The year is 1995 and you’re exploring a teenager’s bedroom—riot girrrl music playing from a cassette in the tape deck, textbooks scattered, a bright Lisa Frank binder full of notes. The house is empty, almost eerily so. You have to find out why.
This is the premise of Gone Home, a narrative video game in which the player must figure out where the family who lived in this house have disappeared to. Unlike the video games I grew up playing with my brother on our Nintendo (Super Mario, Metroid, Rad Racer) in the early 1990s, this new brand of video game presents the player with “normal people’s stories”—stories they are invited to excavate for meaning, peopled by characters who are oddly familiar.
In a recent article in the Guardian, Naomi Alderman writes that proponents of “digital literature” are missing a crucial point—video games are the most sophisticated, popular, and profitable form of digital literature we have, and “we’re doing ourselves and the next generation a disservice if we don’t take that seriously.”
The reason for this disconnect, Alderman argues, is the sharp divide in education between “people who like science and technology” and “people who like storytelling and the arts,” as though those skill sets and interests are mutually exclusive. By keeping these students apart, potential for new and vibrant explorations of the narrative form are limited.
Though video games have long been seen as the domain of pimply-faced teenaged boys looking to shoot virtual guns with wild abandon, this new narrative genre of video games can teach students how to tell stories in ways that books and movies cannot—by inviting them to participate actively in the story. Games like Her Story and Gone Home challenge the player to take notes and make observations in order to solve a particular problem or unlock a mystery—allowing students to practice critical thinking and active reading skills.
In recent years, there’s been much talk about game-based learning and how it’s going to revolutionize our education system. Essentially, this trend advocates making learning a game—engaging students by having them “advance” by levels, working toward a goal or a specific finish line. Teaching narrative and storytelling using video games is different, though—rather than being based on levels or point values, these games are driven by characters and details and plot—all core elements of the narrative writing process that aren’t easy to teach.
Have you thought about integrating video games into your classroom?