Introduction: Playing and Pedagogy

by Agatha Beins

The trailer begins with spare drum beats and a close-up of a hand that pans wider to reveal a medieval setting. Drama unfolds as the song builds. Lyrics like  “Deep in the ocean, dead and cast away / Where innocence is burned in flames” and “A soldier on my own, I don't know the way” narrate the hero’s journey across a sea to a sparse open landscape. Then, amid towering snow-capped mountains, with just a sword and his acrobatic wiles, this hero takes on an onslaught of soldiers: one man against an army. We end with a literal cliffhanger, when the captured protagonist is led onto a plank overhanging the edge of a sheer, seemingly bottomless rock wall and then suddenly the scene goes black.

In its narrative and visual tapestry, this trailer might appear to be selling a movie about a long-ago epic battle between good and evil, similar to 300, Immortals, or even Gladiator. Instead, it previews Revelations (2011), an iteration in the Assassin’s Creed video game series that replicates this trope as players battle their way along a harsh, unforgiving journey. But this example points to the growing overlap between films and video games. Since the release of Revelations in 2011, video game technology has only increased in sophistication, enabling more lifelike representations of imagined worlds, and games’ storylines tap into the metanarrative arcs that shape many mainstream movie plots. Productions like Telling Lies (2019; Shanley 2019), Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018), and the unreleased Erica (Summers 2017) further destabilize these genres as “interactive media”: they’re live-action films that involve viewer participation in some form, whether the audience can shape the story by determining characters’ actions (Bandersnatch), navigate through different virtual artifacts and scenes to solve a mystery (Telling Lies), or do both (Erica).

Contemporary modes and tools of media production have blurred the boundaries between previously distinct forms and types of engagement: Video games look more like movies. Consumers are now users and players. Amateurs become creators without needing specialized equipment or training. Considering these shifts and recognizing that films and video games may be used in similar ways, Films for the Feminist Classroom offers the special feature, “Playing and Pedagogy: Theories and Practices for Teaching with Video Games.” It includes essays, lesson plans, and reviews that demonstrate the rich pedagogical value of video games and their wide applicability in a range of educational settings. These contributions are provocative and practical in many ways: they astutely analyze video game content, describe specific activities that integrate games into classrooms, discuss how video games can teach skills and investigate different social/political topics, and show how the world of gaming is rich and varied—much more expansive than the stereotypical white-male gamer and the mainstream offerings like Minecraft, Pokémon, and World of Warcraft.

Independent and alternative video games created by smaller teams or individuals have been part of gaming culture since its inception. Three contributions highlight this subgenre with games that give users the opportunity to experience “first-hand” what it is like to be someone living with a form of violence or oppression. In their lesson plan, Elizabeth LaPensée and Nichlas Emmons offer ideas for teaching with When Rivers Were Trails, which places players in the position of an Anishinaabe person who is forced to relocate because of the nineteenth-century allotment acts authorized by the US federal government. Similarly, Migration Trail takes on the issue of displacement, in this case focusing on the contemporary US-Mexico border. Hugo Santos, Lucinda Saldanha, Sofia Castanheira Pais, and Pedro Daniel Ferreira researched the pedagogical value of this game by analyzing the affective and ethical responses from those who played it. And bridging the public and private spheres, Rebecca S. Richards guides us through the opportunities and complexities of exploring emotional abuse from an intimate partner with the game It’s You: A Breakup Story.

Video games not only create spaces where students can view an issue from another perspective but also promote skill building, regardless of the specific content. While teaching high school students in France, Yann Descamps found a way to do both in an unlikely place: the NBA 2K series. Ostensibly about professional basketball in the United States, these games nonetheless could be used for English language training and linguistics; to explore the manifestation and impact of racial, gendered, and economic inequalities; and to analyze popular culture. Mamta Shah foregrounds practical skills by integrating Spent—a game that asks players to survive for a month on poverty-level wages—into the curriculum of a teacher training program to develop pre-service teachers’ game literacy and give them more confidence to use video games in a classroom.

Another set of contributions attends less to the content of games and more to their technical dimensions. Building a lesson plan around games’ modes of production allows teachers to activate multiple levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and address different learning styles, turning learners into creators and blurring the user/consumer binary. Lawrence May, for example, illuminates the characteristics of narrative theory by asking students to decorate a room in a way that conveys part of the storyline in a zombie apocalypse video game. And Susana Ruiz uses a mix-and-match format to teach game design: students brainstorm lists of values, problems, actions, and games and then, in small groups, design a game based on one item from each list. Also considering multiple dimensions of game creation, Erin Kathleen Bahl, Sergio C. Figueiredo, and Jeffrey D. Greene offer a lesson plan for developing game design documents that critique dominant cultural narratives and take accessibility into account from the initial conceptual stages.

In addition to the games themselves, we can learn about the world of gaming—primarily as it has emerged in the United States—through documentaries. The films reviewed in this special feature unpack cultures of gaming and how identity shapes the experiences of players and creators. Alisha Karabinus, Jennifer Malkowski, and Shamethia Webb insightfully guide us through the dialectic in which video games reflect and shape social norms and, thus, are sites where structures such as racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia may be both amplified and challenged. They review films such as Game Over: Gender, Race & Violence in Video Games, Gamer Girls, and Gaming in Color to demonstrate the importance of prioritizing diversity in gaming—on the screen, in the stages of production, and among those who play.

Those unfamiliar with video games will find many possible points of entry in this special feature. At the same time, these contributions can also push video game experts to incorporate this media into their teaching in new ways. Gaming is also a vast and heterogeneous sphere: games and gamers reinforce and defy stereotypes. Moreover, despite the prescriptive nature of some games, technology can amplify the interactive qualities of gaming, which allows users—and educators—to adapt video games for our pedagogical goals and social justice aspirations. Regardless of your experience with or knowledge about video games, there is no denying that gaming has become a significant part of many of our students’ lives and imaginaries. This special feature asks us neither to turn away from gaming nor to unequivocally embrace it, but to engage it, thoughtfully, critically, and ready to play.

Gaming and Pedagogy Resources

Feminist Frequency’s media recommendations

Bitch magazine’s writings about video games

TNI Syllabus: Gaming and Feminism” by The New Inquiry

Field Day: “Based at Wisconsin Center for Educational Research at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, we are a truly interdisciplinary team of educational researchers, software engineers, artists, and storytellers, exploring the intersection of current learning science and media design, specializing in mobile media, video games, and simulation. Seeking to do what’s never been done before, we constantly innovate, play, take risks, and mess-make”

Mobile histories: How mobile technologies transform history teaching” – Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory blog entry

Game Studies group within Humanities Commons: “An interdisciplinary group for game studies scholars to share work, discuss topics in the field, and post CFPs and other relevant documents”

Screen Saviors: Can Activism-Focused Games Change Our Behavior?” – NPR story

With These 3 ‘Woke’ Video Games, Social Justice Meets Button Mashing” by Kate Maxwell

Feminists in Games Tumblr site

Works Cited

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. 2011. Designed by Ubisoft Montreal. PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4. Xbox One.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. 2018. Directed by David Slade (Los Gatos, CA: Netflix), variable.

Shanley, Patrick. 2019. “How Annapurna Interactive's 'Telling Lies' Blurs Lines Between Film, Gaming.” Hollywood Reporter, March 27.

Summers, Nick. 2017. “‘Erica’ Blurs the Line between Game and Interactive Movie.” Engadget, November 2.

Telling Lies. 2019. Developed by Sam Barlow (West Hollywood: Annapurna), variable.