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 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.
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.
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.
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.” I 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.
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.