Journey, flow and philosophy in the classroom
What video games should you be playing with your pupils?
There is an influential, authoritative, and thoroughly persuasive academic book about the use of video games in the classroom. It has a catchy title: What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. It is written by an American university professor and specialist in linguistics and literacy, James Paul Gee. He begins his book with the words “I want to talk about video games – yes, even violent video games – and say some positive things about them.”
When a Stanford professor of linguistics hits that kind of stride, you know you’ve found something special. So, with apologies to Professor Gee, I want to talk to you about video games – OK, not necessarily violent games – and how they can transform the learning in your classroom. They can. I would like to tell you about all the games I love; but for now I will talk about only one. The one. A very important new game that is changing the game (so to speak) and needs to be experienced in your classroom.
Why play games?
Video games are not only useful devices for deep and meaningful learning in your classroom, they are essential. I would like to persuade you to use them in the classroom in all manner of ways. In fact, when you finish reading I want you to order a Sony PlayStation 3 (or two) for your school. It will cost less than 10% of what you pay for your phonics programme (on a good day) and it will deliver ten times the benefits. Let me explain. I am a player of games – not just video games. I love chess and backgammon, both master-classes of applied mathematics. We don’t teach chess in primary school. Why not? I am a trainee teacher and as a convinced video gamer, I have always believed in the rich potential of video games in the classroom, but I didn’t believe I could just walk in and do it. The plausibility of video games in your classroom depends largely on your school’s philosophy of teaching. And if they don’t value gaming as the highest form of pedagogy, it’s the wrong school, or the wrong philosophy.
The Rylands Effect
As for myself, I did not feel that I had the necessary experience or credibility to champion the video game as intellectual artefact in a serious and robust academic or scholastic context until I was introduced to the work of Tim Rylands on my Creativity and Computing in the Primary School module, run by Miles Berry at Roehampton University. That was a Eureka moment, even if I am not a great fan of Myst. Mr. Rylands the go-to guy for video games in the classroom. He is famous for using Myst – a classic of the philosophical quest-game genre – to get some very interesting and satisfying work in literacy (and more) from his pupils. The Rylands Effect means that video gaming in the classroom has academic and pedagogic punch. Gaming is good. It works.
The best video game ever
Now I will tell you about the best video game I have ever played. It was released last month, and next week my pupils will be transformed by it. It will break their hearts and open their minds. It will make them want to study computer science at Cambridge. It will make them want to save the world.
Not for children
Before I do this, I would like to comment on violent video games and why we should not use them in the classroom. You might think the answer is obvious. It is, kind of. The problem with violent video games is that many of them are very, very good. Too good. Some are so good that you might want to buy them for the headmaster’s birthday and have an Xbox party in the staffroom. But you should not. They do not belong in primary school. Games like Red Dead Redemption, the Grand Theft Auto series, Assassin’s Creed, God Of War and BioShock are classics of the new generation of “big video games” and have a lot to teach us about history, society, health, philosophy, Greek mythology, language, ethics, morals, and science, but they deal with adult themes. The violence, while problematic, is incidental. It is the content which matters. A Year 6 pupil might know and love the story of Prometheus, but the tale about a guy who is punished by the gods for giving fire to mankind and has to have his liver ripped out of his body by harpies and vultures for ever and ever is not suitable in a video game for children. The story, yes, the video game, no. So God of War is a beautiful game but not on my list. Godfather I and II are shockingly violent movies – but masterpieces too. Jacobean Tragedy is a mean business and not for primary school, and Shakespeare is not far from this neighbourhood. There are few good games which aren’t violent, unfortunately.
War and Peace? Not yet
We should understand that not all games will work in the classroom – even the best ones – and I would like to tell you how we can choose the right games from the best, most appropriate ones, and make the most of them to enhance our pupils’ learning across the curriculum. So Grand Theft Auto is a NO – but you don’t need me to tell you that. In fact, most of the best video games, while having amazing potential in the classroom are simply not suitable, to my great dismay. Consider, for example, the Assassin’s Creed series of games, which have the most stunning, realistic and thoroughly educational depictions of Renaissance Florence or the Jerusalem and Damascus of the Crusades. What a shame we can’t immerse our pupils in an extended narrative about political conspiracies and Popes and noble families in Medici Florence through a tapestry of beautifully realised virtual worlds, oozing historical detail and Da Vincian luminosity. Going around assassinating Borgias and Gonfalonieris in gruesome ways would change the focus of the lesson; it would not work. I wrote a letter to Ubisoft (the producers) asking them to consider releasing the code for the game-world as a walkthrough engine but they have not replied. Why would they? Good, violent games are fun, but no good in class. Tim Bissell, writing in the Guardian, referred to Grand Theft Auto IV as the War and Peace of video games. And it is that. But we don’t teach War and Peace in primary school – for good reason.
Which video games are best? Let us begin with the best one
Let us now consider non-violent video games; games which are just as plausible, elegant, beautifully designed – realised with talent, genius and creativity, and about as literate and erudite as any work of literature you could beg your pupils to read. Now we will discuss the video game that you will, that you must, use in the classroom. Journey, released on the PlayStation Network, is the best video game I have ever played. Bar none. Its emotional effect, its fun and speed, its inducement of Csíkszentmihályian flow, its art design, story, and gameplay, its masterful and subtle exploration of meaningful multiplayer interaction all contribute to make something which is more than a just a game. Journey is a learning experience of the best kind; with your pupils, you will break new ground while playing it. As an amateur philosopher, I find the metaphysics of game-worlds a deeply fascinating subject, but because I play a lot of video games and spend time thinking about how they work and how they are designed, I find it difficult to suspend disbelief for extend periods when playing. But Journey pulled me in immediately and did not let me go until I had learnt some very important lessons about life. Yes, that’s still possible for all of us, even teachers.
flOw, Flower and Journey
Journey is the game you must play in the classroom. It’s the only one that matters. Journey is the best video game ever made. It was created by a small developer, thatgamecompany, in California. thatgamecompany is led by a very intelligent, sensitive soul called Jenova Chen. He probably wouldn’t like me using the word ‘led’ because the team is just that kind of team. Chen and his team are inventing a new type of game: non-violent, emotionally rewarding, risk-free, positivistic, and pedagogically beneficial in ways which make me happy I’m a teacher. While on the subject of teams, you should know that flOw, Flower and Journey, the three games created by these gifted and talented people are released by a Sony studio called Santa Monica. The games are Sony exclusives, which mean you cannot buy them for the PC, the Xbox or any Apple products. So you must sell your Xbox and get PlayStation 3 instead. These three games alone make this a worthwhile proposition. And you get Blu-ray, but that’s another story. Yes, please switch to the PlayStation Network. Many good, pedagogically sound, affordable and optimistic games for children are available there. This could be one of the most important things you ever do for your pupils. No more Xbox. flOw, Flower and Journey are distinct, different and each unique but all connected by mysterious clues, themes and evolutionary histories. A thematic, cross-curricular trilogy. Each is a wonderful tool for exploring different curriculum areas.
But for now, I will concentrate on Journey. Journey is the most important game of the year. It may well be the game of the decade. Who knows? Tomorrow everything might be different – but for today, Journey is where it’s at and the sooner you play it with your pupils the better. Games, like novels, have a social half-life. They burn brightly at the start, when everyone is talking about them. And there is no better video game you could use in your classroom with your pupils (and yourselves) than Journey. It was released about a month ago and it’s a very important game, the fastest-ever selling game on the PlayStation network, so it needs no advertising from me. Its popularity speaks for itself. In fact, it’s a bona fide modern classic. You may be reading about it the newspapers soon.
How do I use Journey with my class?
thatgamescompany’s trilogy of masterpieces are designed for the Sony PlayStation 3 system, which will connect to your school’s media server and interactive whiteboards and speaker systems with no fuss. Now you are ready for Journey. Let us consider only one subject area I have been thinking about: Religious Education. When we teach RE in the primary classroom (although I prefer to call it philosophy or cosmology) we discuss the “about” and “from” of religion. Attainment target 1 is to learn about religion, and attainment target 2 is to learn from it. This puts it rather simply but that’s the essence. When we use convincing and inspiring religious artefacts as a stimulus for discussion and constructivist exploration of our social and personal knowledge, we are bridging AT1 and AT2. Journey, and many other good video games – which I hope to discuss with you in the future – will help you bridge these attainment targets, or satisfy any number of National Curriculum objectives. I daresay the New Curriculum will have Journey as programme of study in itself (I hope!). The RE approach to using Journey will crack the concepts of dharma, impermanence, right living, the eightfold path, and many other tenets of other religions if you plan it that way. If Journey has a religious identity, it could be said to be Buddhist, although that doesn’t begin to explain the game’s rich and powerful, yet subtle and delicate, multi-denominational iconography. It will trigger the right associations. You’ll know it when you see it.
How does the Journey begin?
The game begins with a cute little cloaked figure in what might be the dunes of Namibia, but again, this is only my interpretation. My pupils will have to figure it out for themselves; they will have to work at it. It ends somewhere that might be Tibet, but might not be. There is no dialogue in the game, so children with EAL will communicate directly with it, with no intermediary to confuse them. There is no written text of any kind at any point in the game to stall a struggling reader. The game expects you to understand what to do through its environmental clues, which is a lesson in problem solving (early computational thinking), but not the focus of the game. Jenova Chen is a leading figure in dynamic difficulty adjustment so the game will never bore your pupils; it will stretch them and tease them but never frustrate them. Imagine a constantly shifting ZPD and your pupils are sprinting toward it waving pencils and flags. Journey gives you this. They will want to see how you play, too. I have the subject of RE as a context for framing the activity of video gaming in the classroom, but Journey can be used in any curriculum area to stimulate discussion, generate objectives for written responses, or even to inspire derivative multimedia interpretations. This is where things get very challenging and deeply pedagogic. Journey is perfect in any subject setting: English (the literary and literacy aspects of the game story, the metaphors, the personification, the poetry, the anthropomorphism… for starters), ICT of course, Art, History, Geography, and Music…the music… don’t get me started on the music. The game’s composer, Austin Wintory, has made a sublime piece of video game symphonic that is neither obtrusive nor faint, but haunting and captivating. The man is a future Oscar winner. Guaranteed.
Playing for focus, flow and purpose
I realise I may have been gushing about this game a bit. That’s OK. Really, this is how you want your pupils in the classroom to respond. Children learn for their purposes only, no-one else’s. Frank Smith said this. He probably knows more than anyone I have read about children’s literacy and communication. As a psycholinguist Smith is up there with Chomsky. And as an educator, his ideas on purposeful, authentic learning through communication with absolute and genuine (not programmatic and synthetic) meaning and content he is peerless. And I know that he would get Journey, really get it. Smith is with it. In fact I’m going to write to him about Journey when I am finished here. Journey is a lesson with purpose; the children will see it immediately. Yes, it’s nice to dream about learning fluent Italian and wandering through the market towns of Tuscany discussing Chianti and Pecorino, but children have a functional approach. They want to know the point. This is why my pupils ask me, “Why do I need to learn French?” I love teaching French, but I can’t give them an answer suitable for their age that really clinches it for them. Instead of purposeless learning, the creativity and spark engendered by a shared adventure in Journey’s metaphysical gamespace, are exactly what we need. Tuscany can wait, but Journey will bring our pupils to the understanding of “foreignness” that is so important to get them asking questions about other places, Tuscany included. Journey is purposeful learning that will lead to hours of worthwhile cognition and reflection, about not only RE, but all the big questions. If I am still gushing, it is to give you an idea about how your children will be inspired to get up and draw something amazing or do a podcast or blog or paint or read about Tibet once they have come back from the mountains. And you will need to be ready for that energy. You had better get those lesson plans ready!
What is Journey really about?
I was going to tell you a little bit about Journey’s story, themes, ideas and educational content, but I won’t because I want you to experience it without what the French call prévoyance. Please don’t go to YouTube looking for clips. I did at first, and it doesn’t enhance the mystery and beauty of the game. Play it as it is meant to be played, as a life lesson with no social networking.
From playing games to making games in the classroom, and beyond
Some children will want to make their own games when they are done with Journey. That’s the best thing that could happen. This makes me realise that there is another aspect of video gaming in the classroom that I should mention for the computer scientists reading. I am paraphrasing, but Eric Schmidt was clear in his words when he said that we need a new generation of British boffins and our current system is not making the boffins. The last time I read about any rock and roll computer scientists in British magazines I was reading about David Braben and Ian Bell, Cambridge boffins and game gods of Elite for the BBC micro, and Peter Molyneux in the 90s with Bullfrog, a few others… I checked the Wikipedia entry on categories filter for British video game designers versus American video game designers and the result was a little embarrassing. The future boffins in our classrooms: if we nudge them only slightly in the right direction, we may spark the right fire. We do need more boffins. Miles Berry has drummed this into us again and again: we need to get them building games as well as playing them. We need to do more work with Scratch and App-building. So let’s nurture them, play games with them, ask them to make a better game than Journey; dare them to.
Journey can be completed in less than two hours, but it can be played in episodes, and replayed many times over. You should play it through at least once, completely undisturbed (no social networking or fiddling with smartphones) – and do try playing online. It’s really quite magical. I don’t generally enjoy online mayhem, but Journey is something completely new in social gaming. It’s kind, gentle and utterly mysterious. Something else you can discuss with your pupils. What it means to help someone. Teachers are good at this. I have realised that I have not really tackled a solid lesson plan around Journey. I’m sorry, I’m not much of a planner. I can’t explain in detail how you should use Journey in your classroom, only that you must.
No one can be told what Journey is. You and your pupils will have to play it for yourselves.
This post is reproduced from an article originally published over a year ago in Ictopus.
I am still playing Journey and my opinions about it have not changed. I should acknowledge Heather Govier and Miles Berry for getting that particular ball rolling.
Ictopus, requiescat in pace.