Normative American consumerist culture has dictated that the medium of entertainment for the current generation is the video game. As shown in a 2005 study by The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), that seventy-five percent of gamers are under the age of forty-nine. Additionally, fifty-three percent of gamers expect that ten years from now, they will be playing as much or more than they currently do. The video game is here to stay, so how can educators take advantage of such a pervasive and interactive medium to reach their students in order to produce the greatest possible learning potential? The video game’s value lies in its unique, multi-faceted rhetorical position. Through the multiple facets, rhetorical intentionality in the video game could cater to a wide variety of students, who each learn through different combinations of learning styles. The video game is a pedagogical Rosetta Stone: it is the key to solving the riddle of teaching a given subject via multiple media, allowing for more effective communication to a wider audience range.

As the world has grown and adapted to the influence of technological advance, pedagogical methods have changed to reflect that influence. The younger generations are growing up in the world of the video game, and as a result, they are accustomed to what James Paul Gee calls a “bottom-up” style of learning rather than the traditional “top-down” style extant in current pedagogical theory. Gee offers this view: “Imagine young people who have been immersed in this sort of learning coming to school to acquire academic language top-down in a setting remote from practice or affinity.” (Gee, New Times and New Literacies) Gee speaks specifically about the acquisition of language and language theory, but his ideas can be expanded past academic language acquisition into all manners of learning. Historically, pedagogical
theory has certainly changed in response to technological advancement. With the invention of the Guttenberg press, the very idea of the common textbook was begot. When the overhead projector came around, teachers began to use the overhead to supplement their lectures. With the advent of computers, the PowerPoint became the accepted visual aid. But with the ever
branching technologies available today, where does the next great teaching tool lie? Perhaps that tool is interactivity of the video game.

Before the video game can teach, though, it must first communicate. As a medium, the video game certainly has a lot to say. Even the simplest video game is subject to the archetypal suggestions of Jung, as evidenced by Rebecca R. Tews’ critical analysis of Pac-Man (1980). Pac-Man, she says, is representative of the animus and the male “on a quest to survive various trials.” The ghosts are the representations of the powerful “shadow” archetype, and Pac-Man must overcome the shadow in order to survive. Many similar symbols may be extracted from Centipede (1980) and other games throughout video game history. These archetypes, she says rather humorously, are “alive and well in the video game,” and “appear as if on LSD—caricatures of the traditional images, highly transformed by technology, color, speed, and sound, but elementally the same” (Tews). With so much symbolism buried in such a simple game, the modern, more complex video game has the potential of saying even more. As the video game progressed from the Atari and Midway stand-up machines to the home consoles, and eventually to the PC, the graphical and game play complexity have increased dramatically.

While the original Atari controller had only a joystick and a button, the Xbox 360 controller has 17 buttons and two joysticks. To keep pace with the increasingly complex controls and game play, many games are becoming increasingly cinematic to make the games’ stories deeper and more complex. The Final Fantasy series (Square-Enix) is famed for its beautiful computer-generated cut scenes, which serve to tell back-story and push the plot of the story along. Some games, Black (EA, 2006) for example, are much like interactive cinema. The game starts with a government official interrogating an ex-marine, and after the marine explains where his team was and what their orders were at specific times, the player is put into the action as an interactive player in the “flashbacks” of the ex-marine. In a review I wrote for this game, I commented on the level of immersion that this game offers. The cinematic approach put me into the story deeply: I was not merely a player; I was this ex-marine, reliving mission after mission. This game employed three important factors to further the story line. It appealed to the graphical, the auditory, and the textual.

The tripartite appeal of a game such as Black allows for a message to be sent though multiple media. To elicit in the gamer an emotional response comparable to that which the character would be feeling, the game must effectively communicate that emotion to the player. Black’s strategy was to begin playing the orchestrated score in the darkest areas, usually when the character needed to be quiet, and often the game music was elevated to match the mood in several of the notes and journals picked up throughout the missions. These methods were quite effective. Even while playing in a lighted room with friends, I found my heart rate increased and I perspired slightly at the forehead and the palms. This game, a mere video game, had such a profound, even physiological, effect. In talking with my brother about his experiences playing the game, he reported the same physiological effect was made on him. This game communicates to the player significantly. Not only does the game communicate the story and mission objectives on a superficial level, but through the combination of the textual, graphical, and auditorial contexts, Black communicates emotions well enough to produce the appropriate physiological response.

The Bakhtinian idea of the “word in living conversation” carries over to the three appealing facets of Black. Each piece—the graphics, the sounds, and the text—is deliberately acting to elicit a fear/anxiety response, which is very similar to what Bahktin says about the word in living conversation. “The word living in conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer’s direction” (Bakhtin). In this way, each of the three pieces of appeal both expect and require the physiological and psychological response of anxiety. Dramatic music, scenery, and text would be inappropriate if the intended response were not elicited.

In an article on Bakhtinian ideologies, James Paul Gee points out multiple forms of learning from first- and third-person shooters. These forms, Gee argues, are “deeper and richer than the forms of learning to which they are exposed in schools” (Gee, New Times and New Literacies). Gee also notes that these forms are presented to the student outside of school, but if these methods are indeed more effective, schools should begin looking at embracing them. Scholastic learning, most commonly in the liberal arts, is based on theory and lecture; whereas, in the video game, learning happens by “situated practice.” Most readily, the sciences and mathematics follow the situated practice form by way of examples followed by numerous iterations of similar problems. These practice sessions are ancillary to classroom lectures, which are often a balance between theory and practice. In the video gaming structure, learning can occur theoretically by reading the gaming manual, but from what I have observed in my own gaming experience and through watching many of my peers both older and younger, that almost never happens. When a player sits down to play a game, the experience, while similar to games in the same genre, is new. The player must learn new controls, character/environment interactions, and many other factors to play a game successfully. Often, many games have “training” missions in which the basic controls are introduced. Through on-screen prompts and player inference, most of the controls are taught, learned, and most importantly, remembered within fifteen to twenty minutes of beginning the game. Think of the training mission as the practical lab component of the theoretical instruction manual, only in this system, the instruction manual is largely ignored, forcing the gamer to figure out the variables on his or her own.

When observing someone play a video game for the first time, an active, methodical process becomes apparent. The video game gives the player a sense of freedom to explore and experiment with the controls without first trying to learn the theory of the game from the manual. Another important factor Gee points out is that video games offer decreased consequences for failure and risk taking. This reduction allows the new gamer to become involved from the beginning of his or her gaming experience because he or she does not need to fear the consequences of trying something new. This fearlessness to innovate continues through the rest of the gaming experience. Many times, the more challenging enemies in games require multiple attempts to defeat. Often, the first attempt at a level “boss” is a test-run, designed to identify a weak point or a strategic use of the environmental elements to gain an advantage over the, usually stronger and more powerful, enemy. Through trial and error, the player is able to solve the puzzle of the boss, and achieve victory. That victory, then, generally leads to some in-game reward, be it advancement to the next level or some new item or power-up for the character, which Gee also notes as an important aspect of the video game.

The reduction in fear of trying something new leads to better strategies, which lead to greater success and ultimately some reward. If the gamer were taken out of the video game and put into the classroom, he or she would find an entirely different set of rules. By and large, in today’s schools, students are taught via one medium, the lecture, and when the theory turns practical, as it does on examinations, students are given one chance to have solved the puzzle of the tested content. In the video game, there is room for the player to experiment to see what the best way to tackle a subject is, but in the classroom, the student is only offered one chance to succeed. As such, the classroom is far less forgiving than the video game, inherently creating an increase in a fear of the student to experiment. The student is far less likely to take risks than the gamer is. As a result, the student is forced into a specific modality for each class, based on preferences and styles of each teacher or professor. To extend the metaphor, each class might be likened to a level in a video game. The student’s goal is to succeed in the class, with success meaning getting a good grade (a high score of sorts). With each exam, the student is made to practically apply the theory he or she has been taught, and usually each exam covers multiple concepts, leading to a large amount of variables as the student begins to formulate strategies to gain an advantage over the obstacle, his “enemy.” Unlike the video game, the student only has one chance to formulate an appropriate strategy to overcome his enemy successfully, sometimes resulting in what may often be construed as a punishment: a poor grade. For the student who does try to form an appropriate strategy, the failure is a learning experience from which he or she can better strategize in the future, but only to a point. The negative result has already been received, and although he or she may have been able to gain some advantage over the testing style of the teacher, the next exam will have an entirely new set of variables because the test is covering different subject matter which may require new strategies to successfully master. The video game allows for active innovation on the part of the player via trial and error, but schools afford no such innovative latitude. In my own classroom experience, there are some times I recall where try as I might, I just could not grasp a concept, but I was unable to use my time in class to try different approaches until I found one that worked. Only after the class had moved onward and I had done poorly on that portion of the exam did I feel free to deviate from the classroom norm to find an innovative solution to the problems presented. The classroom should support innovation and new angles because many problems in the classroom are similar to the problems in video games: they are solvable in many different ways (Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy).

With intentionality in the rhetorical spaces the video game occupies, the forms of learning Gee expresses could be tapped into in order to create an extremely effective, highly interactive method of teaching. Given the current educational status quo, introducing some sort of gaming element into curricula will probably be most successful in the online classroom. In the future, the differences between the online and physical classrooms may possibly shrink, allowing for game-style interaction between the physical and online classrooms. As a result, a wider range of students will be more effectively engaged in the material than the current teaching methods can offer.

The video game is a multi-faceted medium through which students will be able to think freely, even outside the box, trying new and innovative ways to solve problems. The video game will be a way to help the students internalize the material they are learning by figuring it out in their own way. Gee also asserts that the video game allows an “extended engagement of self as an extension of an identity to which the player is committed” (Gee, New Times and New Literacies). The commitment of the player to the character can often be very strong. Black, by its design, allowed the player to commit to the character. Because of the cinematic format of the game, the player “role plays” as the character himself. Also, due to the intensity at which the game communicates the mood and emotional sensations, the player finds himself or herself reacting to the environments. Because of my intense feelings of connections, there are moments in that game that I will probably never forget.

Psychologists say that one of the best ways to improve memory is to make a subject personally relevant to oneself. By allowing the student the latitude to experiment with the concepts on a practical level, he or she can make the material his or her own. Each student may solve the problems presented in different ways, and in doing so, each student understands the same concept through their own set literacies; while, at the same time, each student has gained an understanding of the subject in a broader sense by being able to solve problems of that given type. Because of this internalization and personalization, the material will be easier for the student to remember and recall later on in life (Myers).

Bear in mind that the video game is not a replacement for the traditional professor and lecture (with or without PowerPoint); rather, the video game is a supplement, a way for the students to practically apply newly learned theory without the traditional repercussions of an experiment not working or a false hypothesis—bad grades. Instead, the student is allowed a chance to explore the possibilities of the subject, and he or she can learn greatly from the logical steps he or she takes in finding the solution to a given problem.

I am just beginning my research on the video game and its importance to pedagogy, but already, I have begun to see how much of an impact the video game could make in the academic world. Whether or not an impact will be made is not the question which should be asked. What should be asked is whether that impact will be positive or negative. In her book, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, Janet H. Murray traces how the story and storytellers have changed and speculates on what form they may take in the near future. While she talks about the dangers of too much entertainment through the eyes of Bradbury and Huxley, she makes a point about art that carries over into education: “If digital art reaches the same level of expressiveness as these older media, we will no longer concern ourselves with how we are receiving the information. We will only think about what is the truth it has told us about our lives” (Murray). If the video game can be shown to be an effective teaching tool, the source of learning will become irrelevant. What will be relevant is what is being learned and how successfully the students are learning.

Works Consulted

Bakhtin, M.M. "Discourse in the Novel." Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holinquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holinquest. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. 280.
ESA. Entertainment Software Association. 20 February 2007

Gee, James Paul. "New Times and New Literacies." Bakhtinian Perspectives on Language,

Literacy, and Learning. Ed. Arnetha F. Ball. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

  1. 295-296.

—. What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave

MacMillan, 2003.

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet On the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: The Free Press, 1997.
Myers, David G. "Improving Memory." Myers, David G. Psychology in Modules. New York: Worth Publishers, 2006. 390.
Shultz, Duan P. and Sydney Ellen Schultz. "Archetypes." Shultz, Duan P. and Sydney Ellen

Schultz. Theories of Personality. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005. 106-107.

Tews, Rebecca R. "Archetypes on Acid." The Medium of the Video Game. Ed. Mark J. P. Wolf.

Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005. 176-177.