Press Start: Availability of Video Games for Classroom Application

One of the concerns I have as an educator interested in implementing technology, media, and video games in the classroom is whether or not I can guarantee access for all my students. If I cannot guarantee access for all of my students, I will not use video games in the classroom. This may cause some people to pause. After all, one of the driving forces behind the educational current sweeping the nation is technology. However, if students are becoming lost in this sea of innovation and excitement, we, educators, are doing something wrong.I believe educators should question the level of access with any and all technology and media in the classroom. Access should even be considered for textbooks! When I pass out course evaluation sheets at the end of the semester, I ask if everyone has a #2 pencil. If they don’t, I provide one. This is a simple example but it cuts to the point. Access might not equal participation, but it does serve as the gateway to either shut out or welcome student participation, much like affordability.

Sometimes, access, or the lack thereof, depends on social status and economics. If a student comes from a low-income household, she may not have had access to gaming consoles or a PC growing up. Or, gaming might simply not have been valued in the household. This example of circumstance is entirely plausible and should be considered when determining course texts, affordability of those texts, level of literacy, and technological accessibility.

Let’s say I am going to teach a course using video games. One of the first tasks I must complete is text selection. Whether I am working with physical or digital texts, I always consider the costs. I don’t think it’s necessarily the best decision to have students spend $100+ on texts for a composition course, especially considering that so much valuable information is available online. I could use a game like Minecraft, Firewatch, or Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: Season 1–each of these games cost less than $27 and could be used for analyzing rhetorical strategies/techniques, characterization, voice, design principles, problem solving, and more.

In a previous post, I mentioned how some of these games are good “starter” texts, which leads me to literacy. Remember the student from the low-income household? Let’s call her Sam. Sam didn’t grow up playing video games on a regular basis. Maybe she played with her friends or watched them play on occasion, but she wouldn’t describe herself as a “gamer.” Entering into my composition course, Sam is a bit worried and confused, much like many freshmen, but she is especially nervous about the video game component.

Consider this. Yes, I want video games to be used in the classroom. Yes, plenty of scholars have discussed the benefits of play and digital media in the classroom. But, the application of video games in the classroom is still new enough that many students would be surprised to have a writing course that focused on or used video games. As the educator, why would I choose an especially complex video game as the class text? I wouldn’t, of course. I would select a text or texts that, while rich for analysis and learning, are readily accessible to everyone, even if students have never played a game. Please don’t assume that every member of the “digital generation” is an avid gamer. Consider polling your students and asking them about their level of experience and attitudes toward video games and gaming culture.

In my experience, indie games make for a solid option for classroom application. They are generally less expensive, require less expensive technology, and are typically designed to be played in a few hours (this is not true of ALL indie titles, but it is of many). This is why I would select a text like Minecraft, Firewatch, or The Walking Dead. These games are both affordable and easy to learn.

This isn’t to say that more complex texts can never be used, but just as educators help students build up to more complicated readings, the same should be done for video games of complexity. The messages of some games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is more subtle and may require several playthroughs or “readings,” which, in turn, may require more class time.

Aside from selecting an accessible text, the second accessibility component I want to talk about has to do with what I’m calling physical access. Remember, Sam does not own a gaming console or a PC besides her school laptop, which isn’t that powerful. The Walking Dead is a required text; it must be played to complete journal entries, to participate in classroom discussion and activities, and to complete a major writing assignment. What is Sam to do? In order to teach such a class, I would need a computer lab that I could guarantee for my students at least once a week for 3-6 hours. If I couldn’t guarantee this, I wouldn’t teach the class using video games. In addition to this, a computer lab classroom for our regular class meetings would be nice but not required. Notice that those 3-6 hours are in addition to regular class time, which means I am available to my students an additional 3-6 hours a week. If I am to lead a class using video games, I need to be prepared to teach students not only how to analyze games but how to play them.

Remember that, often, when educators are talking about technology, they are talking about access to information. Whether its a traditional textbook, ebook, PowerPoint presentation, or video game, access must be guaranteed. This may require more from us, but an awareness of the “digital divide” seems especially key as more technology and media are implemented into the classroom.

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