MacArthur (HASTAC) Digital Media Learning Initiative
CVGHV 10.6.08

Your project summary

1. Title of Your Project (Max 15 words)

From Gamers to Bards: Video Games and Participatory Learning about Human Values

2. Briefly summarize your project in one sentence (Max 50 words)

We will establish the virtual Center for Video Games and Human Values (CVGHV) for the sharing of ideas about
  • video games as a site of participatory learning about human values, and
  • the potential of video games in participatory learning strategies across disciplines.

3. Provide a one paragraph description of your project (Max 200 words) [target users, principal goals, outcomes, user experience, “wow factor,” implementation plans]

The CVGHV will involve professors, high school teachers, students and parents in participatory learning about video games. The center will consider video games as a site for the production or rehearsal of human values. The center also aims to re-invigorate the study of classical texts in the context of contemporary practices and meaning-making. The desired outcomes of the CVGHV are both academic and practical: academic because the center will further scholarship on a neglected topic, and practical because the center will integrate a sophisticated array of new technologies (including games) that permit enhanced participatory learning. Students and scholars will be learning and discussing in the immersive environments they are also observing and experimenting upon. In the planning phase, senior fellows and external advisors will meet with programmers and community-builders to talk about software tools for the kind of community (and user experience) we envision and how those tools should be deployed in the field of social networks, wikis, discussion forums and virtual worlds. These meetings will take place online in Project Wonderland. The center itself will then be implemented by five fellows drawn from various disciplines, a guest symposiast from industry, a course coordinator and enrolled students.

4. List up to 5 tags that best describe your project (max 15 words)
Gaming, virtual worlds, human values, classics, interactive


1.Describe your project. (Max 600 words) [significance, contribution to advancing participatory learning, goals beyond the grant term]

The Center for Video Games and Human Values fits the HASTAC initiative in two ways: first, because the topic of investigation—gaming—is a practice of learning defined by participation (players learn as they play and connect to social networks associated with the game that support cheats, hints, mods and game guides); and second, because the CVGHV will use new technologies to encourage participatory forms of pedagogy among classroom teachers (that happen to have video games as their subject).

The CVGHV will establish a virtual community as an online base of operations for the center’s courses and symposia. With the help of programmers and community-builders, it will deploy digital tools, including a virtual world, a wiki, and an educational social network to begin to create a culture of discussion, sharing and reflection about video games. In involving a wider variety of stakeholders (e.g., parents) than most virtual classrooms, the CVGHV offers an opportunity not only for dialogue, but for inter-generational participation in what otherwise might remain a segregated cultural practice.

We believe that video games have grown to extraordinary cultural prominence without benefit of a truly situated analysis. As a medium that embraces the humanities and social sciences, technology, and the worlds of business and education, video games demand an interactional analysis from multiple angles and on multiple levels. It is also worth noting that, although video games are a dominant cultural force among students now in the midst of their secondary and post-secondary education, not many teachers have any understanding of how gaming is shaping their students.

To meet the need for such analysis, the center will offer a slate of online courses aimed at several inter-related groups: teachers and parents, their advanced students, undergraduates in various disciplines, and interested people in the gaming culture, all of whom share a fundamental interest in ensuring that video gaming both increasingly earns the societal respect it deserves and increasingly deserves that respect. In order to address video games in their broad effect on culture and to engage gamers in its discussions, the center will advocate an approach that addresses popular and ambitious games like Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Spore and World of Warcraft. The work of the center will focus on scholarly topics such as the games’ cultural relationship to Homeric epic and pedagogical questions such as the games’ educational relationship to the way students who play them think and learn.

At the same time, the center will provide a (virtual) place for scholarly research and discussion about the relation of video games to values. Fellowships from the center will support individual research projects at the intersection of video gaming and scholars’ own disciplines, while the interdisciplinary nature of the center will provide extraordinary opportunities to strengthen those projects through the cross-fertilization of ideas from other fields. Scholarships will be offered competitively.

An ongoing virtual symposium, with a guest symposiast from industry (e.g., from game development or game journalism), on a topic like “Immersion” or “Character in Games,” will involve contributions from the fellows, their students, and the center’s alumni. The proceedings of this symposium will be compiled and published once a year.

We believe that video games’ greatest innovations in the humanities, as well as in education, business, and the social sciences, will arise from a deeper understanding of games’ connections among all these disciplines, as well as the potential games have to improve participatory learning. When scholars and students alike understand these connections better, they will be better prepared to advance the state of gaming as it relates to their own fields, and to teach students who game.

2.Describe the participatory learning you are trying to achieve (450 words) [how will your project help people participate, reflect on their experiences, share their efforts, observe others. Describe kinds of learning experiences users will have, how these experiences are promoted by the approach, and the kinds of technological solutions necessary to implement your approach to participatory learning.]

The activities of CVGHV are groundbreaking in the way they enable participatory learning. At CVGHV, both online courses and online scholarly dialogue involve the use of immersive environments, online forums, wikis, and social networks not only for the direct educational experience of such activities as discussions but also and more importantly for experimentation in and observation of the shaping of values by video games. At CVGHV, the actual substance of students’ and scholars’ experiences are a fundamental part of the participatory learning they do.

Projects focused on games and the culture of games are increasing in number, but none incorporates interdisciplinarity in the groundbreaking way CVGHV seeks to do. Various new media, digital media, and game studies departments such as those at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgia Tech University and the University of Southern California provide many opportunities for interdisciplinary dialogue, but those programs are of course geared to produce graduates who will assume their place in some facet of the gaming culture. CVGHV on the other hand will offer courses to build a conversation between the academy and mainstream culture, and among academics in the liberal arts, academics in professional fields, teachers in the schools, and interested people in mainstream society.

Because many parents and members of the community often come to gaming with a set of preconceived ideas, CVGHV offers an unusual opportunity to participate in a cultural practice that may at first be quite foreign, to learn about it, and then to engage in dialogue about video games in a broader social or philosophical context. The study of video games rarely reaches out to non-gaming stakeholders in a way that encourages participatory learning in this way.

We know that activity enhances learning (see Wittrock, 1990, on generative learning as one example). We also know that a narrative structure can induce learners to participate in ways they would not otherwise, solely based on their personal goals and intentions (see, for example, the concept of anchored instruction, CTGV 1990). And we know that participation in a community, whether a genuine fully functioning community of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991), or even interaction with an affinity group of gamers, can substantially contribute to learning and thinking in games and in life (Barab et al, 2001). Yet we also know that attempts to artificially create “community”—particularly virtual community—are often unsuccessful, giving way to the natural cycles of peak interactions of a broad base of participants followed by waning participation by a few (threaded discussions and wikis offer an example of this cycle). The CVGHV would address this natural cycle of participation by rotating the themes and foci on a predictable schedule, inviting participants from a range of disciplines to address the central issues of gaming and values. The themes and foci would still be driven by a central narrative structure (building on a wiki shared text).

Our approach recognizes that participation is most effective when it is embodied (as avatar or in person), and embedded in rich contextual situations. Drawing on the embodied cognition literature (Borrett, 2000; Hirose, 2002; Markman & Brendl, 2005), we expect that embedding CVGHV activities in environments like Second Life and Project Wonderland will result in a new model for participatory learning and multidisciplinary research about the cultural phenomenon that is gaming.

CVGHV is quite different from any other project on the current landscape of digital humanities. Two projects in digitizing classics, the Perseus Project and the Stoa Consortium, organize classical culture in digital form. From a classical perspective, CVGHV is unlike those projects in that, where Perseus and Stoa (laudably) seek to aid the existing community of lovers of antiquity, CVGHV seeks to create a new community and a new conversation through participatory learning.

Because participatory learning is learning that engages participants in developing their own ideas about the material, having input from multiple perspectives makes the process more robust. Through playing and observing, participants will learn about classics through video games and video games through classics. Participants will relate their own ideas—indeed their own self-conceptions—to both the games and the classical literature.

3.Project timeline (350 words) [detailed workflow management plan and timeline]

First, in a planning phase of the project (April-July 2009), the senior fellows and external advisors will meet with programmers and community-builders to talk about what kind of software tools exist for deployment in the field of social networks, wikis, discussion forums, and virtual worlds to create the kind of community we envision, and how those tools should be deployed.

These meetings will take place online in Project Wonderland; we plan to convene the entire staff of the center six times from April to July, for two hours per meeting. The agenda will comprise discussions of the following questions: what software tools exist for a robust, scholarly online interdisciplinary conversation? What is the current open-source state of the art in internet-forum-design, in wiki-design, in social-network-design, and especially in virtual-world-design? What kinds of integration are possible among these solutions and video games (e.g. data feeds from MMOG worlds to internet forums such as those we find in game-communities like World of Warcraft)?

Most importantly, we will decide what sort of virtual world we will implement. How will rooms be designed? What will the overall look and feel be? What applications can we incorporate for things like document sharing?

At this stage we will also identify the programmers, including the lead programmer, who will be able to implement these software tools, and incorporate them into our discussions. Ideally, we will be able to find graduate students to be our programmers, but if necessary we will contract for programmers’ services through the University of Connecticut’s contractor-relationships.

Second, in a design phase (July-December 2009), with the help of the personnel identified in the planning phase, we will design the center based on available tools. In smaller, shorter meetings conducted every two weeks, various groups of center personnel will meet to review their progress in the design process. We will also roll out the design concepts to the center community, which will already include students, teachers-as-students, and scholars, as it will then exist (on the rudimentary tools currently available) for their reviews and reactions, which are bound to be strong and insightful, given the natural confluences of interest between the center’s courses and the development of its community.

Third, in an implementation phase (January-October 2010), we will build the center with help from the center’s community itself, and launch the center’s first fully-realized virtual symposium. The small bi-weekly meetings will continue, as will a continuous roll-out of features for testing by members of the center’s community. The entire process will undergo scrutiny within the community as it exists at that time. The topic for that first symposium will be “Immersion and Mimesis: Video Games, Aesthetics, and Society.”

The symposium will be structured as a series of provocations by the symposiast, interventions by the fellows, and responses from the community. When fully implemented, the center’s virtual world will allow simultaneous real-time textual posting and delivery of the provocations and interventions, and also of the responses, should individual community members be interested in delivering them live. Each provocation and intervention will be scheduled, and announced, as a live online event. Sharing of pre-release drafts among the symposiast and the fellows will allow final versions to reflect and augment the ongoing conversation, and as community-members contribute responses, these two will be incorporated into discussion. We anticipate that the symposium will comprise five provocations, with perhaps three interventions for each one, with fellows assigned to provocations in the bi-weekly meetings of the fellows.

4.Project URL(s)

5.Image or Video File (1 mb) (upload)

6.Image or Video description (describe the contents of the above file)

Project Personnel

1.Primary Applicant. Briefly describe role. (50 words)
Roger Travis will direct the project. With advice from the lead programmer, Travis and the senior fellows will identify and oversee the design of the center’s online components. As the implementation proceeds, Travis will oversee the community-building efforts and their integration into the ongoing course-work of the center.

1.5 Describe the most innovative learning environment in which you have participated (200 words)
Over the course of my ten years at UConn, I have been able to develop my teaching practice in large lecture courses, with the help of the university’s classroom technology, into the ongoing creation of a fully multimedia-experiential laboratory for understanding classical culture through our own culture, and ourselves through the ancient world. Using film and television, video-games, popular and classical music, internet video and audio, powerpoint slides, and the power of live performance, I have developed a truly innovative learning environment that many of my students tell me they will never forget. These courses—Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies 1101 (Greek Civilization) and 1103 (Classical Mythology)—feature broad and exciting in-lecture discussions about modern materials that my students engage automatically, before even realizing that they are doing participatory learning. By the time they realize that they have had a new thought about a movie or a game that they previously considered pure entertainment, it is too late to turn back. My practice in this environment of which I am so obviously proud rests on what I see as a fundamental truth of our crucial engagement with other cultures, a truth which is at its very core absolutely participatory: we cannot understand another culture until we understand our own.

The fundamental insight that led to this proposal, of the exact analogy between ancient bard and modern gamer, came about as a result of my own learning through video games like Halo and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I became a much better scholar of Homeric poetry, Plato and Aristotle, and indeed even of modern film and games, through immersion in the virtual worlds of games. The experience even took on another layer: Plato’s concept of “mimesis” helped illuminate the process of participatory learning itself. Indeed Plato’s mimesis may have anticipated contemporary theories of participatory learning. The experience of mimesis—immersive, interactive participation—teaches participants how to be who they might be, whether a new version of Achilles, or a new version of Halo’s Master Chief. This insight was beneficial to my understanding of not only the classics, but also my students and contemporary culture.

The connection between immersive, interactive participation and the learning of human values will be of interest to scholars in many disciplines. It will likely interest parents and gaming communities, too.

2.Project collaborators

Describe the role of the project collaborators, if applicable. (350 words)

The CVGHV will be led by six senior fellows who will guide the project pro-bono. They will, among other responsibilities, evaluate proposals from individuals (potential fellows) wishing to pursue a relevant project at the center.

Senior fellow Michael Young, Professor of Educational Psychology in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, will be the senior fellow in charge of the participatory learning component of the center. He will advise on planning, design, and implementation for the optimization of the center’s educational potential. He will devote two hours per week over the course of the grant period.

Senior fellow Michael Abbott, Associate Professor of Theater Arts at Wabash College, will be the senior fellow in charge of blogger-relations. He will advise on planning, design, and implementation in order to include the tremendous potential of the blogosphere for community-building in the center’s community. He will devote five hours per week over the course of the grant period.

The other senior fellows, Sara Johnson, Manuela Wagner, Gary English, and Kirstie Cope-Farrar, will advise on planning, design, and implementation from the perspectives of their own interest in the games-and-humanities conversation. They will devote approximately an hour per week to the project.

Kevin Roebuck of Sun Microsystems’ open-source Project Wonderland will serve as a consultant on the project. Project Wonderland is the software solution we presume we will deploy for the most vibrant and exciting part of the center, its virtual world.

3.Project Staff (350 words) name, titles, job descriptions, primary qualifications

Jeffrey Howard, Ph.D., will serve as a program coordinator and community manager. Howard will participate in the discussions of the planning and design phases, and in the implementation phase will oversee the integration of the various parts of the community from a cultural standpoint. He will also participate in the design of game-integrated aspects of the community, like quests and levelling. Funding for Mr. Howard’s position is being sought from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He will devote ten hours per week to the project over the course of the grant period.

A lead programmer will be responsible for advising the director and the senior fellows on the range of opne-source software solutions that might go into the make-up of the center, and for overseeing the implementation of the solutions on which they decide. He will devote ten hours per week to the project over the course of the grant period. The lead programmer will be an experienced programmer in Java and php. He will be responsible for coding solutions in the areas of internet forums, wikis, social networks, and virtual worlds. He will be knowledgeable in open-source solutions currently available in those areas, and ready to code attractive and robust virtual community digital tools for the Center for Video Games and Human Values.

CVs (upload)

Project Budget (See Excel Spreadsheet)

$20,000 Equipment (server space, bandwidth, computers, consoles, games)
$50,000 Two Fellows
$30,000 Programming services
$15,000 F&A (Indirect costs)
$1,500 Travel to HASTAC convention

1.Budget amount
Total: $116,500

2.Itemized budget
Project director time/salary percentage
Project staff (administrative, technical, consulting) ($80,000)
Project hardware and software equipment ($20,000)
Project materials and supplies
Indirect costs up to 15% ($15,000)
Airfare, transfers, lodging, meals for
2-day conference showcase in Chicago ($1,500)

3.Budget narrative [explain all budget items and the rationale for the budget in detail.]

The CVGHV is asking HASTAC, the Annenberg Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for seed funding to get the center up and running. The HASTAC request includes funding for two fellows, equipment and programming costs. The NEH request includes funding for programmers and the Annenberg request includes funding for fellows and scholarships. Requests were made with a view to securing funding for at least two fellows and one programmer, under the assumption that if equipment were not funded, perhaps corporate sponsors could be solicited for in-kind donations. With two fellows and one programmer the center can begin its work, though the ultimate goal is to have six fellows and to offer 10 scholarships.

4.Other funding [list all sources that have already funded or have committed to funding your project.

5.List other sources to which you are applying or have applied for funding, with results pending.

The John Templeton Foundation (Letter of Inquiry declined)
The Annenberg Foundation (Letter of Inquiry pending)
The National Endowment for the Humanities (Submitted October 8, 2008)


1.Outcomes and Achievements (250 words) [how will you know if your project is succeeding post-implementation? What sorts of indicators will you look for?]
If CVGHV is prospering, more and more teachers, parents, gamers, and game-industry insiders will flock to it as the most important place to discuss ideas about how games and culture relate to one another. The number of discussions will be growing, and course-enrollments along with it. Regular surveys of the community’s population, along with course-evaluations at the end of every course, will provide a summative assessment of whether CVGHV is having the impact we hope for on its participants attitudes towards the evolving conversation about games in culture.

2.Troubleshooting (250 words) [describe one or two ways that your project may not succeed and what you would learn from this failure. What will you do if you see your project struggling or failing during the project period? How would you know?]
CVGHV could fail to get teachers, parents, and gamers interested in the role of games and culture because it could be perceived as too academic in its focus. We would be able to discern this problem in the undoubtedly very explicit comments especially from gamers about our efforts, as well as in the results of our assessments. By continuing to meet with the senior fellows and with members of the community, we will be able to make adjustments in subject matter and in the tone and complexity of our courses and activities that would, we would hope, generate more interest.

3.Social Networking, Peer-to-Peer Mentoring, and Professional Guidance (350 words) [A social networking site, designed and moderated by HASTAC, will support winners in information sharing, participatory learning, collaboration and peer mentoring. Online workshops by experts will also be hosted on the site. In which areas will your project/team benefit from the help of previous competition winners and expert advisors (e.g., management, marketing, business models, human resources)? What will you be able to contribute to this online community effort? How might your project work with other projects in the field?]

The CVGHV team will benefit enormously from this kind of social network. We will be in constant need of advice on how to find the right people to build and design our community’s software tools, and on how to implement the solutions we decide upon. We will also benefit greatly from one another’s experiences in building participatory learning communities. Questions we will ask include, for example:
    • What strategies attract an enthusiastic and growing population?
    • How do we get different groups (teachers, parents, gamers, game-industry types) talking to one another?

Members of the HASTAC social network will undoubtedly have some very interesting answers for us. In turn, as we gain experience in building CVGHV, we will have insight to offer the HASTAC community, above all in the area of virtual worlds and immersive education. CVGHV will be ideally suited to help others use digital media to engage students and teachers in a participatory educational enterprise. The CVGHV team will be eager to serve in consultative and even collaborative capacity with new projects coming on board at HASTAC.

4.Copyrighted material [does your project require use of copyrighted material or other intellectual property?]

CVGHV courses and scholarly activities will necessarily make fair, educational use of copyrighted game materials as vital illustrations of CVGHV ideas.

5.Profits [if your project generates profits, how do you intend to allocate them? You will need to explain why revenue creation and how any revenue will be used or shared in furtherance of the charitable objectives of the competition.]

We are hopeful that CVGHV will generate revenue streams from its online courses, as well as from registration fees for virtual conferences and symposia. Any profits will be used to enhance CVGHV offerings, by increasing the number of fellowships and increasing the attractiveness of fellowships for important figures in well-compensated fields such as business and game-design.

Letters of Recommendation (upload)


Barab, Sasha A. ,Kenneth E. Hay, Michael Barnett and Kurt Squire (2001). Constructing Virtual Worlds: Tracing the Historical Development of Learner Practices, Cognition And Instruction, 19(1), 47-94.

Borrett, D, Kelly, S, & Kwan, H. (2000). Bridging embodied cognition and brain function: The role of phenomenology. Philosophical Psychology. 13 (2), 261-266.

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. (1990). Anchored instruction and its relationship to situated cognition. Educational Research. 19 (6), 2-10.

Hirose, N. (2002). An ecological approach to embodiment and cognition. Cognitive Systems Research(3), 289 - 299.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. New York: Cambridge U. Press.

Markman, A. B. & Brendl, C. M. (2005). Constraining theories of embodied cognition. Psychological Science, 16(1). 6-10.

Wittrock, M. C. (1990). Generative processes of comprehension. Educational Psychologist 24(4), 345-- 376.