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Critical Gaming: Educating with Video Games

Small Mario plus mushroom equals big Mario

 

The education system has been slowly coming to terms with technology more and more over the past decade. Chances are most people have experienced a class over some kind of literature in their high school or college. However, classes that incorporate or chiefly focus on film have become nearly just as popular as literature classes in the studies of English and Arts. In my college career, I enrolled and participated in three film classes and a class over graphic novels, not to mention countless literature classes. Even more recently, teachers are harnessing the educational properties of the internet and video, namely sites like YouTube, in order to teach lessons in class. Teachers find a video that can show a certain subject in an interactive light, which for some students can make understanding the subject much easier. Learning has become just as interactive as it is educational in many respects.

With all of these leaps in interactive learning, you would think that video games would be next up on the list to make their way into the classroom. Indeed video games have become something of an educational experience in certain colleges. Some universities offer degrees, or at least a few classes, in video game design and programming. However, most educators are still a little wary of using video games the way they use film and literature, a way to help instruct, as mentioned above. This is understandable but not something that cannot be overcome. Video games are a fast growing form of media and it would be a waste for educators to not take advantage of it for learning purposes.

In his essay “Underlife and Writing Instruction,” Robert Brooke, assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska, states that people, namely students, have an “underlife.” An “underlife” is a behavior or behaviors that contradict or undercut expected roles in how people are supposed to act in certain situations (Brooke). An example would be how an employee has a more complex personality outside of his job, basically showing that they are more than just their job. Brooke describes that students do this within the education system to establish identities outside of the classroom. “Students disobey, write letters instead of taking notes, and whisper with their peers” (Brooke) to show they have more of an identity outside of school. Students will discuss the latest music, movies, video games, etc. instead of listening because that is what’s going on in their real life, so they insert that into their school situations. Some teachers try to harness students’ “underlife” in order to get them more involved in education. This goes back to teachers using YouTube, movies, and even comic books now, in classes to help in the learning process. This is one of the reasons that video games could be harnessed by teachers to increase the want to learn in high school and even in college.

Like literature and film, it is my firm opinion that video games could be used as a tool to promote and improve critical thinking in students.  As mentioned earlier, many students are already playing games and the numbers are increasing every year. Because of this, teachers wouldn’t necessarily have to assign students video games to play. Obviously assigning video games isn’t something that would be particularly fair since not everyone can afford a system or have access to one. Instead, teachers would just have them use what they have played and utilize this knowledge in papers they write or for in-class discussions.  Instead of limiting students to picking a book they want to write about or discuss, they could have the option of a video game as well. I do understand that a video game centered class is far from possible at this time, especially in a high school. However, making use of the medium in classes is, quite the contrary, at one’s finger tips.

I understand that many teachers and educators are reluctant to use video games in a class room in the place of a book or a film. Many see them as only games and view them as unable to educate students the way literature can. This is a grievous error on the part of educators. Not only are there several video games out that can be a fine substitute for a piece of literature or a movie, but there are many that can promote and improve critical thinking just as well, if not better in some ways than other forms of media.

One way to start down the road to using critical thinking with video games is having students draw literary parallels to pieces of literature or film from the game they play. This would work very well in a composition class in college or a literature class in high school. One great example of this would be for a student to use Shadow of the Colossus, one of the more perfect games for video games in school, and draw a parallel to some famous form of literature. “Hamlet,” in my opinion, is a very good piece for an assignment like this. There are several parallels that can be drawn between the characters of Wander, the protagonist from Shadow of the Colossus, and of Hamlet himself.  For one example, as the character from Shadow of the Colossus slays one great colossi after another, he releases the darkness within them and, unwittingly, takes in the darkness himself. After each fight, you can see the character slowly changing into a dark, less than human creature. His skin turns pale white, his facial features begin to darken, and he even protrudes horns from the sides of his head. This slow descent into darkness can be compared to Hamlet’s own fall into madness. While reading or watching “Hamlet,” one can literally see Hamlet’s sanity disappear with each move he makes. His personality begins to shift closer to the edge and his body language becomes more fanatical. This is his own descent into darkness, or insanity, if you prefer. This could also lead to comparing the two characters’ choices and consequences.  For each colossi that Wander slays, he must accept that he is falling deeper into darkness. He knows this, yet keeps up his quest. Similarly, Hamlet must face the ramifications of his own choices, such as Ophelia’s suicide spurring from Hamlet’s accidental murder of her father, or his mother’s death due to his lack of proper planning. Each choice in both works shows large consequences and each character is affected by them greatly.

Along with literary parallels, literary theory and critical analysis can also be applied to video games just as well as literature. This would be a good exercise to get students familiar with literary theories.  Using Formalist Theory, a theory that analyzes only what you can take from reading the text without taking into account the author’s purposes, time of authorship, etc., to analyze Shadow of the Colossus can bring to light many discussion points. One can examine the plot for instance. The plot in itself is very vague, only showing Wander bringing a presumably dead girl to an alter in a foreign land, talking with what seems to be a god, and then riding off to slay the colossi. This, however, opens up a class for numerous discussions; What do students get from the plot? Why do they think Wander is doing this? What is his connection to the girl? All these questions spur on critical thinking and can help students in future assignments. One could focus on just the characters if you wanted. Who is this Wander? What are the colossi and what is their connection to the deity in which Wander communicates with? These questions as well will teach students to question and examine characters from other works and classes.

Now I fully understand that not all video games have the potential to be used in composition classes and literature studies. I realize that sports games such as the Madden NFL series, racing games, and others such as these would not have much for students to learn from in terms of literature or critical thinking. I’m  also aware that multiplayer games such as the Mario Party series, Mario Kart, and other games such as multiplayer shooters and such would not work either. However, that is not to say that certain types of these games would not be useful in other classrooms. Sports games such as the Madden series could help coaches develop plays and simulate situations in a game. History teachers could make use of the properties of Strategy games such as the Total War series, one that focuses on parts of history, and use them to explain to students the strategies used by famous general or the outcome of certain battles. The possibilities are nearly endless for learning when it comes to the interactivity video games can provide.

For teachers who aren’t up to date with video games or may lack knowledge of this form of media, there are several resources at their disposal to gain information if a student wants to use a video game for a project. Websites like Wikipedia can provide a good story synopsis and gameplay details for most, if not all video games. Ask.com is also very useful in this nature. Game Informer, the leading video game magazine in the world, is ripe with knowledge on the video game industry with reviews over games, and news over video games and the industry in general. With these resources at their disposal, educators should have no trouble in discussing games with students.

I know we are a long ways off from a class fully about video games or the history of video games as far as large scale is concerned.  However, hopefully teachers will soon see that video games are not inferior to other mediums and can be used in education just as easily, with just as rewarding an outcome.

Sources:

Literature:

Brooke, Robert. “Underlife and Writing Instruction.” College Composition and Communication Vol. 38, No. 2 (May, 1987), pp. 141-153

Video Games:

Shadow of the Colossus

Credits: My friend and colleague Jenny Crelia who introduced me to Brooke’s “Underlife and Writing Instruction” and her ideas on a connection between students’ underlife and video games.  Also, my other friend and colleague Josh Forrester who discussed everything in the piece with me and helped me brainstorm, while presenting his own unique ideas.

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