Running a class of approximately 30 English students through a video game wasn’t something I’d done before, but it went surprisingly smoothly. Here are some notes on what I did and how it worked out.
Materials & Prep
I had played the game previously, but over the weekend I played it again to be sure I could offer assistance if need be. I also found a youtube video of the entire game (specifically, one with no commentary by the uploader) so I could direct students to that if they were absent. I then printed out copies of a ‘game circle’ capture sheet I had created, based on the literature circles worksheets we normally use.
A week in advance, I had a student assistant help me set up all six PS3s with their 19” TVs and test the space in my classroom, finding places for five of them to be active at a time, and pre-installing the game on each. I had to get a little creative with desk arrangement and table use, but it worked. We left the consoles set up for long enough to charge their controllers, and then broke them down and put them away, leaving cables plugged into their associated devices to make them easier to set up (A/V and power plugged into TV, power plugged into console, and USB charger plugged into controller).
Before the day of, I asked each class for volunteer students who had played games on a Playstation before. Most classes had 6-7 students who had the desired experience, although I had to include students who had played other consoles in one class. With that in mind, I took a few minutes after school and broke each class into five groups of four to six students, each with at least one experienced gamer.
The morning of, before classes, I moved the desks and tables into the necessary configuration, but didn’t set up the consoles. I put a display on the board indicating that the students should put their bags against one wall, grab a pencil, and await further instructions.
When the students arrived for my first class of the day, I immediately grabbed the five gamers and showed them how to set up a PS3 using my spare sixth console and TV. I then assigned them each a location around the room and told them to take their console, TV, and controller from their storage spaces and set them up.
Naturally, all of the other students watching were a bit rowdier than normal, and didn’t have their usual seats available, so as soon as I could leave the gamers to set up I called for the class’ attention despite the fact that the bell hadn’t rung. I prodded them into following the board’s instructions, and then had them gather in a standing semicircle. I explained that we would be engaging in a Lit Circle activity using a video game--cue applause and cheering--and that they would have graded jobs each day like normal and had already been assigned to groups--cue boos.
Because Lit Circles are something they had already practiced many, many times, I was able to then assign them groups and hand out papers with few other instructions, but I did review the job assignments with them in order to ensure they understood the game-specific concepts and terminology.
However, I refrained from explaining the game itself. I told them merely that they would be responsible for treating it like literature, and that they would need to pay attention and complete their assigned jobs in order to catch everything. They would have up to four real days to complete six chapters of the game, and they would need to switch roles after each chapter.
After that, it was mostly gameplay and work (more on that in a minute) until five minutes before the bell. At that time, I told the students to exit their games and power off their consoles, but leave everything plugged in.
With the Playstations already rigged up, my second class had a similar but easier experience with setup, and I took a few extra minutes during the beginning of class to more thoroughly explain the jobs they would be completing.
My third class of the day was again slightly shortened by the need to break everything down and put it away; I ended about 10 minutes before the bell, called the gamers together and showed them how to put the consoles away, and then released them back to their groups to finish shutdown and cleanup. The following days of the unit continued the same pattern, but setup and cleanup each took progressively less time.
Results and Student Reactions
The initial student reactions to playing games in class were as expected: they were ecstatic not to be reading, so they would gladly have pretended interest regardless of the content. However, as the game began, student reactions, conversations, and note-taking indicated extremely high interest, and only one out of ~90 students requested a bathroom break the first day (on an average day of Lit Circles I get 4-8 requests for bathroom or water passes), suggesting they were paying much more attention than normal. This trend held, except on the fourth day, when most students had finished the game already.
All but two groups beat two levels each day, finishing on the third and using the fourth to discuss their notes and decide on what themes and messages the game was meant to convey. The two groups which were still playing on the fourth day engaged in discussion while playing (one finished early in the period, while the final group ran out of time)--interestingly, they were the groups most engaged in the discussion of themes, while the ones who were done playing had much briefer conversations with much less detail and fewer examples of high-level academic language.
One group had a student with behavioral and social disorders (similar to those associated with the autism spectrum, but I’ll not elaborate for privacy reasons) who normally does not interact well with classmates; this student looked up the whole game on Youtube voluntarily after the first day, and then proceeded to offer reasonable hints to their group during play, resulting in an early finish (within 15 minutes of starting the third day) with no behavioral issues needing to be addressed during the unit (down from an average of 0.5 issues addressed per day). In two groups, 2-3 of the students were clearly bored on the second and third days of play, resulting in their groups slowing down and, in one case, failing to finish even on the fourth.
Overall, the discussion the students had while playing or immediately after (on the same day) was much, much better than discussion held the following day. Student engagement was clearly enhanced when it came to the material, but once the excitement had worn off, it seems their interest in participation dropped to only slightly more than normal Lit Circles. Despite that, they on average had a better grasp on the content, with only six students failing to complete their assigned jobs to a “B” grade or better (due to lack of attention in five cases, and three days of absence in the other) as compared to an average of 20 students completing normal Lit Circle work at a C or below.
From a qualitative perspective, the energy and enthusiasm in the classroom was much higher than normal, and I was personally thrilled to see a few students who were very behind in reading level demonstrating their willingness to work on the academic side once they were relying on content they could actually understand.
While the game was certainly not everyone’s favorite text of the year, the debates over the themes and use of literary techniques such as foreshadowing, juxtaposition, and contrast made it clear that, to the students, a game could be treated as literature just as easily as any book--and while capturing the entirety of their conversations would be difficult, here are a sample of quotations I took down in my notes while observing. I think they are a fitting way to end this analysis!
- This game makes you think harder.
- My mind’s, like, blown…
- Are we saving the world, or just… changing it?
- What are we supposed to do? Oh, wait, I think I see…
- The flowers that don’t glow lead you to the ones that do.
- The wind blows you the right direction when you go the wrong way.
- How about we go up so we can see what we missed?
- If I somehow lose the game, what would that mean?
- Wait, what happened? We changed it, but why does that matter?
- We missed some flowers! Does that matter?
- The weather is changing. I think that’s important.
- If I was at home, I’d keep playing this all day!
- I wonder if I can get my parents to buy this…
- It looks so different from the last level.
- Oh! It’s getting more...civilized? Because now there’s a windmill…
- Can we keep playing more? This is interesting!
- Oh my god--this is actually fun!
- I think it is meant to be soothing, but watching other people play is just so INFURIATING!
- See, we’re in the city! We’re getting closer and closer! I was right!
- The game is trying to move you through this part fast. I think this is just filler.
- Why did you go there? // I just wanted to see what was around this corner…
- It gets harder with each level...but now we know what to do.
- The music creates a spooky or mysterious mood…
- I don’t know why, but just watching this I all of a sudden have a bad feeling about this….
- This is a story about an area that was invaded by the city, and we’re trying to fix it and bring life back to it!
- Oh, there are three flowers [we created at level end] this time; we’re getting closer to the end!
- Wait, did we lose? I thought I broke it… [at end of level 5]
- Oh! It resumed in the same place! I think that means this whole long section is important. [same student, at start of 6]
Thanks for reading! From this point out, most of my Games as Literature posts will feature analysis of individual games I would like to use in the classroom, and will be more theoretical as there are many more that I wish I could use than there are games I have access to in school. If you have a suggestion for a game I should play and discuss, please mention it in the comments!