In a word, creepy. That’s what it was. It was my first thought as I ventured into the unknown territory of The Fullbright Company’s award-winning game, Gone Home. I’m not a gamer, despite the fact that I understand the value of games in the classroom. Although video games are not my forte, I have had an incredible time playing and learning along with a group of seniors this month.
I sent out an email to a colleague sharing the inspiration I had stumbled upon in Paul Darvasi’s all-encompassing approach to incorporating games in his classroom. At first, she replied kindly and expressed her appreciation and fear at the idea of using a video game as a text. I didn’t hear back from her. Until a few weeks ago. There is something about the end of the school year that gives teachers a certain sense of freedom to try new things, and I was so happy to hear it.
Her trust in me allowed us to jump right in. Our focus would be on character development through game play. How do game developers create and develop characters? How is it similar and different to an author’s approach to the same task in a novel? How might you “play a story?” These questions guided our exploration.
Briefly, Gone Home is a first person video game where players discover the story of the Greenbriar family. Kaitlin Greenbriar, the main character and player’s point of view, has just returned from a one-year trip overseas. When she arrives home (late at night during a storm), she discovers a note from her younger sister Sam and an empty house. The endgame is to discern what happened to Sam, who has disappeared. Through exploration of the Greenbriar mansion, players learn about the family, the house, and eventually, what happened to Sam.
I borrowed heavily from Darvasi in order to get started, following his suggestions to stick to the foyer on the first day and encourage limited exploration in order to familiarize ourselves with the game and gameplay. I had a crew of ten seniors, two of whom were accomplished gamers, so sticking to this creed was a challenge at times. I wanted to level the playing field for at least the first day, inviting gamers and non-gamers alike to understand the mechanics of the game: arrows move you around, fingers on mouse pad to look around, control to crouch or stand up, and shift to pick up objects. Those well versed in game play had the two main commands down in a second; newbies (like me) took some time smoothing out movement through the house. There were many things to discover within just the foyer, and in fact, play starts outside of the house with a locked door. The first real challenge is figuring out how to get into the house in the first place!
With the lights turned off in our small lab of Macs, we adopted Darvasi’s approach to annotating the game and started collecting evidence of our discoveries. (Screenshots for objects were challenging on the Macs because the commands to do so were the same commands needed to control the game movement. We punted; students used their iPads to take photos of their screens when needed, and it worked beautifully.) Students dove in, and the room became eerily quiet as they bravely opened doors to dark rooms, hunted around for light switches they couldn’t see, and tried not to spook when the thunder clapped in their ears.
We took a few moments at the end of the first class to talk about what they had discovered. They noticed that like any good story, the exposition becomes clear with quick exploration of just the foyer itself. Players meet the family and are provided with hints of possible conflicts to come. By the end of the period, our seniors had a clear idea of the characters, conflict, and mood of the game and were champing at the bit to keep playing.
Because the foyer is really the only place in the house that is somewhat contained, game play from this day on was simply guided exploration. Again following Darvasi’s lead, I asked that students choose a group of characters to explore as they made their way through the Greenbriar mansion. Students took screenshots, practiced annotation, and collected evidence of character development, all of which was demonstrated on this doc. In all honesty, the actual document wasn’t completed until the final day because they couldn’t. stop. playing. Struggling to engage and challenge learners? Here are a few snippets I overheard as students discovered the many intricacies of the Greenbriars’ story:
“This house is huge.”
“I found the kitchen!”
“OOOOHhhhhh! I knew it!”
“I’m starting to wonder if this is a mystery or not. Whoever created it could be leading me astray.”
“Clues could be anywhere.”
And finally, one of the best: when bell rings: “I wanna keep doing this!”
On our final day, we circled up and processed. “It made me cry,” one of our senior boys said. “I was just so caught up in her story. When I got to the end, I cried.” We talked about how the game creators had to have mastered character development in order to evoke that kind of emotion. We discussed how the characters were created through found objects in the game, organization of the house, and audible journal entries. Multimedia approaches to character development were prolific, and it was absolutely delightful to hear students as they discovered secret passages, revealing letters, and those heartbreaking journal entries.
Video game as narrative is a valid form of media in the English classroom, and if Gone Home is any indication, we should be paying close attention to games as new media. (This game in particular is probably best used with older students, as there are some mature themes and discoveries along the way.) Using games as true content delivery methods has long been an interest of mine, and I was so appreciative that one English teacher was willing to take a chance on this. I’d encourage you to do the same.