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Game-Based Learning

Pairing Books and Video Games for SEL Impact

Middle school teachers can align themes from texts and video games to help students explore a variety of perspectives.

June 7, 2022
Middle school students in classroom on computer
Fly View Productions / iStock

Children read novels about wizards, watch movies featuring superheroes, and play video games that put them in a hero’s role. Over the past several years, video game storytelling has matured; stories unfold with emotional nuance. Arguably one of the predominant narrative forms of the 21st century, video games do more than provide mindless escapism. There are games about grief and loss, living with dementia, and family trauma.

These games are not winnable in a traditional sense; instead, they are experiences that can bring meaning to written texts. What’s more, players can engage in perspective-taking with digital avatars as they encounter ethical dilemmas, thus cultivating social and emotional competencies during the experience.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that teachers toss out books and replace them with video games. Instead, I suggest pairing games with books, much like many teachers do with movies, podcasts, comics, and other media. I recall watching scenes from the musical West Side Story after studying Romeo and Juliet in school. After viewing, we had a discussion comparing and contrasting the Montagues and Capulets with the singing and dancing Jets and Sharks.

For instance, when discussing Japanese American incarceration in internment camps during World War II, teachers can use nonfiction texts along with They Called Us Enemy, a graphic novel based on actor George Takei’s childhood experiences. Then, students might play the free online game Prisoner in My Homeland, together or as a class on a projector.

Game and Book Pairings Explore Diverse Narratives

Video games can be paired with books for a significant impact. This approach can be powerful because it helps students build background knowledge as well as promoting reading comprehension and critical-thinking skills. Further, social and emotional skill development is infused in the process, as gameplay occurs in free-to-fail environments and provides a safe practice space in which to confront emotion demarcated from real-world consequence.

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is a narrative game about a young girl vacationing with her grandparents on a lush Mediterranean island off the Spanish coast. This game easily pairs well with books that share common social and emotional themes, such as ethical decision-making. In the game, young Alba collects photos of wildlife that she encounters and records them in her journal. As the story progresses, she encounters a dilemma: Is destroying a part of an ecosystem to build a new resort hotel worth the environmental cost? James Erekson, one of my literacy professor colleagues, and I considered books that pair with Alba and found that Carl Hiassen’s Hoot was a good option.

Another game we explored was ​​​​Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), the Peabody Award–winning video game based on an Iñupiat Alaska Native folktale. As players proceed, “cultural insights” documentary clips are unlocked, where students can learn more about the lives of the Iñupiat people. Erekson suggests pairing the game with fiction or nonfiction books about Alaskan Native cultures, such as Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt’s The Legend of Lightning and Thunder.

When you’re pairing games with books, first think about the universal themes in each media form. Next, consider how each of those tells the story. There are lots of good places to start too, such as Common Sense Media, which has reviewed most of the games, books, and media that I’ve mentioned. YouTube game play-throughs are also helpful.

The award-winning game ​​​​Lost Words: Beyond the Page is a stellar example of high-quality storytelling and complex themes. The game is a two-dimensional platform adventure game, with left-to-right running and jumping much like what is in Super Mario Bros. What sets this game apart is the depth of the narrative. Written by Rhianna Pratchett, the game tells two concurrent stories: one of grief, and the other a hero’s journey adventure set in the magical land of Estoria.

The tale of grief takes place in the protagonist’s real world, told on the literal pages of her journal. Players jump across words and phrases, and the written word acts as a metaphor as the young narrator shares how her family was broken after the passing of her grandmother. Perhaps as a coping mechanism, she escapes into a fantastical story featuring words with magical properties.

Lost Words has a strikingly similar structure to those of other books mapped to arcs like the stages of grief and the hero’s journey cycle. Erekson and I found Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish to be a terrific pairing. In this story, also told with a journal and a quest, a young girl’s best friend passes away in an apparent drowning. The main character decides to seek out a scientist who is an expert on jellyfish stings in order to prove her theory about her friend’s death.

Game Time Can Encourage Class Discussions and Analysis

Vignettes or chapters in narrative games can be sometimes played in about 10–15 minutes. Using one computer or one Nintendo Switch controller, the class can watch a different student play each day. The remaining time can be spent in a literature circle, where students are given roles to lead a discussion comparing the novel with the game. Students can share how games and books promote or limit their sense of empathic concern, ability to perspective-take, and ability to form connections to their lives. As with the characters in Lost Words and Jellyfish, their actions have consequences.

Teachers can also create graphic and semantic organizers resembling spiderwebs. Semantic organizers are particularly useful, as games are systems that can be mapped as webs, which show the meanings or connections within each level of the game. When using graphic organizers, students can be asked to compare and contrast characters, emotions, and situations. To mirror actions of characters in the game and the book, you can also have students write in journals.

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Filed Under

  • Game-Based Learning
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School

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