Why the Sparklepony Matters

There’s been a dust-up around my professional conference, CCCC (the Conference on College Composition and Communication, or informally, 4Cs or Cs), and the conference game that Wendi Sierra and others designed to help graduate students new to the discipline network and professionalize. The comments section at the Chronicle of Higher Education story that reported on the game is, as one would expect from most online comments sections, dismaying: defenders of the game are making smart, articulate, and carefully considered arguments, and there are also a lot of trolls and idiots, to include Florida State University English Department graduate student and teaching assistant Adam Weinstein, who wrote a nasty little piece for Gawker based only upon secondhand information from the Chronicle article and his perusal of Google to find Chris Kluwe’s book (which he dismisses in a phrase that makes it quite clear he has no idea what Kluwe is doing in the book) and his (yes, seriously) use of urbandictionary.com.

Here’s the deal. The “sparklepony,” as an evolving concept, came out of Collin Brooke’s conference presentation in 2010, wherein Collin referenced the World of Warcraft Celestial Steed, a new in-game decorative mount/vehicle that players could purchase for $25. The Celestial Steed was quickly ycleped the “sparklepony” by the in-game community (Weinstein: you’ve got your etymology wrong, and need to work on taking your grad student research skills beyond Google) and Collin mentioned the appellation in his presentation, observing that this was an instance (I paraphrase from my own memory here, and apologize to Collin if I get him wrong) of an online luxury good: a way that WoW players could purchase items of value that stood only as class markers. The name and concept of the “sparklepony” was quickly and enthusiastically taken up by the conference Twitter backchannel, especially by scholars who shared Brooke’s interest in the intersections of technology and writing instruction, and who extended that interest into ludology or game studies, including—especially—Jill Morris. Jill made a number of physical-object “sparkleponies,” decorated with glitter and googly eyes and feathers. Those material instances of in-game digital objects became physical objects of value: scholars interested in the blur between digital and material worlds, including myself, coveted them. As such, they became the prize for the C’s the Day game.

That circumstance perhaps makes it clear that graduate students like Adam Weinstein need to be rather more careful in “journalism” (Gawker LOL) that attacks an entire field and scholars (established and emerging) in that field. Collin Brooke’s work demonstrated how immaterial and digitally reproducible objects became tokens of value in World of Warcraft, and suggested implications for how those immaterial objects (like writing) took on diverse forms of value, and how that valuation might have consequences for rhetorical practice. The ways Jill Morris remediated those digital objects into material objects, with diverse material forms of value, extended Brooke’s insights in important ways. Wendi Sierra’s incorporation of the Sparklepony as a token of material value into a systematic social form of professionalization for newcomers to an academic discipline illustrates in crucial ways how what Hardt and Negri have termed the “immaterial labor” [sic] associated with the information economy has important material consequences for composition scholarship—and therefore for composition pedagogy, and also more broadly for entry into the academic discipline.

In other words, this game has important professional and economic consequences, not just for graduate students, not just for professors, but for undergraduate students as well. Value aggregates, and as recent conferences have demonstrated, value aggregates in complex ways, especially when that ostensible boundary between F2F and online blurs—as it has in the case of the C’s the Day game. The Sparklepony, as object remediated from for-pay online game into online slang and from there into academic discourse and from there into practice of academic professionalization, is amazing: I love it in the same way I love the frozen time-golem of the train at the end of China Miéville’s Iron Council. The Sparklepony, for some, is a reminder of faculty obligations to help professionalize graduate students, and also a reminder of the ways that digital work intersects with the embodied materiality of F2F work—and the embodied materiality of F2F play.

Why the Sparklepony Matters

5 thoughts on “Why the Sparklepony Matters

  • March 29, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    Yes. Well said, Mike!

  • March 29, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    Even better than the precis you offered at my request at the Access Table. (that impromptu explanation was also impressive, though!) Thank you.

  • March 30, 2014 at 10:19 am

    I have to admit I’m one of those people who spent the 90s and early 00s only hearing Sparkle Pony used in the negative context documented in the Urban Dictionary definition ( and I think Urban Dictionary is great resource for teaching the changing uses of language over time), so I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the positive usage. I’m now starting to think that this has to do with the fact that I never teach or mentor graduate students. With my university’s removal of the writing program, I only teaching writing to first-year students, so this is all a nutty little mindf*ck for me.

  • March 31, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Thanks for this, Mike. Your memory of my talk may be better than mine, since I delivered a couple of different versions (C&W, RSA) that summer.

    The only thing I’d add is that one of the points I was raising was the relationship between Blizzard’s decision to sell the CS and the idea of the “magic circle” of the game–the CS was the first in-game item to be sold for “real-world” money, and it caused no small amount of consternation among many of the WoW players. I do think there are some disciplinary/organizational implications there–academic organizations and disciplines have their own magic circles, too.

    There’s at least a blogpost in me about this waiting to get out, in part because I’m fascinated by the fact that a line can be drawn from a single slide in a Keynote deck to national media coverage of our field (even if I’m only tangentially responsible for that virality). And like Nels, I have a more complicated set of associations and contexts attached to the idea–I’m still sorting through them. But I really appreciate the background you provided here.


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