Yesterday was my last day teaching an English course for high school students, part of a college prep program, and I wanted to write a blog about my experience using Gone Home as a text in the classroom. This is mostly just a collection of thoughts, so there’s not too much in the way of organization or a driving thesis. This is my second year teaching this course, and given that it’s only a five week program, I only have the students write two five paragraph essays. The first is meant to give them experience tailoring a message to a specific audience, so I share some information about my likes and dislikes and have them write a review of something they think I would like. The second is an analysis paper, where they analyze a text and present a thesis about any number of things (theme, genre, tone, narrative, social issues, etc.). Last summer we played the 1992 version of The Oregon Trail and they discussed who they thought the game was meant for and why it was or wasn’t effective as an educational tool.
This year, I really wanted to use Papers, Please with them, because it fits my parameters for a good game to play in the classroom: it’s easy to control, you can either finish or get a good sense of it in four or less hours, I can get it on PC or Switch (much easier to lug around), and it lacks graphic violence/sexuality. I also like the games I use to have some kind of relatively contemporary social relevance so that students have a point of reference and can tie the two together if they want. Papers, Please worked very well in all regards, but my boss asked me to submit some info on the game to her, and she wasn’t keen on the idea of students playing a game about immigration at this time, mainly because she feared parental reaction. So it was back to the drawing board. After considering my options, I presented both Gone Home and Emily is Away to the four classes I taught, and they unanimously voted for Gone Home. I would have been happy with either choice, but what I liked about the idea of using Gone Home with high schoolers was that, because it’s a narrative adventure game where the player is in control of triggering story elements at their own pace, we could talk about video games as a storytelling platform and compare it to other mediums, like film and fiction writing.
Of course I was still nervous about whether or not they would be into it, even though they voted for it. I had a bad dream the night before we started playing, where none of them cared and I had to keep prompting them to go to a new room and search for clues. So I was very excited when the students in my first class rolled their chairs up to the projector screen and eagerly began instructing the player with the controller where to look and what to investigate (they played the Switch version). All four classes played, and we played for two class sessions, which were two hours each (so, 4 hours). I asked for volunteers to handle the controls, and when there were multiple volunteers they handed the controller over after a set amount of time. The rest of the class openly discussed what should be done, and, as mentioned, told the player where to look, what to read, etc. I’ll be discussing story spoilers, if that matters to you.
One thing I found interesting is that, of the four classes, three of them immediately went to the left when entering the house — as did I, and as did my friend who’s played it. We’d talked as a class a few weeks ago about games using the environment (geography, floor plans, visual cues that are not prompted, etc.) to communicate with the player unwittingly, so after they played I shared with them the fact that 5/6 players had gone to the left without prompting and asked them why they thought that was. They picked up on the fact that the door to the bathroom just to the left was cracked, creating a sense of intrigue and making them think that they could investigate it, whereas to the right was a closed door and a hall that was slightly darker than the one on the left. The game does this elsewhere, so I think this might be something to keep in mind when I do this again. I only interrupted their gameplay once this time around, but maybe next time I could stop them shortly after entering the house specifically to talk about that decision and what the game designers had to do to sneakily urge people to go the direction they wanted them to. You’re meant to start on the left, so (besides locking doors, which they do), how can developers “compose” their level to convince players to go where they want “on their own”? This might prime them to note other places that it happens in the game.
Three of the classes were really into the game, but the fourth was less so. It was a small class, only seven students, and a couple of them were invested, but the others sort of drifted in and out of being focused. They were a bit of a talkative class that sometimes had trouble focusing in general, so I wasn’t too surprised. They were the class that went to the right when entering the house, and they weren’t sure why they chose to. They were also the only class to miss Terry’s adult magazine in the library, because they weren’t totally focused or investigating extensively. They missed quite a number of artifacts, actually, so when they found the attic key and went directly up there, they were somewhat confused and disappointed by what they found.
Speaking of Terry’s magazine, I found it very hard to keep from laughing when the students found it, because although it’s not at all explicit, it is very apparent what it is, so with every class that found it, I would catch some students whipping their head around to look at me, like they were caught with something or like I was going to yell at them to drop it. And then one student kept trying to pick up the books around it but kept accidentally picking up the magazine, which made everyone joke about how they really must want to take it with them. It was a fun moment.
The classes that were into it really dug around for clues, and I was impressed that they picked up on the probability that Oscar may have sexually abused Terry. That was something I only vaguely suspected on my first playthrough of the game, but they practiced some great deductive reasoning and collective analysis and were convinced of it, so much so that several of them wrote about it in their papers.
Only a few students from any of the classes suspected that Sam and Katie’s mom may have been having an affair, and that their parents were using couples counseling to try and save their marriage. They were also less than phased by the queerness of the relationship between Sam and Lonnie. They expressed no shock when listening to the first recording that really seems to solidify the feelings between them (the sleepover, where Lonnie tells Sam that she “really likes” her, and Sam hopes that she “meant what I think she did”).
The only time I stopped my students was just before they went into the attic. Just as they reached the door, I asked them to hold on, and I asked them what they expected to find up there. When I played, I avoided the attic at all cost, even when I’d found the key. Through the notes, context clues, and journal entries, I had the impression that Sam was in love with Lonnie, who was leaving for the Army. Sam was also ostracized at school for her queerness, her parents called it “just a phase” and said that she was “confused,” and her big sister (me, the player) was far away. So I had the grim sense that she might have committed suicide and that I had been hearing her suicide note narrated throughout the game. This was not at all helped by the fact that the attic door was awash in the red lights strung around it, giving it an eerie, dangerous air. Unfortunately, playing on a classroom projector washed out some of the colors, including the red attic door lights. Still, some of my student’s first responses to my question were “a body.” “Whose body?” I asked. Some of them said Oscar, some said a person that Oscar had killed, some of them did say that it might be Sam’s body, some said that it might be the parents, some just shrugged.
When they went into the attic and got the ending messages, most of them were shocked – but not like I’d expected them to be. When the first class finished and the credits started rolling, one student literally said “Wait, that’s it? So the daughter was a lesbian and she ran away with her girlfriend? I thought there was going to be something scary.” They seemed slightly disappointed, but when we started discussing it they came alive again. I asked them why they thought it was going to be something scary, and they started listing off hints left throughout the game. I said that they didn’t seem to think that the queer relationship was all that surprising, to which they said something to the effect of “well, yeah, that’s normal.” I asked them when the game took place. One student said “ohhhhhh. 1995.” I asked them why the game was set in 1995 and not 2019. They immediately recalled environmental clues, like the “don’t ask, don’t tell” reference, and the ‘zines that Lonnie put out. They didn’t make the connection that Sam probably didn’t have the Internet at the time, either, so she would have much less connection to other queer folk (and I didn’t think to bring it up), meaning that she would feel far more isolated than a normal teen going through a similar situation in 2019. So I asked them if the story could take place today, and they said maybe but that it probably wouldn’t have the same ending. Some students wrote their papers about this — the importance of time, setting, and location on the meaning of the story.
I also asked them how they felt about the horror elements of the game, because some students were using words like “trick” to describe how the game “felt” like a horror game but ended up being more akin to a family drama, or even a teen romance story. They said they liked the horror elements, which I believe, because any time they came to the top of a set of dark, shadowy stairs, or turned a corner to see a curtain that was vaguely shaped like a person, there was hushed tension and sometimes they verbalized their fear (and one student kept covering her eyes). One student briefly mentioned in their paper that the horror elements made the tragic aspects of Sam’s story feel slightly more horrific or scary, and although I wish she’d gone deeper with that thought, I was very happy to see it regardless. Several students did talk about the eerie atmosphere in smart ways, like talking about how it’s Katie’s first time in this house, too, so she would be as creeped out as we were.
I’m having a little trouble remembering all of the papers that students wrote, because I had to grade fifty papers over the course of two days and I’ve gotten very little sleep this week, but I was generally very impressed with their responses. They were, in some ways, more detailed and textual-evidence rich than the analysis papers that my college students write. I suspect that it might be because I expect my college students to play and analyze the texts on their own time, but my high school students played it collaboratively and were discussing themes and symbols and narrative beats as they went, building off of each other’s ideas and observations. I normally shy away from group work in my college classes, but after this experience I think I want to try this kind of whole-class collaborative analysis with my first-year rhetoric and composition students. It only took my high school students three(ish) hours to beat this game, on average, so I feel like a two week sequence, where we play the game one week, then discuss and write about it a second would be a good practice exercise. Then I could have them choose another game to analyze on their own.
So, in the end, this was a great experience. I asked some students what they honestly felt about it afterward, and they all said that they loved it, and I had a really good time watching them play. I’m also happy about it as a text, because they were heavily invested in unraveling the narrative on their own, plus their group analysis resulted in some very insightful assessments. I can’t wait to use it again.