarry where I emerged as a more thoughtful being.