A story, one that happens all too often.
Actually, more like a dialogue.
Mine has changed. New version after the old version.
“So what do you do?”
“Me? I’m a professor.”*
“What do you teach?”
“I HATE writing!” (person smiles)
I never knew how to react to that. I usually said “I don’t!” or “but you have to, so my job is safe,” or, if I was feeling a little frisky “me, too, but I hate myself more!”
Now, for me, it’s:
“So what do you do?”
“I’m a professor.”*
“What do you teach?”
“Video game theory and design.”
*a neon sign goes off that says “winning” and the song “All the Way Up” by Fat Joe blasts*
I do still teach writing classes, though, as part of being a games professor. In fact I teach a class which makes perfect sense for my overlap in talents: Writing for Games. That’s the name of the class, and the first line of the description of the class is “Learn the various genres of writing for the games industry through practice.”
I’ve been teaching the class since I built it. Not that no one had ever taught it before. There are game writing classes at several other places. But no one had tried to build the one I put together in the intersections where I placed it. This semester is the fourth time I’ve taught it.
Each time, in addition to the university course evals (which read luke warm to hot on the class), I do my own specific eval. I’ve learned lots of interesting things about how the students perceive and interact with the class and with activities, and I’ve managed to re-sculpt the class a few times (it will change again next fall).
But each of the four times, I’ve gotten a piece of student feedback that just puzzles me. There have been people in each of the four semesters of the course who don’t do their homework and do poorly on the larger assignments because “I don’t like to write.”
I’m not puzzled by people not liking to write. People I meet randomly in public, FYC students, burnt out PW seniors… all of these people have told me they hate writing. What puzzles me is that right now, my writing for games course is not a requirement (it will be soon, but while it is provisional and being approved for the curriculum it cannot be required). So everyone in the class chose to give an elective spot to taking the class.
Why, then, are there multiple– in each class at least four– people signing up for a class called “Writing for Games” with four significant writing tasks on the syllabus from day one?
I have a theory. It’s a crazy theory, but I think it’s the only explanation.
It also links well to something I teach my students in that class every semester. When people struggle in my class, I tell them that writing is hard. Because it is. If writing was easy, everyone would be a writer. One of my signature elements of expertise would be worthless. But people can’t write. Not well. I mean some can, I just used an absolute which as a writer I should know better than to do, but hey, this is a blog.
Here’s what I see happening. Students cannot code when they start their introduction coding classes. So they devote their energy to it, they pour over it, and they learn to code. The same is true with, say, 3D modeling. I often have a large shared pool of students with our resident game artist, and the students in both classes often lament to me how much time they spend working on their 3D modeling.
It shouldn’t be different. If you can’t write a solid report, if you can’t write dialogue, if you cannot craft a plot or write quests, you need to practice, you need to study, and you need to improve. But students, for the most part, can actually write (I do have some second or third language learners who I think have to spend a great deal of energy translating, as creative writing in a second language can be way more difficult than academic writing which is already a struggle). It’s a skill we use all through our lives.
A whiplash return to what I mentioned earlier. Students at the end of my FYC classes used to say “I’m so glad I’m done with writing!” I said the same thing when I was done with my last anatomy class as an undergrad. Turns out knowing how muscles and bones work is something I revisit even without classes.
I wonder if those students will ever write again, as they rapid-fire texts to their friends walking out the door.
Most Americans can write, if by “write” we mean put a sentence together (though if you join a public Facebook group, sometimes the sentences that get put together by native speakers barely count as sentences). And students equate that to any writing being “easy” compared to what their other classes ask, because they have classes making them model in 3D or code with a computer language they’re just learning. All I ask them to do is ply in words.
I once had the honor of hearing Stephen King speak. He shared a piece of advice he said he’d received a few other times. Another, less impressive writer once told me it was the foundation of the Iowa Workshop. He asked how many people in the room were writing eight hours a day. Of course no one raised their hand– students don’t do that. He said “I do. And I’m kicking your ass. You’ll never do better than me until you put in that time.”
People think that because they write to convey information they’re already experts in how writing works. And honestly, if you listen to some people who are “experts in writing,” it sort of seems like all they can do is say “heuristic” and correct you when you make an obscure grammar mistake, so I get it. Writer-types like me are annoying.
Except that the hot new thing is what we call a “creative.” And there are only, at the core, two critical skills involved in being a creative: being able to come up with interesting, often unique ideas through critical thinking and deductive reasoning AND being able to express those ideas in ways that other people can understand.
So I will continue to chuckle when people tell me they hate writing, and I will continue to sigh heavily at my course evals about how we wrote too much (or from the rare advanced creative writing student in that class that wanted more theory but didn’t self-start). And I’ll tell my students, again and again, about how they need this skill.
There are maybe 20 great games that didn’t require a narrative. There are zero games that don’t need either written or oral rules. You will never make a game worth playing– or if you strike gold and craft something like Tetris you won’t be able to explain it to anyone– without writing skills.
But writing isn’t easy. I wish it was. I’d love to say “hi, welcome to writing class. Bye, go write.” I mean no, I wouldn’t, because I like teaching, but what a dope job that would be.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for me, I’ll be the guy in the game lab, blue headphones on, grading final projects in a t-shirt that says “your discipline sucks and I hate it.”