The Role of Video Games in the English ClassroomSeptember 17, 2012 | Terry Heick
Perhaps more than anything else, the English Language Arts classroom is a place of diversity.
There is diversity of academic expectations for teachers. The ELA Common Core assigns literature and informational reading, writing, speaking/listening and language to what is usually a single "class." This is a total of five extremely broad topics, each of which could more than stand on its own as a content area.
There is diversity of content, where media from two thousand years ago to yesterday, from Gilgamesh to Tupac Shakur, can find a place. This is a content area where students read and reflect, write and discuss, revise and rethink, compose and present, speak and observe -- all in the company of some of the greatest thinkers in mankind's history.
There is also diversity of assessment, where projects, exams, open-response questions, essays, digital products and community projects all vie for a chance to demonstrate what a student understands.
It makes sense, then, that in such a busy atmosphere full of often-conflicting literacies and constant rigor, video games might find an authentic and compelling role.
How can they function?
1) Entry Points
In any classroom, a video game can provide a sure-footed entry point into content. Interested in teaching tone? The video game Limbo makes toys to perfection with this classic literary tool, using a subdued color palette, minimal character dialogue and macabre settings as a boy works his way through digital, black-and-white badlands. Contrast it quickly with a 60-second video of Little Big Planet 2, and tone will be on full display. From here you can move on to speeches from Martin Luther King, where tone is overt, then short stories from Wendell Berry and Franz Kafka, where it may not be.
2) Student Voice
Video games are engaging, gamified, full of light and sound, and often (though not always) widely accessible. The fact that they're especially inviting to male learners, who may struggle to find much of anything in academia immediately inviting, makes them a compelling tool for any progressive ELA educator. They also provide students a voice. Allowing a student to discuss video games that are meaningful to him is just like asking your bookworm students to discuss their favorite books. Watch them light up when you not only show interest, but allow them to brainstorm games that may "fit" an assignment or project, or to even bring in narrative nuggets of games like Fallout 3, which has plots and subplots that rival -- at least in quantity -- the most heralded classic literary texts.
Video games are strangely inspirational. The best examples from this growing medium are not play-and-forget affairs, but rather digital universes for players to enter and dwell. Games like Bethesda's Skyrim can enamor players for hundreds of hours, as they carefully construct avatars that act out their own desire for power, control, and diverse ability to construct and manipulate an environment that makes sense to them (something Minecraft does exceptionally well).
When video games are brought into learning -- and integrated in a way that doesn't neuter the relevance or obscure what makes the game wonderful -- you'll notice major changes, many of which won't always be comfortable. Inspiration changes everything. Some students -- many of whom may have previously appeared lethargic and apathetic -- may be difficult to keep seated, perhaps literally. This is no reason to shelve the game, but a factor to plan for -- and a sign of just how thoroughly you've put them to sleep in the past.
Embracing Digital Learning Tools
Video games represent a diverse, exciting and potent media form, and they offer fresh possibilities as digital learning tools. Getting them to "do what you want" is a matter of experimentation and professional development, as are most powerful teaching tools. But in the ELA classroom, video games not only have a role, but also demand a seat next to novels and poems, speeches and letters, essays and short stories.
For this to happen, you needn't turn your classroom into some awkward "study" of the (mediocre) narrative elements of a game like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, but rather turn first to the students. See what they play, what they love, where their experience is -- and what their ideas are for dragging lowly video games into the hallowed halls of English Language Arts instruction. Then, as you become more comfortable, continue to seek out better ideas, tools and resources for making it happen.