Teaching Games as Text Part 4: The Conclusion

This is the fourth and final part of a series that reflects on a Composition II course taught in Spring 2013 called 20th Century PC Games. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.

As I write this, I’m finishing up another Composition II course that focused on games as text. This course focused more on the rhetorical constructs that shape the conversations around games than on treating the games as literature; although I am pleased with the way both courses worked—and I have no doubt in my mind that my students in both courses came away enriched as critical thinkers and authors for the experience—I have to admit that, from where I stand, the literary approach to games worked better. I changed too many variables to really pin down why, but I suspect part of it comes with the rapid forgetting that our culture is doing even as we strive to cling to “retro” aesthetics and identities in gaming cultures. Without the historical literary perspective, a perspective that divides games into periods and movements, digital games are stuck in a perpetual newness that often makes studying them at once sensational and unapproachable. Our goal as educators should be to normalize the study of so-called pop culture artifacts; after all, these are the things our students encounter most in their daily lives. And here I don’t just want to bring digital games into the classroom; ultimately, we’ll need a holistic, transmedia approach, because ideas and rhetoric does not, in their natural states, limit themselves to one medium at a time. My courses focused exclusively on games, but to teach them I had to also teach my students some rudimentary textual analysis for fiction, poetry, visual art, and cinema. There’s no reason that instructors can’t use games as part of a media suite in their curricula. In fact, that’s probably how, in the long run, games are best incorporated into general education curricula.

Videogames: Part of a Well-Balanced Media Diet
Videogames: Part of a Well-Balanced Media Diet

So You Want to Use Games in Your Classroom?

(with apologies to Quest for Glory)

The most important thing for instructors to remember is that even if our students are digital natives, they are not necessarily fluent with the digital tasks we assign them. In teaching literature at the college level, we start with students who are able to decode the language at the most basic level—they generally consider themselves literate, after all—but when we ask them to explicate a sonnet, we are asking them to use that literacy in a way that is often foreign. So it is with videogames. Students do know how to do the things they have to use technology for regularly—texting, email, simple word processing, watching media, and so forth. But they are not all, by merit of being digital natives, savvy with videogames, digital composition, or the other sorts of tasks we ask of them. But they can rise to the occasion.

And we don’t need to be experts on the material. We don’t need to know all the technical ins and outs of managing videogames as assignments. For illustration, I offer a confession: I’m not only bad with Apple products, I’m also bad at Microsoft’s consoles. This semester I had my students working with an Xbox 360 for a classroom exercise; I couldn’t even turn the thing on (it was apparently being ornery that day). This did not make my lesson any less effective—perhaps it even made it more effective. I passed the controller to a student and commanded: “Make it work.” The student did. Likewise, I often observed students helping each other with various technical issues, both in last year’s course and this year’s. This is the best possible outcome, as students teaching each other creates a better learning environment and ensures that learning happens at a deeper level.

But there are things we do need to do as teachers to make games work in the classroom, things that we will need to prepare in our lessons and curricula. This is the summary of what I learned in teaching these two courses:

  • Contextualize the material. No matter what you purpose in bringing the game into the classroom, make sure your students understand what they are playing. This is the same as you would do if your brought in a sonnet or an early 20th century film. You need to explain the time period, the genre, technological restrictions, and other salient features. Make sure your students understand that no media can exist in a vacuum.
  • Provide play time. This was one of the greatest weaknesses in both courses. I assumed that students could play the games and then come to class ready to discuss. This may work with a room full of English majors who expect to read a text at home and discuss it in class, but it does not work in a general education class. You might arrange sessions for students to play outside of class; you might provide lab time for them to play in class; or, especially if you have limited resources, you might have students collectively play by asking them to direct a single student in playing while the others watch and comment. Yes, this seems like having them read a text aloud, when it should have been homework. But sometimes reading that poem aloud is exactly what our students need to get engaged. Let them play.
  • Require reflection. Like play time, you can do this a number of ways, but the important part is that students must articulate what they are experiencing and learning throughout the course. In my first course, I required a weekly blog post from each student, reflecting on a question about whatever game we were playing that week. In the more recent course, I used a variety of less formal methods—from play-aloud protocols while we used in-class time to play to small group time.
  • Use supplementary texts. Choose these carefully. My experience suggests that textbooks are not as effective as gathering a hodgepodge of materials from academic journals and internet blogs and discussions. It’s important for students to see that videogames are not “just entertainment,” so we need to show them the discussions that are already happening, so they can enter into those discussions.
  • Restrict assignments. This one is counter-intuitive, and one of the harder ones for me, as I prefer to let my students roam free. Videogames are often praised when they have open-world design, and as teachers we want to privilege our students’ independence and honor their agency. That should make us want to give students as much freedom as possible. But freedom is paralyzing. If designing a curriculum is like designing a game, then we need to remember that students need both choices and restrictions to know what to do next. Too many choices, and students are likely to become confused, timid, or repetitive. You really don’t want to read twenty essays on “Do video games cause violence?”, but if you let your students have too much freedom, you will, and they’ll all sound the same. But if you restrict the assignments—perhaps give them a list of topics, or require a certain method of research—you will get much more creative results. I have said before that the virtue of incorporating games in general education curricula is that it forces us as instructors and scholars to confront our own assumptions and leave our comfort zones. Restrictions on assignments will do the same for our students, and their work will be better for it. But, just as a game often gives the player more freedom as they learn the skills and expectations of the game, we can also give our students progressively more freedom.
  • Listen to students. This should be obvious, I hope. Our students have things to say. Sometimes they don’t even know they have things to say, though, because they’ve been taught that it is the students’ role to listen and the teachers’ to talk. Make them speak. Listen to what they say. Don’t make assumptions about your students. And, because we can’t be experts on everything, students will be able to teach us, and in doing so teach the whole class. If they tell you they don’t like a game you assigned—even if it is your favorite game ever—ask them to articulate why. Let them write a paper on it, even.

The above list is, of course, by no means comprehensive. But it’s a good start. Notably, it all applies equally to incorporating any media in the classroom; that’s because games aren’t really as revolutionary as we sometimes assume they are. Most effective teaching methods can be adapted well to incorporating digital games into the curriculum.

But instructors can’t do it alone. At the moment, there are a lot of instructors bringing games into the classroom for various reasons and in various ways. We’re scattered all over, and many of us are alone or nearly alone in our departments. Each of us has to decide our own canon to some degree, and assemble a collage of resources to craft the curriculum. I said in the introduction that there is no Norton Anthology of Video Games to help us; what we need, then, are archivists. We need the expertise and innovation of librarians and historians who will help digital assemble materials for classroom and research use, and find ways to make these materials accessible.

Step One: Acquire Archive

I have a utopian vision. I am working toward a world in which games (digital and non-digital, but I’m focusing on the former for now) function alongside other media in a well-balanced curriculum that treats all human expression as worthy of study. I want to live in a world where games are assigned alongside poetry, drama, fiction, graphic novels, music, film, and any other media, and no medium is privileged as superior or more intellectual than any other medium. But this world is going to need some way to organize and access all this material. Such a world can only happen with a collaboration of instructors willing to experiment in the classroom and archivists willing to tackle a complicated interface of shifting digital artifacts and human literacies.

As an instructor, I freely admit that I am dependent on the work of librarians and archivists. I cannot do my work without the foundations their work provides. So, in that spirit of humble dependence, I offer my wish list for what archivists and librarians can do for instructors who want to use games in the classroom:

  • Identify and organize significant materials into libraries. If we are going to teach students to research new media, we need to know where to direct them. There are currently excellent projects already working on this goal, such as The Internet Archive. So far, these projects aren’t always intuitive to the researcher, and would certainly be challenging for the student, but they are a great start.
  • Establish a canon that tells a coherent cultural narrative of gaming history. The items that get archived and made accessible will shape the narrative. But, on the flip side, the things that get archived are probably going to be the things that we deem relevant to our narrative of history. We need to think critically about what games are influential and why; we need to figure out which games are going to be the ones we point to and say “This one. This is how history was made.” Already we start to see the shape of this: we tell the story of Pong and make museum exhibits of arcade cabinets. We celebrate the 20th anniversary of Myst and Doom, casting them as rivals or foils to each other.
  • Make historical material available. Right now, archivists are limited by two major barriers to making the most historically significant games available readily for research and education: legal matters and technological matters. There are plenty of abandonware sites that attempt to preserve games, but the legality of these practices is suspect. And what should we do with games whose rights-holding companies have since folded? How do we make media designed for outdated hardware and software accessible? What are the appropriate degrees of emulation for an archive, and how much concern for materiality should we have? These are not easy questions, but they must be addressed if we are to use games in classrooms at any large scale.
  • Create classroom-friendly editions of classic games. When I assigned the Myst: Masterpiece Edition the first time, I was surprised and a little frustrated to find that many of my students made note of a hint system in their blog posts. As I had first played Myst in its original 1993 style, I had not noticed when I assigned it that the Masterpiece Edition has a hint system to help guide players through the game, if they choose to use it (because I, familiar with the older convention, did not look for it). But after my initial befuddlement subsided, I came to love it—here was an annotated game! The Masterpiece Edition’s hints functioned something like a marginal gloss in a Middle English text for classroom use: it helped students navigate unfamiliar conventions and signifiers, making the text more accessible. If the hint system also included some guides for interpretation, it could be the ideal way to present a classroom edition of a classic game. These editions need to be broadly compatible, affordable, easily installed, and accessible at a minimal level of digital literacy. They will need user friendly options and uniform interactivity (for the annotations, that is), so that students can focus on learning the games, not the apparatus.
The Masterpiece Edition's hint system functions like a gloss, existing at the margins and offering guidance when needed.
The Masterpiece Edition’s hint system functions like a gloss, existing at the margins and offering guidance when needed.

Once there is a firm cultural narrative of the place of games in our media ecology, combined with accessible ways to assign games in classrooms, the regular and consistent use of games in higher education should follow. Until then, the practice will remain a frontier space, populated by instructors who are willing to make do with what they can gather together.

Final Word

I started studying games as text because I wanted to know “Why not?” I started teaching games as text thinking that I’d make a dissertation of it (something that has since changed), because I wanted to answer the question put to me in my master’s thesis defense: “How would you teach games as literature?” That question has a very simple answer: “How do you teach literature?” The problem is that the answer to the first question, simple though it may be, is a question with no easy answers. If we are going to implement games as text on a large scale, though, it’s a philosophical question we will need to confront. Somewhere in this experiment, we have to figure out what literature is and why we think it’s important to teach. Will games replace traditional literature in the classroom? I doubt it. But will games require us to rethink the place of literature in the classroom? I hope so.

1 Comment

  1. Hello,

    Thanks for the great posts..
    Being of the same generation and also having grown up playing video games, I feel there is indeed a gap between me and my students, most of whom were also born in 1993 as well.

    When I taught a media theory course this year, I left students to pick a topic of their choice and expected some students to pick a game, not so, most resorted to something related to social media. Having read that games were “old media” (in your part 2) was somewhat of a wake-up-call for me.. and the suggestion to start with the new and go to the old to make it more relevant to them seems like a good one..

    I’m also curious to look at your course outline and assignments. Are they available anywhere?


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