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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.
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.
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?
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:
Would 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.
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.