Gone Home Lessons 7 & 8: Crafting an Epic Slideshow for a Purple Basketball Revelation

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 2.06.15 PMNew to the Blog?

Each blog post stands alone, but if you wish to follow the lessons in order, please start reading here.

Endgame

The end was nigh. December dwindled as we approached the end of the calendar year. Snow blanketed the earth and a gusty wind howled throughout the long nights. Christmas break was imminent and the Gone Home unit was all but over. The last two classes would be devoted to final group presentations where all mysteries would be unraveled, all secrets revealed.

At the onset of the unit, students were given six topics to track while they freely explored the Greenbriar mansion and uncovered family secrets. Once they completed the game they were grouped in teams of 2–4 with classmates that had tracked the same topics. The groups were tasked to prepare 15-minute presentations that surveyed their findings and responded to the key question I assigned for each topic.

Group presentations were an ideal way to conclude the unit for a variety of reasons. The format encouraged genuine collaboration, where each student brought something to the table and was made directly accountable to their classmates. Teams had to sift through their collective findings to determine what was important, organize speaking order and topic, and design a cohesive and attractive slideshow. It was an exercise in group coordination, critical thinking, design and creativity. It also furnished an opportunity to practice public speaking and visual literacy, two skills whose usefulness transcends many professions and undertakings. Finally, the presentations would expose the entire class to a variety of perspectives on the game, the narrative, the setting and the characters.

Epic Slideshow Guidelines

slide_projector

I’ve seen many professional and student slideshow presentations over the years, and have witnessed everything from gauge-my-eyes-out appalling to edge-of-my-seat spectacular. An effective slideshow can be inspirational, motivational, informative and entertaining, and these positive outcomes can be achieved by following a few simple rules that I share with my students:

  • Know your topic
  • Rehearse your entire presentation at least twice, if not more
  • Avoid reading from the slide
  • Favor images over text – avoid excessive bullet points and text when possible
  • Keep it clean – avoid busy slides with too many images, animations, colors, etc.

These are basic guidelines and, in the hands of a capable designer, some of these rules might be broken while still achieving positive results. However, following these simple guidelines can certainly lead to epic results. This website provides some great before and after examples to illustrate how a slideshow can be vastly enhanced with a few basic tweaks.

Show and Tell

During the presentations, I sat at the back of the class and took copious notes from which I would complete rubrics and provide ample feedback to each group. I budgeted 5–10 minutes between presentations for my classes to ask questions and provide feedback, most of which ended up being thoughtful and constructive.

As detailed in a previous post, groups presented on six topics. For the sake of convenience, I’ll repost them here and then review some of the highlights from each topic.

  1. Terrance Greenbriar (M), Uncle Oscar (m), Dr. Richard Greenbriar (m)
  2. Janice Greenbriar (M), Rick (m) and Katie (m)
  3. Sam (M), Lonnie (m), Daniel (m)
  4. 1995 Archeology
  5. Riot Grrrl References
  6. Video Game References

The first three options involved tracking clusters of major (M) and minor (m) characters. I grouped one major character with the two minor characters that best supported and fed into the major character’s story arc. 1995 Archeology focused on artifacts endemic to the mid 90’s. Riot Grrrl References explored the game’s use of this music and why Sam was drawn to a west-coast feminist punk movement. Finally, Video Game References looked at how and why Gone Home incorporated subtle references to other video games.

Character Clusters

Key Question: How has the major character changed over the course of the story? Is s/he better off at the end of the game than at the beginning? Why or why not?

Those that tracked characters explored relationships, motives and personality traits to flesh out the individual story arcs. They discussed complex issues like alcoholism, sexual abuse, infidelity, sexual identify, rejection and loneliness, to name a few. They also addressed how the characters dealt with their particular crosses. Interestingly enough, groups presenting on the same topic had varied and sometimes even contradictory perspectives. One group, for example, was understanding of Janet for flirting with infidelity because her husband was emotionally unavailable, while another group was completely unforgiving and felt she was a terrible person who was betraying her husband and family. It was also interesting that one student compared the “controlled burns” she carried out as a forester to her barely suppressed passion for her strapping young colleague, Rick.

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 1.54.49 PM

Slide from a presentation on the Janice character cluster.

In every case, they supported their ideas and character analysis with hard visual evidence from the story. Their slides included images of diary entries, letters, day planners, clothing and documents that corresponded with what they were discussing. Their analysis was often as rich and nuanced as it would be for a literary work. They not only demonstrated critical thinking and insight about the characters, but this exercise also allowed them to think about how the challenges affecting the Greenbriar family connected to their own lives.

1995 Archeology

Key Question: How did the historical setting of 1995 affect the game? How would the game have changed if it were to take place today?

Much like an archeologist, a player in Gone Home rebuilds the life of the family by piecing together the fragments and artifacts of their lives. The game is set in 1995 and, for those of us who grew up in the 90’s, VHS and cassette tapes, electric typewriters, TV guides, telephone books and magic eye posters are the stuff of nostalgia. But for my students, these may as well be bone fragments and pottery shards from a lost civilization.

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 2.16.16 PM

A VHS tape slide from a 1995 Archeology presentation.

Those that presented on this topic chose items and practices that were characteristic of the period and designed their slide shows to resemble museum exhibits. They researched each artifact, provided background information and discussed, where applicable, how the items impacted the story or the game. It ultimately amounted to a deep consideration of the literary concept of setting.

Riot Grrrl

Key Question: How did this style of music work well with both the geographic and historical context of the game? Why is Riot Grrrl a genuine expression of Sam’s journey?

The music and culture from this northwest 90’s feminist punk movement pervades many parts of the story. The thrashing guitars and in-your-face vocals are the soundtrack to Sam’s journey of self-discovery. Groups who chose this topic, explored the movement through the bootleg cassettes, zines, music magazines and posters spread all over the house. Groups included music video and audio samples in their presentations, and a few enthusiastically shared anecdotes they’d encountered while gathering background info on the Riot Grrrl scene.

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 1.59.08 PM

Bratmobile slide from a Riot Grrrl presentation.

Music enthusiasts were able to discover a musical subgenre but, more importantly, it also occasioned them to reflect on the connection between music culture and adolescent identity building and self-expression.

Video Game Reference

Key Question: Why do cultural texts like films, books and video games create references to other relevant cultural works? In what video game tradition does Gone Home participate? What is Gone Home’s video game genre?

Gone Home is replete with subtle references to the video games that influenced its own creation. Because the references are hidden and easy to miss, the presentations on this topic were by far the most eye opening. Students had who played the game and not noticed a single one were surprised to discover that there were dozens of nods to video game culture in everything from salad dressing labels to varsity jacket embroideries. The slide shows were rich with images and many included screenshots and videos from the games that were being referenced, such as Bioshock and Deus Ex.

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 2.19.52 PM

Bioshock reference on a bottle of salad dressing.

Gone Home conceals a hilarious Easter egg where a set of actions release a purple basketball from the garage rafters. When the ball is thrown through the mini-hoop on the back of Sam’s bedroom door…well I’ll just let you find out! One group took the unique approach of entering the game and walking the class through the Easter egg sequence.

The video game reference presentations opened a window to how the literary concept of intertextuality manifests itself in the game world. Furthermore, it contributes towards the validation of the game as a complex and nuanced text that does not easily give up all its secrets.

How Did It Go?

In the end, they were easily some of the best student created slideshow presentations I’ve experienced to date. Why? They responded well to the guidelines I provided to produce effective slideshows. Most of the students were allowed to choose their topics, which leveraged genuine interest and encouraged ownership. It also helps that Gone Home is a predominantly visual experience and translates well to the visual nature of a slideshow presentation. Content-wise, students connected with the topics on a personal level as they demonstrated keen insights into family psychology, adolescent angst, teen-parent power dynamics, and how historical circumstances can shape and impact the stories of our lives. They were articulate, generally well prepared and often enthusiastic. Although I hadn’t required it, many wrote scripts that they used to cue them during their talks. Some even discussed mood and tone, demonstrating that they had successfully absorbed the concept from an earlier lesson.

IMG_4241

Presenting on Terry, the troubled Greenbriar dad.

Were all the presentations great? Of course not – no matter how much we may strive for uniformity, which is probably misguided anyway, teaching and learning are messy affairs. There were two sub-par presentations and, in a few cases, some group members were not as prepared as others. Another detrimental factor was that the Greenbriar mansion is dimly lit, so some of the screenshots on the slides suffered from being on the dark side.

The slideshow presentations enlisted the entire class to openly contemplate and participate in a visually rich, analytical retrospective of the entire gameplay and narrative experience. It was a revelation of the game’s secrets and nuances, eliciting thoughtful insights and discussions. Students honed a broad spectrum of skills, reinforced knowledge on character and narrative and, dare I say, even seemed to enjoy themselves along the way.

Next Post

Epilogue: High School English Apocalypse

Creative Commons License
Gone Home Lessons 7 & 8: Crafting an Epic Slideshow for the Purple Basketball Revelation is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

Gone Home Lessons 5 & 6: Spoiler Alerts, Disposable Stories and Non-Perishable Narratives.

Students hard at work on their reviews and presentations.

Students hard at work on their reviews and presentations.

New to the Blog?

Each blog post stands alone, but if you wish to follow the lessons in order, please start reading here.

The Final Stretch

We were in the final stretch of the experiment of using the video game Gone Home as a senior English text. Of the four remaining classes, two were reserved for students to work on their reviews and group presentations, and then the unit would wrap-up with their presentations.

I introduced the work periods with some tips on how to create effective slide presentations, particularly emphasizing the importance of favoring image over word and avoiding too many bullet points. This wouldn’t be too tough, since Gone Home was a predominantly visual experience, and their tracking notes were complimented with an abundance of screenshots. The challenge was to choose the best images and order them in a way that would allow them to effectively deliver their topic.

All fifty-seven students in the three classes had finished playing the game (or so they assured me!). The work periods were abuzz with productive activity, as groups assigned roles, discussed strategy and exchanged screenshots and notes to build their slide shows. A few went off to work individually and polish off their reviews. As they worked, I heard a lot of informal banter about the game, discussing plot points, the realism of certain characters, missed items or clues and some stray murmurs about a purple basketball Easter egg. I even caught a few disgruntled accusations that so-and-so had “spoiled” some aspect of the story while they were playing. Ah yes, the infamous spoil.

If I’m discussing a novel or play in class and make the fatal error of revealing a plot point in advance, there is often a collective groan followed by accusations of having “spoiled” the story. I ritualistically remind them that it’s about the journey, not the destination and that good stories don’t rely on surprises. Despite my best efforts, they rarely seem convinced.

 What’s Past is Prologue

In Shakespeare’s day, entertainment value did not rely on plot twists and surprise endings. English renaissance audiences were usually familiar with the stories, as plots were freely recycled in an age before copyright and intellectual property. Even if they were unaware of the intricacies of a certain plot, the label tragedy revealed that the play would end with the death of all major characters, and a comedy would happily conclude with matrimonial bliss. If that wasn’t enough, many plays began with a built-in spoiler called a prologue that summarized the piece in advance. For the Elizabethan theatre crowd, entertainment was not so much derived from plot as from execution (in fact, Queen Elizabeth often ended plots with executions!). Bad puns aside, what the story was about was not as important as how the tale was told. I say it again: it was about the journey, not the destination.

The Prologue to “Gnomeo and Juliet”

Going back even further, the basic plots and characters in tribal myths and legends tended to remain constant. The tribe gathered around the proverbial fire and heard variations of the same stories that had been recounted over and over again from earliest childhood. The repetition was not for lack of imagination, but because these tales preserved the tribe’s collective knowledge and memory, playing a crucial role in defining and maintaining cultural identity. Again, despite the unchanging plots, the storyteller was prized for their flourishes and embellishments, or how they told their story.

The Birth of the Spoiler

Today, copyright laws and a consumer thirst for novelty and cliffhangers (the binding glue of serialization), have created a modern emphasis on plot as surprise. We can also attribute this to the sequential and generally linear narratives of film and television that defined popular 20th century storytelling. When watching motion pictures, we sit in a roller coaster car, and are mechanically sped along to the end, with little opportunity to stop and take in the view. The form lends itself to surprise, bestowing thrills from the twists and turns. Typically, after being pleasantly ambushed by the unexpected the first time the-web-is-darkaround, there is a sense that the entertainment value has been drained and we don’t tend to revisit the story. On to the next one! Perhaps our disposable or “throw-away” society is reflected in our disposable stories. That is why, to reveal key plot elements or spoil a film or book is to commit the cardinal sin of consumer entertainment. I know people who have been defriended on Facebook for ill-timed revelations about Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. There is even a story of a teacher in Belgium, who’d read the book series that the TV series Game of Thrones is based on and threatened to give away the deaths of major characters if his students didn’t behave.

The rise of the spoiler is tied closely to the advent of the Internet. As Henry Jenkins notes in Convergence Culture, spoilers started because US network TV shows would air at different times according to their time zone, and there would be months of delay before broadcasting in international markets. This wasn’t really a problem until the arrival of the Internet, where plot reveals could be quickly posted and spread faster than the show…and thus the spoiler was born. Information and communication has become increasingly centralized in the digital collective consciousness or shared global brain we call the Internet. Plots that hinge on suspense must adapt to a new reality where they might collapse under the burden of collective knowledge, as noted by Steve Gaynor, the creator of Gone Home, in a Kill Screen interview.

Any passing temptation to read a plot summary or get the inside scoop on the latest episode of The Walking Dead can be instantly gratified. Even if you don’t want to know, your friend might accidentally dish on social media, or you may not avert your eyes in time from a Google search accident. As a matter of policy, Wikipedia reveals all and makes no attempt to warn you that the spoil is coming. As we navigate our digital highways we encounter “Spoiler Alert” signs at every turn, offering an equally tempting option to deviate our course, or partake in forbidden knowledge. It begs the question: what is more blissful, ignorance or information?

spoiler-alert-dw

Non-Perishable Narratives

As an English teacher, I most feel the all-knowing and all-spoiling power of the Internet in that any major work I teach is now completely dissected on the web. Students can find essays, summaries, questions, responses, explanatory videos, etc. – everything they need to succeed in the class without reading the novel. We can choose to ignore this and continue teaching English like our venerated predecessors, but we now have a responsibility to adjust to the new reality and rethink our practice. This might include a reconsideration of not only how we teach, but what we teach. The amalgamated, monolithic and digitalized Library of Alexandria known as the interweb challenges traditional instructional strategies, but also changes how we receive and respond to narrative, how stories are told, and how we contend with intellectual property. This is why disruption is the word of the day.

Any story worth its salt should be re-readable, re-watchable, re-playable and, yes, Internet-proof. A well-told story simply can’t be spoiled. Children seem to know this, as they can retread their favorite bedtime stories and films ad nauseam. I’ve read Hamlet and Othello many times each, and never tire of them. A discussion of what makes a work timeless and re-readable is beyond the scope of this post. Instead, I’m interested in new narratve forms with the potential for spoiler-resistant storytelling, specifically video games and interactive fiction.

Gone Home drives to a single suspenseful ending that, according to the wisdom of the day, can be spoiled. Accusations of spoiling by my students imply that knowing how it will end detracts from their ability to enjoy the game. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I completely disagree. That’s right – I’m going to tell them how they really feel! I believe that their expectation of surprise in plot as the key to entertainment is culturally conditioned, rather than a true measure of their enjoyment of the game. I’ll go even further to say that if the game relies on the ending or a few plot twists for its entertainment value, then it really isn’t a very good game or, more to the point, a very good story. Interestingly, a 2011 study from the psychology department in UC San Diego points to a need to rethink how we are being entertained. It determined that greater enjoyment is derived from absorbing a narrative that has in fact been “spoiled”, or its surprised ending was revealed in advance. The potential reasons are numerous, and this article, that sums them up quite nicely, and is well worth the read. Funny to think that science has to tell us how to be entertained.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Choose Your Own Adventure

Fans of the Choose Your Own Adventure series or Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch know that the idea of choice based narrative is not a novel concept. In the case of Gone Home, there’s plenty of latitude during the gameplay journey, as it combines a blend of the linear and non-linear. Much like a myth, one story is being told, but it can be encountered and recounted in a variety of ways. I believe this points to the new (or very old) face of stories. Non-linear narratives, especially those with high audience agency and choice (video game, anyone?) are non-perishable goods. The more narrative flexibility that is built into the game, including variable endings and the ability to assume different perspectives, the more spoiler-proof the story becomes. Even if you know the general plot or story, the telling will be unique based on the choices you make and the avenues you choose to follow. Gone Home’s allegiance to a single ending costs it some replay value in a surprise-ending oriented culture, but it can still be replayed and enjoyed. Even after one full run, it keeps secrets that can be discovered in successive tours of the Greenbriar mansion.

Participatory, nonlinear, choice-based narratives are the emerging storytelling form of the 21st century. If we hope to keep our classes relevant and our students engaged, we should probably start adding more of these to the mix. That way, they’ll be less likely to spoil the journey by being overly fixed on the destination.

Next Post

Gone Home Lessons 7 & 8:  Crafting an Epic Slideshow for the Purple Basketball Revelation

Creative Commons License
Gone Home Lessons 5 & 6: Spoiler Alerts, Disposable Stories and Non-Perishable Narratives is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

Gone Home Lesson 4: Bursting the Fantasy Classroom Bubble with Real World Reviews

terry's typewriter

Terry Greenbriar’s review writing desk.

New to the Blog?

Each blog post stands alone, but if you wish to follow the lessons in order, please start reading here.

Life After Play

My three senior English classes had spent the last week playing Gone Home and snooping around the Greenbriar mansion, but the in-class play phase was over and it was time to shift to writing reviews and preparing their group presentations. There were definitely a few bumps as they transitioned into work mode but, overall, they generally remained pretty focused.

The Pros and Cons of the Review Revolution

In Gone Home, Terry, the Greenbriar dad, authors pulpy sci-fi thrillers whose hero travels back in time to alter American history. Judging by the boxes of overstock scattered all over the house, his novels don’t sell all that well. Terry is forced to makes ends meet by writing consumer electronic reviews for a home entertainment magazine. When he is publishing his home electronics critiques in Gone Home‘s 1995 setting, reviews, whether for film, music, books or other consumer goods were still largely a professional undertaking. Publishers and broadcasters governed access to the masses, and only a select circle of professional critics and reviewers could reach a wider audience.

One of Terry's reviews

One of Terry’s home electronic reviews.

It wasn’t too long after the mid-90s that the advent of the interweb threw up the floodgates. Today, for better or for worse, amateurs from all walks of life have wide-open forums in which to sing praises or vent dissatisfactions. This immense chorus of critical voices is highly democratic, but the sheer volume and lack of quality control clearly presents some downsides. For one, there is little accountability, as many reviews are anonymous. Consumers are often forced to sift through deeply divided and often conflicting opinions. There is also the issue of credibility. Could the review be a fake planted by the producers of the product or service? Astroturfing, as these promotional reviews are sometimes called, is big business in today’s competitive online marketplace. In the end, the coexistence of both professional and amateur critics offers a broader range of perspectives from which savvy consumers can decide whether to add to the cart or take a pass. I, for one, decided to play Gone Home based on reading Danielle Riendeau’s review of the game on Polygon.

So, I thought, why not get my students to join the online chorus and write a review of the game? It would tell me how they felt about the experience, they would think critically about their play, experiment with a prevalent and contemporary form of writing and channel a little Terry Greenbriar along the way.

Fantasy Classrooms and Real World Reviews

An ongoing problem with schools is that they largely operate within a bubble that is separate and distinct from productive society. Schools aim to prepare students for a workforce in which they don’t actively participate until school is over. This is made clear whenever a teacher refers to the universe outside the school as “the real world”, which makes the classroom a “fantasy world” by default. When I was in school, I remember a few of my teachers brandishing “wait ‘til you get to the real world…” as a sort of threat, as if I would find myself instantly unemployed for failing some test or exam. I never stopped to think that there aren’t many tests or exams in the real world; they only exist in the fantasy world we call school.

The real world should not be a threat, but an invitation. I am convinced that many unmotivated students would love to have more of the real world in school, and more school in the real world. Much of school life is suspended in a zone of ineffectual inconsequence, and many students feel that. They bide their time for 18 years and longer before they can make “real” contributions to society. In the worst cases, math problems are abstracted from practical application, language classes are taught in isolation from their genuine use, and English assignments are marked, returned and ceremoniously deposited in a three-ring sarcophagus only to be interred in some closet or crawl space. Schoolwork travels a tight circuit between student and teacher only to meet its end in storage, landfill or burned in a ceremonious end-of year bonfire. Occasionally, a gold star effort might make it to the fridge door.

Sam's Binder

Where homework goes to die.

In pre-industrial village or tribal life, youth and adolescents assumed a variety of duties that contributed directly and meaningfully to the good of the community. Life was intergenerational, not segregated by birthdays and ages. Young people helped gather and prepare food, carry water, look after and mentor the young or conduct graduated menial work as part of an apprenticeship. They also spent much time in free and healthy play, an important part of meaningful social preparation and participation. They very much took part in the real world and their actions directly affected the livelihood of their community. This, of course, took a dark turn with the advent of industrialism, where the mechanical regiments of clocks and factories transformed meaningful youthful contributions into the nightmare of child labor. Schools today retain many elements of the factory, but the student workers are their own products, conjuring the image of a hamster on a wheel. Ideally, schools would do a better job of safely and meaningfully harnessing the vast potential of their students for the productive betterment of their communities. We should strive towards an integrated lifelong program that fuses learning, work and play.  So how does this all relate to writing reviews for Gone Home?

The lost tradition of apprenticeship.

The lost tradition of apprenticeship.

In recent years, I’ve been trying to think of ways to give my students’ work some real world traction. The Internet has been helpful in taking baby steps towards this goal. As I mentioned earlier, product and service reviews are everywhere today. They are a valid and important contemporary form, as they play an important role in our consumer society. Writing reviews promotes critical thinking, synthesis, the logical organization of ideas and, perhaps, requires a form of literacy. We don’t just have to think critically about a subject when we write a review, but we also have to think critically about the reviews that we read. Consequently, I felt that having my students produce reviews about Gone Home was a timely and practical response to playing a video game. Best of all, there are endless real world online forums and game sites where my students could post their reviews. This would permit them to genuinely contribute and participate in the knowledge community that the game has generated. Their work would not only be graded by their teacher but, more importantly, their efforts would be subjected to the scrutiny of the legion of invisible eyes that inhabit the real world of the Internet.

As long as security measures are taken, students today can be both critical consumers and active producers, partaking in online discussions, writing reviews, posting their pictures to Flikr, their videos to Youtube or Vimeo and their music to Soundcloud. Their work no longer has to languish in sterile obscurity, but can now contribute meaningfully to dynamic communities, and receive genuine feedback. This definitely bursts out of the school safety bubble, and can lead to some painful interactions, especially in the emotionally charged environment of online gaming forums. There are always risks associated with exposing ourselves, but isn’t this the world we are moving into? How many of my students have been bullied on Facebook, or made ill advised posts they can never take back? Posting work online can be an important lesson in digital citizenship. I’d rather they experience the trials and rewards of online communication by way of an impersonal game review, than unwisely posting something much more personal and damaging.

Fantasy worlds are places without consequence, both in the negative and positive implications of the term. If and when schools decide that they want to better integrate students to the “real world”, there will undoubtedly be consequences to be paid for the great prize of being consequential.

How The Class Played Out

After my students submitted the mood and tone paragraphs from last class, we proceeded to read two online reviews together as a group, one was from The Atlantic and the other from The Guardian. A lively discussion followed the reading where students voiced a variety of opinions about the structure and tone of the reviews and their perspective on the game. They were then tasked to read two more pieces from IGN and Polygon quietly at their desks, and to take jot notes on any three to familiarize themselves with the tone and content of a professional review. I also provided them with a loose outline as to how to structure their work, and gave them a little over a week to complete it, as they were also working on their topic tracking presentations. Their completed reviews had to be posted to both their English blogs and on online game sites like Metacritic, IGN, Gamespot, Giant Bomb, etc. They also had to include a screenshot of their online post on their blog as proof that their work had been dispatched to the real world.

A few days after I had assigned the reviews, I received this email from one of my students:

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 4.24.01 PMWould this be OK? Of course it would be OK! I loved the idea. It was novel, dynamic and interactive. In a happy marriage of form and content, he was proposing to review the game as he walked his audience through it. I immediately agreed and the result is embedded in the video below. I liked the results so much, that I will most certainly use the format as an option for future assignments. My students teach me about what speaks to them, and we both grow in the process.

Overall, the class went well, but after class was even better. A group of students stayed back to debate the merits and deficiencies of video games like LA Noire, Skyrim, Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption. They were clearly enthused, and their informal banter was peppered with informed and intelligent commentary on the plausibility of plot, the realism of characters and whether they preferred linear or non-linear gameplay. They had clearly been swept up by the critical spirit of the day.

Next Post

Gone Home Lessons 5 & 6: Spoiler Alerts, Disposable Stories and Non-Perishable Narratives

Creative Commons License
Gone Home Lesson 4: Bursting the Fantasy Classroom Bubble with Real World Reviews is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

Gone Home Lesson 3: Sound Bites, Word Clouds and Vision Quests

magiceye1

An autostereogram.

New to the Blog?

Each blog post stands alone, but if you wish to follow the lessons in order, please start reading here.

Second Week In

We were in the second week of using the video game Gone Home as a senior high school English text, and things were progressing well. A few students had already finished the game and were now playing a second and even third time. Some replayed it to gather notes and screenshots for their topic tracking assignments, while others played again with the developers’ commentary activated to get the behind-the-scenes perspective. Students moved at their own pace and most seemed productively occupied. What more could a teacher ask for?

The classes were being observed and documented by a team of embedded researchers from York University, who alternately wandered between the desks or took notes from the back of the class. They were understandably tight lipped about their observations but, to me, they seemed pleased. I’d have to wait for the final report to know what they were thinking.

Talking it Out

chat_icon_clip_art_7491I was particularly buoyed because there was a great deal of chatter about the game. I know students were talking outside of class because they’d refer to extracurricular discussions they’d had about the story, the game and the location of certain rooms or items. In class, I’d rarely heard so much spontaneous dialogue about something we were studying. I had the presence of mind to write down some of the more memorable sound bites:

  • “This is mind blowing.” (Student who opened a locked vault in the basement)
  • “This is cheesing me.” (Student who struggled to open the locked vault in the basement)
  • “Have you found the sewing room – the sewing room is key.” (Student passing on strategic advice)
  • “This is some trippy s—.” (Student who found a secret room. He was duly scolded for the profanity)
  • “This is really creeping me out.” (Student who entered a dark passage)
  • “I’m lost.” (Disoriented student)
  • “Janice sucks at cheating.” (Student commenting on the mother’s apparent ineptitude at carrying out an infidelity)
  • “Frozen peas, frozen veggies, coke, pizza…” (Unimpressed student audibly itemizing contents of the Greenbriar fridge)
  • “Is this the way? I’ll just try opening every panel.” (Student strategizing)
  • “Is Terry a lush?” (Commenting on the array of shot glasses in the father’s study)
  • “Sweet – I found the condom.” (Student mildly celebrates discovering the much-discussed prophylactic)

I share these sound bites because I found them amusing but, more to the point, they illustrate a unique feature of video games as a medium. In class, we talk about books all the time, but I’ve rarely heard a student talk at a book, or at least with the frequency that many of the players dialogued with the game while playing. Speculatively, I’d say that the participatory nature of the game solicits interactive behavior from the player. Playing a video game is a form of dialogue, an action/reaction feedback loop that hitches the player and the game into a close interactive dance. Player actions have consequences, and outcomes can be unpredictable. Talking is a form of empowerment, a sort of folk remedy for things that might be out of our control. How many times have we talked ourselves down in an emotional moment? Or talked ourselves out of an impulse to a bad decision? Or, better yet, yelled at the screen during a tense moment in sports? When the stakes are high and we are invested, mere thinking doesn’t seem to be enough. We often utter and aspirate our incantations in the irrational hope that we can alter reality with our words.

"Nice - Janice is Canadian." Inspecting Janice's birth certificate.

“Nice – Janice is Canadian.” Inspecting Janice’s birth certificate.

A player speaking at a game is clear evidence of emotional involvement, and a great deal of meaningful learning occurs when it’s bundled up with emotions. There’s no argument that books and film engage emotionally, but it’s important to emphasize that games can do it too. A notable difference, however, is that books communicate symbolically, while video games, for better or worse, are more direct and can virtually approximate embodied experiences. We don’t access the Greenbrair mansion through words, we actually see it, walk around it and stop to pick up and examine the items that interest us. I’d be interested to know how the virtual embodiment of games affects the nature and degree of our emotional response to the narrative experience, especially when compared to other mediums.

It’s not only the dialogue that forms with the game that’s important, but also the discussions that occur around the game. In What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee considers communities that develop around video games. Players use a wide range of online forums, or what Gee would call affinity spaces, to discuss and critique the games that they play. These online communities help players solve technical issues, share strategies and impart gameplay stories. Games naturally generate informal communication spaces, and I certainly witnessed a version of this develop around Gone Home with my classes.

Without my prompting, students helped each other resolve both technical and in-game issues and obstacles. They discussed Gone Home’s story, as well as their own stories playing the game, as the open exploration mechanic bestows diverse gameplay experiences. Students approached me and each other to clarify some of the more subtle elements of the narrative, like the relationship between Uncle Oscar and Terry, or the fact that Sam and Terry likely lost their respective virginities 10 feet apart from each other under dramatically different circumstances. This had never occurred to me until a student mentioned it. And, of course, there were the spoilers – players who had either finished the game before the others or read about it online and felt the need to spill the narrative beans. Collaboration and communication were not artificially imposed, but emerged organically.

Parting the Clouds of Mood and Tone

The setting of a spooky old mansion on a dark and stormy night playfully positions Gone Home within the horror genre. I say playfully because the tone is ever so slightly tongue in cheek, and the source of terror is ultimately more psychological than metaphysical. A great example of this is a bathtub that seems to be covered in blood which turns out to be red hair dye. While playing, one student remarked: “I keep expecting Uncle Oscar’s ghost to appear, or some psychopath to jump out at me with a knife,” underscoring how Gone Home leverages a haunted house mood to create tension. I felt this was perfect fodder for a lesson on mood and tone.

gonehomie-600x375

Bloody bathtub…or is it?

In literature, much of the emotional climate is determined by the mood and tone of the narrative, two concepts that are commonly confused. To refresh your memory, tone is the narrator’s or speaker’s attitude towards the subject, while mood is the atmosphere of the piece and the emotions it conjures in the reader. Mood and tone can be identified in most narrative forms, including film and video games. The distinction is between the emotional impact of what is being described (mood) versus how it is being described (tone). In books, this is entirely relayed through words, but in visual mediums like video games, the graphic depiction also affects these two atmospheric elements. A funeral represented in a dark, severe and realistic style would convey a different tone than if the funeral were conveyed in a playful, cartoony style.

I introduced the lesson by asking students to find definitions for mood and tone, and then we discussed the distinctions between them. I then directed them to a website with extensive lists of tone words and mood words, and tasked them to choose 10 words from each category that best fit the game. Each student then sent their lists to two volunteers – one received all the mood words, the second all the tone words, with which they compiled to master lists. Finally, the master lists were dumped into Wordle, a free online service that generates colorful word clouds. The size of the words in the cloud are determined by their frequency in the list, so the larger words visually represent those most used by the class.

Tone word cloud. Click to enlarge.

Tone word cloud. Not sure how “chicken’n’waffles” and “hippopotamus” slipped in there!

The clouds were a great way to visually reinforce the differences between the two concepts. It also allowed the class to reflect on their collective perception of the game’s mood and tone. I posted each class’s final products to our online learning management system and concluded the activity by having them write paragraphs on the mood and tone of Gone Home.

Vision Quest: Summoning Autostereograms

What’s an autostereogram you ask? If you remember the 90’s you may recall a fad where people purposefully stared at prints and posters that looked like kaleidoscopic white noise. Some had the almost magical ability to look at these images in a certain way and discover a 3D picture hidden within the chaos of colorful pixels. Staying faithful to it’s 90’s setting, Gone Home features two autosterograms on Sam’s bedroom wall.

Autostereogram

Can you see the hidden image?

Many of my students wondered what these were and, eventually, a few became somewhat obsessed with seeing the secret image in these carryovers of 90’s kitsch. It wasn’t unusual to catch them in full vision quest mode, staring wide-eyed through (as opposed to at) their laptop screens murmuring “I can see it. It’s a shark – its definitely a shark” or something to that effect. If you want to give it a shot, check out the Magic Eye website and hopefully you’ll have better luck than I did, as I’ve never been able to see one. I epic fail as a man-child of the 90’s!

I was fascinated that the game had become a sort of cultural time capsule. It didn’t merely prompt my students to experience the 90’s from the outside, but allowed them to partake in and relive genuine 90’s experiences. Similarly, by virtue of the game’s audio and the cassette players strewn around the mansion, they could listen to Bratmobile and other Riot Grrrl bands that Sam was into. In a book, these artifacts would be abstracted by words, but in a game they became tangible embodied experiences. Students could see (or try to!) the autostereograms and hear the music, as opposed to only reading about it. I would argue that this gives them greater proximity to the narrative, as it is less mitigated. I would be the last person to diminish the value of reading or literature, but only point out some unique features and perhaps advantages of a video game as a text. It’s only fitting that Gone Home’s haunted house atmosphere successfully summons these palpable spirits of the past.

Typically, bags and pencil cases are zipping 5 minutes before the end of class. Today, I have to remind them to stop at the end of class, and many continue playing after the bell rings.

Next Post

Gone Home Lesson 4: Bursting the Fantasy Classroom Bubble with Real World Reviews

Creative Commons License
Gone Home Lesson 3: Sound Bites, Word Clouds and Vision Quests is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

Gone Home Lesson 2: Ordering the Free-Roving Chaos

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 11.14.30 AMNew to the Blog?

Each blog post stands alone, but if you wish to follow the lessons in order, please start reading here.

Pulling Levers and Adjusting Dials

We survived the first session of using the indie video game Gone Home for senior English, but the real challenge was upon us. Last class, the students’ movements were limited to the precincts of the Greenbriar mansion’s front foyer, but now we were about to start open exploration, where they could wander around as they pleased. This was the real test: how would they handle the newfound freedom? On a personal teacherly level, this marked an almost total loss of control. Some worse case scenarios had been percolating. They might run around the mansion, entering every bedroom and closet, but not bother to read the documents or examine the items that contribute to the slow and deliberate unfolding of the story. They could miss important clues or figure out how to finish the game in a 47 second speed run. There was also the possibility that they might devise some unintended forms of amusement, like transporting every single item in the mansion and piling them up in a single bathroom.

03-28-06_assembly-line-schools-from-a-bygone-era_original

Assembly Line Education

Let’s face it, schools can be very controlling environments. Clocks, bells and schedules regulate time, and space is marshaled by constraining learners to their classrooms and seats. These systems of control have the objective of creating uniformity; making sure that all students have the same experience and, ideally, acquire the prescribed knowledge in the same way. This is a carry over from our industrial past. Yes, things are slowly improving as concepts like differentiated instruction and student centered learning enter the edusphere, but the underlying apparatus remains largely unchanged.

Whether conscious or not and whether willing or not, as teachers we are all too frequently the product and perpetuators of this system. We pull levers, we release valves, we adjust dials and, if the product is deemed defective, we toss it off the conveyer belt. We have to assert control to maintain order, to fulfill our legal obligations, to parcel out specific knowledge at a specific time, and to make sure that every one of our charges, more or less, is given the same opportunity to learn the the same material. It is extremely difficult to resist the machinations of mass produced education. I openly confess that I can be and have been a controlling teacher, and a video game has caused me to reflect on and reconsider this failing.

Cutting Paper Flowers or Planting Seeds

Marshall McLuhan, aptly monikered the Oracle of the Electronic Age, once wrote that “the notion that free-roving students would loose chaos on a school comes only from thinking of education in the present mode – as teaching rather than learning”. So what’s the difference between teaching and learning? And, what does it have to do with “free-roving” kids running around, whether in the digital mansion in Gone Home or the real world?

mcluhan-1

Marshall McLuhan – The Oracle of the Electronic Age

Over the years, I’ve taught many Shakespeare plays, including several kicks at the Hamlet can. For me, every line of the play is candy-coated confection that I seek to share with my students. In the past, I’ve wanted to teach them to see everything I see, and know everything I know about the nuances and rhythms of the language, the subtle allusions, the weave of motifs and the compelling characters. I’ve wanted to impress my template of knowledge, wholesale, on each of their plasticine brains. Fine and dandy, but here’s the rub – their brains aren’t plasticine. They do have a high degree of malleability but, like snowflakes, each brain is different with its unique form and pressure and, for all my efforts, they will never receive information uniformly. There is only one play entitled Hamlet, but every single mind will seize and imagine it differently, which may be why Prince Hamlet memorably proclaims “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space”. The prince is tightly bound by the unchanging text, but he will be imagined in an infinite number of ways, my conception being only one.

Yes, my passion and love of the play is a good thing and it’s important for them to see it, but I know from years of experience that passion is not taught, passion is learned and, in McLuhan’s use of the terms, there’s a big chasm between the two. In my case, my passion largely stems from what I have arrived at on my own, not from where I was tenderly led by the nose. As much as our system imposes the contrary, meaningful learning happens on its own clock. We should not aim to cut paper flowers but, instead, practice the patient botanical art of planting seeds and nursing saplings. Those who are interested and dedicated will eventually get there on their own good time, and those who are not will at least have a general sense of the material and will, hopefully, find fulfillment elsewhere. Learning is always better absorbed and more meaningful when arrived at by genuine, self-motivated discovery rather than imposition. Ideally, we make allowances for individual choices and interpretations, but also provide guidance, direction, feedback and scaffolding. Rather than lead the expedition, it may be better to give them flashlights, compasses and maps and allow for some “free-roving” explorations of Elsinore Castle and environs, your school’s neighbourhood or, in this case, the old Greenbriar mansion in Gone Home.

1995 Archeology, Tracking Riot Grrrl and Intertextual Salad Dressing

When thinking about how to structure the gameplay phase of Gone Home, I formulated a few schemes to ensure that my students discovered and read every post-it note, letter, document and postcard. But, where is the fun in that? The very idea of an ensured discovery is contrived and counter to Gone Home’s primary engagement mechanism: free and open exploration. I eventually abandoned this tack and opted for a course that would support their exploration of the home, but not determine their path.

gonehome_screenshot3-100055791-orig

A bootleg cassette tape of Riot Grrrl band Bratmobile in Gone Home – A prime 1990’s artifact.

I presented the class with a choice of six possible topics to “track” as they played. Students would select a topic that interested them, and undertake an exercise in focused evidence gathering. The tracking assignments allowed for unguided but purposeful exploration. Students could travel where they pleased, but they were conscious of finding, noting and documenting artifacts that supported their topic. It was the natural extension of the annotation exercise in the foyer, and I reasoned that by furnishing them with a choice of topic they would take greater ownership of their learning. The six topics were as follows:

  1. Terrance Greenbriar (M), Uncle Oscar (m), Dr. Richard Greenbriar (m)
  2. Janice Greenbriar (M), Rick (m) and Katie (m)
  3. Sam (M), Lonnie (m), Daniel (m)
  4. 1995 Archeology
  5. Riot Grrrl References
  6. Video Game References

The first three options involved Character Tracking. I grouped one major character (M) with the two minor characters (m) that I felt best supported and fed into the major character’s story arc. 1995 Archeology entailed noting, gathering and researching artifacts endemic to the mid 90’s, a task that would be of interest to history and pop culture buffs. This would encourage students to think about the historical and physical setting of the story. Riot Grrrl References would appeal to students interested in music and music history. It would allow them to consider why Sam was drawn to a west-coast feminist punk movement. Finally, the Video Game References would prove enticing to the gamers. Interestingly, one might be tempted to dismiss this final video game topic as the most nonliterary, but I would argue the opposite.

Most literary works are referential systems, containing allusions to myths, biblical stories and other works of culture and literature. These references enrich the text and often act as a nod to the sources that inspired the creation of the work. This type of intertextuality is by no means exclusive to literature, as fine art, film, music and other cultural texts often do the same. Similarly, Gone Home is replete with both subtle and ostensible references to the video games and genres that preceded it and contributed to its creation. Uncovering these secret references adds an extra dimension of depth and entertainment to the gameplay experience, especially for the gamers in the class who connect to the works being referenced. The in-game references also open a door to discuss why they are included in the game, which can be extended to a consideration of how intertextuality works in other cultural products and texts. Students may not always be fascinated by why John Milton nods to the book of Job in Paradise Lost, but they may be keen to discover why Ken Levine is referenced on a salad dressing bottle in the Greenbriar pantry.

2531401-gonehome+2013-08-19+14-19-07-42

Salad dressing referencing Ken Levine’s BioShock Infinite in Gone Home.

How the Second Class Played Out

The second class started with checking and correcting the foyer annotation charts from the previous session. I was happy to hear several students tell me that they had liked the activity and were liking the game. One player, who I know to be a hard core gamer, had approached me in the hall earlier that day and confessed to having finished the entire game. “I couldn’t stop playing,” he gushed. “It was pretty awesome.” How could I be upset?

Following homework checks, I introduced the class to the six tracking topics with a handout and had students select their choice through a show of hands. Remarkably, I had to do very little rearranging as all three of my classes naturally distributed themselves fairly evenly across all six topics. I don’t imagine this will always be the case, but I was happy it worked out that way. With the few adjustments I did have to make, I decided to go to homework records to determine who was awarded first choice priority. In Ontario, we’re not allowed to dock marks or in any way attach homework to grades, which I generally agree with, but this was an opportunity to mildly reward those who had been working consistently until that point.

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 11.25.26 AM

Gone Home class 2 online lesson agenda – click to enlarge.

Once the topics were set, I explained that when the gameplay phase was completed, students would be grouped together according to the topics they chose and collaborate on a group presentation to share their findings with the rest of the class. This would be a good way for the entire class to have an in-depth look at the game from a variety of perspectives.

Now that housekeeping was taken care of, let the free-roving gameplay begin! Just like the first class, aside from the odd murmur or quiet exclamation, students were silent as they played. Some chose to play the game through without interruption and leave the screenshots and notes until later, while others took notes and screenshots as they played the first time through. I provided a topic tracking sheet for anybody that wanted to use it, but it was optional. They could gather and organize their data as they saw fit. In essence, I tried to insert myself as little as possible.

photo 1

Hunting and gathering in the Greenbriar mansion.

We hadn’t quite torn down the classroom walls, but I watched each player running around freely in the old mansion, jotting notes, taking screenshots and exploring closets. They were essentially hunting and gathering for data – activities that fit well with McLuhan’s vision of retribalization in what he called the electronic age. I could not help but wonder if this experience might be a digital anticipation of a real-world future.

Next Post

Gone Home Lesson 3: Sound Bites, Word Clouds and Vision Quests

Creative Commons License
Gone Home Lesson 2: Ordering the Free-Roving Chaos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

Gone Home Lesson 1: Writes of Passage, Annotating a Foyer and Screenshot Citations

photo

Game On!

The Gone Home launch day was upon us, and I was pretty pumped. Of course there would be issues. Some of the students might not like it; after all, the game offered no points, no badges, no zombies and no killing. But you can never please everybody, right? A few would inevitably figure out that they could technically finish the game in a 47 second speedrun. And yes, let’s not forget that the unit was being observed, recorded and immortalized in the annals of a peer-edited journal by a team of 5 rotating researchers. I wasn’t sweating it, though. We were going to play a video game in English class, and that was simply glorious.

A Literary Approach to a Video Game

My goal for the first lesson was to acquaint my students with the game’s style, get them comfortable with the controls and interface, and introduce the story’s main characters – the Greenbriar family. I felt that starting with the lit studies strategy of an annotation and close-ish reading (or close playing) would encourage an initial detail-oriented examination of the game. Annotation and close reading are two fairly common practices in high school and college level lit classes. Annotation essentially involves scribbling notes, underlines, highlights, symbols and observations directly onto the text. It’s interactive and helps reinforce an attention to detail that supports a close reading, which is an analysis and interpretation of a brief passage.

Like many high school English teachers, I’ve employed this approach when teaching a novel, poem or short story, and thought that it might also prove useful for the study of this video game. The problem was how would students annotate when the “text” in question is a three-dimensional digital space? Not having access to a digital tool that allows students to insert their thoughts and notes directly into the game space, I improvised.

gone-home-entryway-960x540-2

The Foyer

Gone Home begins on the enclosed front porch of the Greenbriar home, and once a player walks through the front entrance they enter a large foyer, the hub of the sprawling old mansion. The foyer has a few features that distinguish it from the other rooms in the house. First, it’s a sort of dramatis personae as all the major characters are introduced by way of documents, voice recordings and artifacts dispersed around the room. Also, all players must necessarily traverse this room first before choosing to head up the main staircase or down the west hall on their self-selected paths. This makes it an ideal site to introduce the game. Consequently, it was the perfect room (or “passage”) in which to center the first lesson. I wanted my students to play freely and force their hands as little as possible. Open exploration, after all, was the key to engagement. Otherwise, if I overly controlled or restricted their movements, it would suck the fun right out of it. I requested that, only for this first class, they stick to the foyer and abstain from exploring the rest of the house, which wouldn’t railroad them so much as slow them down. I could not and would not stop them from wandering up the stairs or down the hall, but I explained that it would be in their best interest to practice some restraint, as they would be allowed to run wild, so to speak, for the rest of the play portion of the unit.

Gone-Home-and-the-mansion-genre-4

A drawer full of documents to examine.

So I had my textual passage, but how to annotate it? I designed a chart that prompted them to find specific information about each of the major characters and a few locations and events. The last column in the chart was reserved for screenshots of the artifact or document that had furnished the requested information. The chart encouraged a methodical and guided exploration in a contained space. It helped familiarized them with the family, the Gone Home’s artifact-based exploration mechanics and the game controls. It also allowed them to practice gathering evidence by means of in-game screenshots. They would continue to take screenshots for the activities that followed, so the sooner they learned, the better.

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 7.36.49 PM

Completed Foyer Annotation Chart. Click on image for a full blank chart.

When writing critically about a literary text, cited quotes are used as evidence to support arguments, claims and propositions. This can also work with video games, as they also can include written and spoken narrative and dialogue. When studying a video game like Gone Home, however, I felt that screenshots and video captures were a logical addition to the citation toolbox, as they are an efficient means by which to extract specific evidence from a digital medium which is largely visual. Screenshots also support and expand on traditional note taking, as they help record and document important and relevant highlights of the player’s journey throughout the game.

“That’s Pretty Sick”

Much like in aviation, taking off with a lesson that relies on technology usually comes with a little turbulence. A few days before my first class, I sent my students the redemption codes to download the game. That way, I could field any technical issues in advance and, in a blue-sky world, they would all arrive to class ready to play. I also reminded them to bring ear buds or headphones and a mouse, as the laptop track pads are awkward to play with. Despite a few minor technical issues, the first day of the unit was a success. Just before class, in what would become a routine, I met the scheduled researchers at the school’s front office and escorted them to my classroom. I invited them to set-up shop on a desk at the back of the class, where they would take notes on their tablets, smartphones and laptops. Once class started, I checked homework, and reviewed the lesson and agenda. I didn’t assume that my so-called digital natives (a term I don’t support) would be predisposed to automatically understand game controls and interfaces. I went over how to move and interact with the game using either the keyboard or mouse, graphic and sound settings, and a few tips on how to take in-game screenshots.

2013-12-30_00001

Cassette Load Screen

Most of the class remembered to bring headsets and mice, and I had a few extras for anybody that forgot. Unfortunately, and somewhat predictably, a number of students hadn’t downloaded the game, so they spent about half the class installing it. Some of those that did have it ready to go were getting stuck on the cassette load screen. One of the kids quickly surmised that the graphics settings had to be set on “low” for it to work smoothly. Nothing like the collective classroom intelligence to solve a technical issue. Gone Home is not a taxing game hardware-wise, but some of the laptops, especially the older ones, have a rather limited processing capacity. Personally, I couldn’t see the difference in graphics between the high and low setting. It wasn’t long before they were all playing, nosing around the foyer, taking screenshots and filling in their charts. Once they were in the flow, the class became eerily quiet as they were each absorbed in their snooping and rummaging. The silence was occasionally punctuated by students audibly murmuring to themselves as they played:  “Hmmm – what’s this?” or “Goodfellow High School, eh.” or “That’s pretty sick” or “Finally! There it its.” Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 3.02.20 PMI had to remind a few students to stay within the confines of the foyer, as I caught them crossing into other areas of the house. Interesting to note that almost all the students who did this were the ones I know to be the hard-core gamers. I wondered if these game aficionados were hard-wired to push boundaries, subvert authority and explore, and therefore take to video games, or that their experience with games has fostered an eagerness to break out and explore. While my students played, the researchers wandering between the rows, looking over their shoulders, occasionally stopping to ask a quiet question. For most of the lesson, I just sat at the back of the class, very much the guide on the side, watching my students immersed in their games, each approaching it in their own particular way.

Next Post

Gone Home Lesson 2: Ordering the Free-Roving Chaos

Creative Commons License
Gone Home Lesson 1: Writes of Passage, Annotating a Foyer and Screenshot Citations is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

Launch Codes, Info Bulbs and Inventories: Prepping to Teach Gone Home

Coming Through with the Goods

I was a week from launching Gone Home in my senior English class and the pressure was mounting to come through with the goods. I’d contacted The Fullbright Company, the game’s developers, to purchase a class set of copies. Purchasing and loading a class set of video games was a first for me, so I wondered what the logistics would be of downloading the games to my students’ laptops, but Fullbright made it very easy. They offered a fair pricing scheme and instructed me on how to purchase the copies via Humble Bundle, a digital distribution platform similar to Steam. Once the transaction was processed, they sent me 58 redemption codes, one for each copy I’d purchased. Each student would receive a code, paste it as a URL, and follow the simple download instructions. Piece of cake. Kudos to Steve Gaynor and Fullbright for their prompt responses and being thoroughly accommodating.

cartoon--nerd-with-a-laptop_21-95687938My students own their laptops and they go home with them, so I was concerned that if I released the redemption codes too early a few of them might decide to play the game prematurely. Not the end of the world, as there are always students who like to read ahead in lit class. But, I felt that it would be more entertaining and that the game’s story would be less likely to be spoiled if they all more-or-less started playing at the same time. So, I decided to hold on to the codes until a few days before launch. That would still give us enough time to download the game and field any technical issues that might come up in the process.

Reading a Video Game

With the first major hurdle cleared, I now had to confront the daunting task of hashing out the specifics of how the unit would play-out (pun intended). Would I let my class wander the house freely? Would I somehow direct their gameplay? Aside from playing the game, what would the response apparatus look like? How would I assess and evaluate them? On one hand, this was a lit class and I could approach it much like a short novel study, except I would substitute a video game for a novel. But this seemed like a bit of a cop-out; a video game, after all, is formally different from a novel, and should be considered in that light.

gee

Dr. James Paul Gee

Much like songs, TV shows and comic books, any cultural theorist would tell you that video games are cultural artifacts and can be considered texts in their own right. Like novels or other literary texts, video games operate on a symbolic level, employ rhetorical strategies and can be “read” or interpreted for meaning. For more depth on this idea, you may want to have a look at Angela R Cox and Jeff Mummert’s informative posts about video games as texts in the very excellent Play the Past blog. We can safely say then, that the reception of a video game involves a type of literacy and is worthy of critical analysis, as Dr. James Paul Gee entertainingly and persuasively argues in his classic What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

Gone Home is a video game and a text, but despite its literary merits, it’s a different type of text than a novel or short story and, accordingly, tells its story in its own way. A video game’s unique technical and formal features invite a fittingly unique response mechanism. A film isn’t studied in the same way as a novel and, likewise, a video game should be examined with its own distinct set of considerations. Unfortunately, I wasn’t altogether clear on how to productively emphasize and leverage the unique textual features of Gone Home, and still deliver a valuable and pedagogically sound lesson. I decided that my best bet was to dive into an “in-depth” replay (dare I say close reading?) of the game that would hopefully trigger a few lesson plan ideas.

Replaying, Not Playing, is what Counts

By a stroke of luck, Fullbright added a developers’ commentary feature to Gone Home just a few weeks before our scheduled classroom launch date. When activated, Fullbright’s trademark cartoony light bulbs appear at set locations throughout the Greenbriar mansion. Clicking on a bulb icon triggers an audio commentary from members of the creative team providing insights into their process. They discuss music, sound, technical elements, hidden content and development anecdotes – usually related to the space where the specific bulb appears. This was solid gold, as it offered a whole new layer of material that I could mine for the unit.

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 9.50.56 PM

Developer’s commentary Fullbright light bulb icons in Sam’s room.

By this time, I’d played the game twice casually, but it was time to dig into the nitty-gritty details. I woke up early one Sunday morning, set myself up at the kitchen table with a hot cup of java and undertook a meticulous inspection of the creepy old mansion. I activated the developer’s commentary mode and methodically explored every corner of the house, dividing my notes according to room and creating a comprehensive inventory of every meaningful artifact. I also jotted down anything valuable I could glean from the commentary. Seven hours later, I’d found just about every bookmark, post-it note and newspaper clipping and felt intimately familiar with the game. By this point, I could probably better orient myself in the Greenbriar household than my own. Despite my thorough CSI-style sweep of the place, my students would later find a number of items and details that had slipped through my fingers.

-1

Every item in the game gathered in the foyer. Image: Linuxgnuru

To be honest, I wasn’t bursting at the seams at the idea of retreading every inch of the big ‘ol Greenbriar mansion again. I’d already played twice, and the game was fantastic, but I thought this third forensic run would be a bit painstaking and feel a bit laborious. Happily, I was wrong. The time flew by, the developer’s commentary was extremely engaging and I discovered many new details that I’d missed the first two times around. I was reminded of a quote by one of my favourite writers – Jorge Luis Borges – “rereading, not reading, is what counts”.

Best of all, my scheme had yielded fruit – a few exciting assessment ideas had percolated while I played and a vision for the lesson began to materialize. I worked late into Sunday night getting my thoughts on paper and sketching an outline for the unit, which I will begin to unfold in my next post.

Next Post

Gone Home Lesson 1: Writes of Passage, Annotating a Foyer and Screenshot Citations.

Creative Commons License
Launch Codes, Info Bulbs and Inventories: Prepping to Teach Gone Home is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

An Indie Education: Gone Home and Why Independent Games Belong in Classrooms

When Are We Going to Play?

It waimg304564e80b249ee0e2s late October and several of my students were asking me: “when are we going to play that video game?” It was a good prod to get rolling and finalize the Gone Home unit . I coordinated with Dr Jennifer Jenson, the lead researcher whose team would be documenting the experience, and we agreed to launch close to the end of November and run it until the start of Christmas break in mid-December, 2013. I hoped it would be a good way to end a long and busy term and keep my seniors engaged as their morale flagged in the dark days winter.

The school where I teach has a 1:1 laptop program, which would allow students to play the game individually, but I had to figure out how to get the game on those laptops. I decided to contact the creators of Gone Home directly to let them know what I was doing and to see if they’d cut me some kind of educational deal for the 60 copies I intended to buy.

First Contact

When I wrote the Portland-based Fullbright Company I didn’t know what to expect, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Rather than dealing with a sales rep, I corresponded directly with the creative team, who were incredibly supportive of the project. Their replies were prompt, and they showed a willingness to help in every way. We should keep in mind that companies like Fullbright are small and may not always be prepared to deal with an avalanche of requests. I was one of the first and perhaps only educators to contact them at a period when they had the time and availability.

Fullbright

The Fullbright Team

My sense throughout our communication was that they were genuinely enthused that their game would be used meaningfully as an educational tool, rather than wringing their hands at the potential sales boost. Despite his demanding schedule, Steve Gaynor, Fullbright’s co-founder and writer and designer of Gone Home, took the lead and responded to every one of my letters promptly and offered a fair education scheme for copies of the games. I quickly came to understand that this very good game came from very good people.

An Indie by Any other Name

Although it has enjoyed mainstream success, Gone Home is what is known as an independent or indie game. What does this mean? For one, indie game developers tend to run small operations with limited budgets compared to the hundreds of millions poured into their triple-A counterparts. Indies are created by individuals or small teams and are more restricted technologically. The problem with large-scale commercial games is that they have to regain all those bags of development money they disbursed and then some, and they aren’t about to take any chances. That’s why they tend to stick to proven formulas, which often include an emphasis on state-of-the-art graphics and a steady rhythm of explosions and headshots. Moreover, creative decisions are hampered by top-down dictums from non-gaming execs. Indie games, on the other hand, are the creative hotbed of the medium – they can afford to take chances, and often do. They are driven by creative vision over market considerations, as beautifully exemplified in the recent documentary Indie Game: The Movie.

It’s worth noting that some independent game makers feel that the “indie” title is inaccurate and counterproductive to the industry. They want to discourage the perception that the financial and technological limitations associated with independent games translate into a presumption about their quality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Recently, Lucas Pope, creator of the hugely successful (dare I say Indie) “dystopian document thriller” Papers Please stated that there are “no indie game-makers and it’s just a case of individuals and studios making small games and large games”. Maybe the term “niche” or some other distinction might be better suited, but overwhelming current usage will likely cause the term “indie” to persist, which broadly justifies my use of it.

The peeps at The Fullbright Company, a self-proclaimed independent studio, have experience in both worlds. Its creative team, led by Steve Gaynor, cut their teeth in big studios, so they import mainstream savvy to their indie enterprise. Since the game’s launch in August 2013, they’ve enjoyed the kind of sales, success and attention usually reserved for their big-ticket commercial brethren, which returns us to the shaky distinction between AAA and indie.

Kickstarter, Steam and The Rise of the Indie

Two key factors that have fueled the growth of the independent game industry are crowd sourcing and digital distribution.

Crowd sourcing has allowed independent game makers to cut corporate ties and truly venture out on their own. Sites like Kickstarter allow developers to gather funds from their fans, without sacrificing creative control of their projects. Tim Schafer’s Broken Age, for example, drummed up a whopping $3.3 million from his wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. Organizations like Indie Fund and Dracogen also provide non-traditional financing options for indie developers.

Steam_LogoThese days, video games are more likely to be purchased online than at tar and mortar shops which has been a boon for indies. Developers no longer have to deal with prohibitive publication and marketing costs, as online digital distribution platforms like Steam and Humble Bundle do an outstanding job of promoting and selling independent games. Also, companies behind Xbox One, Wii, PS4 now furnish self-publishing kits to encourage independent developers to make games for their popular consoles.

Indies in the Classroom

Why is this good news for education? Because the indie world is much more likely to produce games suitable for educational settings and purposes. By virtue of their deviation from the prescribed recipes for market success, they are often more artistic, empathetic and less likely to include gratuitous sex and violence. Also, an indie’s scaled down graphic requirements are an easier fit with often outdated school computers.

Almost every case of mainstream commercial games being used in classrooms undergo some type of modification to fit the curricular goal. But the uses of indies like Minecraft and, in this case, Gone Home, tend to be unadulterated, which speaks to their innate educational viability. Independent games like Device 6, The Stanley Parable and Papers Please could all easily find a place in the classroom. The first two would be excellent to explore aspects of narrative, and Papers Please would be a great fit for any unit focusing on dystopia, the Cold War or totalitarianism.

papersplease-1

A scene from Papers Please: A Dystopian Document Thriller

It’s also worth remembering that in high school English land, few, if any, of the texts we teach were written specifically for educational purposes. Shakespeare and Salinger didn’t write for high school classes, they wrote free standing works of literature that were eventually adopted for educational purposes. Similarly, I believe that many of the games that will find their way into literature and communication classes will not necessarily be designed with a classroom in mind. They will be works of art first and foremost whose innate value as such will make them suitable to study.

Gone Home exemplifies this concept. Rather than deliberately creating a form of edutainment, as I don’t think they had education in mind, the Fullbright team aimed to produce the best game they could in accordance with their artistic principles and social values. What emerged was a rich, nuanced and thought-provoking experience that has a much greater claim on education than most of their commercially driven counterparts.

I’d love to hear about any other indie game you’d recommend for use in the classroom!

NEXT POST: Launch Codes, Info Bulbs and Inventories: Prepping to Teach Gone Home

Creative Commons License
An Indie Education: Gone Home and Why Independent Games Belong in Classrooms is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

Five Reason Why Schools Are Embracing Video Games

More Context

I’d like to make one more stop before continuing with the story of implementing Gone Home as a high school English text. My goal is to encourage educators to replicate the Gone Home experience and generally experiment with video games in their classes. I especially want to appeal to those who haven’t considered implementing video games in their teaching practice. To that end, I think it’s valuable to review why the world of education has opened its door to video games.

2012-09-13_200442_3573943

Five Factors

Today there are more and more instances of schools creating curricular spaces for commercial video games. Initially, it was a case of a few rogue teachers slipping them in through the back door, but over the past decade a growing number of schools and districts have rolled out the red carpet. We can attribute the change to the convergence of five key factors that have contributed to greater interest and use of sophisticated video games in education, a phenomenon that is clearly gathering momentum.

1. Better Technology

The indispensible requirement to implement video games in schools is hardware. If there is limited access to computers, laptops, tablets and/or mobile devices, it’s game over. In 1997, only 27% of US classrooms were connected to the Internet and the student to computer ratio was in the neighbourhood of 21 students per machine. I imagine two-dozen kids crowded around a bulky desktop playing SimCity and bickering for the entire period about where to zone for a residential neighbourhood. At the very least it would be a realistic simulation of a typical city council meeting.

Twelve years later, the picture was much better. By 2009, the ratio of students to computers in the classroom dropped to 5.3 to 1 and Internet access was available for 93 percent of the computers located in the classroom. Recently, states like Maine and California have funded initiatives to provide one-to-one access to laptops and tablets for their students. Some schools have also leveraged household resources to supplement their infrastructure with initiatives like bring your own technology (BYOT) programs.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 12.26.03 PM

These numbers are promising, and the situation is certainly improving, but ratios vary widely from district to district and Internet access does not speak to the quality of the connectivity. High poverty schools, schools with high minority enrollment, and smaller schools are less likely to have adequate computer and Internet access. Even though the situation is far from perfect, improved access to hardware has created more favourable conditions for the wider implementation of video games in classrooms.

2. Gamer Teachers

The adoption of video games by schools has also advanced because there is now a generation of active teachers who were raised on video games. The average age of a gamer is reported to be between 3035 years old, and they have been playing for about 13 years. Anecdotally, any 10 year-old that played on the immensely popular Atari 2600 in the late 70’s and early 80’s would be in their 40s today. This puts a legion of active teachers squarely in gamer territory, which means they are comfortable with video game culture and conventions, and are more likely to use them in their classes.

Teacher-Mario2-600x300

Image: http://masonicgamer.com

Gamer teachers are willing and able to experiment with dedicated educational games as well as commercial off-the-shelf games (COTS), even if they have to be massaged and modified to fit their curricular goals. There are now many examples of commercially successful games being adapted to classroom use, including Spore, Little Big Planet and SimCity. These games don’t progress on an economy of headshots and kill streaks. Rather, they engage with mechanics that promote socialization, creativity, design, critical thinking and problem solving. Other examples include Sid Meier’s Civilization and Assassin’s Creed to teach history, World of Warcraft for math, writing and second language instruction, Portal for learning STEM and Minecraft to teach, well, just about everything.

3. Academic Interest

As video games become more deeply entrenched in mainstream society, academics have taken notice. Research in areas as diverse as brain science, economics, sociology and art history, to name a few, has focused on the video game phenomenon. Arguably, no academic field has been more invested in studying video games than education. Because of their hold on youth culture, studies into the possible educational uses and benefits of video games have exploded over the last decade. MIT’s Game Lab and Education Arcade and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Games Learning Society Center are leading examples of dedicated educational game programs popping up in colleges and universities around the world.

Henry-Jenkins-660x225

Dr. Henry Jenkins

Academic work exploring video games as learning tools has migrated from peer edited journals in ivory tower databases to Amazon best-seller lists. Notable contributors to the field include Dr. Henry Jenkins, Dr. James Paul Gee, Dr. Kurt Squire and Dr. Constance Steinkuehler. It’s worth adding that Steinkuehler was recently summoned to work with the White House to help shape US national policy based on games research, indicating that even the government seeks to harness the potential instructional power of video games.

Research and studies from academia are a critical component, as it helps teachers, schools and boards validate video games in their classrooms and better understand their pedagogical value.

4. Leveraging Engagement

Educational or not, there is little doubt that well-designed games are engaging, and it’s that very element of engagement that has attracted the attention of educators and academics.

videogames-vs-readingbooks-blogsize

Image: College Student Journal, June 2012 edition, Page 376-387

Even before the age of Internet, high caliber video games and social media, it was not unusual for restless students to watch the clock hand’s painful crawl from one minute notch to the next. Today the problem is further aggravated by the widening gap between the highly stimulating digital universe and the prosaic monotony of many classrooms. Disengaged learners are fruitlessly coerced to “work hard” and study, but they’d much rather be in front of their screens collecting Minecraft resources, or grinding on some grassy plain in Azeroth. They inhabit rich audio-visual environments where they are self-motivated to collaborate, explore, problem solve and practice endlessly to master diverse tasks. This certainly seems more appealing than the comparatively glum world of rows, handouts and schedules, which works for some, but not for all. In a classic case of if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, a growing number of educators have raised the white flag and have started to explore how to similarly engage their students.

5. Money

Now that there’s tech infrastructure to support games and a willing educational culture, the money has shown up. There was a time when educational games were bad business, but now learning games are a $1.5 billion dollar market, with a projected growth of $2.3 billion by 2017. This is attracting a drove of developers to the education game market, including Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell’s BrainRush that promises to make learning as addictive as video games.

photo

The Quest to Learn School in NYC

A variety of game-based initiatives have also been generously funded by non-profits like The MacArthur Foundation and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They’ve given rise to organizations and educational game portals like GlassLab, Institute of Play, Learning Games Network, Playful Learning, Games for Change and Gamedesk. These institutes and companies design and curate educational games and act as bridges to connect teachers with the right games for their curriculum. Non-profits have also helped fund charter schools whose entire curriculum revolves around game-based learning. Leading examples are Quest to Learn in New York City and the Playmaker School in Los Angeles.

This ends my two-post sojourn addressing the adversarial romance between video games and education. The next post will continue with my regularly scheduled program of implementing of Gone Home in my senior English class.

NEXT POST

An Indie Education: Gone Home and Why Independent Games Belong in the Classroom

Creative Commons License
Five Reason Why Schools Are Embracing Video Games is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

Video Games and Education: Overcoming the Stigma

Context

Before continuing the journey of implementing the video game Gone Home as a high school English text, I thought it would be useful to provide a broader context with a brief recap of the story of video games and the K12 classroom. This post will look at the challenges that have impeded the wider use of video games by schools and educational institutions.

Shutter the Windows, Hide the Children

In their cathode ray infancy, video games posed little threat, but as they grew in power and scope, they began to worry parents and the K12 universe. Kids loved them – way too much. Smokey dens of inequity known as video game arcades soon invaded every strip mall, generating billions in revenue one quarter at a time. Home consoles and computers quickly joined in, multiplying the diabolical screen-vortexes that hypnotized children and lured them away from study, reading, sports and fresh air. Shutter the windows and hide the children, the video games were coming.

244080-archd

80’s style arcade. Image: Arcadecraft Firebase Industries

Concerned parents, religious leaders and politicians became vocal about their concerns, and a media narrative arose that cast video games as a social ill. Video games continue to  shoulder the blame for many incidents of youth violence, suicide and antisocial behavior. To this we can add a catalog of health concerns including addiction, obesity, seizures and motion sickness. There is even a condition known as Nintendonitis, or Nintendo Thumb, a form of repetitive strain injury (RSI) caused from controller button mashing. It’s no wonder schools kept video games at a safe distance and were reluctant to port them into their classrooms. Also, the atmosphere of hostility and the lack of hardware infrastructure in schools discouraged most thoughts to the positive and pedagogical benefits of video games, a process that has only started in earnest in the last decade.

Yes, some of these concerns are valid, but the harmful effects are largely due to excessive use, or the aggravation of pre-existing conditions. Too much of anything can be damaging, and addiction can occur from most stimulants, including shopping, food, sex and even, apparently, oil. As with all youth media consumption, proper parental supervision and guidance, moderation, appropriate content and education are key to turn a minus into a plus. Video games are no different.

videogames1

Image: Kelly, The Onion Syndicate March 2007

More seriously, video games are often connected to extreme negligence and violence. Gun-related tragedies and mass shootings inevitably stir up mobs of emotional parents, special interest groups and political opportunists who are quick to point the finger at an Xbox or PlayStation. Video games have been blamed for infant death and neglect, death by exhaustion, fatal street racing, the London Riots, and even the US government shutdown. These incidents tend to be isolated or speculative, but grow disproportionately in influence and area of effect when amplified by global broadcast news outlets. What ensues from the triple-m combo of mass media, moral outrage and misinformation is a capital-M moral panic. This puts video games in the company of such horrors as the written word, science, the compass, comic books, rock and roll, Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter and Pokémon. Considering the success and cultural relevance of all these once-chastised institutions, the future is looking pretty bright for what has now been touted as the art form of the twenty-first century.

From Stone Age to Rock Stars

upload_dge7f7mcfgltjaor8ki9rqj3l6990845.jpg-finalLingering stereotypes of gamer don’t really help the situation. Many still think of  the gamer sub-species as pale, friendless, basement-dwelling troglodytes who sponge off parent and government as they paradoxically expand and decompose in the glare of their computer screens. The reality is, gamers now transcend all walks of life and notably include celebrities like Seth Rogan and Megan Fox,  business leaders, military personnel and professional athletes. In fact, the US government now considers gamers athletes in their own right, and some are calling video game the sport of the future. In South Korea, probably the world’s premiere video game culture, professional gamers make a healthy living and have achieved rock star status.

The ESA also reports on some player data that may come as a surprise. The average age of a gamer is 30, and active gamers have been playing, on average, for 13 years. 68% of gamers are over 18 years old, and women account for 45% of the gaming market. Anti-social you say? The reality is that 62% of gamers play with others, either in-person or online, and almost all new games now strive to include multi-player features.

Studies, Studies, Everywhere

So what does science have to say about all this? Won’t evidence-based research put the debate to rest once and for all? Somewhat predictably, studies can be found to support any perspective on the matter, as you’ve probably noticed if you’ve watched the talking heads sparring on Fox and CNN. Like every technology from fire to nuclear energy, video games are Janus-faced in that they can be both good and bad, depending on the type of game, the disposition of the player and the circumstances of its use. I probably oversimplify the issue when I propose that it comes down to a classic chicken and egg scenario: do video games make people violent, or are innately violent people attracted to video game? It is likely a messy combination of the two.

From the standpoint of education, there is growing research to determine how games directly support learning outcomes. The rapid growth of this academic field is providing more conclusive evidence that supports learning benefits from using video games, which makes them an easier sell to schools, boards and districts. However, there is such a complex network of factors and contingencies involved in connecting the use of video games to specific behaviour, and the issue is so politicized, that studies will likely continue to be contentious, contradictory and debatable for some time to come.

Not all Video Games are Created Equal

To say anything about video games as a whole is to miss the nuances of a diverse and wide-ranging cultural phenomenon. The vast canopy we call “video games” covers everything from computer solitaire, to simplistic mobile phone apps to sophisticated medical simulations. Sadly, violent first-person shooters have become the defining genre that are popularly equated with video games.

First-person shooters have become the rugged face of video games because of the bottom line – cold, hard cash. Aside from The Sims, the top earning games are first-person shooters, sports games and racing games. Violence and competition are a tried and true formula for success in the gaming market, and ultra-violent shooter franchises like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto have dominated sales and made billions for their developers. What does this mean for educators? The big studios are under a lot of pressure to generate profits, and they rely on competitive and violent content to meet their quarterlies. This is clearly in direct opposition to the moral and curricular aims of K12 education. Furthermore, these same studios house the industry’s top talent, and haven’t been willing to risk writing a new playbook for the historically unprofitable educational sector. But who can blame them? In the past, few schools have had the culture, budget, infrastructure, or even desire to experiment with commercial grade video games. Regardless of their pedagogical value, the games that traditionally did make it into classrooms tended to be simplistic, underwhelming and downright bizarre compared to the hack and slash eye-candy waiting at home.

But not all video games are created equal. What action movies are to film, first-person shooters are to video games – they may dominate financially, but should not define the medium. In this day and age, you don’t have to dig deep to find gems like Journey, Papers Please, The Novelist, To The Moon and, of course, Gone Home. The upcoming Chroma promises to be an interesting hybrid, as it abides by the conventions of a first person shooter, but combat is musical and music based. These are but a few of the current crop of titles that easily subvert the reductionist formula that video games equal violence. There is also a growing interest and development of serious games, a category that aspires to fulfill socially beneficial goals by means of games and simulations. The growing diversity in the video game ecosystem and a renewed interest in the educational game market is creating more viable options for educators, but more about this later.

690+Serious-Games

RescueSim (http://www.rescuesim.com) is a serious game to train emergency response crews

Today, attitudes have softened and we find ourselves in a much more game-friendly universe, but the lingering stigmatization that surrounds video games continues to cause a lag in their successful adoption by schools. The issue is a media mainstay that has shaped a public perception that still regards video games with suspicion. In some minds, the idea of using video games for education is tantamount to hiring a suspected serial killer as a teaching assistant. The good news is that this perspective is losing traction, as more schools open their doors and normalize the use of video games as practicable educational tools.

Next Post: Five Factors that have Helped Schools Accept Video Games

Creative Commons License
Video Games and Education: Overcoming the Stigma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someone