Why we should be studying video games in language studies

What is video game design, how do you analyze it, and tell interactive stories?

The video game industry is now the world’s most popular and profitable entertainment medium, ahead of television, and larger than both movies and music combined (“Investing in the Soaring Popularity of Gaming,” 2018). Yet, video games typically get the short shrift in language studies, dismissed as a lesser art form when compared to traditional text explorations of books and movies.

The Ontario English curriculum promotes literacy and language development in tandem with adaptive teaching “for the twenty-first century.” There’s nothing more twenty-first century than exploring the sweeping, complex and thrilling texts of video games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Final Fantasy VII and Red Dead Redemption 2. The medium not only has meaty content to explore but is also incredibly popular. The fastest-selling entertainment product in history is not a book or a film, but a 2013 video game: Grand Theft Auto V. Within the game’s first 24 hours of release, it sold 11.21 million units, and within three days, it earned over $1 billion in sales (Lynch, 2013). Players also invest a significantly greater amount of time exploring these works. For example, Grand Theft Auto V takes about 64.1 hours to complete its main storyline (GameFAQs), which is nearly four hours more than it takes to read the entire Harry Potter book series (“How long does it take to read popular books,” 2017).

Long before video games were the culturally dominant mass communication product, they were culturally significant and worthy to be critically analyzed as text. In the third generation of video game consoles, one of the most popular video games of all time is also one of the earliest examples of this critical relevance: 1985’s Super Mario Bros. The game, developed and published by the Japan-based Nintendo Co. Ltd., is the perfect example with which to teach reading, writing and communication skills, as well as media literacy, and the elements of video game design and storytelling.

Deceptively simple, Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. tells the tale of a pair of plumbers who travel to a strange alternate world to rescue a princess from a turtle-like antagonist named Bowser and his minions. The defining “platform” video game — a genre which features a player-controlled character that jumps and climbs from point A to B while avoiding obstacles — remains one the greatest examples of elegant game design and is also historically significant, with its success credited with reviving the video game industry after the 1983 crash, and establishing Nintendo as a leading entertainment producer and consumer electronics manufacturer.

Nintendo’s Mario series will be the focus of study for this media studies unit. Like Shakespeare, Nintendo and Mario is the foundation upon which all video games are developed and perceived. If you think of Shakespeare, you immediately think of English literature. Nintendo has earned a similar cultural cache within the world of video games. But why? It’s their design philosophy.

When you think of designing a video game, most others start their process by conceiving a story or a premise to explore, or emotions they want an audience to feel — like terror or accomplishment — and others lead with pushing technology to its limits to immerse players into a planet or a universe (Brown, 2016). Nintendo doesn’t think this way. It’s over 40-year-old design philosophy remains radically different: their goal is to innovate new ways to play (Brown, 2016).

The company’s first major success was the 1981 arcade classic, Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong was “the first time that the formulation of a video game’s storyline preceded the actual programming, rather than simply being appended as an afterthought” (Wikipedia). From Donkey Kong onwards, the more than 800 engineers and designers at Nintendo’s Entertainment Planning & Development (EPD) division, create new games by inventing an innovative action for the character to perform. Mario’s innovative action is his jump. Mario “leaps onto platforms and over pipes, he jumps into bricks to break them, and into blocks to unleash power-ups… don’t forget about jumping on enemies to kill them. That may seem like an obvious way to dispatch foes… but, get this, no one did it before Mario.”

In this unit, the class will be deconstructing and then reconstructing the world of Super Mario Bros. – spending a lot of time in World 1-1. It’s one of the most famous levels in all of video gaming. This is because, within the very first seconds of the game, you are immersed in a compellingly strange world and intuitively introduced to the basics of the game without any text appearing or needing to read a manual. You learn quickly to explore by running and jumping.

However, in order to deconstruct Super Mario Bros., students will need to understand and actively engage with the vocabulary, grammar and style of the game itself, not just the terminology of game design and the industry. Part of their exploration will also involve play — each student will have an opportunity, either within the hook, or classroom discussion, to play World 1-1 multiple times. Access to technology will include a teacher-provided Nintendo Switch console and two Nintendo 3DS systems with Super Mario Bros. installed. Exit card exercises along the way will provide opportunities to assess students’ progress in understanding Mario, industry and design terminology.

Over the decades, the Mario series has expanded to include an overwhelming array of obstacles and foes. By limiting initial exploration to World 1-1, the student has an opportunity to work with a more welcoming palette of elements in which to eventually build a simple level for their first summative task. Eventually, after the fundamentals are introduced, students will be exposed to later stages of the game, with opportunities to expand their in-game vocabulary and evaluate and play different levels for class discussion. Students will analyze game design: what works? what doesn’t? is this stage fun or frustrating? is there a satisfying design arc to each level or world? These discussions will be expanded to include later Mario series games, introduced by video analysis and gameplay. Then, their final summative will reflect this learning through the creation of a more complex, thoughtful Super Mario Bros. level with a clear storyline.

At the conclusion of the unit, students will understand video game industry terminology, will apply the concepts of interactive design, and develop high-level critical thinking skills about the medium, realizing that video games require not just electronic wizardry, but artists, designers and entrepreneurs to realize products that entertain, “challenge, captivate and enlighten” millions of people around the world (Snead, J. & Bleszinski, C., 2014).

Sources

Investing in the Soaring Popularity of Gaming. (13 June 2018). Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/sponsored/article/popularity-of-gaming

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