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