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Why Video Games Could be the Answer

    By Josh Cross

    A couple of years ago, I wrote an article and filmed a video for ATEQ highlighting the potential of video games in the ELA classroom. One of the games I featured was What Remains of Edith Finch (2017), a narrative-based game that tells the story of a young girl revisiting her family home, learning about the various eclectic members of her family through visions into the past, and investigating a foreboding curse of misfortune that seems to have befallen the family.

    Square Enix’s What Remains of Edith Finch – Retrieved from vg247

    If this game were a book, it would likely be included in every ELA classroom for its incredible use of metaphor, foreshadowing, imagery, and allusion. However, the fact that this rich literary text is packaged in the form of a video game results in its exclusion from formal learning contexts. One of the main reasons teachers are apprehensive to use games in their classrooms is related to the perceived challenge of developing meaningful assessments that adhere to the QEP. Personally, I think we are overthinking what video game-related evaluations need to look like. 

    Educators have long been using non-traditional texts like movies, TV shows, audiobooks, music, and plays. When incorporating these texts into the curriculum, many have chosen to take a more traditional approach to assessment, such as essays, comprehension quizzes, and oral presentations with fairly standard rubrics. I think it’s important to remember that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel just because we’ve chosen to navigate a somewhat uncommon textual format with our students. 

    This view is supported by academic research, such as a recent literature review (Nash & Brandy, 2021) exploring the incorporation of video games within ELA classrooms across North America; the authors found that, especially with consideration of competency-based standards, video games can easily be integrated within the curriculum as viable literary texts alongside more traditional assessments. Some of the approaches to assessment highlighted in this review include text-based essays responding to the game, artistic projects involving crafting or drawing, and creative writing projects such as scripts developing additional scenes between characters from the game. 

    The main takeaway from this and other publications is that if we can create assessments for alternative forms of media like podcasts and films, we can certainly do the same for video games. The key is to ensure that the chosen media allows for evaluation of the required competencies, particularly in the event that your administration or departmental leads want justification for its inclusion. While my colleagues contributing to this year’s special edition of ELA Today have gone into more practical details related to creating assessments with new media, I would like to highlight another important factor that accompanies the inclusion of these texts: students’ mental health.

    Since completing my previous article for ELA Today, I chose to pursue a Master’s in Counselling Psychology as my experiences as an educator showed me that there is an immediate need for mental health support for young people. As I’m sure most teachers are aware that there is a mental health crisis going on in our classrooms. I have seen this take shape through frequent absenteeism, outbursts in class, and a general sense of apathy. While there is some debate as to whether students are truly falling behind in the aftermath of the pandemic, there is no debate that mental health challenges have spiked since then. Researchers Craig, Ames, Bondi and Pepler (2023), for instance, found that Canadian adolescents are reporting high rates of depression (51%), anxiety (39%), and posttraumatic stress disorder (45%), in addition to over 50% of students reporting some form of substance use within the last 90 days. 

    So what does this have to do with creating assessments for alternative texts like video games? These forms of revamped textual integrations are about meeting students where they’re at; drawing from their passions and backgrounds to create meaningful learning experiences. While it’s certainly important that students demonstrate the ability to read and comprehend a wide array of textual formats, I believe that we could be encouraging the same competencies with other forms of media. Speaking from personal experience, video games played a major role in fostering my love of reading; Pokémon (1996) helped me to improve my reading skills when I first played around the age of 6. Storydriven games like Kingdom Hearts (2002) or Final Fantasy (2001) also helped me develop an appreciation for storytelling.

    Kingdom Hearts box art PAL region : Square Enix/ Disney : Free Download ...

    Square Enix and Disney’s Kingdom Hearts (2002)Retrieved from IMDB

    While print-based texts may be falling out of fashion with youth for numerous reasons – such as shorter attention spans and a decrease in reading levels – the fact is that many students will go home after a day of classes and play video games. So why not meet students where they’re at? Why not integrate contemporary texts that we know will peak their interest? With their noted potential to combat the symptoms of depression and anxiety (Kowal et al., 2021), I would recommend stepping out of your comfort zone and including video games as an option in your classroom Not only do video games offer an untapped wealth of incredible learning opportunities, but they are also comfortable, accessible, and beneficial for students that may struggle with demonstrating their competencies with more traditional texts. 

    In addition to the value video games can offer when used as a learning tool, they can also help to address the challenges we face with AI technologies like ChatGPT. Unlike many of the novels we assign where perfectly crafted chapter reviews are readily available online for students to consult, video games are often so complex that, at best, you may find a brief synopsis of the main plot. The fine details of the story, characters, and setting would require hours of research in order to write a competent paper or offer a compelling presentation. 

    Like any other art form, there is also room for differing interpretations of a video game, requiring independent and critical thought. As games constantly require the player’s input, students could even be asked to reflect on their own actions and provide justifications as to why they chose a certain route or made a certain choice at a pivotal moment in the story. Literary criticism is another interesting opportunity within video games, as students can be tasked with analyzing the artistic choices found in the game through various lenses. Fanfiction is another form of media that has been growing more popular in ELA classrooms; students are often asked to write an additional chapter, scene, or alternate ending to a novel, and the exact same can be done with a video game. Assessments with games can be just that easy! 

    I hope these reflections help inspire you to integrate video games into your lessons. In order to point you in the right direction, I’ve provided a short list of games that could be good contenders for classroom integrations. These games have been chosen for their narratives, literary devices, and characterization. However, please note, I do recommend that teachers take the time to either play the games themselves or at least watch walkthroughs of the games on YouTube before assigning.

    Game Recommendations 

    Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (Playstation 4, Windows PC)
    Kingdom Hearts (Sony Playstation 4, Xbox Series X/S, PC)
    Life is Strange (Playstation 4, Playstation 5, Nintendo Switch)
    The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch)


    Craig, S. G., Ames, M. E., Bondi, B. C., & Pepler, D. J. (2023). Canadian adolescents’ 

    mental health and substance use during the COVID-19 pandemic: Associations with COVID-19 stressors. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement55(1), 46-55.

    Kowal, M., Conroy, E., Ramsbottom, N., Smithies, T., Toth, A., & Campbell, M. (2021). 

    Gaming your mental health: A narrative review on mitigating symptoms of depression and anxiety using commercial video games. JMIR Serious Games9(2), e26575.

    Nash, B. L., & Brady, R. B. (2021). Video games in the secondary English language arts 

    classroom: A state‐of‐the‐Art review of the literature. Reading Research Quarterly57(3), 957-981.