Video Games in the English Classroom, Part 2 Playing and Reading, Contrasting Experiences


©David Seelow, Ph.D.

In part one of this blog, I discussed the value of applying the techniques of close reading practiced in most literature classrooms to video games. Such practice helps students cultivate judgment. In this part, I will talk about the cultivation of taste by asking students to compare a closely related video game and a work of literature. In assigning such comparisons I avoid asking students to make a judgment about whether a video game about Batman is better than a comic about Batman. These cross-media judgments strike me as pointless. They are better left for late bull sessions or talk radio; they are simply two different media. End of story.1 I feel the same about the dumb conversations about “I like the book better than the movie.” “Well, good for you,” I say. That’s a matter of taste not informed judgment. A movie about Hamlet is entirely different than a play about Hamlet. They have different technologies, performers, audiences etc. If they were same I think something would be wrong. Why bother adopting a work if you are not do something different and valuable in its own right?

The comparison between a video game and a work of literature pushes students to learn what makes a work great within its medium and that gives student a different appreciation and understanding of the respective media. What makes a great game will differ from what makes a great novel even though both can excel in their respective forms. Once students have made an extended comparison they can say which medium they prefer and make that an informed statement, though a statement of taste not value. Baseball is not better than basketball, but I prefer the former based upon these reasons. In comparing a work of literature with a video game, students are comparing reading with playing as experiences of a text. A comparison can also be made with films, but as I strongly believe students need to read more, so I prefer the fiction and game comparison.

Below, I will discuss my experience in a course on comics. A comic book is an ideal work of literature to compare with a video games as comics also have a strong visual component and students are more familiar with comic books than traditional novels and, unfortunate though this may be, students are more likely to read a full comic book or graphic novel than a Dickens’ novel. As always, I offer students a choice; choices that compare what I consider exemplary works in their respective media (Batman or The Walking Dead), and in both cases, they occupy the same universe (universe as in transmedia phenomena of release a text in multiple forms- movie, game, story, toy etc.).

Batman: Experiencing the Shades of Heroism

Virtually all students today will be familiar with the character Batman, most likely from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. You can frame the assignment by discussing the students’ general familiarity with the character and how they arrive at their knowledge base. Comparing Grant Morrison’s (1989) superb graphic novel Arkham Asylum with the video game of the same name, Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) makes an ideal assignment in that the graphic novel had some direct influence on the game of two decades later.

Both novel and game take place in Arkham Asylum and revolve around the old fear, “the inmates are running the asylum” and the need for Batman to liberate the psychiatric hospital from the hands of his rogue’s gallery of villains and their commander, the Joker. Making the comparison students will need to focus on characterization and how the respective media highlight certain aspects of Batman and how plot must best serve the respective medium where it unfolds.

As superhero comics primarily use action sequences (possibly 75% of the panels) and superhero video games are action adventure in style, students have much common ground for their comparison. However, unexpectedly, students will encounter in Grant Morrison’s story a focus on Batman’s interior life, a strategy one would expect to find in a traditional novel that lacks pictures. By setting his novel in a psychiatric hospital Morrison wants to explore Batman’s psyche and the fine line that separates sanity from insanity or mental health from mental illness. Students note this overt difference between story and game immediately, “The graphic novel seems to focus more on the psychological themes of Batman opposed to the game, which offers a more dynamic gameplay and action filled experience.”  Morrison uses a mythic journey to the interior for Batman’s entrance into the asylum, but also parallels his present journey with an account of the asylum’s creation by Dr. Amadeus Arkham. Thus, the story serves to tie Batman’s psyche in some deep sense with the historical founding of the asylum. To capture the psychological nature of the story, artist Dave McKean uses symbolic art and makes significant use of expressionist and surrealist techniques, which many students will find new, especially in the context of a comic book.

One male student nicely describes the eerie nature of the art and typography to evoke characterization, “The Joker’s art representation also creates an atmosphere that is scrambled and blood-chilling as all dialogue is written in a strange bright red script and his own depiction is very blurred and chaotic. The internal battle that Batman faces as he is subjected to the Joker’s mind games mess with his head and truly disturb his own mental capacity.”

A female student also observes how the art serves Batman’s shadowy sense of self and the psychological struggles he faces in contrast to a brighter more confident Batman depicted in the video game,

The graphic novel focuses on the mental health issues that the villains suffer from along with Batman’s own trauma. The art style is very dark and experimental as well. The graphic novel is very sketchy in the sense there are little definitive bold lines and some pages don’t have panels along with a lot of vertical panels on other pages, as opposed to the video game that includes brighter colors and defined characters which just works better in gaming.

Here you can see how the student notes the elimination of the gutter or panel separation as a structural element in comics and how that device contributes to characterization.

Overall, students did an excellent job identifying the differences between the novel and game and how these differences led to their very different endings:

In the video game, Batman’s main test is a titan who was been enhanced from toxins provided by Bain. Batman fights way more prisoners and villains in the ultimate battle in the video game than in the comic. In the comic, Batman is released by a flip of a coin by Two Face. Also, in the comic, The Joker taunts Batman by providing him with a message indicating that if life gets too hard for him […] then he always has a place in Arkham. In the video game, The Joker kills himself. As you can see both the video game and graphic novel took two totally different routes in the end. The ultimate battle in the comic leaves room open for                          further interpretation, the video game not so much in my opinion.

This comment indicates how each art form takes a different approach to closure, or in the case of the graphic novel, a lack of closure, and this difference will have a strong effect on students’ preference for one medium over the other.

How students expressed their preference or represented their artistic taste seemed consistent with their actual experiences, “I personally enjoyed playing the game more than I liked reading the graphic novel.  Playing the game helps you interact and [complete] a challenge … based off skill whereas reading a book just takes you through the story step by step and has very minimal interaction.” For this student game interaction appealed to him, but that appeal also disclosed a very honest confession that might indicate a student’s heavier investment in game play as opposed to reading, “The plus of reading the novel over playing the game is that you get to use your imagination to help create part of the story that might not be entirely written.  I personally don’t have the best imagination, so I do prefer the mission based and interaction that you get from playing a video game as to reading even a graphic novel.” In this comment you have a declaration of taste, but also a finer appreciation of reading as a spur to imagination.

A female student also notes the interactive nature of controlling, i.e., playing a character, but reaches a profound conclusion that disputes a frequent presupposition that a video game is more immersive than a novel, “Most people would say that video games are more immersive than graphic novels, but I would disagree; I think that they are immersive in separate ways. This graphic novel is a good example of that ideology. It makes you connect to the villains as people and gets you involved in in their back stories as opposed to in the video game where you just beat them [the villains] up.”

One student describes that difference between a physical Batman and a psychological Batman and his preference for the more physical character that reflects a need for a more resolute ending, a clearly heroic and victorious Batman,

Playing the Batman in my opinion was more enjoyable and fun to use his powers and defeat villains. It gives the player a different sense that i satisfying and hopeful toward […] the end goal of defeating the main evil character, the Joker. Reading about Batman in this comic shows us a different angle, shows us a more broken-down character who is trying to prove to himself he is different than these psychopaths while the conflict is driven with the idea that he could be more alike than different.”

This comment reflects a clear sense of where the student’s preference comes from while appreciating the different qualities of two different mediums of expression.

Out of the Asylum: Some Bat Lessons Learned

This activity will most likely disclose new discoveries for both teachers and students. For example, the obvious is not always so obvious. Students will make the obvious comment that video games are interactive and that’s the primary difference between a video game and a novel. That’s a given, but consider stopping students to ask them if they think a work of literature is really a static object? No, the minute you turn a page you are interacting with the text and constructing meaning. Students will reach this discovery on their own as when the above student explains how reading requires his imagination to complete a scene. He does not name that as interactive, but you, as teacher, can name his discovery. In fact, Scott McCloud talks at length how comics are built around closure wherein the reader closes the space created by the gutter between panels through her imagination. Students can be encouraged to think about interactivity as more than the point and click of a mouse, the shift of a body to sensors, the manipulation of a controller, the touch of a screen, and ask them to describe how these forms of interaction impact the game. For instance, how does playing Batman change his character based on different inputs such as the use of Detective Vision?

The common observation by my students that the video game focuses more on physical action than psychological drama is accurate,  but help them keep in mind that just as a video game can explore psychological depths and rich characterization that leads to player empathy, a written text, even one without pictures, can be chock full of battles and action. Homer’s Iliad comes immediately to my mind. In other words, differences between the two media are relative not absolute.

Nonetheless, in the case of Arkham Asylum, students came up with excellent descriptions of how the physical action of the video game, which ends with a strong victorious Batman, and squarely defeated Joker, differ from the graphic novel with its open ending, and the lingering feeling that Batman may not be all that different from the Joker. Perhaps, this difference explains differences in taste, and that difference in taste, perhaps, represents a difference between players and readers. In my class, the preference for the video game Batman reflects a preference for victory and decisiveness, a need to win and beat the villain. That’s a comforting feeling. Ending a story with the toss of coin is unsettling, not all comforting. A student provides the prefect concluding statement to the activity, “In my opinion, both the video game and graphic novel are great in their own unique ways.” After all, Batman is both a top-notch fighter, skilled detective, master of gadgets, and an unfathomable mystery- the dark knight.

The Walking Dead: Experiencing the Undead 

Cover of The Walking Dead, Volume 1

The Walking Dead: The Game, and The Walking Dead comic book are ideal comparison texts and made up the second choice for my students. Both media are serial productions unfolding in linked episodes. Tell Tale Games specializes in narrative drive games making the comparison with a comic particularly intriguing. What fascinates me are how students engaged how the change in the protagonist’s profile, from the comics’ Rick Grimes to the game’s Lee Everett in unpacking the range of times such a difference registers across the texts and their respective worlds:

The first clear difference in the video game versus the comic book is the protagonist. In The Walking Dead: Episode One A New Day gamers play as the character Lee Everett. Contrasting Rick Grimes and his courageous actions in the introduction, players quickly learn about Lee Everett’s as he sits handcuffed in the back of a police car. A history teacher turned murderer – Everett is quickly seen as resourceful taking an opportunity to get free from his handcuffs, ripping his family photo to prevent others from discovering his identity and yet caring, asking if the police officer is ok after the car accident and taking care of Clementine a prioritizing her safety. Everett quickly falls into the role of protector; the zombie apocalypse having given him a second chance at life.

Another person also picks up on the difference between using a member of the law and an alleged enemy of the law as protagonists facing the same desperate situation is seeing how apparent differences manifest themselves in crisis:

The key difference between Rick Grimes and Lee Everett is how they start their journey. One of them begins as a white cop, and the other as a black man in the back of a cop car. As the reader, you instinctively think of Rick as a good person who upholds justice. Regardless of skin color Lee is first seen as an alleged criminal. The officer driving the car allows room for the player to believe that maybe he was falsely arrested, but the crime was murder. It is a lot to interpret. Their goals are the same though, despite Rick waking up approximately one month into the disaster, and Lee having to live through all of it. Fortunately for them both, the first people they meet are trusting, and just happy to see another living human. This allows them both to show their true nature. As a player and reader, I saw them both as morally good people.

Here the student picks up on a potential racial theme, but notes how differences hide a deeper moral commonality, i.e. what leads one man to commit a crime does not define that person’s nature. There is more than meets the eye.

Another student makes an interesting observation on how the mechanics of the game reflect the story’s theme:

Reading through the story, the audience is better able to grasp the whole situation. Pages can be viewed and reread, details can be scrutinized, and images analyzed carefully. The reader can read the story at their own pace and is not forced to hurry. No decisions must be made, as the story is already set in stone. While playing the video game, players are given a firsthand perspective. Both images and sound effects combine to fully immerse the player. Players can choose their lines and actions which gives each individual player a distinct experience. Because of the video game format everything seems rushed – as action is used to enthrall the players and is needed to push the player through the story, a sense of urgency and danger is used to keep the player entertained.

Here, the student notes the slower pace of reading and how that slow pace promotes close reading and analysis, while the video game’s faster pace reflects the frantic speed of people on the run trying to evade a rushing bunch of zombie killers. The reader also notes the importance of player choice in the game. Unlike Arkham Asylum where choice is a key but not terribly significant mechanic (how many ways to beat up or take down a foe strikes me as quite inconsequential on a narrative level), in The Walking Dead game choices have severe moral consequences that accumulate to help determine the character’s and player’s ethical compass:

When you read the comic, you are being told a story. This differs in the game because while you are playing the game, you are forced to take your own morality into consideration. ­­This is because the choices that you must make in the game make you choose between what you believe to be right and wrong, as opposed to the game, in which you are being told what is right or wrong.

A final observation about choice that emerges only through the experience of both reading and playing allows for a deep understanding of the protagonist’s characterization:

I believe that Lee Everett is a good person and tried to make his interactions with the other characters resemble that. Reading about Rick on the other hand was interesting because he saw too much of the good in people. He wasn’t willing to believe that his friend Shane had changed. Had I been playing as Rick I would have tried to act on that suspicion earlier but most of his other actions I would have changed. Playing as Lee is more difficult because he has a lot to hide from those he meets. His family’s death, his charge of murder, and his reasoning for taking care of Clementine. I believe it was just the right thing to do, but strangers may get the wrong idea.

This student thinks about how playing the graphic novel’s hero would be different than playing the game’s actual protagonist. A converse assignment would ask what the novel would be like with Lee Everret as the protagonist instead of Rick Grimes? Such creative though experiments engage both the students understanding of character and the media of their representations.

A Concluding Thought

The use of video games enriches a literature classroom and a piece of literature can enrich a video game design or writing for games class. They are distinct media within the Humanities that represent deeply immersive worlds teaching us much about the world we live in. Comparing a similar text across the two media will help students understand where their preference or taste emerges from as well as give them a much deeper understanding of the medium they may prematurely push aside.

Note  

  1. Not wanting to be hypocritical I must confess a few years ago I blogged about the late Robert Ebert’s claim that film was a superior art to video games. It was a fun academic exercise, but honestly disingenuous. Even on a practical level does the comparison make any sense? Ebert was a film critic, a great film critic to be sure, but safe to assume a film expert would prefer film over video games. Furthermore, Ebert, like me, grew up in a generation before video games really became popular, so the level of familiarity is not high. Third, video games have not reached full maturity and even film, may not have yet reached full maturity. These three reasons aside, the “which is better debate”, though not logically valid, remains fun.

References

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Rocksteady Studios/Eidos Interactive, 2009

Kirkman, Robert and Moore, Tony. The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye. Image Comics, 2015.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. HarperPerennial, 1993.

Morrison, Grant and McKean, Dave. Arkham Asyulum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth. DC Comics, 1989.

The Walking Dead: The Game Season One. 5 episodes

Tell Tale Games, 2012.

 

.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.