In my ongoing series of scholarship having to deal with video games as a respectable medium for storytelling, I found an article from the National Council of Teachers of English titled Exploring the Boundaries of Narrative: Video Games in the English Classroom. The article talks about a teacher’s journey in utilizing video games for teaching storytelling within his classroom. Jonathan Ostenson created a unit that involved the students getting into and playing certain video games, comparing them to traditional narrative and examining their storytelling values.
He speaks about the connection between the emotional reactions that people have when they are reading books and engaging with movies, and the exact same reactions that people have while playing video games. Games come with more elements of traditional fiction than ever before, we have moved far past pong and now there are hundreds of hours of narrative that you are a part of when you start up a game. It is an unexplored territory of narrative that is often overlooked as being simple minded or just for nerds.
Video games as a 21st century storytelling medium is an important distinction now, we have evolved this just like we evolved from verbal communication, to writing books, to producing movies. It seems unfair to rule out video games because it comes from another side of our culture.
Ostenson brings up many of these points and brought them up to his class before starting. He defined a very simple narrative as having a beginning, middle, end and a conflict. With that definition, even Angry Birds has a narrative.
The central focus of many video games is character development. The traditional role playing games came from the famous tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons and puts you, the player, as a pivotal part of the story. With most of the games today, there is extensive dialogue that engages you for just as much time as you are slaying monsters.
If you don’t want to have to read, you’re going to have a tough time finding a video game that caters to your needs. These games are a form of interactive fiction, perhaps more engaging than books because they come with the power of visuals and auditory experiences.
Ostenson’s class was able to look at this idea in his unit about storytelling. They examined branching plots, evolving characters, and other storytelling elements to help raise their critical awareness of storytelling in every medium. It helps to teach them that they are always engaging with stories.
The students engaged in free online or mobile games. He started off with a very old title, one of the first popular point and click games, Zork. They then went to play World of Warcraft, which is free for players for the first 30 levels, and the students had a great time telling stories about their avatars and what their canon for the story was. World of Warcraft is a free roaming Massively Multiplayer Online game. You can complete the story in any order you choose, or simply do alternative quests as well. The students came up with brilliant insights into the interactive storytelling, they told about their unique adventures and how they could answer all the traditional questions we have for students when they are reading a novel. Conflict, plot structure, narrative devices, character development, all of the required knowledge of a story. The class then moved onto the Sims, a real life simulation where you create avatars that live in a house, have to go to work or school, and live their lives. He concluded on a very heavily story based game, Dear Ester.
In Dear Ester (pictured above), you are exploring and investigating a deserted island as you listen to a recording of a man reading through a letter. There is very minimalistic gameplay, you are only really able to move around the island and explore visually. The story is very detailed and difficult to understand for many, but the general idea is that the narrator is reading through his letters to his dead wife, Ester. The game is very vague at the end, allowing for the player to draw their own conclusions as the game avatar turns into a bird and flies away.
Video games such as this, very complex story driven games with minimal gameplay, are becoming more and more popular and successful. Video games have unique capacities to drive stories. There is nothing else like them. They are so different from books and movies because you are there. You are a part of it in deeper ways that you simply cannot gather from other mediums and bringing awareness of this fact to students could be revolutionary.