For some time now, as today’s youth have turned ever more to the detailed, immersive environments of video games, adults have tended to observe from a distance. They are perplexed by the apparent pleasure children experience doing nothing more than sitting in front of a screen, absorbed in the events of a virtual world. This inability to appreciate how enjoyable video games can be has led many to view them as unnecessary distractions that facilitate procrastination and steal precious time from other, more “valuable” and enriching pursuits.
However, the times they are a-changing, and it seems that educators and academics alike have started to get the message. Rather than turning their backs they are now beginning to examine more seriously the elements of video games that might positively contribute to a child’s learning. The question on their lips has evolved. Instead of asking “How can we limit the playing of video games”, they are now considering “How can video games be useful?”
As a 30-year-old English teacher who has worked with students from Hong Kong international schools for nearly a decade, I am very familiar with the types of literature studied for international qualifications in English and believe the true educational value of video games lies in their storytelling capacity. Proficiency in storytelling is a crossover skill overflowing with both academic and social value. It is also something built upon words, and the vocabulary that we need in order to give our thoughts life is expanded through stories.
Let’s take “The Last of Us” as a case study. I would describe it as a zombie-horror video game that is painfully human and uncannily authentic in its story of people in a post-apocalyptic world trying to keep their morality intact. While the gameplay was thoroughly enjoyable, it was the brilliantly constructed characters of Ellie and Joel, and their unlikely co-dependency, that gave the game its soul. One reviewer said of Ellie, whose vulnerability and determination had players hooked that “From feisty warmth to beleaguered exhaustion, her many moods are always tinged with a grounded levity. Her uplifting nature stands in sharp contrast to the people and events surrounding her, compelling you to protect her, shepherd her, and cherish her.”
To be considered exceptional third person shooters, games like “The Last of Us” turn to developers who can construct immersive environments, but also writers who can create compelling characters. That is because nowadays, impressive visuals alone aren’t enough. Without a solid plot, well-defined characters and believable relationships, they can collapse under the weight of their own clichés. It is the strength of their traditional story elements that give games like this their credibility.
While video games are obviously not the same as books, the overlaps in storytelling approaches are undeniable. With the improved sophistication of content, video games are now being examined by reviewers with a literary eye. Taking a look at gaming reviews found in respected news outlets like the South China Morning Post, the Huffington Post, The Guardian, and the BBC, one finds that as much praise (or scorn) is given to the creativity of a games plot as is given to its playability and originality.
Unfortunately, it is the numerous articles denouncing games that tend to take pride of place on the landing pages of most news sites. Many parents and educators rely on such pieces to disparage them, focusing on their addictive qualities and how they can lead to dysfunction at school and at home, as well as harming a child’s health. Yet those same adults are unlikely to have tried the games themselves for a whole variety of reasons, dismissing them before making a serious evaluation of their educational potential or efficacy.
It may be that they remember the arcades, hand-held first-person shooters or pixelated pictoramas that made it impossible to become fully immersed in the game you were playing. Yet what they remember is no longer the norm. Today’s creations are developed by intelligent, highly experienced teams of individuals. To ignore the genius buried in them would be more than just regrettable; it would be a failure in our responsibilities as teachers and a demonstration of wilful ignorance, considering the trajectory of the medium.
The games industry is already enormous, but by 2020 it is estimated that the global market will be worth over US$140 billion. If we abide by the old adage of investigators and follow the money, then we have to concede that this once niche industry will become more omnipresent and today’s educators, particularly in core subject areas like English and maths, can play a key role in establishing the educational value of video games in general.
Titles such as “The Last of Us”, the remastered version of which has Chinese and English subtitles, are filled with rich and varied material, both in the main plotline and in the many subsidiary missions that players can complete at their leisure. Teachers can use them to reinforce discussions about novels, prose and plays and, perhaps one day, will hold them up alongside conventional literature as an equivalent.
Children are likely to welcome such open-mindedness and the acknowledgement of a medium which they engage with on a near-daily basis. Parents and teachers who are less enthusiastic about video games don’t need to be alarmed. The games will be there to support, not to replace. Placing games alongside the traditional study of literature may do something that no amount of literary analysis could achieve: it could get students excited about studying literature.
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