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Games as Lit II: Unanswered Questions


This is the blog of Larcenous Designs, LLC, through which I (Nathan Rockwood) will be publishing thoughts and ramblings related to my business' projects, which may include anything related to games, game design, and the use of gaming in education. 

Comments will be moderated without mercy.

Games as Lit II: Unanswered Questions

Nathan Rockwood

This is the second part of an ongoing series about teaching games--both video games and tabletop role playing games--as literature.

In my last post, I defined literature as written work that has significance and beauty to us, a modern audience. Now I want to tackle the next big question: what does that mean for alternative mediums?

While the use of games in school is still a field in need of study, what research does exist suggests there are considerable benefits we could see by using games in classrooms, starting with student engagement and moving on up through the lofty heights of Bloom’s Taxonomy. In fact, their biggest failing (at the moment) is that they haven’t been used this way often enough.

Games, if significant and beautiful, can provide as many opportunities for learning as any book. Their interactive nature makes them arguably more useful for study than many plays and films, media which already have wormed their way into relatively mainstream acceptance as classroom texts. And, in both analog and digital forms, games provide opportunities for students that take the concept of ‘engagement’ with a text to a whole new level.

Gone Home

Gone Home

My classroom experience (and my Master’s research) so far corroborates these findings. Based on the available data, it appears that games can be life-changingly significant; games can be painfully beautiful; games can be culturally, politically, historically, and socially relevant; and games can even meet Fletcher’s primary requirement for literary works worthy of his attention:

First and always in considering any piece of literature a student should ask himself the question already implied: Does it present a true portrayal of life--of the permanent elements in all life and in human nature, of the life or thought of its own particular period, and (in most sorts of books) of the persons, real or imaginary, with whom it deals? If it properly accomplishes this main purpose, when the reader finishes it he should feel that his understanding of life and of people has been increased and broadened. But it should always be remembered that truth is quite as much a matter of general spirit and impression as of literal accuracy in details of fact. The essential question is not, Is the presentation of life and character perfect in a photographic fashion? but Does it convey the underlying realities?

A game, like any other text, can indeed portray the underlying realities of an age, a person, or an event--just consider the impact that games like This War of Mine, Papers, Please, and Gone Home have had on players in recent years, given the ongoing military conflicts, modern dictatorships, and family struggles that exist all around us.

So, if you accept these findings, games can indeed be literature. In fact, if we consider a statement by another literary critic, Roland Barthes, games might even be a better fit for the title of ‘literature’ than books are.

Barthes is often quoted (at least in AP Lit classes) as having said that “Literature is the question minus the answer.” That appeals to me as both a teacher and a reader. I love books that make me think: “What would I have done? What would be the right thing to do? Can these mistakes be redeemed?” I know that other teachers love these books, too. These are the texts that dominate our curriculums, that fill our shelves, and that we foist on students, hoping that they will at least crack them open once. If only they can find the questions, perhaps they will become as enthused about pondering the answers as we are.  

But no matter how you teach a book, in the end you only have one outcome, chosen by the author, to have your students reflect upon. On the other hand, a game that the students play, that forces them to make decisions, to earn the consequences they then contemplate and discuss… that is a question, waiting for an answer.

In the next post in this series, Games as Lit III: Y/N/Retry/Fail?, I’ll talk about the some of the practical results of using games as literature. If you have any suggestions or comments, I’m happy to hear them, but please note my standard comment policy.