Teaching Games as Texts

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Video games encompasses many different methods of communicating ideas. In his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, sociolinguist James Paul Gee describes video games as "a multimodal literacy par excellence."[1] Games may include traditional written text, or may incorporate established forms like movies or audio narration. They can also feature much newer literacies based, for example, on interaction with fictional characters or exploration of virtual spaces. Games can even communicate to players through the rules that govern the game world, or through references to historical game genres or technologies—all of these represent part of a new "literacy" of video games.

Thanks to the many avenues through which video games can communicate information and stories to players, games can be used as texts in a number of different ways.


Games as narratives

Although it may be surprising to those who remember the days of Pong and Space Invaders, story is an important part of most modern video games. Game narratives can range from simple and clichéd to strikingly complex and original, and they can be told in a variety of ways. Here are just a few examples of the styles and techniques that games can use to tell stories.

Linear storytelling

The stealth-action Metal Gear Solid games present a Byzantine tale of science fiction espionage primarily through movie-like cutscenes and two-way radio conversations between game characters. Some role-playing games, such as the popular Final Fantasy series of games, also rely on predetermined plots told through a combination of cutscenes and conversations.

Players and game designers who dislike cutscenes sometimes argue that this form of storytelling, clearly adapted from the more established art of filmmaking, is a bad fit for a medium built around interactivity, but there is no denying that many of the most popular games of all time have told their stories in this way.

Branching storytelling

The media player is loading... 'The role-playing game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic places players in a series of situations that can be solved in various ways ("light side," or morally upright solutions stand against selfish "dark side" solutions). In this way, the player can make choices that influence the course of the story and the attitudes of her in-game companions.

Most games that employ branching storytelling are role-playing games, but there are examples in other genres. Heavy Rain is an adventure game released in 2010. This video review from gaming website Giant Bomb focuses on the game's complex film noir-inspired narrative.

Player discovery

Some games require players to discover aspects of a game's plot for themselves through the exploration of the environment, allowing them to piece together the story of their experience in their own way.

First-person shooters Half-Life 2 and BioShock both employ this technique powerfully. In BioShock, players discover audio recordings recounting the experiences of non-player characters who inhabited the game's setting, an underwater city, before and during its moment of crisis (the game itself is set after things have fallen apart). In Half-Life 2, the player character awakens after a period of years have passed in the outside world, and must piece together the events of those years based on the events and conversations around him, as well as by interpreting environmental clues like newspaper clippings and graffiti.

Player discovery is also a popular method of storytelling with artists who create interactive environments that resemble games, but lack the kinds of rules and goals that are present in games themselves. Examples include the emotionally evocative work of the two-person European studio Tale of Tales, which has created interactive environments with narrative elements based on stories including Little Red Riding Hood [2] and the story of John the Baptist and Salome.

[[Video:Dear Esther (Let's Play)|right|300px] ]Dear Esther, another gamelike interactive experience, tells a mysterious ghost story in audio narration as the player explores an abandoned island from a first-person perspective. Dear Esther was developed as an experiment in game narrative by a research group at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, and has since been released commercially.[3]

If you're interested in reading more about different storytelling methods, this article from game developer Frictional Games' blog is worth your time. The post's author argues in favor of player discovery-based storytelling (or "fragmented stories").

Games and literary analysis

Most commercial video games cannot sustain the kind of literary analysis that is applied to great novels or films. Gaming journalist Jeff Gerstmann described this problem succinctly when he said, in 2010, that "great stories in games are rare… Game writing is still not to the level of book writing or movie writing."[4] There are exceptions to this rule, and educators willing to look will find games of every stripe that can easily support an analytical essay or in-depth classroom discussion. Here are just a few examples of gamers analyzing the plot, themes and structure of favorite games:

  • Squall is Dead — a close reading of the 1999 role-playing game Final Fantasy VIII. The authors cite written dialogue, cinematography, editing, visual symbols and audio to support their argument that the game's second half is only the dying fantasy of its main character.[5]
  • BioShock Explained — an examination of the plot and themes of BioShock, with particular reference to the game's treatment of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand as a source and inspiration.[6]
  • [www.zeldauniverse.net/articles/the-missing-link/the-philosophy-of-the-wind-waker-part-one The Philosophy of The Wind Waker] — a treatise on the philosophy of the action-adventure game The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.[7]
  • Mark Clapham's page on the video game review site GamePeople also examines games with an eye to their stories.[8]

Games to build literacy skills

In addition to serving as texts worthy of study on their own merits, games can help players to build and practice valuable literacy skills that apply to to all sorts of media. Teachers have used the dialogue-intensive role-playing game Neverwinter Nights both as a canvas for students to write interactive short stories and as a text with which they can practice their reading skills. Teacher Megan Glover Adams found that the game's unusual fantasy vocabulary encouraged "model reading behaviors" for readers at all levels.[9]

Looking at a very different role-playing game—the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft—researcher Jonathan Alexander found that his students were employing several valuable literacy skills as they interacted with the game world and rules, as well as other players. The skills demonstrated included critical analysis, multicultural communication and collaborative writing. Alexander also found that the students used meta-literacy skills in discussing the game, as they reflected about the relationship between in-game and real-world skills.[10]

Games as a bridge to other media

Even when circumstances do not allow the use of video games in the classroom, teachers may be able to benefit from their students' passion for games. Junior high school reading instructor Kristie Jolley found that some reluctant readers responded enthusiastically to novels based on video game franchises.[11]

Many video games are released with tie-in novels, which may retell the story of the game or expand on the game's backstory or fictional setting. Some examples based on popular game series:

Other approaches

Teaching games as texts is far from the only way to use games in the classroom. Information about how to have students create games will be coming to the "Expert" section of TEGD soon (check the home page). We're also working on an article about how teachers have been able to design their classes as games! And of course, if you haven't checked out our introductory article about educational video games or our article about how to teach using content-aligned games, please read those too.


  1. Gee, James P. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  2. Lieberman, Max. Serious Game: The Path. Blog Post from Boom Culture. (2009). Retrieved from http://boomculture.blogspot.com/2009/11/serious-game-path.html.
  3. Dear Esther Episode 1 by Mr. Sunabouzu. The Let's Play Archive. Retrieved from http://lparchive.org/Dear-Esther/.
  4. Gerstmann, Jeff. Podcast. Giant Bombcast: Game of the Year 2009 deliberations. Giant Bomb (2009). Retrieved from http://www.giantbomb.com/podcast/?podcast_id=134.
  5. Choudhury, Rahul and Diedra Rater. Squall's Dead. Website. http://squallsdead.com.
  6. Wang, Lorenzo. BioShock Explained. Noisewar internetlainen. Blog. Retrieved from http://my.opera.com/noisewar/blog/2007/09/01/bioshock-explained.
  7. Dan, Hylian. The Philosophy of the Wind Waker. Zelda Universe. Website. Retrieved from www.zeldauniverse.net/articles/the-missing-link/the-philosophy-of-the-wind-waker-part-one.
  8. Clapham, Mark. Story Game Reviews. GamePeople. Blog. http://www.gamepeople.co.uk/markclapham.htm.
  9. Adams, Megan G. Engaging 21st-Century Adolescents: Video Games in the Reading Classroom. English Journal (2009) vol 98 (6) pp. 56-9. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/detail?accno=EJ846025.
  10. Alexander, Jonathan. Gaming, Student Literacies, and the Composition Classroom: Some Possibilities for Transformation. College Composition and Communication (2009) vol 61 (1) pp. 35. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/detail?accno=EJ857821.
  11. Jolley, Kristie. Video Games to Reading: Reaching Out to Reluctant Readers. English Journal (2008) vol. 97 (4) pp. 81-6. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/detail?accno=EJ788591.
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