Assigning Video Games as a Text
I have already discussed elsewhere why classrooms can only thrive when we move beyond the bring your own device (BYOD) model). In short, professors can only be forward thinking when every student has the same toolset. The next obvious question is: what kind of assignment gains are possible with a unified device? In this essay I would like to suggest that one possibility is assigning video games as a text.
In fact, this semester in my Honor’s learning community (QUANTA) I am assigning This War of Mine to help students process the difficult situations facing Libyans and Palestinians. More so than any other text I think this game offers students the best toolset for understanding the plight of civilians in war zones.
Video Games as Classroom Tool
The first thing I think one must defend is: why assign a video game? Can a video game really be considered an object worthy of further investigation or study? Could a game really help someone understand a difficult concept?
I think others have already more than adequately, including the Smithsonian, positively answered that games can be art. James Gee’s work on the question is worth pursuing for a more in-depth answer. Even if one accepts the games as art answer though, it is quite another thing to assign it in your class. It is to this question I will spend the majority of my time.
Games present a unique and challenging form of communication. Many games are no longer linear. We cannot turn to a specific page. In the case of a game like This War of Mine the set of characters any student encounters may or may not overlap with other students. I would like to suggest this lack of linearity, while challenging, is actually one of the empowering elements of assigning a video game. Students must interact in order to come to a better understanding of a question. If one student in a group has done a phenomenal reading of a text, other students can quickly glob unto that student’s work. Not so with a video game. Each experience is unique unto itself in many respects.
Video games also require students to be a participant. In most cases the player is either a proximate character or the third person dictator to other characters. There is an emotional vestment because the player is either a direct or indirect participant. Many games have played with this concept to amazing effect, including one of my favorites BioShock. In the original BioShock the major plot device was exploring why the main character — like many early first person shooters — seemingly had no agency. This revelation was two-fold. Not only did the main character have no agency, but the player allowed these things to happen by continuing to play.
A video game requires a student to think about genre, to think about structure, and to deeply consider a variety of storytelling elements in a piece. In a world where communication is most often multimodal it is beneficial to have students deconstruct the elements of a multimedia presentation. It helps to see genre come out in more forms than just textual.
Video Game Assignments
Besides the benefit of assigning the game, there are student benefits to how one might respond to a game. In most cases responses to texts are with another text. A video game offers an obvious starting point for students to engage in a multimodal assignment in response. In my case I am having students take screenshots of the major moments of the game as a kind of video diary of the major moments.
There writing response is to explain their decisions and story — there individual experience with the game — through a pictorial diary. It offers the students a change to be creative storytellers. It also forces students to confront their own choices in the narrative of the game. In the case of This War of Mine one student might allow a woman to be abused to stay alive, while another loses a member of their party to save her. Each student’s diary will then spark cross cutting conversations between students.
This kind of multimodal response also makes something else easy as a professor at a glance: the ability to assess of someone engaged the text. Do you have your personalized screenshots? Can you explain what happened? As a professor it becomes easier to quickly see who has engaged — and how far — and who has not.
Video games are an increasingly important part of our society. They are texts and experiences in their own right, no different in worth from text or movie. Assigning them makes sense in that context, but further I think students and professors might benefit from this multimodal experience.
Have others used video games in their classes? I would love to hear from other professors who have intergrated games into the classroom either here or on twitter (@treyorndorff).