I teach English as a second language here in the Netherlands. The school at which I work, allows me to teach an “alternative” subject each year. Students (aged 12 – 15) can choose from a wide selection of such “electives” in order to broaden their (and our) educational palette. So I’m very fortunate, that I’m allowed to teach students about (mainstream) videogames (through hands-on experiences). This consists of 8 sessions of 100 minutes each and ends in an assessment (a test) for a grade. Students get a certificate containing the title of the subject and their performance for their portfolio.
I’ve been doing this for the past 6 years, and I’m feeling my “routine” is becoming stale. Each year I present the same titles for analysis and discussion. I’m post here looking for some ideas and inspiration for this project I run twice every year. What I'm looking for are titles that present opportunities for students to learn about various elements of the videogame medium. You can assume that students have some experience playing videogames and are interested in deepening their understanding. The whole project is designed to make students better at experiencing and evaluating experiences related to gaming (forming arguments and evaluations that go beyond: "this game sucks donkey b*lls").
Of course I'm also looking for feedback on the program itself. I've tried to explain what I aim to achieve with each session.
I’m hoping you can provide feedback and maybe suggest other titles. First some constraints:
- I have an ok-ish laptop to work with (i5 processor with a GTX 1050) connected to a large display with good speakers.
- I have 2 steam controllers that can pass through the classroom
- I have a Nintendo Switch which I can use, but I’m not a fan of taking this to work with me.
- Due to age constraints, we need to steer clear of obvious/visual graphical content (no gore/nudity)
- Classes consist of 25 – 32 students. They all have iPads.
- I can bring my "rig" (which I do at some point to run DCS), but don't enjoy doing this.
I’ll run you through the 8 session. Swiftly covering the themes and topics touched upon. I’m likely to forget things, so ask away if anything is unclear.
Session 1: Introduction to Videogames
Students are welcomed and are briefly allowed to state which videogame is currently their favorite game. We then discuss the question: Why is this game is “good” and what makes a game “good”. After a brief discussion, we look at the aims of this “subject”:
- Enhance the ability to form videogame related arguments.
- Expand general knowledge of the medium that is videogames
- What are they?
- Where do they come from?
- Why are they significant?
- Practice videogame analysis
We then discuss what makes a videogame a videogame, and visualize how broad the medium is (going from Tetris to Doom)
Students get a quiz containing various elements from videogames; characters, companies, genres, themes, music, eSports etc.
Session 2: INSIDE
After the first session we start with our first hands-on analysis. INSIDE is great title for me to get this started, as it’s pretty “constrained”. There is no UI, there is no text to interpret, there is no speech to listen to. It’s pretty raw in the sense that the story needs an active engagement with the medium in order to be understood.
Students are given the controller to play, and we stop after important segments to discuss various elements. Who are we? Where are we? What is our goal? What is the theme? What is the genre?
After some playtime, we discuss what elements contribute to generating atmosphere. How do graphics (lighting/desaturation) and sound (music and effects) work to help create this atmosphere?
In most cases we reach the “factory line” part of the game. Students are welcomed to either play the game as homework, or watch a no-commentary playthrough.
Session 3: Summarizing INSIDE – look at Braid (and Wondersong)
In the third session, students are welcomed to discuss INSIDE. We look at how control works in the game, and what the ending says about human progression and the future of science.
Rounding that off we start discussing whether or not videogames are “art”. In this part I illustrate how many people can appreciate paintings from the “masters” because they are often given the tools to understand them (stroke techniques, color, lighting, theme, symbol, motif and historical context for example). It’s my job, to supply these techniques to the students so they can better understand how videogames work as artform. This is done by reflecting on INSIDE and looking at discussed techniques (lighting/ambience/etc.). We also look at how the medium is perceived by non -gamers (high culture vs low culture).
We then continue the exploration of the “puzzle-platformer" by (briefly) looking at Braid. I’ve always found it valuable to be able to compare INSIDE and Braid, as they are so different, but also similar at the same time. Going from “horror/dystopia” to a flight of fantasy. Braid however does demonstrate how a game can help the player understand the broader story better by supplying text (the books you read before entering a “world”. It is here we discuss the "hook" term, which is that what makes a game (mechanically) stand out from the other titles in the same genre/theme.
In some cases, if I feel there is some time left in the session, we briefly look at Wondersong.
Session 4: What Remains of Edith Finch
Leaving the platformers, we embark on a narrative journey through the Finch residence. This is definitely one of my favorites, as it clearly bridges English (the subject I teach) and the world of narration through videogames.
We first jump right into the game and play through 2 stories “Molly” and “Calvin”. We then look at how the story is told using diaries within diaries as a narrative device. Piecing together the evidence that is given to us through the narrator and her/their experiences.
We then take a look at the history of the Finches, and talk about whether it’s a “curse” or simply “bad parenting” that kills most of the kids.
Session 5: Videogames, society and the future
This session doesn’t have a lot of gaming in it. For me it’s a moment to collect the views of the students on the sessions so far, and then dive into various topics related to gaming.
We talk about what perceptions the non gamers and/or parents of gamers have about the videogame medium, bringing back the High-culture/low-culture aspect and looking at how gaming has often been framed as addictive and unhealthy. We look at violence and how the perception of videogame related violence has always been an idea. We look at the advantages of being a gamer, the educational aspects of gaming and we look at eSports; how students can aspire to competitive greatness. We also visit other gaming related professions such as design, marketing and journalism.
We end the session with some Rocket League, as the school year will end with a Rocket League tournament in June (unless Covid throws a spanner in the works).
Session 6: Transistor
We spend session 6 looking at Transistor. This is a great title to see if students are starting to pick up various techniques. The narration is interesting (who/what is the narrator), the opening is intriguing and the layers of thematic elements are approachable (location, music/mode).
Students are asked to complete the game at home or watch a no-commentary vid so we can discuss the story in session 7.
Session 7: Other gaming
We discuss Transistor, the protagonist, the antagonist, the setting story and theme (borrowing heavily from the Youtuber Games As Lit. Then we look at some forms of gaming that aren’t always known to students. We look at titles that use a game-aesthetic to achieve a real world goal or serve a specific (adult?) educational purpose. We write letters in Kind Words and then I (try to) teach students how to cold-start a A-10C Thunderbolt II.
We spend some time illustrating the educational and societal purpose of various titles (simulators).
Session 8: The assessment
Students are given a test that all that we have discussed. The test consists of multiple choice questions and some interpretative questions (explain the statement: INSIDE questions who is in control of who). We round off with some fun social games (Jackbox Partypack)
Thanks for making it this far. So what I’d like to know from anyone reading this, is whether or not they have an idea for a title that can fit into this “subject”. If you have any titles that are approachable, which demonstrate the value of specific areas of videogame analysis: YES PLEASE! It would be excellent if you could tell me how you'd approach your presented title. I’m currently looking at “The Unfinished Swan” for example, to look at hook, level-design and color usage. Sidenote: I can't do "Firewatch" as it's part of the Literature program in the upper years (parents: "Why is my child playing a videogame for a grade?" – Yes).
Of course feedback is also appreciated, I know this is a very short summary of the work I do, but maybe there are things that I should add. Fire away!
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