This is the third part of an ongoing series about teaching games--both video games and tabletop role playing games--as literature.
I’ve discussed my reasons for using games as literature in school, but I’ve mostly stuck to the theory so far. Time to address the practical side of this issue: What are the quantifiable outcomes, both benefits and drawbacks, of using games as literature?
The research I linked previously covers a lot of ground, so I want to provide a specific example here: the interactive storytelling of adventure and role playing games.
Adventure and role playing games, whether tabletop or digital, allow a form of interactive storytelling that traditional texts can’t replicate. Players take on a fictional persona and drive the narrative by trying to achieve “their” goals, navigating plot and character developments using the mechanics of the game. The beats of the story are still crafted by the writers and creators of the text, but the player’s choices determine their precise experience of that content. Engagement with art and literature is often described as a conversation or a relationship between the creator and the audience; in an RPG, that conversation only deepens.
The emergent narratives this player interaction creates can be studied in new ways that reflect the investigative, self-driven learning style encouraged by the internet age. Even better, these games can reach levels of depth and complexity that parallel the novels with which we challenge students, and in some cases will require more reading than War and Peace. And with a teacher applying the same rigor to teaching both novels and games, students will learn from both experiences.
The results speak for themselves. From improved metacognition and social interaction on levels both local and global, to physical improvements in coordination and vision, to actually hooking students into the idea that their intelligence is incremental and improvable, games provide students with advantages that we can track as data.
And there’s my trump card: data. Data is king in educational decision making, and the data says that games are both beneficial and potentially literary.
But then, with all this data, why don’t we already use games in every classroom? What are the drawbacks?
There are always concerns over the introduction of new materials to schools. In both my teaching and current news, I’ve run into complaints that games distract students, lower their scores on reading tests, and hinder them socially. While there is certainly truth to the idea that playing games to the exclusion of other activities will cause students to experience difficulty in school, these opinions and editorials often smack of the moral panics over rock ‘n roll and Dungeons and Dragons.
If I sound dismissive of the concerns above, that is because they deserve to be dismissed. Issues such as poor health and academic performance plague school-based activities other than gaming to a much more significant and well-documented degree. One study found that, of all UNC-Chapel Hill college athletes between 2008 and 2012, 60% read in the 4th-10th grade range, and about 9% more read at 3rd grade or below. Of course, there are many other similar studies, ranging back to before video games existed at all, demonstrating that participation in sports, especially those that produce head injuries, can be linked to poor academic performance, measurable loss of cognitive function, and even violent behavior... and yet, these remain acceptable for our students' consumption and participation.
Please note that my point here is not that athletics programs are necessarily bad, or that games are without flaws, but that the lingering reluctance of society to view games as art is based on the ghosts of social stigma and fear.
We need to listen to the science. While more research would certainly be welcome, the balance of evidence indicates that, even if we account for their historically poor reputation, gaming in the classroom offers significant benefits. If we really believe that we should base our decision making on verifiable data, then this is one arena where we have some changes to make.
We should teach games the same way we teach books: as literature.
Thanks for reading! From this point forward, this series of articles will continue in the form of game critiques aimed at demonstrating how and why particular games might be used as literature in the classroom, considering their format, content, accessibility, and so on. Both tabletop and electronic games will be critiqued. If you have any suggestions or comments, I’m happy to hear them, but please note my standard comment policy.