Monday, March 2, 2015

Video Games as Experiential Texts: A Gone Home Tale

Before I even begin to start talking about my experiences utilizing Gone Home, an exploratory video game, as a literary text in a high school classroom, I must give a hearty shoutout to Paul Darvasi, the man who inspired me to pursue the unit. His blog, Ludic Learning, is a must-read if you are interested in an in-depth discussion of games as more than just entertainment consumables, but rather vehicles for higher-order thinking conversations and meaningful curricular tie-ins. Many of the pieces I will discuss are inspired from his works, and I will give credit accordingly.

To be honest, giving credit to Mr. Darvasi is a good way to begin, because it was his blog that brought me to this idea. I started following the #gbl (Game-based learning) hashtag on Twitter because games have always been a large part of my life. I can still recall watching my brother play Chrono Trigger and Earthbound, becoming absolutely engrossed in the storylines and gameplay. I loved books - don’t get me wrong - but these stories felt so alive because the decisions my brother and I made impacted how we experienced the story. Narrative now plays such an incredible role in commercial games, and it’s because we, as a society, still demand to hear a great tale to be told.

After reading Paul’s blog, I had the chance to pitch the idea of teaching Gone Home to my Chief Technology & Information Officer, Curriculum Directors, and also a teacher who I thought would be a good fit to co-teach the game with me. Everyone gave me incredible support, looking past the “video game” stigma and seeing a chance to let students analyze a different medium. I thought of the best way to tell the story, and I decided the way that makes the most sense is to break it up into the various area readers might want to find out more about regarding the unit. To honor this, I have broken up the body of this post into three sections: The Unit Plan and Setup, Assessments, and Student/Teacher Feedback


When I met with the co-operating teacher, the first determination we made was what outcomes we wanted to see from our students. Our first determination (since it was a combination literature/Science Fiction course), was that we needed all students to demonstrate textual analysis involving a collection of examples of literary terms found in Gone Home. The best part is that the games is absolutely FILLED with characterization, symbols, themes, allusions, tone, mood, and influential setting decisions that make for wonderful analysis opportunities. We offered students a variety of options such as: finding Science Fiction allusions, analyzing how different objects in the house symbolize characters, and how the setting influenced the narrative and storytelling. This would be their prime task moving forward in the unit.

The next question was a bit tricky - how do we assess their analysis of Gone Home as a text? Thankfully, Paul Darvasi again came to the rescue. In one of his blog posts (found HERE), Darvasi discussed how he had students “annotate” the game by taking screenshots that correlated to their research. We loved the idea, but decided to take it one step further. Instead of having students collect the screenshots in one document and writing an essay in another, we realized it would be better to have the students reflect right in their annotation template. In the screenshot below, you can see what it looks like in action. If you would like a Google Doc Template of the Gone Home Analysis Template, click HERE. As mentioned before, it is adapted from Paul’s similar analysis template found HERE.

In addition, we used Screencastify and Quicktime Screen Recorder (on a Mac) for students who wanted to differentiate their analysis and provide a video reflection on the artifacts they found that helped characterize the important cast members, identify themes emerging from the text, and connect the text to other Sci-fi pieces they had analyzed previously. Students were able to record themselves walking around the house, picking up various items, all while using their built-in microphones or earbud mics to record their verbal thoughts about the artifacts. It made for some great final products that enhanced the overall experience. Once again, props to Paul Darvasi for inspiring this idea through his student who chose to give a video game review of Gone Home during their unit. Although we did not have nearly as many students choose this option (I think it has something to do with students hating to hear their own voice), it was a nice change-up to the typical textual analysis.

Unit Plan & Setup

We’ve talked assessment, but what did the day-in, day-out look like with our Gone Home unit? As Paul Darvasi mentions in his epic Gone Home blog, the first step is transferring the concept of analyzing a textual piece to analyzing a visual medium. Thankfully, I had some experience in the past with this concept. When I taught 11th grade Composition, we used Pixar animated short films as a large-group and small-group text to hone our film analysis skills before “reading” The Dark Knight as our film analysis group text. We utilized tons of different Pixar shorts: "Gerry’s Game", "Day and Night", "La Luna", and "Paperman", just to name a few. Students first watched the shorts to take in the raw story and characters. From there, they took part in a few rounds of analytical re-watching, a great skill that students don’t always look forward to doing (ask students to re-read an entire novel, and you get glares. Ask them to re-watch a well-developed, meaningful animated short, and they’re in before you finish the sentence). Students took screenshots of key moments reflecting characterization, theme, and symbols, and took copious notes on their reactions to these moments.

With this method of annotation in mind, the cooperating teacher and I realized we must make sure our students had this type of note-taking and visual annotation skills in place. We started by working together the first two days to work on how to capture significant objects, moments, journal entries, and much more. Much like Darvasi did with his students, we surveyed the initial rooms of the Greenbriar Mansion from Gone Home, with students bringing up what they found in a 15-minute scavenger hunt of sorts. We discussed what significance a number of trophies for the older sister (our character) might have to the younger sister, who appeared to have more eclectic and creative objects associated with her. We pulled together impressions from our own relationships with siblings to begin to define why the game designers chose certain objects to introduce us to the Greenbriar family in the beginning, and set the tone for the rest of the unit. The students now knew their task - become a documentarian and historian of this family, both collecting significant artifacts and interpreting their role in the family’s complex narrative. We gave students enough time to play the game and even replay the game, which I like to call the “Replay with New Lens” approach. How do students approach a text with their knowledge of the plot, characters, and themes? What moments change with your advanced knowledge? What objects take on a new meaning?

Finally, the students filled out their screenshot and analysis matrix in whatever method they best saw fit. Some students collected all of their photos and then reflected at the end, while others collected and reflected simultaneously. We had a few cumulative talks about their “found items,” but what I loved about this unit was the level of individuality and freedom given to the students. Instead of us telling them where to go or what to collect, they were free to experience the story and choose what they found to be significant.

Student & Teacher Feedback

One of the most important steps a teacher should take is to gather student feedback after each unit - what worked well? What needs to be tweaked? I find this information invaluable - it helps me jumpstart the revision process for future classes. After the Gone Home unit, the cooperating teacher and I surveyed the students to gauge their thoughts about the unit.

One of the most fascinating results surrounded the students’ ability to “read” Gone Home like a text. In the question shown below, 43 percent of the students said it was easier to analyze than a traditional short story, novel, or film. Forty-eight percent found it to be comparable, and only nine percent found it more difficult. I think these numbers show how our youth culture responds to visual literacy and multisensory narratives, as this form of storytelling has really just begun to take off. Other questions regarding whether the characters and setting were easier or harder to analyze yielded similar results, showing that the game provided a text rife with literary elements, deep character portraits, and a rich narrative.

Another one of my favorite responses from the students related to their opinion about games in education. The students were asked if they thought video games belonged in classrooms, and 48 percent responded that they COULD have a place in education if done correctly. Exactly zero students said games should play a large part in education, and 13 percent said that games did NOT belong in education. I definitely concur with the students - games are not always the best medium for “living” a skill, but they definitely can be a meaningful platform if implemented effectively for the task at hand.

As for the teacher feedback, all I can say is that my co-teacher asked what other games I thought provided literary elements in a well-told narrative immediately after we finished. She marveled at the students’ positive response and enjoyed that they were able to analyze a new medium outside of the standard text and film methods students have seen for years.

To close, I ask you to consider how we can create unique experiences for students to help them hone a skill or gain appreciation for a narrative. In what ways can we immerse students in content, regardless of subject area? Students want to take an active role in their learning, so what methods can we employ to make this a reality?