Narrative video games are often overlooked in ELA instruction, but many are rich, sophisticated, and deeply engaging.
When students suggest using video games at school, it’s easy to dismiss it outright. Kids spend enough time online as it is, right? And video games have no educational value, right?
However, as educators, we should consider any opportunity to meet our students where they are—or even halfway. That means getting creative about connecting with them through media they enjoy and finding ways to use it to enrich their learning. After all, change has been in the air for a long time: Increasingly, students consume information digitally, including literature, and as many parents will tell you, video games attract and retain their attention like little else.
As the video gaming industry continues to grow at a rapid pace ($180 billion in 2020, larger than movies and North American sports combined), educational platforms like Khan Academy have gamified their experiences to engage students, and apps like Duolingo and Brainscape that are designed to be gamelike from the get-go are exploding.
This is not a call to eliminate traditional book reading from instruction, but rather a challenge to incorporate video gaming into ELA instruction to supplement traditional literacy strategies.
Teaching ELA and Narrative Through Games
Structuring a unit around a video game is not so different from the way you do it with a book; the only real change is in how your students consume the story.
One way to do it is to have an entire class play through a story and then share similarities and differences in how they played it, like following different story trees, in much the same way that students read a book or a play, watch a film version of it, and then compare the two. That approach surfaces nuances in narrative and introduces different vocabulary terms and literary devices within the same story, as well as stimulating discussion about themes. For instance, in The Stanley Parable, a first-person exploration (walking simulator) game that has been hailed as “inventive, preposterous, and brilliant,” the essence of the game is chosen, making it an engaging springboard for a discussion about free will, a theme appropriate for middle and high school students.
Many of the narrative games I assign are single-player, but I do have students play in groups so they can have discussions among themselves about what’s happening in the story. This approach also cultivates cooperative learning and group decision-making.
You can also have students play different games, much like choice reading, and write papers or do presentations on the game they chose to play.
With narrative games, the assignments can remain the same as they are with fiction, like writing a one-page response to the narrative, text-to-self activities in which they compare situations faced by a character with their own or Dear Diary activities in which they write a journal from the perspective of one of the characters.
How to Find and Select High-Quality Games
There are all sorts of ways to find great video games you can use with your students.
Search reviews, lists, and even the news: If you’re in an app store, search on “narrative games” and read the reviews for what turns up (you may even find some reviews from other teachers). You might also find interesting narrative games by reading media outlets that cover online gaming like Game Informer and review sites like Metacritic.
Use YouTube for research: Searching on the name of the game you’re interested in with the term “play through no commentary” will usually yield a gameplay video free of voice commentary. These videos not only allow you to preview the content of many games without purchasing them but also give you time references (somewhat like page numbers) so you can plan what lessons students may be able to complete during class and how long homework assignments might take, as well as pinpoint teachable moments. (See this example from Röki, a fantasy adventure rooted in Scandinavian folklore).
Consider games that lack text: Just because a game doesn’t have text doesn’t mean it doesn’t tell a great story. Games like Journey and Old Man’s Journey (both age 13+) feature stories that are told deeply through imagery and exploration rather than through screens heavy with dialogue.
Consider games that incorporate diverse points of view: Some video games tell stories that build empathy and even awareness of world events (like Bury Me, My Love, an age 13+ game about a Syrian refugee), while in others, players take on characters with real-life limitations. For example, in Dropsy, players assume the character of a neurodiverse adult who struggles with an inability to read and write and is judged by his appearance. The entire game (also for 13+) is framed by Dropsy’s struggle with his mental development as well as the loss of a parent (a comparison might be The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is often taught to ninth and 10th graders). Games like these can underpin typical ELA conversations about the plot and character development, but they can also lead to rich conversations about mental wellness and social norms.
Expense: Many narrative games are relatively low cost because they’re created by indie game developers, and they’re mobile, so they can be played on students’ devices or school-issued ones. As of this writing, Bury Me, My Love is $4.99 on Steam, and Old Man’s Journey is $7.99, and sometimes games go on sale. The price of a subscription needn’t stop you, though—you can also use free YouTube walkthroughs, but those won’t allow for student decision-making.
How to Determine the Appropriateness of Content
It’s always important to make sure that the story and game you choose are appropriate for your students, families, and school. Understanding what content is acceptable for the lesson, grade level, and your community can save you some major headaches. For example, Röki is suitable for kids ages 10 and up, while Detroit: Become Human, which features playable characters who are androids, is best for high school students.
Knowing what content is in a movie or a book is part of the prework of any unit. As with movies, television shows, and books, Common Sense Media is a mainstay for parents and educators when it comes to evaluating the appropriateness of narrative video games; many narrative games are reviewed there because they’re already a mainstay among families. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating system is a powerful and well-respected resource.
I’d advise taking plenty of time to screen a game for content before committing to it. That would take you three to eight hours, which is about what it would be to read a new book before teaching it. Doing so will give you a good sense of the content that’s unfit for class and help you determine how to break the game into sections that you can use in lessons.
A Few Favorites
In addition to games I’ve mentioned above (Bury Me, My Love; Journey; Old Man’s Journey; Röki; and Detroit: Become Human), I recommend Night in the Woods, a single-player game about a college dropout who returns to her creepy small town (it touches on mental health issues and is great for high school students). Also good for that age: Firewatch, a mystery set in the Wyoming wilderness that Entertainment Weekly called “as visually striking as its unique premise,” tends to be popular with high school students. Another great pick for teenagers is What Remains of Edith Finch, a collection of tragic short stories about one family that is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. (Read this article if you need further convincing of its literary value.)