Games as Texts - Gungahlin College’s Game On unit

With thanks to Mark Clutton for this post.

In 2016, Gungahlin College’s Humanities Faculty ran a full English unit focusing on the concept that video games can be literature. They ditched the traditional texts in favour of a few carefully selected games, which was made possible with the help of their generous developers. These games were:

In Never Alone, students studied the ways games use narrative devices as well as the ways in which user interface impacts our engagement with the story. They learned about the Inupiaq people’s way of life, and that Australia has a long way to go in terms of Indigenous representation in digital media. The students adored the art style and the ‘cultural insight’ collectibles, and many used this in their essays as a strong argument in favour of the benefits of gaming.
Using Papers, Please the students looked at the impact of user interface in a bit more detail, contrasting the artistic style and concluding art is only ‘part of the picture’ (as one student put it). The students loved the gameplay and the competitive nature of ‘how many passports did you check?’. There were some really insightful discussions about the way the game creates tension and uses income as a reward to encourage/punish certain choices. Students really engaged with the concept of the branching narrative and found this game to be very rewarding personally and academically. We were also able to discuss grammar in the dialogue and omission of the definite article (‘the’) in presenting broken English speech patterns.
This led into a study of This War of Mine which opened up an opportunity for historical research into the Siege of Sarajevo. Even though some students struggled with the resource-management aspects of the game, they persevered and as a result found it to be very engaging. The ethical debates that arose from this game were interesting, as some players felt guilty about the selfishness of their decisions, and others rationalised them away as “it’s only a game” - to mixed philosophical responses from their peers. Most students used this game as the basis for their essays, arguing that video games have the potential to present serious or under-represented views in the mainstream.

The class only spent a week with a group playthrough of That Dragon Cancer, and whilst the students enjoyed it, they all agreed a week was sufficient. The students were really engaged by the heart-wrenching narrative, but were able to identify the ways in which the game encourages the player to empathise with the parents and children. Many students have experienced loss in some form, and so they were able to recognise some of the emotions presented, and evoked, by this game.
The semester finished with a group playthrough of The Stanley Parable, alongside a discussion of the illusion of choice, and studies of The Beginner’s Guide. The latter allowed us to go into depth in the literary theory of The Death of the Author, and some aspects of postmodernism as they relate not only to games, but also to novels. As this was the final text any of them would study before University (and for some, the last), It was admirable just how far they were willing to push themselves to grasp some of the very complex philosophical concepts that this game relies upon. A large percentage of the class used this as the basis of their essay, discussing how TDotA relates to computer games as a genre.

On reflection, the teachers agreed that they had learned a lot during the semester. They had assumed that every student would play the game by themselves, but found small groups forming, watching a single student play and helping each other out. This flowed into classwork, where there was a lot of natural space for collaboration. They also learned not to run the class up against mechatronics science or the fantasy English class because that split numbers to half of what was originally expected. But most importantly they learned that even if kids are assigned games they love for homework - they’ll still struggle to get it done on time, if at all.
In a class of around 24, there were only 6 girls. One of those girls was not only the top scorer in the class, but topped the entirety of her grade in English this semester. There were a number of students who have struggled to engage in the past push themselves harder this semester than they have in a long time. For some of them, even submitting their assessment on time was a big win, and that’s thanks to their engagement with this unit. Otherwise quiet students got quite fired up in small group discussions. High flying students were able to push themselves with new and challenging concepts. Mark says: The classroom was one of the most positive classes I’ve been in, as a teacher, for a long time.

To see more about the Game On unit, you can visit the unit site: If you’re interested in finding out more, contact Mark, who will be only too happy to share their story with you.