conversation as game

There’s an Ask Slashdot discussion taking place in response to a question regarding computer classrooms and freshman composition. It’s the usual Slashdot mix of helpful and not so helpful comments. Many of the responses address the use of blogs in teaching.

I won’t be in front of a freshman composition class any time soon, but I have been thinking about blogs and teaching. Last week, Jill Walker posted an entry on Alex Halevais’s “grading system based on … karma,” a system which didn’t quite work because students learned how to cheat. I’ve also been thinking about games — thanks to Jason’s recent post in the midst of a larger conversation he TrackBacked himself into — in relation to the kinds of conversations that take place in an academic environment, either online or off. I took a shot at having my students play Ivanhoe this year, an online literary roleplaying game (at least that’s how I describe it), but it didn’t go so well. I’ll try it again, I think, but I need to re-tool my directions and how the game is framed within the rest of the course. I welcome advice from anyone who has experience with the game.

However, the experience did inspire me to think that participation in a conversation can be conceived of as a series of different “moves,” to use a game term, that these moves can be named and classified, and that value might be awarded to each move, allowing participants to score “points” leading toward some sort of goal. How to avoid the potential for cheating? Maybe make the goal unrelated to the grade, count on the motivation provided by a desire to do well in a competition, to enhance one’s reputations with one’s peers. The grade is about my reaction; the competition is about peer reaction. Hmmm. How to put this in action with a blog?

Of course, one could just go with a karma system like that on Slashdot and Plastic (from the Slashdot faq, see this entry on moderation and this one on karma). But I’d like to enact something a little more nuanced. Plus I’m just stubborn. And I’ve been known to re-invent the wheel.

Why am I doing this? To give students (and myself) a clearer framework for understanding how they can participate and are participating in a class discussion. Are you relying too much on one kind of move? Try to expand your playing style. Why do your comments not spark the kind of discussion you want them to? Maybe you’re relying too much on affirmation, acknowledgment, or digression.

I talked about this with L last night, and we came up with a number of ideas. So here is an initial attempt to provide descriptions and definitions of the different “moves” people might make in a conversation. I’d appreciate feedback. Are you aware of a line of scholarship on this subject? Do any of these need to be revised? Does this kind of categorization work? How would one go about assigning “point” value to these moves?

Categories of moves in the game of conversation, with examples:

  • Prompt: A statement designed to spark conversation without necessarily taking a stand or arguing for a position. It is not required for a conversation to begin.

    What do you think about this whole weapons-of-mass-destruction thing?

    It could be more directed than this, however.

    Do you think the failure of the US to find weapons of mass destruction in post-war Iraq will hurt Bush’s chances for re-election in 2004?

    A prompt doesn’t have to be a question.

    Let’s talk about weapons of mass destruction.

  • Initiation: Similar to a prompt, but with a bit more substance, and more likely to take a stand. Ideally supported with an argument of some kind, however brief.

    This won’t hurt Bush at all. The issue of weapons of mass destruction will not be significant in the 2004 election because recent polls show that most Americans either don’t care that we haven’t found any WMDs or they mistakenly think that we’ve already found them.

  • Request for clarification: Something is unclear, and this move seeks to clarify. It could be a request to have someone’s position re-stated.

    Are you saying that it doesn’t matter if we find the weapons or not?

    Or it could be a request for further information from an obviously knowledgable person.

    What polls are you talking about? What exactly were the results? Where can I read them?

  • Clarification: Someone, perhaps but not necessarily the original speaker, answers the request for clarification.

    No, I’m not saying that I think it doesn’t matter, but I think most other people think it doesn’t matter.i>

    There was a story about it in yesterday’s paper.

  • Extension: A statement that agrees with the position taken in the initiation, and offers additional support for that position. Note that this is a more substantial move than the acknowledgment or affirmation described below.

    I also think this issue won’t hurt Bush. Polls indicate that people are more focused on the issue of the quality of life for the Iraqis now that Saddam Hussein is out of power. And I believe that is how the Bush campaign will characterize the war: not that it was about protecting us from harm, but that it was about liberating Iraq.

  • Disagreement: A statement that does not agree with the position taken in the initiation, and offers an argument in support of an alternate position. Perhaps a different name for this move is needed: it’s important here to try to avoid a binary characterization of conversations. There are many possible positions.

    This is going to be the most important issue of the 2004 elections. Once the post-war glow wears off in America, the Democrats are going to have a field day with the issue of Bush and honesty. Look at what’s happening in England with Tony Blair. After the Republicans made such a big deal of Clinton’s honesty, you can bet the Democrats are eager for payback.

  • Challenge: Similar to a prompt, in that it doesn’t take an explicit stand itself, the challenge is directed at a player who has already made a move. Can be played like a request for clarification but it’s different in that it does not ask for a restatement of the original move. Could be played like a disagreement, but it does not take an alternate position.

    Why do you think that what’s going on in England is a good guide to what’s going on in America?

    Don’t you think that by 2004, the issue of Clinton’s honesty will no longer register in most voters’ minds?

  • Diversion: A move that takes the conversation in a different direction without a drastic subject change.

    With all of the attention on Iraq, we might be ignoring the very serious issue of Bush and the domestic economy. The unemployment rate is unbelievable right now. Clinton defeated Bush in ’92 with a focus on the economy, and perhaps this will be the issue in 2004.

  • Digression: A comment that is irrelevant to the threads of conversation, though it may have a tangential connection. Not a significant contribution.

    Jon Stewart said something really funny about Bush on the Daily Show last night.

  • Acknowledgment or affirmation: Signals agreement or the fact that one is listening. Affirmation is not really a significant contribution, but acknowledgment can be in that it is a demonstration by one participant that the efforts of another participant are getting through.

    Me too!
    I agree.
    That’s a good point, and I hadn’t thought about that.
    Oh, okay. I see what you’re saying.
  • Bridging: A move that takes two positions which seem to be incompatible and demonstrates the connections or similarities between them.

    While it may be true that this issue won’t hurt Bush’s chances for re-election, it’s also true that the Democrats are going to make this a central part of their bid for the White House in 2004.

  • Synthesis: A move that occurs well into the conversation and attempts to take stock in a summary way of what’s been said. Does not necessarily take a position on the issues at stake, but attempts to provide a map of where the conversation has gone.

    So some of us think that WMDs will not be a significant issue in 2004, but that the war in Iraq will be used by the Republicans as a means of showing they care about human rights. Some think instead that the failure to find WMDs will be used by the Democrats, although we seem to disagree over whether or not this issue will help them. And some of us think that the economy will be the big issue.

  • Meta-commentary: An observation regarding the nature of the conversation taking place that may or may not take part in the substance of the conversation. It may be a prompt that seeks to divert the conversation in a different direction.

    Isn’t it interesting that we’ve framed this issue purely in political terms? Shouldn’t we be thinking about the moral implications of what we’ve done in Iraq?

Okay, that’s what I have so far. Any thoughts?

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8 thoughts on “conversation as game

  1. This mapping of possible “moves” is *really* helpful. My tendency is to resist awarding specific point values for each type of move–after all in a blog entry one might find 2 or 3 moves being played out at any given time. But in a rhetoric/composition course, I think it’s very useful to make students aware of the “moves” that are available in the argument “game.” One possibility would be for students to consciously identify the moves that they are making (or try to identify the moves of others). Eventually, especially in a composition class, they could then be reflective about the effects of each type of “move,” what worked, in what situation. How could they better learn how to challenge their classmates or synthesize the ideas, for example?
    By the way, why couldn’t John Stewart’s comment on The Daily Show be a “significant contribution?” ;)

  2. Blogs and the Classroom

    After a conversation with S last night, I’ve been thinking about public/private distinctions within the blogosphere, and it turns out that Adrian Miles and Jenny Weight have been blogging about this topic recently. Jenny Weight comments that she is con…

  3. You make a good point, Chuck, that an individual contribution to a conversation (whether spoken or blogged) could be accomplishing more than one kind of move simultaeously. I wasn’t even thinking in terms of rhet/comp, but I can see how this might be helpful. I am guessing that someone somewhere in rhet/comp has already devised some sort of typology like this already. Aristotle’s “common topics,” for one thing, is in the same ballpark. And certainly any exercise that makes students more aware of their own argumentative moves would be a good thing. An assignment might begin by asking students to discuss an issue in on online location (since there it would be recorded for later study), and then later return to that conversation and analyze the patterns of interaction.
    Jon Stewart’s comment may or may not be “significant,” but it would depend on how the student presented what he said. We’ve all repeated something funny that we’ve heard — and it might be directly relevant to the conversation — but by just acting as a transmitter of someone else’s thought, how much have you really done?

  4. Blogging and the Classroom

    Since my fantastic meeting with George a couple of days ago, I’ve been thinking more about my plan to fold a group blog into one of my fall classes. George helpfully alerted me to his post on Conversation as Game, which attempts to create a beginning t…

  5. Peer-Review

    Thanks much to Jason for his recent entry rounding up some related thoughts at blogs around these parts and raising some interesting questions about their conjunctions. Some of my recent fretting figures into this round-up, in an ironic fashion: I worr…

  6. Trying to do this in real life (as opposed to the *bloggosphere*) is a real mind job. Everything all of a sudden feels so contrived (probably because it is) and you find yourself ‘planning moves’ rather than enjoying yourself. It’s a bad habit to get into because, whereas you may become a master at the ‘game’, you find yourself losing the natural ‘feel’ and flow to you conversational skills. Life becomes more like maths than music…

  7. More humanities computing

    There’s a new website for humanities computing in nineteenth-century studies: NINES: Networked Interface for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship. The website offers…

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