Games as Textbooks: A New Way to Look at Curriculum


David Seelow, PhD©

Who wants to lug around twenty-pound textbooks? Pay $120 for a book you sell back in 15 weeks? Not me, and not my students. I made that discovery for the very first course I taught at Suffolk Community College’s Eastern Campus on Long Island, I did away with the idea of a textbook. I was in the final stages of writing my dissertation when I was offered the opportunity to teach two sections of Mythology. My own undergraduate career had included the typical mammoth Norton anthologies of British Literature and the like used in most English literature survey courses. Norton is a terrific company, but textbooks struck as having five major drawbacks that effect both students and instructors:

  1. They are very expensive,
  2. They are large and bulky with little enduring power, i.e. students will sell them back once the survey courses are over,
  3. There is far too much unused material (any one instructor is unlikely to use more than 10% of the voluminous material included in an anthology),
  4. The material cannot be totally current because of print schedules, and, novels or lengthy selections simply do not fit texts that might already stretch over 1,000 pages (the         second half of British Literature would need to include the novel to be legitimate), and
  5. The content or selections are determined by editors who mostly likely do not know the student body where most instructors teach.

I addressed these limitations by discarding the standard mythology books by Robert Graves and Bullfinch and used an assortment of individual texts that allowed for extend discussion of mythology. I do not recall these texts any more, but know Herman Hesse’s great novel on the Buddha, Siddhartha was one, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Goethe’s Faust were, I believe two others. All told these books would have been no costlier than a text book, but my hunch was- and remains, to a degree, students are more likely to hold onto at least a few small texts they enjoyed and reread later in life than they are likely to hold onto an anthology that weights down their backpack and fits neither brief cases nor suitcases. Yes, even back in my student days portability mattered. A paperback could be easily brought to the grassy university commons, or read on the Long Island Rail Road.

Abundance is an issue. I would love to have read and discussed every selection in the great Norton anthologies, but the class would need to last 4 years. Equally important, however great the content, every college has a unique student body that standardized texts do not always serve the way a professor might want those students served. At Suffolk Community College’s eastern campus in Riverhead, almost all the students were Caucasian, and middle class. The following year, when I started teaching at the State University of New York, Old Westbury, 30 miles or so west, in Nassau County, most of the students were from New York City with a very high proportion of African American and Hispanic students. I always felt my section of material should reflect to a strong degree the students I taught and anthologies do not always allow such customization.

Individual texts were just one alternative. At SCC, I also used video tapes (the old VHS variety) of Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyer’s conversation The Power of Myth as a text; indeed, the most important text in my Mythology class. At Old Westbury, I used cassette tapes of rap songs, and DVDs of films. Today, these options expand in breadth and ease of use. Sites like Project Gutenberg, Bartleby, and the Poetry Foundation allow for an instructor to dispense with print texts altogether or give students a choice in how the access material. Film, television programs, documentaries etc.  can be streamed right into the classroom for free if the instructor has a subscription, and digitization allows access to a plethora of older material masking customization remarkably easy and precise.

The last few years I have included video games in my classes. As the largest and fastest growing entertainment media in the country, video games merit inclusion in any curriculum that concerns popular culture, contemporary literature or cultural studies, sociology and even history. As a text, games can be studied like any other work of art. The journal Well Played: a journal on video games, value and meaning published by the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University contains many examples of such studies and criticism. I first used a game in Media and Justice at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). The game Prison Architect (Introversion Software) proved an excellent collateral study in my unit on Foucault’s The Birth of the Prison and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. At Maria College in Albany, New York I used the Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar Games) series in a Critical Inquiry and Writing class to talk about violence and video games, as well as gender, race, and urban sociology. Last semester, at the College of Saint Rose (also in Albany) in a course called Superheroes and Modern American Culture I divided the class into three super hero teams and each team played and presented on a different superhero video game: Arkham, Asylum (Rocksteady Studios), Scribbernaughts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure (Warner Brothers Games),and Injustice: Gods Among Us (NetherRealm Studios) and finally, in a fully online course on cyber culture at Excelsior College in Albany, I used Dex (Dreadlocks, Ltd)and Deus Ex: The Human Revolution (Square Enix Ltd/Eidos Montreal) which brilliantly complimented the film The Matrix, the novel Snow Crash, and the courses entire theme of human identity in a posthuman universe. For example, Dex, the name of the reluctant female protagonist in the game of that name allows for excellent discussion of gender in a highly augmented universe.

Video games are excellent in a flipped classroom environment where students play outside of class and discuss in class. They are also excellent for online discussion forums, and for group activities. Video games are no more expensive than a simple paperback. Usually, I also ask students to play together as a group and find ways to split the cost of a game. I can play the game in class using the projector so we can analyze player/protagonist choices. As an active form of art, video games demand more of students that texts that are more passively consumed. How better to get a sense of a prison environment than to manage one as Prison Architect requires (excellent for a Criminal Justice course)? Likewise, playing Batman produces an entirely dissimilar experience than reading about or watching him on screen. Active learning is inherent in games and more than ever students need to be active thinkers engaged with the material they encounter. Lastly, the possibilities for cooperative play elicited by many games allows students the team play most of their future careers will expect, but most college courses ignore. I highly recommend higher education faculty to consider using video games in their future courses and start making the college classroom more fun than the students’ tablets and smart phones or rather turn those diversions and distractions into platforms for on the spot learning!

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