Each blog post stands alone, but if you wish to follow the lessons in order, please start reading here.
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
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.
- Terrance Greenbriar (M), Uncle Oscar (m), Dr. Richard Greenbriar (m)
- Janice Greenbriar (M), Rick (m) and Katie (m)
- Sam (M), Lonnie (m), Daniel (m)
- 1995 Archeology
- Riot Grrrl References
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Epilogue: High School English Apocalypse
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.