Gone Home (in the Classroom)

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.

Library

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.

Class

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.

Basement

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.

Attic Lights 3

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.

Oh Dad

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.

 

Basement 3Basement 2

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”).

Heart

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.

Attic Lights

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.

 

Stairs

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.

 

 

Pedagogy, Please: Using Papers, Please in the Classroom

I am teaching a first year English class titled Rhetoric and Composition – essentially, it’s what many people would call English 101. As teachers, we’re required to stick to the course objectives, but otherwise we have the freedom to design our own course and syllabus, and I like to get creative with my classes. I’ve taught the second semester of this course – Rhetoric and Composition II – using video games as both the primary text and as a framework for the course (gamification, sort of), but I had yet to use them to teach a first semester class. The second semester course works well using games because students are doing a lot of group work and research, and using a virtual environment for group meetings or virtual demonstrations is super useful and illustrative. The first semester course is focused on analysis, though, and I had previously felt like video games might be too ‘big’ for that, since analyzing a game, with its movement, visuals, sound, dialogue, narrative, gameplay, or any combination of the many elements that make up a video game, might be too much to handle in our limited amount of time. I’ve used horror movies to teach the course twice already, and I felt like those sections went pretty well. This semester, however, I decided to jump in and use video games. They are the focus of my research, but I very rarely study them in any of my courses. I wanted a way to not only integrate what I’ve learned about games as cultural artifacts and educational tools into what I was doing, but also to force myself to keep up with thinking about my field while taking classes that have very little to do with it. So using them for the class I was going to teach seemed a natural conclusion.

I will probably write something about my overall experience after the semester ends, but today I wanted to write a little bit about how I’m using a specific game in the class: Papers, Please. We have four main paper assignments in this class: a video game review, a visual analysis (of video game art, advertisements, screenshots, cover art, etc.), a video game critique, and a synthesis (‘baby’ research paper) paper on any issue concerning video games (violence, sexuality, intelligence, education, etc.). This structure is meant to get them from a subjective argument with relatively little close analysis (review), to close, objective analysis of static objects (visual analysis), to close analysis of a whole artifact with its many parts (critique), to close analysis of several objects mixed with some objective research (synthesis).

Being the first analysis paper, my students often stumble on the visual analysis, and this semester was no exception. So, for the follow-up paper, the critique paper, they asked for a model. I saw an opportunity to play a video game in class, since we could play a game together, take notes as a class, and then use those notes to come up with an outline. I wanted it to be a short game that we could get through a fair amount of in just one or two class periods, and while there are numerous great, free, browser-based games over at the Internet Archive, I wanted something a little more contemporary and relevant. Papers, Please seemed to be a perfect fit. The gameplay is drag-and-click, so any of my students could step up and play it in class, and it deals with contemporary issues like immigration, nationalism, and, well, certain Eurasian countries. We played for half of two different 75 minute class periods, and while I can’t speak to how successful the play sessions were on their papers (for a couple of reasons), I did want to walk through some of how things went.

papers

The first thing we did, before they knew anything about the game they were playing, was make two lists: themes or topics that games might be saying something about/commenting on, and some of the elements of games that could be used to ‘say’ those things. Here is what we ended up with, after some discussion:

Topics/Themes:        War / Poverty / Politics / Gender / Race / Growing up / Teenagers / Maturity / Religion / National identity / College / Education / Parenting / Social status / Sexuality / Sexual preference / LGBTQ issues / Work (occupation)

Elements:        Graphics / Art style / Color / Spoken or written dialogue / Plot or narrative / Representation / Gameplay (goals) / Gameplay mechanics / Music / Sound / Tone / Setting / Audience / Advertising

I wrote each list on either side of the projector screen so that we could refer to it while we were playing, and then started up the game. The distinctively militaristic music started up and the title made its way onto the screen, marching up from the bottom to the beat of the music. I asked if anyone had played the game or knew anything about it, to which I got a unanimously negative response. “So what can you tell me about this game, just based on the title screen? What kind of game is it? What is it about? Is there a theme you pick up on just from what you see and hear?” I was hoping that they would pick up on the militaristic tone by noting that the music resembles a march and the title comes onto the screen in a marching fashion, not to mention the militaristic insignia at the top of the title. They didn’t quite get there, but they made some insightful observations. One student thought it seemed like an adventure game because the music seemed kind of exciting and action-y. One student thought it took place in Italy, because of the music, but another chimed in and said it sounded like Russian music, which a couple of other students agreed with. When I asked what the title meant, and what it might tell us about the game, there was some head scratching. When I pointed to the comma and asked if that had anything to do with direct address or implied audience, there was some visual and audible realization in several students and one student said that it must be about someone asking for someone’s papers, “like at customs,” which I was happy about.

I had a volunteer to act as the player, and I told the rest of the class to help her out and shout out opinions and suggestions about what she should do. The first day was slow, as she stumbled a bit getting the hang of how to play with little help from the rest of the class. There was some discussion at the end of the (game) day, when they realized how the game was set up: for each successful person processed, you get five dollars, and you need at least fifty dollars a day to pay for rent, heat, and food to keep your family alive and well. Oddly enough, what really seemed to get people involved was the first time she, the player, rejected a character’s passport and they cursed at her. They found that funny and started speaking up after that, helping her to look for the important information she needed to match up to make faster decisions and get more people through the checkpoint.

It was too late, however. Just as they were getting the hang of it, the terrorist attack on Day 2 cut their day short and meant that they didn’t have enough money to pay rent. They were arrested and their game was over. “What happened?” “So, the game’s over?” they asked. I responded in the affirmative, and took the opportunity to ask some questions to try and prompt some critical thinking that we might use in future discussion.

“Would you guys want this job?”
“No.”
“Hell naw.”
“Nope.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because you get thrown in jail for something you can’t control.”
“People are mean to you.”
“But you won this job in a work lottery,” I reminded them. “There are other people who aren’t as lucky as you and don’t have a job. Shouldn’t you be happy that you’re working?”
“Not if you go to jail for not paying rent.”

I’d wanted them to start thinking about what the game was saying about civilians who have to live and make a living in war zones or under oppressive regimes. I could have probably kept going with the discussion and got them there, but we were running short on time so we pressed on and they started a new game. We only got through two days before class ended, but those two days were filled with cooperation and students openly debating whether or not to let people through and catching things that other students had missed. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, which made me feel like my choice of game and approach was a big success. I told them we would continue playing during the next class and go through an outline of a possible paper using our discussion of the game that followed our play session.

I’m sad to report that only four students showed up to that next class period (as opposed to the maybe twelve or thirteen that had shown up for the first class). I have had four of them contact me since and apologize for missing, saying that they enjoyed the game and wish they could have made it, but it’s hard not to feel like it must have had something to do with the game. I may have them fill out an anonymous questionnaire at the end of the semester (to go alongside their regular class/instructor evaluation) to ask them how they felt about my choices of games for the interactive class discussions. If they had seemed like they weren’t into it on Tuesday, and/or were not interacting with one another, I might have just chalked it up as a loss and moved on, but they really did seem to be getting into it. So I’d like some answers about what might have potentially made them skip out on the second session so I can, if anything, adjust my gauge for what a positive student reaction to a game is.

That aside, the second session went alright. With a different student in control, we had to go through some of the awkward learning moments over again, and we only ended up getting through four more days in the game. I was happy that we encountered the colorful character Jorji twice in this session, and the class responded with the same level of incredulous adoration that I had, once upon a time. At some point they pointed out that each day was getting harder and you had more and more to do every day. While this was frustrating for them, they showed a determination to get through as many people as they could each day and were openly helping each other spot the various discrepancies. They breathed collective sighs of relief when a character successfully exited their booth without the ominous mechanical sound of a violation notice being printed out, and their joined frustration when they did miss something and received a violation slip was enjoyable to watch. Those who did show up were invested, at least.

Because only four people showed up, and because we didn’t make it through as much of the game as I might have liked, I cut our in-depth analysis of the game a bit short to field questions about their specific paper topics, then gave them tips on how to structure a critique paper using those topics as examples. We did talk about the game a bit, mainly circling around the ideas it presented about government control over workers (it seemed unfair that the government could imprison you for not doing a new job well enough), propaganda (getting what seemed like a government-controlled newspaper every day), and making hard choices about who to let in and who to deny when your family’s well-being is directly affected by your success at work. There was a very brief discussion about gender while we were playing, because some students thought a character looked male when  their passport stated that they were female, but it didn’t go anywhere.

Overall, I felt like it was a mostly successful endeavor. If not for the students that missed the second session, I’d say it was an astounding success, but I can’t deny that that may have been in response to the game choice. That survey I mentioned might help me figure how just how true that is. I do feel like we needed more time to play it, so in the future I go through a mini-tutorial beforehand to avoid some of the learning-curve hurdles that slowed us down. I might also have them think about organizing a bit more as a class after they play for a few days. They could have two people looking at expiration dates, two people looking at pictures, two people looking at issuing city, etc. Of course I’d love for them to do that on their own, but if it means saving time and having more time to get a sense of what the game is saying about certain issues, I can help them get started with it at least. So, depending on how the end-of-semester survey turns out, I plan on tweaking my lesson plan a little and using this game again in the future.