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Level-Up With 5 High School Novels About Games

Paul Darvasi

High school English and media studies teacher who experiments with game-based learning
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As a high school English teacher who practices game-based learning, I'm always interested in how literature and games intersect. I use a variety of games in my classes, but it recently occurred to me that I've never explicitly taught a novel where a game is central to the narrative. Whether checkers, poker, or Quidditch, games frequently make cameo appearances in the books we love, but what about novels that wholly revolve around games?

The enormous popularity of video games and the gamification of everything from healthcare to marketing attest to how central games have become to our society. Media scholar Dr. Henry Jenkins has even called the video game the art form of the 21st century. Game-themed works of literature are not only culturally relevant but, more importantly, they can also engage students by centering on subject matter that speaks to them.

Games feature prominently in the novels that follow and, in the spirit of video games, I've ranked them in increasing levels of difficulty that correspond to high school grade levels. They can be used as a main text, for summer reading, or for independent study projects.

Level 1 Freshman: Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

In the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the heroine steps through a mirror into another psychedelic fantasy world inhabited by the likes of Humpty-Dumpty, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and a host of other colorful characters. The entire story is structured like a chess game, as Alice encounters living chess pieces like the Red Queen and the White Knight, and the board's squares are fields separated by streams and brooks. Alice starts her journey as a pawn and eventually crosses the entire board to be "queened," allowing her to checkmate the sleeping Red King. In his preface, Carroll assures us that a genuine chess game emerges if Alice's moves are faithfully followed on an accompanying board. Testing it out is beyond my amateurish dedication to the game, but chessmaniac.com is a handy site if you want to try it out. This widely-referenced tale can be used to question the limits of freedom in a rule-base world, and to explore the shortfalls of language as a means of communication.

Level 2 Sophomore: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Big games, small games, video games, and mind games comprise the rigorous training program to prepare prepubescent military genius Andrew "Ender" Wiggin to save the Earth from an alien invasion. Ender is separated from his family and inducted to the prestigious off-world Battle School, where he levels up through increasingly challenging game-like trials and tests. Teachers might note that Ender's game-based education hits all of the 21st-century learning skills, including collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, resilience, leadership, empathy, and differentiated instruction. This provides a nice metacognitive touchstone for students to reflect on their own learning.

Level 3 Junior: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

A perfect centerpiece for a dystopian fiction unit, this sci-fi page-turner follows impoverished orphan Wade Watts on his epic hunt for a legendary Easter egg hidden somewhere in the virtual universe of OASIS. Whoever first finds the egg will take control of OASIS and inherit a vast fortune. The story is structured like an elaborate video game and is infused with '80s pop and game culture references, including allusions to arcade classics Space Invaders, Centipede, Joust, and Galaga. Soon after publication, Cline revealed that a real Easter egg was hidden in the story, which launched a series of challenging video game tests mirroring those in the novel. The grand prize? The ultimate '80s ride: a glorious, fully-restored, Back to the Future-style Delorean.

Level 4 Senior: Lucky Wander Boy by D.B. Weiss

Rudderless 20-something Adam Pennyman is on a mission to write a compendium that will edify the arcade games he played in his misspent youth. Life and love are neglected as he labors obsessively on his Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments, where he contemplates the Gnostic essence of Donkey Kong, and applies a Marxist critique to Pac-Man's bottomless appetite for consumption. By day, he writes copy for a sleazy production company that happens to hold the movie rights to his all-time favorite game: Lucky Wander Boy. Pennyman’s life unravels as he sabotages his employer to prevent his beloved game from becoming a bad movie. Teachers can leverage the book for a fruitful study of irony, unreliable narration, and literary theory. D.B. Weiss didn't get around to finishing his second novel, as he was distracted by his work as screenwriter, producer, and sometimes director for HBO's smash hit Game of Thrones.

Level 5 Advanced Placement/Honors: The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse

The Glass Bead Game, which won Hesse the 1946 Nobel Prize for literature, chronicles Joseph Knecht's ascent through the ranks of a monastic order devoted to playing a complex and elusive game. Synthesizing all areas of human knowledge, including math, philosophy, and music, the glass bead game demands a lifetime of intense training and dedication. Kecht grows to master the game while challenging institutional religion and conventional wisdom in his search for spiritual authenticity. Like the game itself, the novel offers rich and varied themes for study, including a consideration of its structure as a classic Bildungsroman. It was alternately published with the title Magister Ludi, a Latin term that means both "master of the game" and "schoolmaster" -- a reminder of the vital and oft-neglected connection between learning and play.

Game-themed novels offer a way to keep students reading and engaged as they bridge the book world with popular media. Students can think critically about the text, but also reflect on their own relationships to games and the larger connections between games and society. I'd love to hear about any other novels or stories that revolve around games, especially if you've used them in your practice.

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