Insert Quarter, Get Writing: Using Videogames in the Composition Classroom

A DWC Tea facilitated by Kevin Rutherford

Last week Kevin Rutherford facilitated a DWC tea discussion titled “Insert Quarter, Get Writing: Using Videogames in the Composition Classroom.”

Kevin showed a text-based game (available free online) called “Don’t Look Back,” which could work well in English 112 to complicate students’ understandings of perspective and narrative.

Then Kevin showed a really interesting genre of games—activist games. One such game is the McDonald’s Game that immerses game players in McDonald’s corporate structure and the only way to “win” is to do unethical actions such as cut-down more rainforest for grazing cattle, put additives in groundbeef, exploit franchise workers etc. It’s an interesting satire with a sharp political edge that might lend itself well cultural/critical analysis in English 112. (I could see pairing the game with such works as My Year of Eating Meat or essays by Barbara Kingsolver, etc.)

Another game in this activist genre that Kevin showed was a Unicef video game
which poses the question about “what is it like to live in poverty, struggling every day to stay healthy, keep out of debt, and get educated?”

Many other free online games are available at the website Play this Thing, which is a clearinghouse for all sorts of games. However, as Kevin cautioned, there are also some inappropriate games on this site so rather than sending students to the site to pick any game they wish to analyze, you may want to cruise through, play a bunch and find ones appropriate to meeting the learning outcomes for the course.

A handout that Kevin provided is included below:

Why games?

That’s a bit like asking “Why books?”

In all seriousness, I believe that games can present students and instructors with complicated and fulfilling narratives (though, like any medium, they have benefits and drawbacks). They also have the added wrinkle of requiring interaction on the part of a player or players, with that interaction governed by a system of rules enforced by a machine. Because those systems are written by a person or group of people, they have their own authorial voice apart from the narrative portions of games, and can in turn be analyzed like a text. There is literally a world, with rules, constructed in playing a game, and that world tells a player what is real, what is possible, and what is good. I believe that looking at those worlds better enables us to look at our own. Games on the site we’re looking at may promote critical thinking and civic-mindedness, as they frequently deal with more serious themes, but my belief is that even ‘non-serious’ games can engage students meaningfully.

Why use Play This Thing! instead of another site?

Play This Thing! offers several unique benefits. First, it lists independently developed games (though this itself is a term that is a bit nebulous), not mainstream games. This means that games featured on the site are likely to be have passionate and ideal-driven creators (and so are likely to prompt discussion), are likely unheard of by students (thus leveling the playing field if you’re an instructor that is new to games), and are almost all free and simple to play. The reviews tend to be professional and tend toward more criticism than a simple account of whether the games are enjoyable. Below the reviews are comments, which often deepen the discussion significantly.

There’s a search function for the site and a tag function; unfortunately the search function doesn’t search tags. However, games are usually tagged accurately and (fairly) completely.

There are, of course, drawbacks for Play This Thing!. Indie game developers sometimes create material that is deliberately offensive or shocking. Sometimes they unintentionally offend or shock. Regardless, there are games on the site that deal with sensitive subject matter, and sometimes do so tastelessly. While the site carries games for all platforms (Linux, Mac, PC, browser-based), longer games (‘book length’ as opposed to ‘short story’ length) are usually not free.

On the balance, though, I think Play This Thing! offers both instructors and students a great opportunity to see some amateur game design as well as some amateur criticism.

As a side note, the site reviews/hosts material for tabletop games once a week.

–Facilitated by Kevin

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