Video Game Literacy
By Rachael Ward

external image Pong.png
The video game. By definition it is a game played by manipulating electronic images produced on a display screen such as a television or a computer. It all started in 1972 with a game of “Pong” as a simple form of entertainment. Years went by and as technology improved, so did video games. What once started out as a way to pass the time has rapidly evolved into an experience unlike the world has ever seen before. Today entire industries revolve on producing these interactive marvels to a degree that even rivals the film industry.


With greater emphasis on virtual story telling, there is much more to take away from games than the past few decades. As this medium continues to change, a question needs to be asked, “What can we learn from them?” If films and even television shows have the capacity to teach, do video games also have potential?

If you ask most professional educators, the most likely answer is “No.” While other forms of media are considered to be more universal, video games have fallen to the wayside due to the perception that they encourage violence or are merely “a waste of time” (Gee, 2007). This perception is understandable. Video games are the new kid on the block in comparison to other media and have only just recently been recognized to strongly affect the people who play them. Sadly, this recognition has not been entirely positive. After incidents such as the Columbine Massacre and Fox News bashing of Mass Effect’s sex scene, its no wonder why those who are outside the video game community to see anything positive from video games. However, this view is merely based on the surface view of what video games are and what they can be. Any form of media has the potential to encourage violence, such as a book, movie or television show. Yet due to the level of interactivity the player has with a video game, video games have been the first to blame. What people fail to realize is that this can go both ways. Only by taking to time to give these games a thorough inspection, can we see what they are truly capable of and what they are teaching the world’s youth away from the classroom.


Of all the changes video games have gone through over the years, the inclusion of story has had the most impact. The overall purpose of the story is in short to give purpose or explain the game play. It also gives the players his or her goals of the game from start to finish. Depending on the target age group, the story can vary in terms of content and complexity.


If it’s a children’s game like, “Kirby’s Epic Yarn” or Super Mario Bros. there is not going to be much complexity since it was not made for that kind of audience. As you look into games that are rated “T for Teen” and “M for Mature” however, you will get a much different picture. Since the target audience for these games is much older, their stories become surprisingly complex on how it presented to the player to encourage the player to get through the game play sections and watch the story unfold.


Each game’s story is told through a series of “cut scenes” portions of the game were the player is no longer in control of the onscreen action and is forced to watch a new development in the story. This assists the gamer in introducing more information about the game’s setting, characters, background, and the goal of the game. A good example of this can be seen in the very opening scene of “Metal Gear Solid” (Kojima, 1998).

Here the player is given a relative introduction to what their mission objectives are and who will be standing in their way. Infiltrate the enemy infested base, rescues two hostages, and prevent a nuclear missile from being launched. The mission seems pretty much straight forward until you find your first hostage.

As you can imagine, this scene has brought about a lot of questions of what will become of this Solo man mission. Plot twists abound as the protagonist, Solid Snake, continues to investigate how to stop the terrorists from launching the nuke. Leading to the discovery that the very people he is taking orders from have not divulged everything. With surprises and betrayals around every turn this game’s story makes the player question what they are doing and if it is the right thing to do, just like Solid Snake has to. Almost turning the idea of doing a task to get the next level, on its head and making players stop and think about their actions building into the game’s climax.


When playing through a video game’s story, the main character is the most important part of the experience. It is this character that the player uses as their virtual avatar as they explore their virtual environment and progress through the story. Whether this is a character of the player’s own design or a predetermined character, the player develops a unique connection with these virtual beings or a variation of the three identities: virtual, real and projective (Gee, 2007). You are forced to care about these characters in order to keep them alive and well during the course of the game and can even learn with them as they their story continues.

An interesting example of this would be the HackGU series and its main character, Haseo. The game’s story takes place in the world of a poplar online video (MMORPG) called “The World” a place were different players can hang out and play together from all corners of the globe. However, this online game has a dark secret, which has the potential to put the players into comas with no hope of cure. Haseo, loses his close friend, Shino, to this and is only given a single clue that the one responsible is a legendary player killer (PK) called Tri-Edge. Enraged, Haseo dedicates his playing time to locating his friend’s killer and finding a cure for her condition. He is confident that they only way to get what he needs is by becoming a more powerful player and using that power by any means necessary, earning him the title of The Terror of Death when he kills PKers after asking about Tri-Edge.

(Please ignore the first 17 seconds, it’s the profile opening of this users youtube account.)

While Haseo starts out this way, he is forced to change through the course of the game after his first encounter with Tri-Edge. His character data is forced to go back to level 1 and it is up to the player to build Haseo’s character from the ground up as he searches for clues. He becomes involved in a group called Project GU, and their goal to protect the World from a dangerous virus called AIDA, which has also put players into comas. Haseo learns that his character has the ability to summon an Avatar, a sentient being of the World that manifests as a human emotion (In Haseo’s case, rage). With his newfound ability to use his Avatar,


Skeith, Haseo swears to use this power to further his goals no matter what. However, one of Haseo’s good friends and fellow Avatar user, Kuhn tries to demonstrate to Haseo the danger of manipulating something he does not fully understand. It all comes to ahead when the two are forced to fight each other in their Avatar forms.

Kuhn is surprising unscathed from the fight and reveals that he did this on purpose to teach Haseo a lesson. Haseo has defiantly learned something from this event and begins to change for the better, becoming more compassionate and not as quick to anger over the course of the series.
The major point here is Haseo is an example of how a following a video game character’s journey through the game’s story can have just as a profound impact on the player, making them experience things that they would never have encountered in the real world. They are forced to compare themselves to Haseo as they help him through the game and his goals and questioning whether they are right or if the player would do the same thing in his shoes. This kind of virtual identity has reached a new height in recent years due to the efforts of video game developers such as Bioware. They have created role-playing games where the choices made in story by the player will effect how the story ends. This experience exemplifies the three identities explained by James Gee in What Video Games Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy. It enforces a rule of gaming that had never existed before, consequences to the actions made in game and how they effect others positive and negative. Like any other medium, a good video game has a good story to tell. Each one taking the player on a experience that they will never forget.

Game play

The second most important aspect of a game is what the player spends most of their time doing. Going after their goals using their given tools to succeed and reach the game’s end. There are different types of game play pending on the genre of the game such as: RPGs, real time strategy, first person shooter and platformers. Each time a player learns the controls in a video game they are learning in a game play literacy. Taking the instructions on how to use the controller or computer keys to manipulate their character or their environment then being constantly tested on how well they can use it as the game continues to increase in difficulty.


Legend of Zelda for example has the player navigate several dungeon areas that involve solving a series of puzzles in order to reach the end or boss fight. Almost each dungeon provides new equipment for the player to use and they are tested to use it for the rest of the dungeon. To solve each puzzle they must apply what they have learned using critical thinking skills to find the solution they need to progress. The same can be said for boss battles, were your main character is pitted against a larger and more powerful opponent. Much like a final test of their newfound skills, players must put these skills to use under duress in order to keep their character alive. This involves memorizing the boss character’s pattern of attack in order to locate and exploit their weakness. For a specific example, Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker’s first boss fight. The item that was achieved in this dungeon was a grappling hook.

(Aonuma, 2002)

The Zelda series uses this formula to great effect but it is a system of learning that games of all genres use as a way for players to learn the controls and test their skill at using them. Knowing which buttons will use tool or ability and the strategically of using these abilities is what players learn while playing a video game. Giving the player the power to explore the virtual world around them through the use of the control, becoming much more immersed in the experience as opposed to a movie. Success in a boss fight is much more satisfying in a game when the player has the ability to fight it as opposed to merely watching it.

One of the most common things you will hear from a person who does not normally play video games is that they have difficulty matching the right buttons with the right action. While you have to ask the question, “why didn’t they do the tutorial (instructional portion of the game)?” You also have to consider that the timing required for a player to press buttons in order to keep up with the onscreen action is something that is perfected with practice. Its not only the use of one button at a time but sometimes is multiple buttons at the same time, or even pressing one button rapidly over a period of time (commonly known as button mashing). The layouts of the different controllers play a huge part in how these game mechanics are varied.


There have been many different kinds of controllers over the years, offering new innovations along with their designated console. However, they all have a few similarities, they all have a center button to pause the game, basic action buttons (highlighted by the colored buttons), and a controlling mechanism. As the technology has evolved, these controllers gained a set of secondary buttons located on the back of the controller. With the need to use these in association with the base buttons provided new challenges for both new and veteran players. The control pade ( a series of directional buttons located on the left hand side of the controller) was replaced by the control stick This addition made mobility much easier as games evolved into the three-dimension graphics. The days of the controller may be numbered however with the released of the Xbox Kinect. Now players uses their body movements which are recorded by a motion sensor in order to manipulate the gameplay, skyrocketing the interactivity to unheard of levels. With this new invention expanding in the video game market, gameplay will begin to test players in a way that was only dreamed of back in the 1990s.

Video games and Reading

Back in the late 80 to 90s is when video games began to take the first stepping-stones to what they are today, becoming more story involved and more complex game play. However since the industry was still new, there were little to no actors giving game characters voices or narrating the story. As such, earlier games were very text oriented having the player watch the action but had to read in order to understand what was occurring.


With long and some times very complex stories unfolding, this involves a lot of reading. Yet it is presented in such a way that is simple to read and is easier to understand when comparing it to the visuals. Some games even experimented with what kind of language to use such as Breath of Fire 4. One of the main characters, Fou-lu uses a form of middle English when he speaks to other characters. Yet it is done in a way that even a player who has never even heard of middle English can understand him.

As the years go by, text is still in use in video games but not as often. Now that the industry has the money, actors are hired for dialogue in order to make the games more engaging. However, as some past examples show, subtitle text is still is use. Having players, watch, listen and read at the same time. While these video games have not been designed for the specific purpose of training reading skills (such as Leap Frog games) they undoubtedly provide practice in the basic skill of reading a complete story. Some games such as Phoenix Wright series (Takumi, 2001), actually encourages careful reading skills as part of the game play. Taking control of the titular character, a defense attorney, the player must gather evidence for a court case and talk to witness’. Once in the courtroom, players must read the testimony and find a contradiction or lie and find a specific piece of evidence to prove it.

If games like these have the potential to provide enjoyable practice of reading skills, the potential they could have in a school environment is enormous, especially with students who struggle with reading and problem solving skills.

I’m a living example of this form of self-education. Born with a mild case of dyslexia, reading and writing were always a struggle for me in my early education. While I did my best in school, I had a difficulty understanding or for that matter really caring about their teaching methods. Growing up with my brother, I would watch him play video games and was in awe of what he could do. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would pick up the controller and play for myself. Once I started, I was hooked. RPGs and Platformers were some of my favorites since they had better stories. Slowly but surely, the combination of learning through school and playing video games in my spare time, my reading skills steadily began to improve. Today, I am still an avid gamer, but I’m also an English Major in college with the hope that I will become a writer, not a normal occupation for someone with dyslexia. Fortunately, this is and idea researchers have been looking through as well, such as Paula Tallal the co-director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers. Her study of improving kids auditory skills through playing computer games produced some good results (Nash, 1996). With success stories like these as well as my own, there is no doubt that video games have something to offer to the education process.

Video games and the Classroom?

It all comes down to how this medium can be used in a secondary education classroom. Since this is still a new idea, stiff resistance is almost a guarantee, yet with time and research, the superstitious fears of video games should be put to rest.

For example, in an English course, try comparing a literary character to a video game character that to some extent shares their characteristics. For example, Haseo a revenge driven youth could be compared to an equally revenge driven individual in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Its important to note that both characters go through their own development and Haseo does not loose his life but they are both committed to getting revenge for some one they love. You could give a cross-examine on what these characters do differently each other and how it affected their growth and achieving their goals.
Both the Breath of Fire and Legend of Zelda series can be used as an example of how a fable or myth can change over the course of time. The main characters (Breath of Fire: Ryu and Nina, Legend of Zelda: Link and Zelda) are always the same in their roles but how are their stories similar and different from each other? Does it still get across the same message?
Use games such as Suikoden 3 or any Bioware RPG in a lesson on perspective. Suikoden 3 especially since it tells the same story through three separate characters.
Since video game cut scenes are behaving much more like films, these scenes can be analyzed in a film course. Good examples to use would be Metal Gear Solid, Breath of Fire (specifically 4 and 5), .hachGU’s cinematics, Mass Effect series, and Persona games 3 and 4. For example, take this opening from Persona 4.

What does this sequence telling us about the game you are about to play? What are the lyrics saying? What is the recurring theme with this opening, etc.

A fun film project would be to create a game music video (GMV). To take footage from the video game and edit it together to fit a popular song in which the lyrics reflect the on screen action. Movies like this are being put on youtube all the time and here is a good example.

This video is based off the Suikoden series.

With projects like this being created in a student’s spare time, its time teachers took notice of such effort in comparing numerous video game stories and editing together with song lyrics that actually relate to the visual material.

In short, the use of video games as a media holds tremendous potential to engage both male and even female students in learning about important topics that are not normally taught in the classroom. Subjects such as the fact that humans determine their own fate, the importance of life, perusing personal truth, accepting mortality and of course good conquers evil (even touches on the grey area between good and evil). These are what I have taken away from my experiences from the few games that redefined the medium for me. I accept that not all video games have this same capacity, but if the teaching community learns that there are games that breach the stereotype, video games can be used as an effective way to connect with the student’s passions and provide a better education.

Recommended Games
These games are my highest recommendation to play and use for secondary school learning. I have seen all of these games in and can say that they contain little to moderate violence (much like a PG-13 film) and that all have good stories. I recommend first and foremost playing these games first before you decide to use them. It’s the best way to know what you are going to be sharing with your class and being able to discuss these games on an equal level.

1) Metal Gear Solid (1 and 2)
2) Age of Empires
3) .Hack series
4) Okami
5) Mass Effect
6) Portal 1 and 2
7) Final Fantasy (6, 7 and 9)
8) Breath of Fire (3, 4 and 5)
9) Suikoden series
10)Persona (3 and 4)
11)Legend of Zelda series
12)Tales of the Abyss
13)Shadow of the Colossus
14)Tales of Symphonia
15)Phoenix Wright: (Ace Attorney and Justice for All)
16)Ace Combat 5
17)Wild Arms 3
18)Halo Reach
19)Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

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