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Thinking About Video Games, Narrative, and Freedom

Written by Antero Garcia
June 17, 2011

Reading the article, “Press X for Beer Bottle: On L.A. Noir,” by Tom Bissell I was left with several significant thoughts and questions about the role of video games on learning, media, and how we teach storytelling and writing. 

Though quite lengthy, I encourage you to read through this resource – though the comments below can be read as a stand alone reflection on video games at large, the review is a useful case-study of how narrative shifts in storytelling affect player freedom and understanding of choice.

What’s at the heartof this inquiry is a tension that exists between video games and story. Specifically, can a video game act as a useful means to convey narrative? As an English teacher and as a writer, I question whether my intentions as a writer – to recount a specific narrative, to persuade and effectively defend a thesis – can be adequately represented in a video game. And even if these ideas are in a game, will it ultimately be a fun one?

A popular game series many of my students (and youth around the world play) is the Grand Theft Auto saga. In these, players may undertake specific missions driving around cities to meet various objectives sand move up the ranks in a city’s organized crime underbelly. At the same time, however, most of my students usually play the game with a more broad understanding of the game’s purpose: cause as much chaos as possible. Driving over pedestrians, getting into glorified shoot outs with law enforcement, creating spectacular crashes, explosions, and city-wide damage, most of my students appreciate the game platform as a space for exploration and play. It is a giant sandbox filled with digitalized violence. Your ethical concerns aside, I question how the developers (writers) of these games feel about this approach. Clearly, there is a loose narrative that students are supposed to adhere to. Clearly, most of them do not.

I should make it clear that I think this is okay. The freedom to resist narrative and to resist societal conventions (to specifically push against them) is exactly what makes these games so engaging for young people…and probably cause the kinds of fear mongering about violence and video games that are monthly headlines in grocery-store magazine displays. 

However, the developers of the Grand Theft Auto series have recently released a new game, L.A. Noire (as detailed in the article). In it, opportunities for chaos still can be found. However, this game has a very specific narrative vision. It adheres to traditional storytelling narrative arches. There are things like denouement in its final moments. But with this narrative comes a much more limited scope of choice. The player, though posed with options and-at times a broad area to play and explore-ultimately must take specific paths, choices, and steps in order to proceed. In fact, the game doesn’t really provide much choice at all. 
As creating games becomes easier and cheaper, it will become the kind of literacy practice that – I imagine – will be second nature in ELA classrooms in the near future. If this holds true, what kinds of lessons do we develop about teaching choice, agency, and power within video game design? 

Similarly, in addition to looking at images of race and class and literary elements in video games, how do we get students to write and think critically about agency and power when they play these games? In essence, by playing a game, a player is essentially committed to a programmed contract that forces them to adhere to the rules, laws, and conventions of social behavior that are designed into the game’s architecture. 

This may seem like a superficial discussion, but I caution us, as educators, to think specifically about what video games inculcate in students about power, authority and the way they understand & synthesize information. By garroting a game’s scope, its designer is afforded the freedom to closely “tell” a narrative. However, it will take more innovative game design for a video game to allow open ended exploration that can “show” a narrative based on player free will. This tension between choice and narrative is one that needs to be conveyed in our lesson plans and in our classrooms. How we design our classrooms, establish class rules, and set agendas are no different than digital walls and required button mashing in the stereotypical first person shooter our students play daily.

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