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The Role of Video Games in the English Classroom

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Little Big Planet 2 Action Trailer

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.

3) Inspiration

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.

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Lucas Gillispie's picture
Lucas Gillispie
Director of Academic and Digital Learning, Surry County Schools, NC

Very happy to see articles like this. This is an area I've been working in for a few years, now. If you'd like some specific examples of games and how we're using them, check out the following resources: (Project devoted to the use of World of Warcraft and other online games for middle grades language arts)
Http:// (Project devoted to the use of Minecraft in all areas, K-12) (Project that uses games from XBox, PlayStation, PC, iPad, etc., to promote middle grades language arts)

Pell's picture

Great article. I likely read more playing RPGs on my SNES than I did in all of elementary school.
Another useful resource on this topic is LearningWorks for Kids -- it covers how games digital media can be used at home and in the classroom -

Erin Merritt's picture
Erin Merritt
Secondary English Teacher

THANK YOU! This was a great post to read as an English teacher -- and as a parent to two boys. I am looking forward to researching the links. I am also anxious to adapt the video game story line into an application to literature. Graphic novels are so big in schools, but what about adapting a classic text to a video game format? What kind of levels would Huck and Hester have to face? A question I'd love to have some input on as well would be this: gamers love to "level up" and reach success as the adrenaline of the win takes over; is this comparable to the feeling of a win on a sports field? In a musical competition? In another field? I'm curious about the correlation between the sense of accomplishment students get while being less active. How will this play out long term?

Cheri Handley's picture

Last year I began teaching a unique class for regular ed students that have the potential to fail high-stakes testing. My class size cannot be over 15 and is usually no more that 12. I have a good rapport with most of my students and more often than not, the students, especially the boys, want to share anything and everything about video games. We used their collected data for graphing and they had a countdown on the board for the next new game release date. But, the thing that let me know that you have to find what interests them, was our poetry unit. I had students who had completed very few writing assignments all year put everything they had into this because they could write 15 poems about their favorite video game. They analyzed it, took the best parts of it and wrote fantastic poetry. I can't wait to use the ideas in your blog to teach tone and voice. I know my students will be excited to learn!

Rhonda Lowderback's picture

I have to admit that I am intrigued by gaming, especially in core content areas. I am sure it will increase engagement, at least among that population that is hardest to engage. However, I wonder if there is any research to show that gaming actually helps students retain information and meet content standards. It seems like you would have to have custom made games for every state and I just think that would be too expensive. Does anyone know of research to support gaming in core areas?

Dr. Rob Garcia's picture
Dr. Rob Garcia
Former High School Engineering Teacher now Author and EdD

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This book is VERY pro engineering and math, and also lists several ways to get to college on reduced or free tuition. I have used a lot of Project Based Learning methodologies as well.

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Nicole U's picture
Nicole U
8th grade ELA teacher, MN

I'm grateful to have come across this posting - I would have never considered the use of video games as instructional tools in my classroom. What an easy way to activate knowledge and build on it. Teaching tone and the plot line with video games are both things I could easily do now. What else: conflict? Hero quest? Creative writing? I'm not very familiar with the games myself, so I'll continue to research work others have done integrating games into lessons. Great article. Thank you for the resources and links!

Oliver Rose's picture

I've made a casual game to learn/review vocabulary. As a university EFL teacher in Japan (and student of Japanese myself), I was aiming to provide a deeper (and more engaging!) kind of game than the usual multiple choice/match style that is most common.
Try it out at
You can import any text-based flashcards from Quizlet - languages/SAT vocab etc - and teachers can also make their own sets at Quizlet.

Tim Cart's picture

Video games are about learning more than anything else. Oh sure, there are harrowing tales of adventure, exciting forays into the realm of action and vicarious experiences to enjoy. Yet, at the heart of console and computer gaming is a learning process; learning to control, learning systems, consequences and rewards. The best part about video games for learning? They are at once collaborative and autodidactic. They allow for the exploration of the depth of human potential on a level determined by those playing them, alone or together or somewhere in between. Video games are a glimpse into the future of the education institution. Just wait until 3D avatar spaces become widespread. Then it is just a matter of time before a direct interface with the technology and guess what? Have you ever seen the Matrix? I have, and I can't wait.

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