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Using MASS EFFECT 1 to Teach “Critical Situations”

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Three characters converse using the dialogue wheel in Mass Effect One
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Brief Assignment Overview: 

This lesson plan uses the interactive video game Mass Effect 1 (BioWare, 2007 for XBOX 360) to teach students about making situated speech acts that effectively address a certain audience in a particular rhetorical situation.

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Rhetoric: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

I use Mass Effect as a rhetorical modeling technology that affords for students to “play” in and with rhetorical situations in order to expand students’ understanding of the following notions:

  • “rhetorical situation”
  • “rhetorical purpose”
  • “rhetorical appeal”
  • “intended audience”
  • “stakeholder”
Required Materials: 

X-Box 360 linked up to the over-head projector

Mass Effect 1

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

The situation is that you, the gamer, are playing as Commander Shepard, captain of the starship Normandy. You have just been assigned a mission by Milky Way’s “United Nations” to save the galaxy from an evil master-mind species of Borg-like computer-assimilators. Shepard is considered by some of the galaxy’s denizens to be a savior who will bring peace to a warring galaxy, yet Shepard is considered by others to be a no-good, power-grubbing, monomaniac. Mass Effect 1 leaves developing Shepard’s character up to the gamer. Will you play to forge a coalition between alien species or will you play to better the position of the human species on the galitco-political stage?

In the scene I have the students play, Shepard has just been given full command over the Normandy and s/he (the character’s gender is player selectable) is about to give a speech to the crew to rally them behind her/him. The Normandy’s crew is unlike that of any other human-military vessel, since it is composed of both humans and aliens. Shepard’s crew is highly distrustful of one another and of Shepard. The purpose of Shepard’s speech is thus to build trust among the crew by getting them fired up about their mission. You the gamer get to choose Shepherd’s rhetorical decisions, while the character/avatar Shepard “decides” how to articulate your rhetorical decisions.

 See this YouTube video for further illustration.

I have one student play through the scenario in class. As she or he is playing, I ask the other students to observe 1) the crew’s reaction to each rhetorical decision, and 2) the way in which Shepard translates the player’s rhetorical stimuli into actual language. I also ask them to consider why might the game award certain rhetorical decisions with “paragon” points and others with “renegade” points. Then, I have another student play through the same scenario, and ask the observing students the same questions. Finally, I lead a discussion where we discuss the different choices the game affords and the rhetorical consequences of each decision.

My purpose, ultimately, is to get the students to see how Shepard’s rhetorical decisions are afforded by the rhetorical situation. As a modeling technology, Mass Effect 1 puts the gamer into a rhetorical situation through the character/avatar Shepard. By allowing the gamer to experiment with the different sorts of appeals Shepard uses to get the audience to believe his or her claims, while simultaneously providing a perspective from which the gamer can judge the consequences of Shepard’s rhetorical decisions, Mass Effect 1 positions the gamer at once “inside” and “outside” the game. Rhetorical modeling technologies like Mass Effect are thus particularly useful pedagogical tools because they afford positions from which students can both “play” and “observe”—two fundamental ingredients of effective learning.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

I’ve played the game up to the relevant scene and saved it just before this scene several times. Use saves 22-24 (at 1hour 42min into the game) to run this lesson. If you’re careful not to save the game over any of these saved games, you can use the same load point each time you play through the scenario. I saved it several times just in case you accidentally save over one of the games (since in Mass Effect, you can’t go back but only start over).

The scene itself lasts about one and half minutes, so you should be able to play it through several times before moving on to questions and discussion.In order to start the scene, walk Shepard's character into the starship Normandy. To select rhetorical options, push and hold the left thumbstick in the direction of the option, and push A.

I use this plan on the day the students turn in their final "short assignment" essay. At this point in the semester, the students tend to be a little burned-out and maintaining their interest can be difficult. I frame this plan as a sort of "reward" for their hard work: since we are playing and talking about a video game, students consider this a "fun" day, which has the added advantage of getting them to think about rhetoric in a low-pressure environment. The lesson plan thus requires no pre-class preparation, but you could append a homework assignment (see questions below).

Instructions For Students: 

Take notes while you watch. After you’ve watched several play-throughs, answer the following questions:

1)      When does the game give you a chance to make decisions? In other words, at what points in Shepard’s speech does the game offer you decisions?

2)      What decisions can you make? (Try to make a list as you watch).

3)      How does Shepard articulate the option you choose? In other words, how does what Shepard says differ from what you ask her to say? (Use direct quotations to answer this question).

4)      How does Shepard’s overall speech change depending on the paths you take?

              a)      First, think about where Shepard invents her ethos in the speech. How does this ethos change depending on the decisions you make? Be specific.

              b)      Now think about where Shepard appeals to her crews values (that is, where does Shepard try to evoke an emotion from her audience. How does this pathos change depending on the decisions you make? Be specific.

             c)      Finally, think about where Shepard reasons with her audience. Can you change this logos by making different rhetorical decisions? If so, where does this happen?

5)      Is there one decision that changes the speech more drastically than others? If so, how does that decision change the speech: does it send it in a new “direction”? does it change its purpose? does it make Shepard seem like a different sort of person?

             a)      Why should that decision change the speech more drastically than others?

6)      How does the crew react differently depending on the sorts of speeches you give?

7)      Why do you think some speech-paths earn “paragon” points, while others earn “renegade” points?

             a)      What implicit criteria is being used to judge your decisions?

Evaluation Suggestions: 

Because I intend this lesson to offer a low-stake opportunity for students to re-learn some of the concepts I introduced earlier in the semester, I grade this assignment as complete/incomplete.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

I was thrilled with my students responses to the game. I had several different students play through the same scene, choosing different rhetorical options each time. Depeding on how you play, the camera shoots to different sections of Shepard's audience (who also react differently depending on what Shepard says. In one shot, for instance, an alien species either crosses his arms and turns away from his human crew-mates or uncrosses his arms and turns towards them depending on whether Shepard emphasizes the superiority of humans to other species or humans' willingness to cooperate with other species). Students wanted to discover every possible audience reaction, and they were helping each other to select options we hadn't yet tried. (Students would say, "oh! try that one, because that will bring up all those other options, and we've only tried one so far). This way of thinking led into a wonderful discussion about how persuasive essays are "modular," so that decisions you make early on in the paper afford other rhetorical options later on at the same time that they take some options out of play. I wouldn't have been able to explain this complex concept had not the students been playing around with the way rhetorical decisions lead on to others.

I might have used this lesson plan earlier in the semester to introduce the notion of "critical situations," or to teach the concepts of "ethos." Next time, I also intend to incorporate this plan into an assignment series that will take up more than one day. I think the pedagogical value of the lesson would have been more fully realized had I required the students to transfer their interactive/visual experience onto paper, either by having them systematically answer the questions above, or by completing a correlated writing assignment. (For instance, you might have students mind-map their own Essays 3 by translating them into "Mass Effect-style" rhetorical prompts: what rhetorical tactics were available to you in the first paragraph? which did you choose? which further rhetorical options were opened up by that decision? and so on).

Additional Resources: 

Once you've put the disc into the XBox, be careful not to disturb the console (in particular, do NOT move the console from vertical to horizontal, or vice versa, while the disc is running, as this will gouge and ruin the disc). I recommend laying the console down flat to play the game; otherwise, the disc might make a distracting rattle while it runs.

My other plan, "Using Mind-Maps to Make Modular Arguments, MASS EFFECT Style," pairs nicely with this exercise.

Course Description: 

RHE306,  A course in argumentation that situates rhetoric as an art of civic discourse. It is designed to enhance students’ ability to analyze the various positionsheld in any public debate and to advocate their own position effectively. Students’ work in this course will help them advance the critical writing and reading skills they will need to succeed in courses for their major and university degree.

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