Teaching with Video Games
By Zachary Hartzman
One of my most memorable weeks of high school was when my 9th grade Global History teacher showed my class Schindler’s List as part of our Holocaust unit. This particular week didn’t make an impact on me because of the movie itself, but rather how well my teacher weaved it into her curriculum. She utilized film as an educational resource instead of as a time-filler like many other teachers often resort to doing in class. It was a novel idea and I made it a point to use movies in the same way when I started teaching Social Studies myself. Over the past couple of years my classes have watched Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Persepolis, Band of Brothers, Remember the Titans, and even Wonder Woman. Teaching with these resources was greatly beneficial for furthering discussions my students and I were having in class.
The more I explored teaching through film, the more I thought about another medium that has strong potential as an educational resource: video games. The video game industry is the biggest entertainment industry in the world, yet I had never seen a teacher successfully incorporate video games into their curriculum. When asked about how video games influenced their academic lives, most people would mention how they occasionally played educational video games like Oregon Trail, or Reader Rabbit. Educational games certainly have their own value, but I believe standard entertainment games can be successfully implemented in the classroom the same way that entertainment movies, like Saving Private Ryan, are used. Entertainment games, unlike educational games, are very well suited to keep learners engaged with content.
The Republia Times
So I started testing it out. I began with simple steps. I was spending some time teaching about propaganda and newspapers during WWII. Instead of just showing images that students could analyze, I used a video game: The Republia Times. This game puts students in charge of creating headlines for a fictional nation’s newspaper. They become editors-in-chief in charge of spreading propaganda after a rebellion has been defeated. It is the player’s job to increase public loyalty to the country, Republia. You must do your job well, or your family will be killed. Choose headlines that make your government look good. Sounds simple right? However, the narrative becomes more complex when the rebels who you were told were defeated after the battle, reach out for your help. They ask for your aid in sowing disloyalty to the Republia government. You now need to choose which side of this war you want to support. Do you continue to paint your country in a good light even though it is clear your government is corrupt? Or do you help the rebellion grow in hopes of a brighter future despite putting your family in danger.
Examining primary resources is always great, but supplementing them with an interactive activity can be a huge success. This lesson really got students thinking about how news and media shape public opinion. I knew I had something special after its success. I immediately began thinking about all the video games I have ever played that could potentially have a place in my Social Studies class. I’ve been playing video games extensively my entire life, so this list was large. After some brainstorming, I chose a game that everyone would recognize; Mario.
Super Mario Odyssey is a new Mario game for the Nintendo Switch (the latest Nintendo console). Throughout the game, Mario travels to different worlds in an attempt to save Princess Peach from the evil Bowser. Most of my students recognize the characters, so it was a good starting point into utilizing more complex entertainment games.
Super Mario Odyssey is unique in that every world that Mario travels to is inspired by a real life location. This level, the Sand Kingdom, is inspired by the colorful buildings of Oaxaca, Mexico. Other levels are inspired by the skyscrapers of New York City, the feudal castles of Japan, and even the beaches of the French Riviera. It was very refreshing to play a video game with positive representations of numerous different cultures since so many media tend to do a poor job at portraying various cultures.
While he adventures on his quest to rescue the Princess, Mario, an Italian plumber, explores various architectures of the world and may choose to adorn the local clothing of the region. He interacts with the locals and dedicates some of his time to help them out. The game sparked a discussion among 11th and 12th graders about positive portrayals of culture and how they would like to see their own cultures represented in popular media.
Now I know what you are thinking: did each student have a copy of this game? Absolutely not. For lessons like this one, I bring in my personal video game console and project it on the screen in front of the class. Then, students take turns playing while other students watch, take notes, and discuss with their peers. Using video games is just like using a video clip as a resource. You just need one volunteer at a time to actually play the game. Video games like The Republia Times are available on any web browser and each student was able to play individually on a class set of Chromebooks. Access to technology is always a challenge, but there are many options that make using video games accessible.
After teaching with Mario, I wanted to use some games that require more nuance. We were in the midst of learning about immigration and the rights of immigrants when I remembered the video game Papers, Please. This game puts the player in the shoes of a border patrol agent who must decide which people can and cannot enter the country. You make sure people have the correct documentation and either give them a stamp of approval or deny entry. You can follow the rules exactly as provided to you by your government, but as you play, it becomes very clear that many people are risking their lives trying to enter the country. There are people in search of economic opportunity, while others are refugees fleeing from a war-torn country. Your choices begin to hold more weight as you realize you are literally deciding whether someone will live or die.
Immigration is an ever-present topic in the United States and it is important for students to engage in ongoing, difficult conversations about who should be allowed to enter a country. This game was especially impactful for my students because each of them is an immigrant. Some of them have gone through similar circumstances as the characters in the game. This game works well because the countries and people are all fictional. The material is emotionally charged, but the students are more willing to have these conversations because the game is not based in our reality. There is a buffer that allows them to be more vulnerable. Papers, Please helped students make connections between immigration issues today and those faced by immigrants when the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 was passed.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve continued to use many video games in my Social Studies classes — both Global and United States history. I used the game Battlefield I to teach about the various new weaponry of World War I, the text based game Half to teach about the challenges of people with multicultural identities, The Bad News Game to teach about the various forms that fake news might take, and even the fighting game Super Smash Bros. to teach students how to create and interpret bar graphs.
The beauty of teaching with video games is that they are all supplemental to what I was already teaching. They are not meant to replace other means of learning. They just reinforce the content and concepts already being learned in my classroom. By far some of my most fruitful lessons of the year are the ones which incorporated the use of video games.
Teachers are at their best when they bring their own passions into the classroom. My students pick up on my enthusiasm for video games which makes them more engaged with the material. It is also nice switching up the type of learning in the room every now and then. We can read documents and articles every day, but that can quickly become tedious. Bringing games into the class helps keep things fresh and lively.
Introducing video games into my history classes has been great, but I’d argue that their implementation into my Advisory class has been even more successful. Advisory, for me personally, has always been a hit or miss. Some students think that Advisory has no real bearing on their academic success. Some avoid the socioemotional check-ins we have in Advisory. This makes it challenging to get students to want to participate in whatever activity we had planned for the class. Incorporating video games that tackle socio-emotional topics has served as a safe and effective medium to foster difficult conversations.
We played the platformer game Celeste to spark conversations about depression, anxiety, and overcoming adversity. I planned the Celeste lesson after the English Regents because many of my students were disappointed that they had failed. The moral of the game is that failure is okay because we can learn from it.
We played the mobile game Florence, to start a conversation about relationships and healthy courses of action when a relationship doesn’t work out the way you had hoped. Not everyone handles breakups in a healthy manner and playing Florence got a lot of my students, the boys in particular, to really converse about how to properly express their frustrations. The game Gris and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons teaches about loss and grief. Obviously, we can’t spend every Advisory class playing video games, but they are an effective means to help students who may otherwise not be comfortable to discuss socioemotional health to open up.
My hope is that more teachers begin to recognize the learning potential of video games. We consistently see television shows, movies, music, comics, and graphic novels being implemented into curriculum, but not video games. I can’t say for sure that they are better than other methods of teaching, but I can definitively state that they do a fantastic job supplementing what is already being taught, at least in English and History classes. When we return for the new school year in September, I plan to teach an ELA elective class using video games to teach students literary analysis in preparation for Part 3 of the English Regents.
If teaching with video games is of interest to you, I upload all of my lesson plans, handouts, slides, and rationales to my website Hey Listen Games. I also have a classroom section on the site, where I share write-ups about any new lessons I post, or about how my students reacted to one of these lessons. Subscribing is free and it will keep you up-to-date on any new materials added to the site. I hope to see some of you in the comments.