Ludic Learning begins with my experience as a high school English teacher implementing a video game as a literary text in three senior English classes. The unit was carried out for 3 weeks from November 22 – December 15, 2013. Over that time, students played the video game Gone Home and were assessed by a series of responses and activities that are in line with the aims of a typical high school English curriculum. This limited-run blog will provide everything a teacher needs to know to duplicate the experience and, hopefully, build on it. It is a loose guide and a justification for the use of a video game as a text in a high school English class, and points to the wider use of games and game culture in education.
Origins: A Stranger At Home
Late in the summer of 2013, a review of the Indie video game Gone Home crossed my Twitter feed. The game received a perfect score, and the critic could barely contain her excitement, gushing praises like “spellbound”, “beautifully written”, “universal experience” and “emotionally honest”. I had to do a double take. Was this a video game critique or a book review? I dug a little deeper and Googled a few more reviews, and was met with similarly enthusiastic reactions. Chris Suellentrop from The New York Times went so far as to say it was the “closest thing to literary realism I’ve encountered in a video game.” Critical praise aside, it sounded like no other game I’d ever played, and I’ve played quite a few. My interest was most definitely piqued. As a busy dad and English teacher, I liked that it could be completed in less than three hours.
In a mainstream gaming world crowded with assault rifles and flaming swords, there was something refreshingly simple and humane about the premise of Gone Home. It’s set in 1995, and players assume the role of 19 year-old Katie Greenbriar, who has come home after a year backpacking in Europe. While she was tramping around Paris and Amsterdam, her family inherited and moved into a big old mansion on the outskirts of her Oregon town. Katie arrives from the airport to the unfamiliar house at 1:00AM only to discover that nobody is home.
The game opens in the mansion’s covered front porch, it’s pitch black outside, and a thunderstorm rages. Katie drops her bags and finds an enigmatic and worrisome note from her younger sister, Sam, pinned to the front door. The note sets up the game’s key conflicts – where are Sam and her parents? What happened to the family while Katie was away? What secrets are harbored in the family’s new home? Will she encounter ghosts and ghouls on this dark and stormy night, or simply some skeletons in the closet?
Once you figure-out how to unlock the front door, the next few hours are spent wandering around hunting for answers. Remember, this is 1995 – no Facebook, Skype, Viber, or even the widespread use of email. Katie’s communication with her family was bottlenecked to a few scattered postcards, so she’s been largely in the dark about their life since her departure. As Katie, you wander around rummaging through closets, drawers and boxes, where you find realistic documents and personal possessions. The items each act as small windows into the Greenbriar’s private lives, and gradually reveal an intersecting web of family secrets.
I explained the premise to my wife and she was all over it, so we set-up a play date, purchased a copy from Steam (the iTunes of video games) and began nosing around the Greenbriar’s unsettling household. I must admit, there was a great and guilty pleasure in being licensed to intrude into a family’s private life. I was a burglar and a detective, a family outsider and insider, a stranger in my own home.
The game yielded a rich, layered and emotional experience that left my wife and I a tad misty-eyed in the end. I felt like I’d read a captivating short story or novella, with the key difference being that I was an agent in the narrative. What most impressed me was how much I came to care about a family that I’d only met by way of their personal possessions. I echo what one of my student’s would later observe about the game: this type of dynamic would not work as well in a novel or film. This video game had staked out narrative territory where its traditional forerunners could not follow.
The Light Bulb
Fast forward to September, and I am on the cusp of resuming my duties as a high school English teacher. I’m always on the lookout for fresh ways to keep my classes relevant and meaningful. My first love has always been literature, but I am also an avid gamer. For years, I’d been seeking an opportunity to marry the two, but hadn’t even come close to figuring out what that would look like. Then the (Fullbright?) light bulb lit up – why not use Gone Home as an English text?
The more I thought about it, more boxes ticked. Baseline, it was devoid of graphic violence, gratuitous sex and gender bias. From a technical perspective, the game is relatively inexpensive (more about this later), and the graphics would not tax our school laptops’ limited hardware capacities. Many commercial video games offer hundreds of hours of gameplay, which would be unwieldy for my purposes. This little gem could be completed in a few hours.
Functionally, it had legs, but how would it fit in an English class? As a text, it exemplified the literary strategy of revealing character through setting. Its prolific and diverse documents might help instruct on how the conventions of language change, depending on intent and purpose. The nuances of each character yields ample ground for analysis. The game’s emphasis on adolescent romance and rebellion would resound with my students, and ideally prompt some meaningful discussions. Gone Home also opens the door to delve into non-linear narrative, and how a coherent story can be told without railroading a reader along a set path. Finally, the lit geek in me was thrilled to note the game fulfilled Aristotle’s dictums of the three classical unities more successfully than any of Shakespeare’s plays.
Pushing it Through
How would I get away with teaching a video game in a high school English curriculum? Fortunately, both the Ontario Ministry of Education and my school grant a great deal of flexibility in regard to choosing texts for English classes. The government emphasizes the practical communication skills of listening, speaking, writing and reading, and trust teachers to select texts and material that best suit their unique school cultures.
Even if hardened skeptics reject the idea that a video game can be a viable substitute for a literary text, high school English classes in Ontario must devote 25% of their content to media studies. This acknowledges that teens today are more immersed in media than books, and that it’s not going to change anytime soon. Beyond learning how to read and analyze works of literary merit, it is crucial they learn to think critically about TV, film, advertising and, yes, video games.
So, as I drafted my course outline for 2013-2014 and, with some trepidation, I slipped Gone Home in somewhere between a short story unit and The Things They Carried. There was no backing out now. I was sure most of my students would be all over it. Even if they didn’t like the game, it would be a matter of principle: We get to play video games for English homework? Bring it!!! But, just because they like it, doesn’t mean they’ll learn anything. Video games definitely have the engagement part locked-up, but educators who use games often find it hard to ascertain and prove the pedagogical value of the experience. Assessment is a big question when using video games in the classroom. What do they learn? How do we measure what they learn? What are valid and suitable forms of assessment? For the time being, I pushed these questions out of my head and assured myself that I would figure it out…later.
And what about mom and dad? There is an innate suspicion of video games, even as a form of entertainment, and parents often battle to pry their kids away from the screen and back to the books. Now, their children’s so-called English teacher (of all people!) was usurping literature with video games? What happened to walking on desks, Captain my Captain and teary-eyed recitations of Sylvia Plath?
Thankfully, I didn’t have to do too much dancing to convince the parents in my community of the validity of the enterprise. I was honest – this might or might not work, but it won’t take up too much time and they will think critically and write throughout. I sold it as a short story masquerading as a video game. A few eyebrows were raised, but most questions revolved around the technical aspects of acquiring and installing the game. In the end, there wasn’t a single objection. First big hurdle crossed.
Enter Academia, or The Hawthorne Effect
This wasn’t the first time I’d experimented with using an elaborate game in my English class. In 2012, I designed a 30-day pervasive game called The Ward Game to teach Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I like to tout it as my cure for the scourge of senioritis. Shortly before my second run of The Ward Game, I was introduced to Dr. Jen Jenson from York University and invited her to have a look at what I was doing. She embedded one of her grad students as a researcher for the second installment, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. When I explained the Gone Home project, she was immediately keen, as it aligned perfectly with her research into games, gender and narrative.
Dr. Jenson offered to insert a rotation of five researchers to observe all my classes throughout the unit. I was thrilled for the opportunity to formalize the process and contribute to pedagogical research in this field. I have a deep-seated belief that the right games under the right circumstances can prove transformative, but I proceed largely by teacherly instinct. To increase the profile and credibility of educational games, parents, boards and administrators will need to see proof of their value. That’s why it’s important, when possible, for teachers to collaborate with the academic community to further a structured and measured analysis of the process. From four years of trial and error, I’ve learned that fruitful partnerships are the key to taking these educational initiatives to the next level.
As happy as I was by Dr. Jenson’s enthusiasm and support, the prospect of having my classes analyzed by very smart people was a bit unnerving, especially since I hadn’t run the unit before and had no clue how it would turn out. I felt the same way about The Ward Game being observed. It exposes my school, my class and my teaching. What if it was deemed a failure? What if they have a hidden research agenda? What if I let them in too early? In the end, like all relationships, there is always a risk, and trust is built over time.
The additional scrutiny motivated me to move quickly, work harder and, of course, my students and I would all be on our best behaviour. After all, we were being watched!
Choose Your Own Adventure
If you want to learn more about video games and education, advance to Video Games and Education: Overcoming the Stigma.
If you want to jump to the first part of the Gone Home unit, advance to Launch Codes, Info Bulbs and Inventories: Preparing to Teach Gone Home.
Prologue: A Video Game’s Epic-ish Journey to a High School English Class is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.