Daily Archives: November 12, 2012

Using Video Games to Think About Distributive Justice

Marcus Schulzke, State University of New York at Albany


The meritocratic norm—the belief in total personal responsibility for one’s successes and failures—tends to be reinforced by video games that allow players to take control of powerful, independent characters who exert enormous influence on the game world. This essay uses Real Lives as an example of a game that leads players to see the world from the perspective of ordinary people, whose lives are shaped by culture, geographical location, and chance events. This style of game play does not allow players to distance themselves from the uncontrollable circumstances that shape their character and their opportunities. It encourages players to think about distributive justice by presenting them with a much different view of luck and the role of personal hard work than what might be found in most other games.


Playable video game characters in games designed for entertainment are usually powerful figures capable of defeating armies of opponents (as in first-person shooter games like Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Halo, and Gears of War), constructing cities and empires (as in games like SimCity, Civilization, and Total War), or becoming super criminals (as in Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row, and Mafia). Many role-playing games (RPGs)—including massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs)—even give players the opportunity to create personalized characters that are strong expressions of players’control of the game world. Character creation is an empowering mechanic that allows players to explore new identities or to develop idealized versions of themselves, but it also overestimates how much people can deliberately construct their own game personas (Wolfendale 2007; Taylor 2006; Waggoner 2009). Although the ability to take control of superhuman characters or to deliberately construct an identity is a large part of what makes such games enjoyable, video game characterization tends to exaggerate the extent to which any individual can control events in the real world. Culture, institutions, starting points, and the actions of others leave real people dependent on events outside their control, shaping their character and life choices. These kinds of game characters present a one-dimensional view of distributive justice and imply that powerful individuals are justified in exerting their will on others and reshaping the world to fit their desires.

In recent years, many video game developers have sought to develop more realistic games, but their realism tends to be superficial and limited to the game’s appearance and subject matter. Realism is generally defined in terms of sophisticated graphics, rather than in terms of what Galloway calls social realism: a resemblance to the real world that goes beyond accurate visual representations (Galloway 2004). Few video game characters seem to be realistic in the sense of being akin to real people. Moreover, the power that characters tend to have over their world is often unrealistic, regardless of how perfectly a game’s graphics mirror the real world.

Greater realism in the representation of characters and events could add new types of challenges to games designed for entertainment, allowing them to teach players indirectly. By introducing a greater level of player dependence on context and chance, games have the potential to create meaningful learning experiences that encourage players to think more critically about the individual’s relationship to the world. Such games can challenge the one-dimensional view of distributive justice by showing that people rarely have complete control over the events in their lives. This is true for games designed for entertainment as well as those designed for educational purposes. It is even more important for educational games, as these have a much greater responsibility for producing realistic simulations and serving a pedagogical function.

This essay will explore what a more realistic type of character creation and interaction with the game world might look like by drawing on the educational simulation Real Lives as a case study.1 Real Lives is a prime example of what Mary Flanagan calls “critical play,” which “is characterized by a careful examination of social, cultural, political, or even personal themes that function as alternates to popular play spaces” (Flanagan 2009, 6). Real Lives shows how a game can challenge players to reconsider their values by giving them less control over the game world (Educational Simulations 2010). The game generates playable characters and assigns starting attributes and opportunities based on those of the character’s home country. Throughout the game, players must confront random events like disease, natural disasters, and crime. They must face the challenge of living as someone who is unlike the powerful figures in other games and has to struggle to build a character that starts life with the advantages and disadvantages of his or her location and status.

Real Lives is a useful starting place from which to begin thinking about the relationship between playable video game characters and the artificial worlds in which they live. Aside from its merits in performing its explicit educational goals, Real Lives provides a model of a style of gameplay that other games designed for entertainment and education can emulate. The developers’ stated purpose in the game is to teach players about “how people really live in other countries” and to build empathy (Educational Simulations 2010). In addition to the game’s explicit educational goals, such as teaching about other cultures and value systems, one of the greatest potential learning benefits that games like this offer is the manner in which they raise questions about the extent to which people can shape their own life circumstances. Experiencing a life simulation from the perspective of one of the randomized and more realistic characters of Real Lives is therefore a good introduction to the problem of distributive justice that is one of the foremost challenges in contemporary social science (Roemer 1996).

Real Lives and its style of presenting characters can be analyzed in terms of John Rawls’s theory of distributive justice to show how it indirectly reflects on Rawls’s argument about luck and the distribution of resources. I will also draw generalizations from this game to identify the kinds of game mechanics that encourage players to think about distributive justice. It should be pointed out that Real Lives is not alone in offering a critical perspective on social issues and styles of gaming. Other serious video games, including 3rd World Farmer, Peacemaker, and Refugee have also been used to raise social issues and challenge existing conventions of gaming (Games for Change 2012). These and other serious games may be able to have the same pedagogical relevance as Real Lives if they make use of similar gameplay mechanisms.

Meritocracy and Control

One of the most prevalent beliefs in contemporary liberal democracies is that those who work hard will succeed and that failure is largely the result of laziness or ineptitude (Turner 1947; Kernohan 1998; McNamee 2009). This essay will refer to this belief as the “meritocratic norm.” As Kernohan explains, “Most members of a meritocratic culture, rich and poor alike, will share a belief that natural ability should determine material ability to form, revise, and pursue a conception of the good” (Kernohan 1998, 63). For over a century, this norm has been regarded as a defining feature of the European and North American worldviews. It was a central concern for some of the formative social theorists of the nineteenth century (Tocqueville 2007; Weber 2002) and in the twentieth century it was endorsed by many politicians, public intellectuals, writers, and politicians (McNamee 2009, 70). What exactly caused the meritocratic norm to become so pervasive remains a matter of debate, but its influence is undeniable. It is particularly powerful in the United States, where it has become part of the national belief that upward and downward mobility are directly related to a person’s work ethic (Longoria 2009). It is reflected in the theories of prominent economists like Hayek and Friedman, in the works of writers like Ayn Rand and Horatio Alger, and in countless media images of self-made men.

Contemporary media often reinforce the belief that individuals have the power to control their own life circumstances by showing characters who struggle against adversity and achieve enormous success. Countless movies and books explore the theme of the lone figure who is born into humble circumstances and whose intellect and spirit makes them rich, famous, or powerful (Catano 1990; Friedman 2003). However, few media present the meritocratic norm as forcefully and consistently as video games. Although the plots of most video games rarely focus on the meritocratic norm as explicitly as movies and books, it is inherent in the way that games are structured; its influence is revealed through the immense power that players have to remake themselves and the game world. Most games put the player in the role of a premade character that is invariably strong-willed and capable of standing alone against overwhelming odds. These characters can sustain countless serious injuries and perform superhuman feats of dexterity and endurance. Many are capable of accomplishing almost any task, whether it is defeating hordes of alien invaders in Halo or Gears of War, winning the Second World War almost single-handedly in Medal of Honor or Call of Duty, or taking control of a city in Grand Theft Auto and Saint’s Row. For example, many first-person shooters, such as those in the Call of Duty series and the Medal of Honor series, allow players to recover from serious injuries by simply taking cover for a few seconds or by finding “medical packs” that restore health.

The character creation and customization systems that some games offer not only give players control over a powerful character but also allow them to construct the character however they wish. In the typical role-playing game, such as the Fallout series, World of Warcraft, and EverQuest, a player may choose the avatar’s physical appearance—sex, hair skin color, bone structure, etc.—down to the minutest detail. They can also select their character’s starting abilities, their class, their status, and other important details. These characters are engineered to be tools for accomplishing the game’s objectives. Moreover, over the course of playing these games, players can continue deliberately to develop certain dimensions of their characters by earning experience points and selectively improving whatever skills players consider important.

Whether the characters are premade or created by players, they have a very high degree of autonomy. It would be too much of an exaggeration to claim that video games help to create the meritocratic norm, as few, if any, confront it directly. However, many video games do indirectly support this norm with the amount of control they give players over the game world and their characters. Players are encouraged to see themselves as the arbiters of the fate of the game world—as supremely powerful figures who are capable of independent action and who are powerful enough to resist whatever challenges they face. This theme is further emphasized by games that allow players to customize their game experience by giving them the power to win in multiple ways. For example, in Fallout: New Vegas, players can take many different routes through the game and determine which of the game’s competing factions takes control of the Mojave Wasteland. The meritocratic norm is therefore not only a part of game narratives but also of what Ian Bogost calls the procedural rhetoric of the games—the message inherent in the structure of gameplay (Bogost 2007). The type of character that appears in these games will be called the “meritocratic character model” because of how closely it coincides with the meritocratic norm.

Challenging the Meritocratic Norm

There is nothing morally blameworthy about developing games that emphasize meritocratic values. Playing as someone powerful can make video games enjoyable. However, when many games adopt this model, they limit the kinds of experiences players can have and limits what games may be able to teach players. Games can present alternative views of player efficacy and the relationship between characters and the world. Presenting these alternative views may be a source of entertainment and it could also encourage players to think more carefully about a person’s relationship with his or her context. Among the potential educational benefits of deviating from the meritocratic character model of representing playable characters is that games could encourage players to reflect on the extent to which the meritocratic norm is accurate.

Distributive justice is one of the central problems of contemporary social theory. This is largely due to the efforts of John Rawls, one of the most prominent critics of the meritocratic norm (Rawls 1999). His theory of justice includes the controversial difference principle, which holds that any inequalities of primary goods, “things that every rational man is presumed to want,” that cannot be eliminated should be arranged so that they benefit the least advantaged members of society (Rawls 1999, 54). In other words, inequality of primary goods should be avoided, but it is often ineliminable, so justice demands redistribution to those who suffer from the inequality. This redistributive principle is antithetical to the meritocratic norm, as it partially bases the distribution of primary goods on need. To support his difference principle Rawls argues that the meritocratic norm is misguided because it overestimates individuals’ power to control their circumstances. He challenges readers to consider how many of a person’s achievements are attributable to events that are outside their control.

Rawls thinks that many of the most important events in a person’s life are not chosen and cannot be fairly praised or blamed. Place of birth, early educational opportunities, family membership, social status, wealth, and physical attributes are among the many factors that are outside a person’s control. Depending on the level of technology and cultural rules, many of these remain outside a person’s control throughout his or her life. Nevertheless, these have an enormous influence on life prospects. Even if people are fortunate enough to have opportunities to improve their status and their material well-being, those who started from a disadvantageous position will have a more difficult time competing with others, making equal opportunity illusory. For example, one has a much better chance of becoming materially successful if one is born in the United States as opposed to Afghanistan, and it is easier for an American to become wealthy if they are born into wealthy family (Bowles 2005).

In Real Lives, choices are heavily shaped by where the character lives. Throughout the game, the player must struggle to balance his or her character’s needs, to find a job, and to remain healthy and happy. This can be very difficult depending on the character’s starting place. Real Lives only allows players to make choices that are appropriate to the character’s age, location, and abilities. Those who are born as women in traditional societies, who are minorities, or who live in poverty, face especially serious problems that may be impossible to completely overcome during the game. Some countries offer few job opportunities, some have poor human rights records, and some are plagued by epidemics. Upward mobility is possible, but sometimes it is only possible through immigration. Those starting in impoverished countries may attempt to immigrate to a place with better job opportunities, but this often comes with the risk of loss of property, imprisonment, or serious injury. The events that influence the character’s life are related to the player’s starting context. Each turn ends when the player chooses to age another year. During this year, contextually appropriate random events occur. These range from family members finding and losing their jobs or being infected with a disease to natural disasters and wars affecting the country. These events can also be frustrating, as they may destroy carefully laid plans and nothing can be done to prevent them.

Rawls acknowledges that people can raise or lower themselves within their context, but he maintains that every person is heavily dependent on chance events throughout their lives. Natural disasters, macroeconomic shifts, and wars are among the many events outside people’s control that can destroy their opportunities for social mobility and deprive them of primary goods. People who believe in the meritocratic norm might take exception to Rawls’s difference principle and assert that their own achievements result from some power of the will or individual drive. Rawls would counter by pointing out that even desire has to have a source. The will to succeed must be learned, like everything else, and is likely the result of parental encouragement, a good education, or some other factors that we are not responsible for.

Rawls argues that it is unjust to hold people responsible for misfortunes that result from the many matters of chance that shape their lives. It is therefore misguided to apply the meritocratic norm to judge people, when so much of success or failure is a matter of chance. This argument has received some support by scholarship on the relevance of luck in moral action, which shows that the moral character of actions is often determined by circumstances that are outside of our control (Nagel 1979; Williams 1981). “What we do,” Nagel argues, “is also limited by the opportunities and choices with which we are faced, and these are largely determined by factors beyond our control.” To use one of Nagel’s examples, running a red light is blameworthy, but whether this is a harmless act or leads a driver to kill a pedestrian may depend on whether someone is crossing the street. This is a matter of luck from the driver’s perspective because it is outside of the driver’s control, yet this has an enormous influence on determining what crime the driver is guilty of (Nagel 1993, 58).

Whether Rawls is right or wrong is beyond the scope of this essay. Whatever one’s feelings about the meritocratic norm, there is value in taking a critical look at distributive justice and considering whether the meritocratic norm is justified or whether Rawls’s argument offers a convincing objection to it. Supporters and opponents can both benefit from taking a closer look at the extent to which lives are shaped by external forces and the extent to which these can be overcome. One way of doing this is by using games to simulate different ways of life. Game worlds are simplified representations of the real world, but as with all modeling techniques, we can learn something from these simplified representations when they accurately represent the phenomena being examined. Most video games are unable to serve as effective models in this sense because their characters are clearly unrealistic. However, games that more accurately reflect the real world, especially with respect to the power individuals have over their own life circumstances, can be a useful way of reconsidering the meritocratic norm and the extent to which Rawls offers a convincing objection to it.

Contextually Embedded Characters

At the heart of Rawls’s critique of the meritocratic norm is the idea that people cannot be praised or blamed for events that are outside of their control, events that are a matter of chance or randomness. Chance does play a significant role in some contemporary games, but not in the usual sense of the word. It is, for example, a central part of games in the Fallout series. In these games, luck is one of the player’s character traits and it can have important consequences in determining events in the game. For example, the higher a player’s luck score, the greater his or her chances of finding money or of experiencing beneficial random encounters. Many role-playing games and strategy games also incorporate an element of chance by using players’ attack and defense scores to calculate the probability of defeating opponents or randomly choosing whichat enemies a player will encounter. However, in these games, luck is often under the player’s control to some extent. The scores used to calculate probabilities are usually indirectly controlled by the player, who can improve his or her skills to gain more favorable odds. The luck score used in the Fallout series can be set at the start of the game and improved by finding special items, making it more like a skill than luck in the normal sense of the word. The elements of chance present in these games may disrupt their plans and encourage players to weigh probabilities when determining their courses of action, but they do not significantly change the level of control players have over the game. At most, they are brief disruptions that can be overcome by using a different strategy. For a game to encourage reflection on distributive justice, it must make greater use of chance in determining the player’s characteristics and the events that shape the course of the game. It must also give players the perspective of a video game character that is more like an ordinary person. Real Lives is a promising example of how this can be accomplished.

Real Lives generates player’s parents, family members, country of birth, and basic characteristics such as sex, health, and skills, before the player has any control over the character. This random selection of starting circumstances simulates the determination of one’s starting point at birth. This is in marked contrast to the character creation systems used in many RPGs, which allow players to choose many of these traits. For example, in Fallout 3, one can choose the character’s sex, age, physical appearance, strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, luck, and special skills. In Real Lives, a range of material conditions appropriate to the character’s region are also imposed. These conditions are determined by statistical regularities in the region where the character lives (Educational Simulations 2010). They reflect what a person in that location would likely encounter, and include attributes such as  whether the player’s character has access to necessities like food, water, and medical care, or a home, car, television, and other essential tools of modern life. The random character creation gives players control of someone who seems more like a real person than ordinary video game characters. Just as in real life, players have to make the most of a starting position that they did not choose.

Once the player has control of the character, he or she must do as well as he or she can,  given their starting limitations. Just as in real life, there is no way of beating the game. The challenge is making choices that make the player’s character happy and healthy or choosing some other standard by which to judge success. Throughout the game, the player’s character is ranked on a 1 to 100 scale in terms of happiness, intelligence, artistic and musical abilities, athleticism, strength, endurance, appearance, conscience, and wisdom. Traits such as intelligence and musical talent can be cultivated with practice, but training always involves a tradeoff. One skill can only be cultivated at the expense of something else. Just as in real life the player must satisfy multiple needs as much as possible given time constraints. Spending too much time working can have a negative influence on happiness, while avoiding the hard work of studying and exercising can limit job opportunities and result in long term health problems. The overall structure of character development is similar to other life simulation games, such as The Sims. The Sims also lacks an overall objective and rates players and their homes based on metrics that require players to carefully balance happiness, income, health, and other needs. However, the circumstances in which character develop in Real Lives are what sets them apart from the characters in other life simulation games. In fact, The Sims may be just as complicit in reproducing the meritocratic norm as other video games; it attempts to simulate real life while preserving central elements of the meritocratic norm, such as an equal starting place for all players and a direct relationship between players’ choices and the outcomes they experience in the game world. As McKenzie Wark points out, in The Sims, players occupy an idealized, ideological space that is heavily shaped by the idea of meritocracy (Wark 2007, 42).

Changing Perspectives

Unlike the many video games that only give players the perspective of a powerful main character, Real Lives problematizes the meritocratic norm. Although there is no explicit discussion of the problem of distributive justice, of the meritocratic norm, or of the challenges to it, the game presents problems that encourage players to think about the issues that are at stake in the debate over distributive justice. The game offers strong support for Rawls’s argument by showing that one’s abilities and choices are contingent upon one’s context, and by showing that random events can have a significant effect on a person’s life. The extent to which the player is affected by outside forces makes a strong case for reconsidering the extent to which people are really responsible for their life circumstances. However, to a lesser extent the game also encourages players to think about the extent to which the meritocratic norm may be accurate. Regardless of their starting position, players can be more or less successful depending on what choices they make. They are given a number of choices: how to spend free time, what occupation to pursue, whom to have relationships with, and how to spend money. Each of these decisions may be used to exert some personal control over the world and to protect the character against chance events in future turns. A player who balances these decisions well may be more successful than a player who does so poorly, provided he or she starts from approximately the same starting position. The game even allows players to attempt to immigrate to other countries as a way of creating new opportunities. This provides a means of overcoming the inherent disadvantages of playing the game in a poor country.

Real Lives serves as an example of a different way of representing video game characters that deviates from the meritocratic model, but it is by no means the only game that could present an alternative perspective. The gameplay mechanics that Real Lives uses—the random assignment of starting characteristics, the influence of chance events, the influence of context in shaping available options, and the more realistic view of individual power over the game world—could be emulated by other games, whether they are designed for entertainment or education. Real Lives and other simulations that attempt to accurately mirror people’s life circumstances could be used to introduce both students and gamers to the problem of distributive justice.

Little research has been done on the effects of the meritocratic character model on players’ perceptions or on the costs and benefits of deviating from this model. However, it is possible to identify some of the potential benefits of exploring new ways of constructing playable video game characters. The foremost benefit for players of games designed for entertainment or education may simply come from challenging their perceptions and allowing them to see the world from a different perspective. Games provide an opportunity for players to gain firsthand experience of what it might be like to live as another person. Although many games provide the appearance of this change of perspective, they tend to undermine the learning potential of becoming someone else by adopting the meritocratic character model. They do not force players to grapple with the limitations that a real person might face or because they allow players to recreate that person in their own image through character creation.

Although Real Lives is an educational simulation, some or all of its gameplay mechanics could be used in games designed for entertainment that convey an alternative perspective. Real Lives does not directly address Rawls, theories of moral luck, the meritocratic norm, or distributive justice, but it is structured in such a way that these ideas are always implicit. The game raises questions about what people deserve to achieve by giving players insight into what it might mean to be a different person with different life circumstances without attempting to teach a particular lesson or even explaining the underlying problem of distributive justice. Games designed for entertainment could similarly pose challenges to the meritocratic norm and the meritocratic character model without attempting to teach a particular lesson.

The Real Lives mechanics have the potential to contribute to games designed for entertainment by offering a much different style of gameplay than players find in most popular video games on the market. Playing as a realistic character makes it difficult or even impossible to perform the superhuman tasks one finds in many games, but it also creates many new challenges. For example, rather than playing as a powerful character that can singlehandedly overcome all of the game challenges, players might be given the role of a more realistic leading character who must cooperate with others to succeed. Although this would constitute a significant deviation from the meritocratic character model, there is good reason for believing that it may be possible without compromising entertainment. Some online games, such as World of Warcraft, already limit players’ individual power relative to the game’s challenges in order to force them to cooperate to complete quests. To some extent, this helps to overcome the limitations of gaming based on the meritocratic norm, replacing it with one of cooperation. However, World of Warcraft only partly overcomes the procedural logic of the meritocratic norm, as players retain control over the creation and development of their own characters and can, when cooperating with others, exert a high level of control over the game world. Changing the power relation between the character and the game world to a larger degree and including the other mechanics demonstrated by Real Lives would allow games designed for entertainment to present new kinds of challenges.

The most significant limitation of Real Lives with respect to learning about distributive justice is that the subject is not explicitly presented in the game. Casual players may overlook this and other educational dimensions of the game. As I have argued, the game may raise players’ awareness of this issue simply by showing them what the world may look like when seen from another person’s perspective. However, there is no guarantee that playing the game will accomplish this, especially since the game does not directly refer to the issue of distributive justice, to Rawls, or to other theorists who take up the issue. This limitation can be overcome when the game is used in the classroom in conjunction with lessons that can highlight the other issues that the game confronts.

The greatest challenge I have encountered when teaching undergraduate political science students about the subject of distributive justice and Rawls’s philosophy is leading them to think critically about their own assumptions about fairness. In my experience teaching American undergraduates, most of students accept the meritocratic norm and believe that the current system of distributing goods based on capitalist market principles with limited state redistribution is the most just arrangement. Rawls’s challenge to the meritocratic norm often provokes vociferous disagreement. Many students object to Rawls’s claim that much of our lives are determined by forces outside control. They also feel that this threatens their achievements. When Rawls’s theory is presented by itself, there is a high risk that students will simply reject the argument outright without seriously considering whether Rawls is right.

By contrast, playing Real Lives before discussing distributive justice helps to problematize the meritocratic norm by showing how a person’s circumstances can restrict their opportunities. This facilitates a more open discussion of whether Rawls’s argument is correct and also provides the students with a shared experience that they can refer back to when explaining why they agree or disagree with Rawls. Because the game assigns players an identity based on chance, playing only once or twice may lead them to experience the simulations from a similar perspective to their own. Ideally players should complete three to five iterations of the game in order to experience the game from several different perspectives and to recognize the extent to which the game’s difficulty changes according to the luck of their starting conditions. One iteration should take around 30 minutes, though the time varies according to the life expectancy in a character’s birth country. Playing multiple iterations allows players to see that their achievements and misfortunes are closely related to their life circumstances. Real Lives does allow players to construct their starting identity, choosing their nationality and characteristics. Although this game mode may serve some education objectives, an instructor using the game to teach students about distributive justice should not allow players to deliberately construct identities as this can all too easily lead them to reproduce the limitations of games that employ the meritocratic character model.

Games that challenge the meritocratic character model can also be put to use in classes that address inequalities of wealth and the influence of life circumstances over a person’s opportunities without focusing on theories of distributive justice. Francesco Crocco discusses the use of video and board games to help students learn about “hegemonic ideas about social mobility under capitalism” (Crocco 2011, 35). Although he does not address the subject of distributive justice in the ways one would in a philosophy or political science class, Crocco uses games to raise some of the same types of problems that Rawls discusses, such as the effects of unequal life circumstances. Real Lives and games like it might therefore be used in other educational settings aside from undergraduate classes in political science and philosophy, such as classes in which distributive justice is raised but the political philosophies of distributive justice are not specifically discussed.

There are several significant limitations on what Real Lives, or any other simulation of living in the real world, can accomplish when it comes to thinking about distributive justice. First, the game is only a model of the real world. It cannot serve as empirical evidence for or against a particular view of distributive justice and therefore cannot replace careful examination of the extent to which life circumstances shape real people’s opportunities and decisions. Second, players are contextually embedded, like the characters they control. They will likely play in ways that reflect players’ cultures and backgrounds. This could influence the way they play the game or limit the extent to which a game is capable of challenging their existing beliefs. However, these circumstances do not negate the value games can have in exploring the problem of distributive justice. Simulations may not serve as evidence that a particular side is right, but they can provide an experience that challenges players to think more critically about the extent to which a person deserves their successes and failures. Distributive justice is a complex problem, yet it can be simplified and made more intuitive when it is presented in a simulation that mirrors real life.


A growing literature exists that shows the educational benefits of gaming (Michael 2006; Gee 2003, 2007). Many of these studies have shown that games can improve general skills like cognition and perception, while others have linked games to improved problem-solving abilities (Higgins 2000), higher levels of confidence (Jones 2002), and greater comfort with technology (Prensky 2001). This essay takes a different approach by proposing that games can also be used to help players think critically about specific problems even when these problems are introduced tangentially, as ideas that structure the game implicitly rather than as explicit lessons within the game. This is not to say that all players will benefit from this message or that all will reflect on how games challenge their assumptions. However, making the problem of distributive justice a prominent part of gaming can present a clear challenge that will encourage players to take a more critical perspective on their experiences of games. There is also a theoretical value in using games to explore the implications of abstract concepts. By taking a concept like distributive justice out of the realm of theoretical speculation and making it part of a simulation, games provide an excellent means of recontextualizing the problem by giving players firsthand, concrete experience of that problem.

Real Lives breaks with the usual video game format of giving players control of a powerful leading character. In doing so it gives players the opportunity to relate to a much different kind of character, one who does not have control of his or her starting position in life and who must struggle against events that cannot be controlled. This approach challenges players to consider the extent to which actions in the game are the result of the constraints placed on their character and the extent to which they reflect deserved personal achievement. The simulation does not take a position on this, nor does it attempt to offer lessons about distributive justice. However, by introducing players to this problem, Real Lives encourages them to consider distributive justice and to arrive at their own conclusions about it. The game therefore serves as a strong case study of game mechanics that might allow video games designed for entertainment and educational purposes to deviate more from the meritocratic character model. As this essay has argued, deviating from this model and developing games that raise serious questions tangentially, by virtue of the way they are structured and the ways in which they situate the player’s character in relation to the game world, suggests a promising approach to making games that are capable of indirectly challenging players to think more critically about the issue of distributive justice.


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About the Author

Marcus Schulzke is the Research Director of the Project on Violent Conflict at the University at Albany and an ABD PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science. His research interests include game studies, contemporary political theory, applied ethics, and issues of political violence. He has published essays on video game violence, ethics in video games, virtual property, and associational life in games. He is currently finishing dissertation research about how soldiers make ethical decisions during war.



  1. The author has no affiliation with Real Lives or Educational Simulations.


Welcome to JITP Issue Two! We are especially excited to introduce the first installment of our Behind the Seams feature, in which the editors and authors reflect on the oft-hidden path from proposal to published piece. This feature centers on a recorded audio conversation—not an interview, but an open-ended discussion—built around observations and recollections of what stands out in the process of developing, editing and publishing an online article. In this inaugural edition, we spoke with Brian Beaton, author of Other People’s Digital Tools: Adaptive Reuse, Cold War History, and the GSA’s Real Property Utilization and Disposal Website,” an article on his intentional “misreading” of a government property sales website as an archive of Cold War architecture.

Three themes emerged from our conversation that revealed patterns in the full set of articles constituting Issue Two. The first involves the value of such resistant readings. In “Wiki Wars: Conversation, Negotiation, and Collaboration in Online Spaces,” Jennifer Marlow describes how students’ “wars” over their understanding of common class content—overwriting, rewriting, and re-overwriting each others’ ideas and definitions in a class wiki—helped her (and her students) to understand the value of social constructivist learning. Although the infighting may at first seem a failure of social construction, in that the wiki page always showed the latest move in the debate rather than blending various contributions, Marlow chooses to focus instead on the wiki’s Page History as the product of the class’s collaboration, revealing the persistence with which they fought for their definitions in the midst of fighting over them. Like Beaton, she therefore demonstrates ways in which the failure (or “failure”) of technological innovations in the classroom can be the most productive moments in their use.

True, this can cause difficulties; but the second theme we noticed is the usefulness of difficulty in learning. By unsettling our default ways of seeing or interacting, challenges and mismatches between our expectations and what actually happens—like the unpredictable disappearance of certain entries from Beaton’s “archive,” or the overall difficulty in repurposing the resource—can bring those expectations and desires forward into consciousness, encouraging a more thoughtful design (or re-design). Moreover, as Ali Arya, Peggy Hartwick, Shawn Graham, and Nuket Nowlan suggest in their joint article “Collaborating through Space and Time in Educational Virtual Environments: 3 Case Studies,” this insight is not limited to design projects. They found that when immersed in a 3D Virtual Environment, students in a college-level language course held more spontaneous conversations in the target language; and though the authors don’t say so explicitly, we can’t help but wonder whether part of the exigency for their discussions was the useful difficulty of negotiating the 3D platform. Such conversations are also on display in the third case of the article, in which students in an archaeology course guide each other through an impressively interactive 3D virtual dig site. This dig site itself was made interestingly difficult to build by the constraints of the environment; we hope the authors’ innovative solution will save some time for readers who wish to emulate or extend their success.

All of these experiences with productive (or at least provocative) difficulty suggest to us that there is room for further exploration of the concept, especially in connection to Randy Bass and Heidi Elmendorf’s white paper “Designing for Difficulty: Social Pedagogies as a Framework for Course Design.” Their social pedagogies framework specifically calls on teachers to create opportunities for students to engage with difficulty and authenticity so that they will develop deepened and contextualized understanding. The playing out of the theme of difficulty in the pieces in this issue leads us to think that not only students, but teachers, too, can profitably acknowledge, engage with, and learn from difficulty, rather than avoiding it.

The third theme emerging from our peek Behind the Seams, which we will be interested to track through future issues, is the tendency for articles in our Issues section to line up with the other sections of JITP; the review process and “fitting” articles into our separate sections, it seems, has often caused those articles (and our sections) to shift in scope. Marlow’s article, for example, could be construed as an extended Teaching Fail submission; Beaton’s explicitly began its life as a Tool Tip before expanding in scope; and Marcus Schulzke’s article on “Using Video Games to Think About Distributive Justice” could well be seen as a beefed-up Review. Focusing on a recently developed life-sim game, Real Lives, Schulzke ponders the implications of assuming the roles of powerful characters on game players’ understandings of and complacency about power imbalances in the real world.

Seeing how the journal—and publication in the journal—helps to generate new ideas has been an exciting process for us. It is this sense of JITP as a creative and generative force in itself, rather than just a repository for static ideas and completed research, which led to the inclusion of “Behind the Seams” as a feature.

Our final article, by JITP’s own Kimon Keramidas, became two articles through the review process: after a full-length treatment of “Integrating Digital Media at the Programmatic and Institutional Level: Building a Humane Cyberinfrastructure at the Bard Graduate Center,” he also offers an “Afterword: The DML and the Digital Humanities.” In the former, Keramidas highlights the practical benefits of metacognitive reflection on both instruction and technology. “Digital media are new,” he writes, “and with newness comes apprehension. […] Clearly and repeatedly communicating an understanding of programmatic foundations can do much to assuage apprehension and uncertainty”—especially, as he makes clear elsewhere in the piece, when communicating with one individual at a time.

We’ve split off the afterword in anticipation of what we trust will be a lively and provocative discussion around the value of the Digital Humanities as a term of art within instructional technology and pedagogy—a value which Keramidas calls into question.

We hope that any or all of these pieces will strike some sparks. JITP should always be a place for live conversation and thinking and learning, not just for display or presentation. If you, as a reader, want to follow up on some point of an article that was exciting or provocative but not entirely fleshed out, to push the conversation in a new direction or draw a new connection, please use the comments sections! In an online journal, the final word is only the end of the first sally, and the conversation can continue even here within our pages.

Benjamin Miller, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Joseph Ugoretz, Macaulay Honors College, CUNY
Co-Editors, JITP Issue Two

Wiki Wars: Conversation, Negotiation, and Collaboration in Online Spaces

Jennifer Marlow, The College of Saint Rose


This article is a teaching “failure narrative” that describes a first foray into wiki (mis)use in a topics-based writing class. This pedagogical story is informed by theories of collaborative writing developed within the field of composition paired with concepts of “collective intelligence” and “knowledge communities” used by new media scholars. Ultimately, the article questions the idea of consensus as a necessary ingredient in a successful writing collaboration, asserting instead that the struggles over composing within a wiki space are actually assets to the practices of teaching and writing and have the potential to inform our collective thinking about intellectual property.


“The Internet was built for love, not profit.”

— Douglas Rushkoff, “The People’s Net”


Collaborative pedagogies in the composition classroom are often influenced (whether consciously or not) by Kenneth Bruffee’s landmark article, “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind,’ ” in which he urges those of us who teach writing to “create and maintain a demanding academic environment that makes collaboration—social engagement in intellectual pursuits—a genuine part of students’ educational development” (Bruffee 1984, 652). Since then, many scholars in the field of composition have taken up Bruffee’s call for a socially engaged and collaborative classroom space. In a 1996 article, Susan West and Andrea Lunsford echo Bruffee’s call for collaboration in the writing classroom and describe the problem with most writing instruction as “perpetuating traditional concepts of authorship, authority, and ownership of intellectual property” (West and Lunsford 1996, 397).

The role of Web 2.0 in providing spaces for writing that break from these hallmarks of traditional writing instruction has been widely addressed and frequently (though not always) celebrated in composition scholarship and new media studies. Web 2.0 is described as the participatory web that we all read and to which we also write and contribute. Various portmanteaus have emerged to describe the “new” hybrid-users of the web: Don Tapscott’s (reintroduction of the) term “prosumer” and Axel Bruns’s concept of “produser” are two examples. In particular, the use of wikis, which were designed as web pages meant to combine the roles of reader, writer, and editor, can be described as emblematic of Web 2.0’s collaborative ethos. Wikis were originally designed for groups to easily share work and ideas, making them ideal for the collaborative learning and writing that frequently takes place in a writing classroom.

Despite the large amounts of time most of our students spend occupying networked spaces, they aren’t necessarily prepared for nor open to the kinds of participation, interactivity, collaboration, and negotiation that many scholars see as the great potential of Web 2.0. I make this claim based on my experiences watching students struggle with the act of collaborative writing within the digital space of a wiki. Experiencing this struggle—what I’ve come to call a kind of “wiki war”—initially made me feel as though I were falling short of achieving my goals for the use of the wiki within the course. However, this seeming “failure” taught me something about how my students view language, ideas, and text creation. The experience gave me insight into the kinds of values that have shaped my students, and it inspired ideas for future ways of framing wiki writing in the classroom.

Failure and The Hi-Tech Gift Economy

In a recent edition of College English, editor John Schilb describes the need for more pedagogical failure narratives: “[H]ardly ever can pedagogy be smoothly ritualistic; in any classroom, the unexpected can loom. Better to acknowledge that surprise events can alter the scheme for the day” (Schilb 2012, 515). And failure seems an appropriate place to start when talking about collaboration and technology. First of all, failure is inevitable when it comes to navigating new and emerging media. Henry Jenkins reminds us that “we are still learning what it is like to operate within a knowledge culture. We are still debating and resolving the core principles that will define our interactions with each other” (Jenkins 2006, 238). The interactivity and participation that comprise the essence of Web 2.0 require strong negotiating skills, and negotiation is not easy. Given this level of difficulty, the chances for “failure” are high. My students’ struggles over text production are certainly reflective of the kinds of difficult negotiations that other scholars have identified as part of the process of wiki writing. Finally, there is the tension that resides in the notion of consensus and collaboration. For Bruffee, the idea of consensus is crucial to his work on collaborative learning and the way(s) in which he defines knowledge. The need for consensus is also a commonly accepted trait of wikis: “Because wikis allow all readers to write . . . , but write the same document, they provide a unique Web space where differing opinions are expressed, explored, and yes, sometimes eviscerated, but gradually moved toward consensus” (Barton and Cummings 2011, vii). The emphasis on the importance of consensus as essential to collaboration can contribute to the perception that a lack of consensus is equivalent to failure.

In recent years much composition scholarship has sought to incorporate Bruffee’s work on collaboration by shifting the emphasis in the classroom from grades and a competitive desire for praise and recognition to “the pleasures of companionship, community, and mutual support” (Heller 2003, 308). These types of “pleasures” are central to new media theories developed by scholars such as Henry Jenkins, Howard Rheingold, Pierre Lévy, Clay Shirky, Axel Bruns, and Richard Barbrook. They see these contemporary online collaborations as a fundamental part of the “the hi-tech gift economy,” a term that Barbrook adapted from Lewis Hyde’s concept of “gift economy” to describe the anti-capitalist, anti-copyright aspects of Web 2.0. In this version of the Web, users “[u]nconcerned about copyright . . . give and receive information without thought of payment.”  Barbrook continues: “Within the hi-tech gift economy, people successfully work together through ‘ . . . an open social process involving evaluation, comparison and collaboration’” (Barbrook 1998). Similarly, Lévy describes what happens in this participatory version of cyberspace as “collective intelligence,” which “is a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills . . . . The basis and goal of collective intelligence is the mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatized communities” (Lévy 1997, 13).

The benefits of both contributing to and gaining from (these are both obligations cited by Hyde for participation in a gift economy) this “hi-tech gift economy” might seem apparent to many educators (as they did to me) who see the power and depth of collective knowledge formation. Our students, however, might not so easily subscribe to these modes of learning that are far afield from the meritocratic education system they are accustomed to. A question that remains to be answered is posed by Rafael Heller: “Are we really to believe that our students might so completely internalize a collaborative ideology, as if they could inhale a new set of motives and exhale the old?” (Heller 2003, 312). The follow-up questions to Heller’s seem to me to be: What are the “old motives” exactly?  How do they affect, and sometimes derail, our desire to create a more collaborative classroom space?  And more specifically related to the idea of wikis: How do “old motives” mesh with or compete against the increasingly collaborative ethos of networked digital writing spaces?

In the classroom narrative that follows, my students appear to be motivated by a sense of ownership over their words and ideas. They do not appear to be interested in moving away from the cognitive/Cartesian belief in the self as “the matrix of all thought” (Bruffee 1986, 777). These motives are dichotomous with the kinds of values that drive the “hi-tech gift economy.”  The “old motives” are attached to the idea of Author with a capital “A” and the perceived benefits that come from ownership over one’s labor (whether in the form of good grades or financial gain). The “hi-tech gift economy,” on the other hand, implies a more altruistic motivation: namely, the circulation of “gifts” (most often in the form of information/knowledge) in a social rather than an economic manner.

Negotiation and Dissensus

I have used wikis in my classes in various ways—always with the goal of supporting and improving student writing and often in ways that have traditionally been accomplished in the form of face-to-face group work. These include “workshopping” student writing, having students contribute to grading criteria and the development of rubrics, creating a space to conduct group work, and writing collaborative texts that become frameworks for concepts we’re working through in class. It was for this latter purpose that I initially implemented a class wiki in my topics-based writing course called “Writing about Society and Culture.”  The wiki served as a collaborative writing and thinking space throughout the semester and was eventually used for the joint writing of the students’ final projects. Our first foray into wiki-use (and potential misuse) involved collaboratively writing a definition for the term “culture” as used in the title of the course. My goal was to create a definition (knowledge) based on a community of peers contributing to and eventually (hopefully) reaching consensus, or, at the very least, agreeing upon a workable definition or framework. I began by posting a loose, one sentence introduction to the idea of culture as it pertained to the course:

Definitions of culture are constantly changing, but this class will be informed by the belief that culture is representative of the way(s) in which language, art, media, politics and lived experience are in constant flux and sometimes conflict as they shape our consciousness and daily lives.

The class then had the opportunity to add and make changes to my starter sentence.

I had a number of goals here: 1) simply to get them comfortable using the wiki—understanding how to edit, use the page history, etc.; 2) to come to a brief definition—a hearty paragraph about culture that we could refer to and through which we could begin framing our class discussions—a definition that we could all feel comfortable with, remember, and relate to; 3) to give them a chance to experience firsthand the temporal nature of writing, especially in digital form; and 4) to incorporate the long-line of scholarship since Bruffee that argues for the importance of collaborative learning and conversation in the writing classroom.

In “Social Construction, Language, and Knowledge” Bruffee references an article by Greg Myers that traces the publication of an article written by two biologists through its various rejections and ultimate approval. “Myers demonstrates the extent to which what these scientists actually knew gradually changed as the community of knowledgeable peers they belonged to demanded change in the language of the articles they were writing” (Bruffee 1986, 785). A similar observation can certainly be applied to the use of wikis in (or outside) of a writing classroom. The demand for changes in language can be a catalyst for learning, as the wiki’s contributors are made to think more deeply and carefully about what it is they want to say and how they want to say it in a venue shared by others. One could question whether my students constitute a group of “knowledgeable peers,” asking what it is that they know about defining culture. But, as I illustrate to these students on the first day of class, they know culture. I show them just how much they know implicitly, as I lead them through a kind of “pop culture” pop quiz. I ask them first to identify the colors used in Microsoft’s logo without looking at their computers or anything else in the room. The majority of them can name all four colors correctly. I hum the tune of Jeopardy and ask them to “name that tune”; all of them recognize it. I ask them if they know what a Swiffer is, and I describe a popular commercial to see if they know what it is used for. As these examples illustrate, these students have been defining culture long before they came to my class and, I’m hoping, continue to (re)define it during the course of the semester. This places importance on the wiki as a means of maintaining an immediate yet evolving reference to the central concept of the course.

“Intellectual negotiation,” argues Harvey S. Wiener, is what distinguishes group work that might only serve to “subdivide the traditional hierarchical classroom into several smaller versions of the same model” from true collaborative learning. In order “to assure that the teacher in a collaborative learning classroom is guiding students to collective judgments in groups,” Wiener suggests, “evaluators are right to insist that the task be written down. A written task provides the language that helps to shape students’ conversations” (Wiener 1986, 55). I agree with the necessity of writing when it comes to successful collaboration; however in the case of most face-to-face collaborative learning groups, frequently only one student is doing the actual writing. This distinction is important because, as Peter Hawkes reminds us in a response to Wiener, the differences between collaboration and group work “inhere in the nature of the task” (quoted in Wiener 1986, 56).

I am guessing that many of us have experienced or led the kind of hierarchical group work that Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford describe in Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing, where they identify two modes of collaboration. One they describe as hierarchical and admit that in their research it tends to be the most common means of collaboratively producing text. They write that the hierarchical mode of collaboration is “rigidly structured, driven by highly specified goals, and carried out by people playing clearly defined and delimited roles.” They describe the goals as “designated by someone outside of and hierarchically superior to the immediate group” (Ede and Lunsford 1990, 133). While Ede and Lunsford don’t directly name these “defined and delimited roles,” it calls to mind for me collaborative endeavors that involve a “scribe” or recorder who jots down notes from the group’s conversation. All too often this same recorder is the one assigned to read from those notes to the class during the subsequent discussion. Word choice, struggles with language, and figuring out the best means to express what it is the students want to say suddenly become secondary to merely getting the work done, as the group relies on “the scribe” to take care of all of that. Subsequently, the “Burkean parlor conversation” that may have taken place becomes lost in the speech act, most of which remains unrecorded. Wrestling with the text is not always an accessible activity to the group as a whole when it comes to this traditional form of collaborative writing; whereas, with collaborative wiki writing, all students can get their hands on the text, intervene, wrestle, and negotiate. This is important, because as John Trimbur stresses, when the “process of intellectual negotiation that underwrites consensus . . . works . . . the pressure leads students to take their ideas seriously, to fight for them, and to modify or revise them in light of others’ ideas. It can also cause students to agree to disagree.” (Trimbur 1989, 54).

My Writing about Society and Culture students were eventually forced to “agree to disagree,” but not all of them were happy about it. In fact, Trimbur’s word choice of students “fighting” for their ideas is illustrated in the outcome of our collaborative composing of the definition of “culture.”  The issues arose, in part, because we were learning to use the wiki during class time and therefore were all simultaneously logged on and making changes. A student’s text might only last a second or two before it was intervened upon and transformed by another student. While this logistical fact seemed to exacerbate tensions, it is still representative of what can happen when writers contribute to a large-scale wiki. Students struggled for control over the text, and some were fairly vocal about their annoyance when “their” text was changed. Students would repeatedly return to the text and attempt to revert back or override the changes that a peer had made in an attempt to “fight” for their writing. Some even made changes to the text in defense of a friend whose words had been altered by someone else in the class. There were many rumblings of complaint, even some under-the-breath name calling.

A student with the username “smallfrii” wanted to express the “learned” or “practiced” aspects of culture. Over a series of twelve edits, smallfrii contributed to the wiki five times, adding some version of this definition of culture: “Culture can be learned or practiced through habits. For example, something that has been done or said in your family, could be automatically transferred [sic] to you.”  Four of the twelve edits were by another student who deleted smallfrii’s references to culture as “learned” or “practiced.”  Another edit that was revised was the idea of culture as “inherited.”  At 8:11 on a Thursday morning, smallfrii added this description of culture: “Culture is a learned and inherited behavior and uniting force among specific people in a society.” This was deleted by murphyt088 at 8:12, added again by smallfrii at 8:13 and promptly removed by lynchm496 at 8:13. It was the specific term “inherited” that appeared to be the source of contention; however, despite the implied dispute, there was not enough time for the disagreement to actually play out. The students did not have time to think through the word choice, learning from and making changes based on the specific meaning of language. Instead, they were concerned with getting their own idea to stick as the “permanently” recorded definition of culture.

The rapid-fire changes continued, moving from struggles over word choice to a disagreement over more universal conceptions of what culture is (or isn’t). At 8:13, “lynchm496” added: “Culture is known throughout different societies as a way of life.”  Another student who had the opposite idea in mind supplanted this almost immediately: “The idea that culture can not impact people is also a possibility.” Lynchm496 reinserted her original sentence by 8:15. Meanwhile, Kellyb816 (who was friends with Lynchm496) came to Lynchm496’s defense by deleting the other student’s statement about the possibility of culture not impacting people. Additionally, in less than a minute the text, “No matter what background you come from you’re [sic] culture will always be changing and growing based upon society and the changing times,” was added, deleted by another student, and finally reinstated by the original writer. The speed with which these deletions and additions took place seems to illustrate the fact that the students were more interested in asserting and inserting their own words and ideas into the text than considering what they might learn from and add to the work of their peers.

One of the benefits of using wikis for group work is the record they keep of the collaborative writing process: “Wikis help enable the student-centered classroom by recording the messiness of negotiation within an electronic document that can be accessed in its newest form at all times” (Vie and DeWinter 2008, 115). This record of the “messiness of negotiation” comes in the form of a wiki’s “history.”  The fact that I could access this “history” of edits made by each individual writer was one that I reminded the students of on more than one occasion; however, it did little to alleviate their collective anxiety over ownership of “their” work and ideas.

Although I had led into the assignment by describing it as a collective definition, a collaboration for the good of the class as a whole, students were not yet comfortable with viewing this “new” (to them) writing space in a celebratory manner. While my early pedagogical goal might have been similar to Bruffee’s idea about collaborative learning that calls for “negotiat[ing] a common language in the classroom, to draw students into a wider consensus, and to initiate them into the conversation as it is currently organized in the academy” (Trimbur 1989, 612-13), I was basing this goal on the assumption that students would inevitably see and automatically be invested in the creation of a “commons” available for the collective good; however, their resulting resistance to this notion is not unusual.

Whenever we set group goals we run the risk of “ ‘Tragedy of the Commons,’ biologist Garrett Hardin’s phrase for situations wherein individuals have incentive to damage the collective good” (Shirky 2008, 51). Online defacement of wiki sites, including Wikipedia and the Los Angeles Times, has been widely publicized. It is important, I think, to note that my students didn’t wreak actual havoc upon the wiki itself. In fact, in some ways, the assertive stance that my students took in defense of their own material could be indicative of their commitment to the final product. Their intense involvement in its composition can be read as interest and investment in the outcome. Instead of actual defacement, they chose to express their dissatisfaction through speech acts outside of the wiki and pointed edits within it. It is, therefore, difficult to say whether my students actually had “incentive to damage the collective good.”  Perhaps they simply felt that if they didn’t assert their voices over the voices of other students, they would miss out on some valuable participation points. Or maybe they were simply culturally constructed, as Lynn Z. Bloom, Bruffee, and others have argued, in the mode of “self reliance.” While it is difficult to ascertain to what degree these students were invested in the collective good, it is still clear to me that they were focused more on the individual and less on the collective.

Most of these students have been educated in an environment where the authority of knowledge is given to the person who ostensibly generated that knowledge originally, and they have been (mis)led into believing that they themselves were the “original” generators of the knowledge and text that they posted to the wiki. And who can blame them?  They have been raised in a culture that has seen the shift from an economy reliant on material goods and services to one that values knowledge as a product. In the introduction to his remarks on “Public Policy for a Knowledge Economy” at the Department for Trade and Industry and Center for Economic Policy Research in 1999, Joseph Stiglitz of the World Bank describes the shift from industry to ideas: “Knowledge and information is [sic] being produced today like cars and steel were produced a hundred years ago. Those, like Bill Gates, who know how to produce knowledge and information better than others reap the rewards, just as those who knew how to produce cars and steel a hundred years ago became the magnates of that era” (quoted in Hall 2008, 4). So my students’ apparent attachment to Lockean notions of ownership and labor aren’t surprising, given the cultural importance placed on the economic value of ideas.

Rethinking and Reframing the Assignment

As educators, we have undoubtedly played a role in helping form these beliefs. Lynn Z. Bloom argues that “middle class composition teachers, ever Emersonian in spirit, stress the importance of self-reliance (‘Your work must be your own’), even in nominally collaborative classrooms” (Bloom 1996, 659). Likewise, as Bruffee puts it, speaking to those of us who teach in the humanities, “If we look at what we do instead of what we say, we discover that we think of knowledge as something we acquire and wield as individuals relative to each other, not something we generate and maintain in company with and in dependency upon each other” (Bruffee 1984, 645). The reactions of these students to the online and collaborative form of writing produced in the wiki are reflective of this humanities tradition that Bruffee describes. In class I saw them asserting their will to power over the text and over each other.

A 1999 collaboratively-written essay on “textuality, collaboration, and the new essay,” by Myka Vielstimmig (the combined “pen” name for Michael Spooner and Kathleen Blake Yancey) stresses that even those of us who frequently engage in collaborative work ourselves find it to be “like taking on a new identity; issues you hadn’t foreseen arise. It’s easier not to sail to the new land” (Vielstimmig 1999, 95). These scholars attribute these difficulties with collaboration to our cultural “reverence” for the individual, especially the work/labor of the individual. Reliance on each other is often conflated with reliance on the system, which is looked at with disdain.

But regardless of whether it’s “easier not to sail the new land,” it is nothing short of irresponsible not to do so. Lunsford and West write:

The ubiquitous media coverage of the complex issues swirling around the question of who owns language-for that is what this debate is finally about-demands a response from our profession, as those most concerned with shaping and perpetuating notions about what it means to read, write, and speak. In particular, compositionists have a compelling interest in how laws governing ownership of language should be adjusted (if at all) to accommodate both new technologies and postmodern challenges to established ideas about ‘authorship.’ (Lunsford and West 1996, 383)

Lunsford and West proceed to give an example of that “ubiquitous media coverage” in the form of a Cathy comic strip circa 1995: In it, a mother gives her child a homemade Halloween costume, labeled “hand-stitched by Mama.”  The child immediately looks for a Disney label and upon not seeing one utters, “’Copyright infringement! Trademark violation! Illegal facsimile!’”  (385). Lunsford and West argue that children of the 1990s (and the same might be said for the generations of the twenty-first century, if cultural change does not take place) “will increasingly be led to accept possessive ownership as normal” (386). Our responses to debates about intellectual property and ownership of  language need to account for students’ attitudes and beliefs that have been shaped by a copyright-happy culture.

Despite this “norm” of “possessive ownership,” there is much scholarship being done on a participatory and collaborative revolution that is taking place in online spaces and with the help of technological tools. Clay Shirky’s 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody describes this as the “power of organizing without organizations.”  Shirky describes the “old way” of working within organizations, companies, and institutions as being governed by “institutional costs” and “managerial organization.”  Employees agreed to be managed based on pay and were so managed “by making continued receipt of their pay contingent on their responsiveness to manager’s requests” (Shirky 2008, 43). Employees advanced in the company through their contributions and ability to climb the ladder of the imposed hierarchy. This generally resulted in higher pay, and so the incentive to exceed other employees is in place. Similarly we see this kind of “climbing” in the classroom scenarios described above where grades can (supposedly) be exchanged for a future, paying job. Students care about the perceived exchange value of grades, and they buy into the notion that the producers of knowledge will “reap the rewards.”  But in contrast to the individualized mode of work traditionally encouraged by writing instructors, as described by Bloom, Shirky asserts that “people have always desired to share, and the obstacles that prevented sharing on a global scale are now gone” because of social networking in the form of web tools such as Flickr, Wikipedia, Facebook, and del.icio.us (45). “Social tools provide . . . action by loosely structured groups, operating without managerial direction and outside the profit motive” (47). The types of personal motivation to do group work in a collaborative spirit, which Shirky has claimed are ever-present desires, were clearly not present for my students.

Despite Shirky’s claims about the strong interest in sharing that most people have, he is well aware of the challenges of negotiation. He describes the increasingly difficult levels of involvement a group must undertake in order to truly work collaboratively. In order of difficulty they are sharing, cooperation, and collective action. Cooperation requires a group identity, as well as “changing your behavior to synchronize with people who are changing their behavior to synchronize with you” (Shirky 2008, 50). My students, holding steadfastly to “old ways” of working, did not modify their behavior in any form of synchronization, thereby leaving us unable to move forward (at that time) to more complex forms of collaborative knowledge making. From cooperation, Shirky describes a more involved form of group activity, which he calls “collaborative production.”  “The litmus test for collaborative production is simple: no one person can take credit for what gets created, and the project could not come about without the participation of many” (50). This was my goal for using a wiki in Writing about Society and Culture—a class that I based on pedagogical theories that seek to decentralize authority and focus on collaborative writing and shared responsibility for knowledge making.

Shirky’s “litmus test” for collaborative production—that no one person can take credit for what has been created—takes Roland Barthes concept of the “death of the author” to an interesting digital realm. Rafael Heller points out that it is Michel Foucault’s 1979 “What is an Author?” that has influenced much of the work on collaborative writing done in composition. In “What is an Author?” Foucault draws on Barthes’ 1967 “Death of the Author” and borrows from Samuel Beckett in order to pose the question: “What does it matter who is speaking?”  Heller subsequently asks the question that seems necessary to the collaborative model of writing: “How do we speak together?” (Heller 2003, 309). While I consider the differences between these questions to be important, I find both of them applicable to the kind of writing that happens within a wiki where it truly doesn’t matter who is speaking. By creating a space where no one person owns the co-created text, wikis have provided a technology that determines “how” we speak in ways that can possibly transcend the modern author function as defined by the idea of the solitary writer and original genius.

In fact, a wiki actually seems constructed to work towards the kind of equality in dialogue that Habermas discusses. A wiki’s unique ability to track all voices gives it a power not often available to us in other forms of group work and collaborative writing. Habermas’s “ideal speech situation” is “a utopian discursive space that distributes symmetrically the opportunity to speak, to initiate discourse, to question, to give reasons, to do all those other things necessary to justify knowledge socially” (Trimbur 1989, 612). A wiki, unlike other online writing spaces, doesn’t create discussion threads (though it also has this capability), and it doesn’t privilege one writer as the creator of ideas and text. Instead, it “distributes symmetrically” the opportunity for students to compose a singular text, and, additionally, through the use of “discussion” tabs, it makes a separate space for questions, ideas, and comments to be raised about the text at hand. Therefore, a wiki has the potential to break from the hierarchical mode of collaboration described earlier by Ede and Lunsford.

However, the symmetrically created form of “collective intelligence,” particularly as it takes place through the act of writing, creates a complex authorial situation, because “it reflects the dynamic exchange between individual knowledge and shared knowledge” (Vielstimmig 1999, 99). In this way, attempting to assign a “creator” to particular passages, words, or ideas is always going to be arbitrary and not necessarily representative of the actual composing process. This fact sits uneasily with students educated to own ideas and products (and the product of their ideas) within an educational system imbued with capitalist values. I think that the conflicts these students had with collaborative writing and the process of collectively formulating knowledge were not only valuable struggles but also inevitable ones. Ede and Lunsford remind us of this: “Like gender roles, discourse situations are, Burke reminds us, inherently mixed and paradoxical . . . . Surely it seems reasonable to find inscribed in any piece of collaboration . . . the same kind of risks and tensions that are generally inscribed in our culture” (Ede and Lunsford 1990, 134). My students’ struggles over text production are certainly reflective of culturally inscribed tensions around ownership of intellectual property that play out frequently in our own debates about open source versus propriety software and open access versus proprietary journal publications.

I now see that it is my responsibility to bring these cultural tensions to the attention of my students. Certainly, it seems necessary to help students become knowledgeable about and invested in the idea of the “collective good” instead of assuming they have a “natural desire” to share and act collaboratively. In the future I could open this activity with a discussion around community, collective intelligence, and knowledge as collaborative artifact and socially justified belief. Maybe I should have explained that from Bruffee’s perspective, knowledge results from “intellectual negotiations” and depends on social relations, not on attempting to have the last word in print, untouchable and eternal. For future wiki implementation, I can explain to students that the goal is empowerment in the form of a “smart mob.”  I can inform them that according to Howard Rheingold, “Groups of people using these tools will gain new forms of social power” (Rheingold 2002, xii). Henry Jenkins also writes about “social power,” using the example of the citizens in Manila and Madrid and their ability to create “transformations of power” based on technology. While group solidarity may continue to be looked on with great skepticism in a society on the lookout for “freeloaders,” in a world of social networking and digital tools, the economic arrangement tends to be looked at differently—characterized by labels like a “digital economy,” Barbrook’s notion of a “gift economy,” and Maurizio Lazzarato’s description of “immaterial labor.”

For future versions of this wiki activity, I will certainly frame differently the collaborative work that I am assigning students; however, this first try was not a complete failure. For one thing, like Jenkins I am particularly interested in how groups react when a shift occurs in how they typically process and evaluate knowledge. By putting my students into a composing situation quite unfamiliar to them, they struggled to negotiate both on and off the screen how to manage their collective knowledge making. This created a level of discomfort and anxiety within the classroom community; however, as Jenkins asserts, “It is at moments of crisis, conflict, and controversy that communities are forced to articulate the principles that guide them” (Jenkins 2006, 26). This assertion harkens back to a central argument of Thomas Kuhn’s about the revolutionary nature of scientific knowledge: “In both political and scientific development the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is prerequisite to revolution” (Kuhn 1996, 92). This experience with wikis in my Writing about Society and Culture class can certainly be described as a “teachable moment” not in spite of but because of the apparent “malfunction.” This “crisis” was more precisely an act of negotiation that served to keep the students returning again and again to the act of writing and thinking about the key term they were asked to define. Rethinking and discussing the ideas of classroom and community would be the logical next step in our “wiki war crisis.”  As Andrew Feenberg argues, technology is “not a destiny but a scene of struggle. It is a social battlefield.” (Feenberg 1991, 14) Technology is not neutral and it should not be a seamless space in which group interactions take place with unprecedented ease. Instead, it is a place where “civilizational alternatives are debated and decided” (Feenberg 1991, 14).

I approached this assignment, as I think we often do in composition, grounding it in pedagogical theories that seem sound and beneficial to students. My particular area of research interest focuses on how longstanding pedagogical approaches can be integrated into but also looked at anew in digital writing spaces. However, whenever theory hits practice in the classroom, we end up needing to meet the students where they are. In this case, it turned out that my students did not share the same values regarding the open, collaborative ethos of the Web that I did/do. As Heller reminds us, I also can’t make my students “breathe in” a new set of motives and classroom practices. I can’t expect their investment in collective knowledge to be as natural as taking a breath. I can, however, introduce them to these alternative motivations and help tune them in to the ways in which the digital spaces that many of them inhabit on a daily basis are a valuable tool for a different kind of knowledge production that gets its value in the processes of negotiation and struggle over ideas and language. The temporary nature of the written word and the questionable status of the author are brought to the fore in digital writing spaces, and these aspects of digital composing can make our students nervous, uncomfortable, and quick to act and to assert control over the text at hand. Gregory Ulmer argues that our discipline has “a primary responsibility for inventing the practices of reasoning and communicating in ways native to new media” (Ulmer 2007, xi). These practices will need to attend to the fact students think differently than many of us about the “ownership” they believe they have over their ideas and over language—something that, as Bruffee has shown, has always been at the center of collaboration of any kind, even if he could not have envisioned the added challenges that these technological sites of struggle present.


Barbrook, Richard. 1998. “The Hi-Tech Gift Economy.” Subsol. Accessed March 24, 2011. http://subsol.c3.hu/subsol_2/contributors3/barbrooktext2.html

Bloom, Lynn Z. 1996. “Freshman Composition as Middle-Class Enterprise.” College English 58: 654-75. OCLC 477416930.

Bruffee, Kenneth. 1984. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’”  College English 46: 635-52. OCLC 486755706.

———. 1986. “Social Construction, Language, and the Authority of Knowledge: A Biliographical Essay.” College English 48: 773-90. OCLC 486757661.

Cummings, Robert E. and Matt Barton, eds. 2008. Wiki Writing: Collaborative Learning in the College Classroom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. OCLC 228372295.

DiNucci, Darcy. 1999. “Fragmented Future.”  Print 53: 32, 221-2. OCLC 93592608.

Ede, Lisa and Andrea Lunsford. 1990. Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. OCLC 45732382.

Feenberg, Andrew. 1991. Critical Theory of Technology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. OCLC 22860236.

Haefner, Joel. 1992. “Democracy, Pedagogy, and the Personal Essay.” College English. 54: 127-37. OCLC 486762937.

Hall, Gary. 2008. Digitize this Book: The Politics of New Media or Why We Need Open Access Now. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press. OCLC 222249169.

Heller, Rafael. 2003. “Questionable Categories and the Case for Collaborative Writing.” Rhetoric Review 22.3: 300-18. OCLC 438062920.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture. New York: New York University Press. OCLC 64594290.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1996. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. OCLC 34548541.

Levy, Pierre. 1997. Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books. OCLC 37195391.

Lunsford, Andrea and Susan West. 1996. “Intellectual Property and Composition Studies.” College Composition and Communication 47.3: 383-411. OCLC 486675736.

Reid, Alex. 2008. “Changing Economics of Classroom Management.” digital digs. Accessed March 19, 2012. http://www.alex-reid.net/2008/03/changing-econom.html

Rheingold, Howard. 2002. Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books. OCLC 464363327.

Rushkoff, Douglas. 2008. “The People’s Net.” Accessed August 18, 2012. http://www.rushkoff.com/articles-individual/2008/5/13/the-peoples-net.html.

Schilb, John. 2012 “From the Editor.” College English. 74: 513-19. OCLC 802369104.

Shirky, Clay. 2008. Here Comes Everybody. New York: Penguin Press. OCLC 168716646.

Trimbur, John. 1989. “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” College English 51: 602-16. OCLC 486760586.

Ulmer, Gregory. 2007. Foreword to The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media, by Jeff Rice, ix-xv. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. OCLC 71946546.

Vie, Stephanie and Jennifer deWinter. 2008. “Disrupting Intellectual Property: Collaboration and Resistance in Wikis,” In Wiki Writing: Collaborative Learning in the College Classroom, edited by Robert E. Cummings and Matt Barton,109-22. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. OCLC 228372295.

Vielstimmig, Myka. 1999. “Petals on a Wet, Black Bough: Textuality, Collaboration, and the New Essay” in Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies, edited by Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe, 89-114. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press. OCLC 42330336.

Wiener, Harvey S. 1986. “Collaborative Learning in the Classroom: A Guide to Evaluation.” College English 48: 52-61. OCLC 486756851.


About the Author

Jennifer Marlow is an assistant professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, where she teaches courses in composition and new media. Her work focuses on educational technology software and its uses and abuses in the writing classroom. When she is not busy experimenting with innovative digital technologies that bring learning “outside the box,” she and colleague, Megan Fulwiler, utilize documentary filmmaking to show how the labor conditions of higher education affect everything from academic freedom to student learning to how we implement and think about technology.

Other People’s Digital Tools: Adaptive Reuse, Cold War History, and the GSA’s Real Property Utilization and Disposal Website

Brian Beaton, University of Pittsburgh


This essay focuses on a property disposal website run by the General Services Administration (GSA). The website inadvertently grants intimate access to Cold War–era buildings and built environments that were previously “Off Limits” to civilians, including students and scholars of Cold War history. I begin the essay by discussing the heavy building that occurred within the mainland US during the Cold War era and explain why, in the 1990s, US policymakers suddenly came to view themselves as having too much defense-related property. I then discuss the online auction website currently used by the GSA to dispose of Cold War properties and outline the website’s key features. I also provide an example of a large military base in California that was sold through the GSA’s website and subsequently re-developed for new and unrelated purposes, a process that many architects and planners call “adaptive reuse.” In Part 2 of the essay, I explain how the GSA property disposal website can be used for teaching purposes despite its intended goal of serving private land developers. In my discussion, I borrow the term “adaptive re-use” and elaborate it into a digital humanities concept.


The Cold War era (1940s–1980s) was a time of heavy building within the mainland United States. The construction of the interstate highway system, which in part began as a civil defense scheme, fueled the rapid decentralization of American cities and mass suburbanization. Large defense contracts spawned countless new science, engineering, and manufacturing facilities dedicated to defense-related research. The US federal government also built a considerable number of military bases. From the 1940s to the 1980s, there were nearly 200 military bases constructed in the mainland US (Chambless 1998, 102). Although more commonly remembered as a geopolitical and cultural event, the Cold War was also a significant moment in the history of American architecture and infrastructure. The Cold War unfolded through built space and transformed the US landscape.

A growing fascination among US policymakers with the idea of computer-mediated warfare and the dissolution of the USSR in the early 1990s altered the US government’s perceived needs in terms of keeping and maintaining defense-related property.1 By the last decade of the twentieth century, the US had lost its principal geopolitical rival, and civil defense seemed on the verge of virtualization. As a result, the 1990s saw a rapid reduction in the heavy building of the Cold War era, and much of the defense-related property built during the Cold War came to be re-conceptualized as unnecessary and surplus.2 To this end, the Department of Defense began actively selling off many Cold War–era properties to private land developers, a process that continues in the present day. The developers commonly demolish the properties or adapt them for new and unrelated purposes. Every day, more Cold War sites are torn down, demolished, and then re-built and reused—sometimes leaving little to no record of their existence.

Architects and planners commonly call this type of property re-development “adaptive reuse.” Other common examples of adaptive reuse include the conversion of power plants into art galleries, factories into residential lofts, and abandoned box stores into small clinics or hospitals. The practice of adaptive reuse has gained currency in the building and planning professions for several reasons: cost and time-saving possibilities that can be gleaned (but not always) from adapting an existing site for new purposes instead of building from scratch; a growing interest in sustainable building practices that conserve land and resources by mitigating new construction; and an attraction to the distinctive challenges that many adaptive reuse projects present to builders and planners who understand themselves to be in creative, problem-solving industries (Coffey 2004, 56-7; Shipley, Utz and Parsons 2006, 505-520; Hunter 2007, 10, 13-14). Adaptive reuse has been called an “art form with a cause” (Coffey 2004, 56). The practice often has an environmental, aesthetic, and economic politics to it.

In this essay, I borrow the term “adaptive re-use” and elaborate it into a digital humanities concept. My focus here is the Real Property Utilization and Disposal Website used by the General Services Administration (GSA) to sell off Cold War–era properties to private land developers. The GSA’s property disposal website allows potential buyers to browse through a wide variety of aging defense architecture. Visitors to the website can search for properties by state, property type, or region using simple dropdown menus (see Gallery 1). Visitors can also move through image galleries and obtain detailed property information.

Gallery 1. Screen captures from the GSA’s property disposal website. Accessed August 26, 2012.

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The website auctions everything from office buildings, bases, hospitals, test facilities, laboratories, garages, patrol stations, and warehouses to empty lots, silos, parking lots, and checkpoints. In doing so, the website inadvertently grants intimate access to Cold War–era buildings and built environments that were previously “Off Limits” to civilians, including students and scholars of Cold War history. For example, Figure 1 shows a former army reserve facility in suburban Cleveland that was initially built between 1958 and 1962. Vacated in 2008, the army facility was auctioned off through the GSA’s property disposal website in the spring of 2012. As is typical of the website’s design, prospective buyers were able to access a series of image galleries during the auction process in a manner that simulates a visit to the property in person.

Figure 1. Screen capture from the GSA’s property disposal website. Army reserve facility in Cleveland. Accessed August 26, 2012.

Although seemingly abandoned, the properties listed on the GSA’s property disposal website are often contested places with complicated individual histories. A good example can be found in the case of El Toro Marine Corps Base in Orange County, California. Opened in the 1940s, the federal government targeted the base for closure in the early 1990s. Local officials initially aimed to convert the base to a sizeable commercial airport. After generating considerable anti-airport activism, the project eventually unraveled when a series of ballot measures designated the land for non-aviation use.3 In 2005, a capital investment partnership led by Lennar Corporation acquired the entire El Toro lot through the GSA website with a combined winning bid of $650 million (USD). The initial redevelopment plans for the former military base included 3,500 new homes, 28,000 square meters of retail and office space, a research and development corporate office complex, a set of university branch campuses, a 45-hole private golf course, and a massive public park (Lennar Homes of California, Inc. 2005).4 As part of these re-development efforts, a San Diego recycling company contracted by Lennar and a local NGO dismantled many of the installation’s 1,200 buildings and structures—trucking the doors, floors, windows and wood to nearby Northern Mexico as part of a transnational development project (Rowe 2006).

In 2007, I went to Orange County to conduct fieldwork and to document El Toro’s disassembly (see Gallery 2). Within months of my fieldwork, most of the buildings were unrecognizable, stripped, or gone.

Gallery 2. The disassembly of El Toro Marine Base. Photographs by author.

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In the following section of this essay, I shift my attention from documenting processes of physical disassembly to thinking about digital making and re-making. Specifically, I explore how the GSA property disposal website used to sell El Toro and similar properties might be used for teaching purposes despite its intended goal of serving private land developers. My claims are the following: (1) the GSA’s property disposal website provides unique and free Cold War content; (2) it functions like an authentic, albeit buggy, beta version of a digital archive documenting Cold War–era buildings and built environments. Therefore, (3) like the very properties the GSA website features, the website itself is open to “adaptive reuse” into a more properly functioning digital archive geared toward students and scholars of Cold War history.

Adapting the GSA’s Website

Thematically, the content within the GSA’s website connects to much of the recent scholarship in Cold War studies, including work on Cold War ruins, work on Cold War geographies, work on elite, off-limits, and technical spaces, work on Cold War domestic environments, and comparative work on “imperial debris.”5 The website makes visible the physical leftovers of abstract geopolitics. Given the content of the website, my discussion here is largely aimed at instructors working in history, anthropology, and allied fields who incorporate digital humanities training into their classrooms. My larger goal, however, is to use this particular case to also expand the idea of “adaptive reuse.” To put forth a working definition: adaptive reuse involves having students assess other people’s digital tools and then work on modifying those tools into scholarly works, resources, or products. The adaptive reuse proposed here can be carried out in three separate steps.

Step 1. The first step of any adaptive reuse project should likely be assessment. The assessment process can be structured as an in-class, group activity or as an individual assignment. Assessment involves asking students to think about the following: What content or services does the digital tool in question currently provide to, or perform for, its users? What features would need to be added, modified, or removed to make the digital tool in question recognizable and functional as an academic entity? In the case of the Real Property Utilization and Disposal Website, the website freely provides original content by inadvertently exhibiting some of the built spaces in which the everyday work of the Cold War happened—capturing the moment just before many of those spaces are sold, redeveloped, and possibly lost from the records. However, the designers of the GSA website organized its search features with property buyers and investors in mind, not students and scholars of Cold War history. In fact, the GSA’s website categorizes each property by its current zoning status and future possible uses (e.g. commercial, industrial, residential), not by its past uses, and certainly not by its potential academic value. Moreover, the Cold War–era properties are mixed together on the website with other surplus government real estate, like old lighthouses and post offices. There are currently no filters that allow users to view only the Cold War–era buildings and built environments. In addition, the GSA website does not currently archive its auctions. Visitors to the website can only view ongoing and upcoming auctions; they cannot access records for properties that were previously sold. These types of observations are what students might draw out during the assessment process. In this particular case, much of the content featured on the GSA’s website has obvious academic value but the design of the website makes that content difficult to use and share for academic purposes.

Step 2. The second step of this adaptive reuse project would be to have students work on adapting the digital tool in question. Depending on the technical proficiency of the students and equipment availability, students might produce mock-ups on paper, write proposals, create wireframes, or actually take up the challenge of adapting the tool for academic use. In the case of the Real Property Utilization and Disposal Website, the work required to turn the website into a functional digital archive geared toward students and scholars of Cold War history might include the following: cataloguing properties based on their past use instead of current zoning status; creating new search features predicated on scholarly terms and interests; building filters for the properties to prevent unrelated government real estate from being intermixed with the Cold War–era buildings and built environments; developing a means to archive the website’s content; developing a means to allow visitors to comment on properties or to create their own image and data galleries; making space for interpretive essays, discussion, or commentary; addressing the stewardship and preservation issues when it comes to digital content; or adding a bibliography that directly connects the website to recent scholarship in Cold War studies—to offer just a few examples.

Step 3. The third step of this particular adaptive reuse project would be to have students present their work and to reflect upon the creative challenges that are specific to adaptation. If the students produced mock-ups or proposals, they can still demonstrate technical proficiencies by addressing how those ideas might be implemented, and by discussing feasibility. If students actually took up the challenge of adapting the tool in question for academic use, the opportunity to present their adaptation(s)—be it one small component or a complete and working tool redesign—affords them the opportunity to explain their initial plans, to outline the work completed, and to generate observations about working in, through, and upon decisions and designs previously made by others. Students might also be asked to consider whether adaptive reuse has a politics to it when performed within the context of the digital humanities. Beyond the skill-building aspects of this type of assignment, might it too be an “art form with a cause” that has aesthetic, environmental, or economic stakes?


Because the purpose of the GSA’s property disposal website is to aid the US federal government in the process of auctioning off surplus properties, it is designed to suit the needs of potential property buyers. It therefore allows visitors to move through image galleries and obtain detailed property information. But the GSA website can also be re-envisioned as an incomplete digital archive, and rediscovered as a potential site for scholarly and pedagogical projects. As such, like the very properties the GSA website features, the website itself is open to adaptive reuse.

Adaptive reuse projects like the one proposed in this essay offer the potential to scaffold digital humanities training by adding new levels of challenge and practice. Given that many digital humanities projects being developed in the present day will age and thus require, over time, episodic retooling, “adaptive reuse” also has the potential to grow as a digital humanities concept from a level of practice, as described and proposed here, to a specialized area of design knowledge, skill, and expertise. Adapting other people’s digital tools can be a key part of the process of learning how to make one’s own. It might also become the very thing that helps sustain the digital humanities over time by mitigating obsolescence, conserving resources, and creating the possibility for new types of tool aesthetics, layerings, and politics.


Barboza, Tony. 2012. “Orange County’s Planned Great Park a Victim of Hard Times.” Los Angeles Times, October 27. Accessed November 1, 2012. latimes.com/news/local/la-me-great-park-20121027,0,6001604.story

Castillo, Greg. 2010. Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.  OCLC 351318481.

Chambless, Timothy M.  1998. “Pro-Defense, Pro-Growth, and Anti-Communism: Cold War Politics in the American West.” In The Cold War American West, edited by Kevin Fernlund. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. OCLC 39069512.

Coffey, Daniel P. 2004. “Adaptive Re-use.” Contract 46: 56-57. ISSN 1530-6224.

Farish, Matthew. 2010. The Contours of America’s Cold War. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. OCLC 617508692.

Gray, Chris H. 2003. “Posthuman Soldiers in Postmodern War.” Body & Society 9: 215-226. OCLC 438108206.

Hunter, Pam. 2007. “Saving Time and Money with Adaptive Re-use Projects.” Design Cost Data 51: 10, 13-14. http://www.dcd.com/insights/insights_jf_2007.html.

Kaiser, David. 2004. “The Postwar Suburbanization of American Physics.” American Quarterly 56: 851-888. OCLC 608755840.

Komska, Yuliya. 2011. “Ruins of the Cold War.” New German Critique 38: 155-180. OCLC 701896732.

Krasner, Leonard. 2002. Internet for Activists: A Hands-on Guide to Internet Tactics Field-tested in the Fight Against Building El Toro Airport. San Jose, CA: Writers Club Press. OCLC 53891514.

Lennar Homes of California, Inc. 2005. “Lennar and LNR Place Winning $650 Million Bid for All Four Parcels of El Toro Marine Base, California.” News Release, February 17.

Lockwood, David E. and George Siehl. 2004. Military Base Closures: A Historical Review from 1988 to 1995. Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.

Masco, Joseph. 2006. Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. OCLC 61151373.

———. 2008. “‘Survival is Your Business’: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America.” Cultural Anthropology 23: 361-398. OCLC 438095863.

O’Mara, Margaret Pugh. 2006. “Uncovering the City in the Suburb: Cold War Politics, Scientific Elites, and High-Tech Spaces.” In The New Suburban History, edited by Kevin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. OCLC 62090790.

Rowe, Jeff. 2006. “Habitat for Humanity Salvaging Building Materials at El Toro.” Orange County Register, August 10. http://www.ocregister.com/news/old-36671-habitat-buildings.html.

Shipley, Robert, Steve Utz, and Michael Parsons. 2006. “Does Adaptive Reuse Pay? A Study of the Business of Building Renovation in Ontario, Canada.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 12: 505-520. OCLC 366072723.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2008. “Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruinations.” Cultural Anthropology 23: 191-219. OCLC 438095852.



About the Author

Brian Beaton is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Information Sciences. His research and teaching interests include science and technology studies (STS), archives, social and cultural theory, information workplaces, design, public and applied history, scholarly communication, digital humanities, and public policy.



  1. For an overview of the interest in computer-mediated warfare among U.S. policymakers that covers key development in the 1990s see Chris Hables Gray, “Posthuman Soldiers in Postmodern War,” Body & Society 9 (2003): 215-226.
  2. For more on changing views regarding defense-related property see David E. Lockwood and George Siehl, Military Base Closures: A Historical Review from 1988 to 1995 (Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 2004).
  3. For an overview of the efforts to prevent El Toro from becoming a commercial airport see Leonard Krasner, Internet for Activists: A Hands-on Guide to Internet Tactics Field-tested in the Fight Against Building El Toro Airport (San Jose, CA: Writers Club Press, 2002).
  4. For a status update concerning the project see Tony Barboza, “Orange County’s Planned Great Park a Victim of Hard Times,” Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2012, accessed November 1, 2012. Accessed November 1, 2012. latimes.com/news/local/la-me-great-park-20121027,0,6001604.story.
  5. For recent work on Cold War ruins see Joseph Masco, “‘Survival is Your Business’: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America,” Cultural Anthropology 23 (2008): 361-398; Yuliya Komska, “Ruins of the Cold War,” New German Critique 38 (2011): 155-180. For recent work on Cold War geographies see Matthew Farish, The Contours of the Cold War (Minneapolis, MN: 2010). On elite and technical spaces see David Kaiser, “The Postwar Suburbanization of American Physics,” American Quarterly 56 (2004): 851-888; Joseph Masco, Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); Margaret Pugh O’Mara, “Uncovering the City in the Suburb: Cold War Politics, Scientific Elites, and High-Tech Spaces,” in The New Suburban History, eds. Kevin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 57-79. On domestic environments see Greg Castillo, Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); For a discussion of “imperial debris” see Ann Laura Stoler, “Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruinations,” Cultural Anthropology 23 (2008): 191-219.

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