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Second Week In
We were in the second week of using the video game Gone Home as a senior high school English text, and things were progressing well. A few students had already finished the game and were now playing a second and even third time. Some replayed it to gather notes and screenshots for their topic tracking assignments, while others played again with the developers’ commentary activated to get the behind-the-scenes perspective. Students moved at their own pace and most seemed productively occupied. What more could a teacher ask for?
The classes were being observed and documented by a team of embedded researchers from York University, who alternately wandered between the desks or took notes from the back of the class. They were understandably tight lipped about their observations but, to me, they seemed pleased. I’d have to wait for the final report to know what they were thinking.
Talking it Out
I was particularly buoyed because there was a great deal of chatter about the game. I know students were talking outside of class because they’d refer to extracurricular discussions they’d had about the story, the game and the location of certain rooms or items. In class, I’d rarely heard so much spontaneous dialogue about something we were studying. I had the presence of mind to write down some of the more memorable sound bites:
- “This is mind blowing.” (Student who opened a locked vault in the basement)
- “This is cheesing me.” (Student who struggled to open the locked vault in the basement)
- “Have you found the sewing room – the sewing room is key.” (Student passing on strategic advice)
- “This is some trippy s—.” (Student who found a secret room. He was duly scolded for the profanity)
- “This is really creeping me out.” (Student who entered a dark passage)
- “I’m lost.” (Disoriented student)
- “Janice sucks at cheating.” (Student commenting on the mother’s apparent ineptitude at carrying out an infidelity)
- “Frozen peas, frozen veggies, coke, pizza…” (Unimpressed student audibly itemizing contents of the Greenbriar fridge)
- “Is this the way? I’ll just try opening every panel.” (Student strategizing)
- “Is Terry a lush?” (Commenting on the array of shot glasses in the father’s study)
- “Sweet – I found the condom.” (Student mildly celebrates discovering the much-discussed prophylactic)
I share these sound bites because I found them amusing but, more to the point, they illustrate a unique feature of video games as a medium. In class, we talk about books all the time, but I’ve rarely heard a student talk at a book, or at least with the frequency that many of the players dialogued with the game while playing. Speculatively, I’d say that the participatory nature of the game solicits interactive behavior from the player. Playing a video game is a form of dialogue, an action/reaction feedback loop that hitches the player and the game into a close interactive dance. Player actions have consequences, and outcomes can be unpredictable. Talking is a form of empowerment, a sort of folk remedy for things that might be out of our control. How many times have we talked ourselves down in an emotional moment? Or talked ourselves out of an impulse to a bad decision? Or, better yet, yelled at the screen during a tense moment in sports? When the stakes are high and we are invested, mere thinking doesn’t seem to be enough. We often utter and aspirate our incantations in the irrational hope that we can alter reality with our words.
A player speaking at a game is clear evidence of emotional involvement, and a great deal of meaningful learning occurs when it’s bundled up with emotions. There’s no argument that books and film engage emotionally, but it’s important to emphasize that games can do it too. A notable difference, however, is that books communicate symbolically, while video games, for better or worse, are more direct and can virtually approximate embodied experiences. We don’t access the Greenbrair mansion through words, we actually see it, walk around it and stop to pick up and examine the items that interest us. I’d be interested to know how the virtual embodiment of games affects the nature and degree of our emotional response to the narrative experience, especially when compared to other mediums.
It’s not only the dialogue that forms with the game that’s important, but also the discussions that occur around the game. In What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee considers communities that develop around video games. Players use a wide range of online forums, or what Gee would call affinity spaces, to discuss and critique the games that they play. These online communities help players solve technical issues, share strategies and impart gameplay stories. Games naturally generate informal communication spaces, and I certainly witnessed a version of this develop around Gone Home with my classes.
Without my prompting, students helped each other resolve both technical and in-game issues and obstacles. They discussed Gone Home’s story, as well as their own stories playing the game, as the open exploration mechanic bestows diverse gameplay experiences. Students approached me and each other to clarify some of the more subtle elements of the narrative, like the relationship between Uncle Oscar and Terry, or the fact that Sam and Terry likely lost their respective virginities 10 feet apart from each other under dramatically different circumstances. This had never occurred to me until a student mentioned it. And, of course, there were the spoilers – players who had either finished the game before the others or read about it online and felt the need to spill the narrative beans. Collaboration and communication were not artificially imposed, but emerged organically.
Parting the Clouds of Mood and Tone
The setting of a spooky old mansion on a dark and stormy night playfully positions Gone Home within the horror genre. I say playfully because the tone is ever so slightly tongue in cheek, and the source of terror is ultimately more psychological than metaphysical. A great example of this is a bathtub that seems to be covered in blood which turns out to be red hair dye. While playing, one student remarked: “I keep expecting Uncle Oscar’s ghost to appear, or some psychopath to jump out at me with a knife,” underscoring how Gone Home leverages a haunted house mood to create tension. I felt this was perfect fodder for a lesson on mood and tone.
In literature, much of the emotional climate is determined by the mood and tone of the narrative, two concepts that are commonly confused. To refresh your memory, tone is the narrator’s or speaker’s attitude towards the subject, while mood is the atmosphere of the piece and the emotions it conjures in the reader. Mood and tone can be identified in most narrative forms, including film and video games. The distinction is between the emotional impact of what is being described (mood) versus how it is being described (tone). In books, this is entirely relayed through words, but in visual mediums like video games, the graphic depiction also affects these two atmospheric elements. A funeral represented in a dark, severe and realistic style would convey a different tone than if the funeral were conveyed in a playful, cartoony style.
I introduced the lesson by asking students to find definitions for mood and tone, and then we discussed the distinctions between them. I then directed them to a website with extensive lists of tone words and mood words, and tasked them to choose 10 words from each category that best fit the game. Each student then sent their lists to two volunteers – one received all the mood words, the second all the tone words, with which they compiled to master lists. Finally, the master lists were dumped into Wordle, a free online service that generates colorful word clouds. The size of the words in the cloud are determined by their frequency in the list, so the larger words visually represent those most used by the class.
The clouds were a great way to visually reinforce the differences between the two concepts. It also allowed the class to reflect on their collective perception of the game’s mood and tone. I posted each class’s final products to our online learning management system and concluded the activity by having them write paragraphs on the mood and tone of Gone Home.
Vision Quest: Summoning Autostereograms
What’s an autostereogram you ask? If you remember the 90’s you may recall a fad where people purposefully stared at prints and posters that looked like kaleidoscopic white noise. Some had the almost magical ability to look at these images in a certain way and discover a 3D picture hidden within the chaos of colorful pixels. Staying faithful to it’s 90’s setting, Gone Home features two autosterograms on Sam’s bedroom wall.
Many of my students wondered what these were and, eventually, a few became somewhat obsessed with seeing the secret image in these carryovers of 90’s kitsch. It wasn’t unusual to catch them in full vision quest mode, staring wide-eyed through (as opposed to at) their laptop screens murmuring “I can see it. It’s a shark – its definitely a shark” or something to that effect. If you want to give it a shot, check out the Magic Eye website and hopefully you’ll have better luck than I did, as I’ve never been able to see one. I epic fail as a man-child of the 90’s!
I was fascinated that the game had become a sort of cultural time capsule. It didn’t merely prompt my students to experience the 90’s from the outside, but allowed them to partake in and relive genuine 90’s experiences. Similarly, by virtue of the game’s audio and the cassette players strewn around the mansion, they could listen to Bratmobile and other Riot Grrrl bands that Sam was into. In a book, these artifacts would be abstracted by words, but in a game they became tangible embodied experiences. Students could see (or try to!) the autostereograms and hear the music, as opposed to only reading about it. I would argue that this gives them greater proximity to the narrative, as it is less mitigated. I would be the last person to diminish the value of reading or literature, but only point out some unique features and perhaps advantages of a video game as a text. It’s only fitting that Gone Home’s haunted house atmosphere successfully summons these palpable spirits of the past.
Typically, bags and pencil cases are zipping 5 minutes before the end of class. Today, I have to remind them to stop at the end of class, and many continue playing after the bell rings.
Gone Home Lesson 3: Sound Bites, Word Clouds and Vision Quests is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.