To Teach Video Games is to Empower Students

Recently, a conversation during class with Amelia opened my eyes to an aspect of gaming that I had not considered on a deeper level before: choice. How much choice is given to us by the games that we play? Are the missions decided for us, or do they tell us what to do? Certain video games, such as Scarecrow, robs the player of their autonomy to choose whether they want to play for the scarecrows or against them. Players do not get to choose which missions they go on in what order (at first, at least), or what the missions consist of. There is no “opt out” button: you must save the chickens and the cows from the factory and drop them off at the happy little farm. (Which, by the way, is not what a farm really looks or operates like.)

Before the discussion, which stemmed from Ian Bogost’s article The Rhetoric of Video Games, I had never considered that games are arguments. Because of this, one can fill out a rhetorical situation triangle for a game. In the tenth grade classes I’m observing in, they’re learning about the rhetorical situation. While the teacher is lecturing on how a certain ad has different appeals, one student sits in the back of the room playing a game on his iPad. I wonder if he would be more interested in the conversation if it had to do with the thing that is right in front of him.

I have a feeling the answer is yes.

The discussion around argumentation through video games is one that is both important and critical to have with students. Being conscious of the arguments that the video games is making and being able to analyze the message is important for students to be responsible citizens of the world. Many times, teachers use adverts and commercials to teach rhetoric, and to teach students to not fall into the trap of advertising. But it is important to also teach students that arguments are everywhere and not traditionally what we would always think of. Everything is an argument. Even the game you’re playing while you’re not listening to me talk, dear student that I love.

As mentioned earlier, Scarecrow is a game that has an argument, as well as a lack of realistic farming practices. The argument was clear: fast food corporations are bad. This can be made clear through the video sequence that opens the game. But the bigger question to ask is “what is effective?” Not really. On the surface, it is a effective and pretty fun game to play. But when you think further and realize that Chipotle is a part of the system, then the game becomes glaringly hypocritical.

The company (that doesn’t know that crops take a very long time to grow) is attempting to create an “us vs them” dichotomy that isn’t necessarily true. The game paints them as being dark, industrial, mundane, and evil (see: sad baby cow eyes).

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Chipotle is neglects to mention that it is also a company and an industry (an industry which, by the way, has had numerous cases of e.coli).

All of this goes back to a commodification and exploration of the basic human desire to be good.

The game is a perfect example of how video games can be an argument and persuasive.

Furthering this notion, it is easy to see how and why video games should be included in secondary education. Technology and digital experiences are quickly taking hold across all aspects of life. Video games are not free of the capitalistic and patriarchal values of society. We must teach video games as text to all students. Then students will be aware of their world and the intersection of games, rhetoric, and capitalism. It’s time to stop ignoring the games that are downloaded onto students phones, iPads, and computers, and instead empower the students to be able to see the rhetoric behind games and question the choices they make within them.

Teaching should be centered around empowering students to make their own choices, create their own ideas, and be in charge of their learning. Incorporating video games as rhetoric into the curriculum is a sensible and wonderful idea that had not occurred to me before. Now that it has, there is not a doubt in my mind that I will be lesson planning for this very soon.

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One thought on “To Teach Video Games is to Empower Students”

  1. I’ve been critical for a long time of the education system privileging certain forms of rhetoric and narrative while ignoring others, particularly the seeming disdain for visuals and, even more so, interactivity. So I very much appreciate your wanting to teach about rhetoric in games. I would, however, warn against seeming entirely negative towards video games in general. The scarecrow game is a wonderful example of how game rhetoric can be used in a problematic way, but it would be beneficial for you to also be able to provide examples that at least aren’t a straightforward “this is bad.” The example that comes to my mind at the moment is Undertale, which would be fascinating to explore in a class setting in terms of how it presents its messages about pacifism. You could also look at The Stanley Parable and its commentary about choice in games in general. In general, though, there has been a cultural trend to view games in a generally negative light. Games have even been scapegoated as causing things like school shootings, which is deeply problematic on multiple levels. I would just caution you, in teaching about games, to get your students to see the complexities of game rhetoric rather than leading them to characterize it as necessarily a bad influence.

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