The Leaderboard: Learning To Think About Games

Games Features

What if videogames could actually help students become better thinkers? What if, contrary to all the naysayers, students could simply watch a game being played and engage in deep, significant conversation? I was inspired to test this idea back in June, when I saw how Andy Robertson of Family Gamer TV and Wired UK incorporated thatgamecompany’s Flower into a service at Exeter Cathedral. After the service, parishioners and the Cathedral’s canon both expressed how the game’s presence augmented and enhanced the service’s focus on creation.

Robertson’s success in integrating videogames into a church service prompted me to try something similar in my freshman composition class. So when I packed up my PS3 and lugged it across the University of Florida campus so that my students in could play the same game, I was surprised that the response was rather lackluster. Still, one of teaching’s greatest joys is the moments when students surprise you, and in this case my students did not disappoint. When presented with Pippin Barr’s The Artist is Present, an unusual retro-indie game, their engagement and responses were inspiring.

In a freshman composition class, an emphasis is placed on trying to understand how arguments are made in a variety of formats. While the assignments are all writing-based, videogames offer a rich canvas for students to think about visual arguments, and Flower seemed an ideal candidate (or so I thought). I began by explaining a little bit about the game before handing off the controller for the students to pass around the room. While the petals were drifting through the air, I spoke intermittently, asking them questions about what the game was and what they thought it was about. A few responses popped up here and there, but mostly they stared in silence.

At the end of the class, I left about five minutes for discussion, and I asked them again to think about the meaning of the game. One student said, in that quasi-interrogative tone of uncertainty, “Go green?” This was a deflating moment. Flower is so much more than a call to buy into a thinly veiled corporate mechanism for driving up sales among the environmentally conscious demographic. My experiment had failed; despite my best hopes, the class just didn’t seem to respond to Flower in the way that I had hoped they would.

Fortunately, a composition class that focuses on videogames has more than one life. Two weeks later my co-teacher got up in front the room and presented Pippin Barr’s The Artist is Present to the class. Barr, a lecturer and researcher at the Center for Computer Game Research at IT University of Copenhagen, created The Artist is Present in 2011 as a videogame version of Marina Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The centerpiece of the exhibit was a performance piece in which Abramovic sat motionless in a chair while visitors could sit across from her. Many of those who sat across from Abramovic found that in that moment of just being seen by another, deep and powerful emotions came to the surface.

But the exhibit was also marked by its extremely long lines—people waited for hours to have the opportunity of witnessing and participating in Abramovic’s performance. It was with this in mind that Barr created The Artist is Present. On his blog, Barr described the game as one in which “you really have to wait and that’s that.” Indeed, the game mostly consists of navigating a pixelated figure to stand in the line of people waiting to see Abramovic. As such, my expectation was that the students would be bored by this game; they might understand it, but at the end of the day they would yawn. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After an initial moment of perplexed uncertainty, they were animated in debate about whether The Artist is Present was even a game. We were showing this game as part of a unit on definition arguments, so this conversation was precisely the kind of dialogue we hoped to encourage.

Despite their intellectual interest, they still claimed that the game itself was boring. But halfway through class, something wonderful happened. While my co-teacher was leading the discussion, some students noticed that the line in our game had moved forward a bit. They alerted my co-teacher and she stepped over to the computer to move us forward, but she accidentally tapped the wrong key and we lost our place in line. The outcry from the class was immediate and fierce. Without any of us realizing it, the game had captured us—we actually cared about whether or not we lost our place in this virtual queue.

In the aftermath, as I watched the students realize that this quirky and bizarre game had made them care without their even realizing it, I couldn’t help but smile. Without question moments of surprise are one of the greatest experiences of teaching. Just when you think you’ve got the line on your students, they’ll do something unexpected and brilliant. As discussion continued, one young woman raised her hand and offered this insight into the relationship between Abramovic’s original performance and Barr’s videogame: “Just like modern art helped people question how we define art, The Artist is Present helps us question how we define games.”

In one moment, that statement undid my despair of what had happened with Flower. In retrospect, I wonder if the fact that we didn’t play Flower in a liturgical context, as Robertson had, actually made it more difficult for my students to connect to the game’s message. The liturgy may have introduced a level of serenity and reflection that the classroom simply failed to replicate. In the future I might be able to approximate this quality by having the students first read an essay that could instill some of the pathos of environmental care and cultivation. Providing a stronger contextual frame could help to bridge some of the gaps.

In the case of The Artist is Present, we had the students read about the original exhibit in the New York Times, which provided a foundation on which they could build an intellectual analysis and response. Through a simple flash game, my students arrived at a nuanced and complex understanding of what games might accomplish in culture. Instead of seeing them as time-wasting forms of entertainment, they began to attain an awareness of the cultural significance of videogames.

At its core, this is the beauty of simplicity. In the midst of a blocky, pixelated recreation of the Museum of Modern Art, my students made significant strides toward recognizing the complex relationships between understanding and challenging their definitions of games and gaming. Rather than immediately dismissing Barr’s game because of its underwhelming graphics, they sought to understand the game’s purpose and meaning. If more undergraduates were encouraged to make these kinds of complex connections in their posture toward videogames, we could begin to see a marked shift in the way that videogames are received, not only as a form of boredom-alleviating entertainment but also as cultural artifacts with a unique and substantive cultural contribution to make.

Jonah Stowe lives in Gainesville, Florida where he is a PhD candidate studying English literature at the University of Florida. He tweets occasionally from @virtualstowaway.

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