Tuesday, December 8, 2015

General RPGs as Classroom Texts

Check it out: in this rant, I do what I should have been doing for the last 9 years and actually italicize titles! Don’t expect to ever see me fulfilling this fundamental grammatical responsibility again, though. Today’s rant is related to what will hopefully be my career soon, so I feel more compelled to be somewhat professional about it. After this, I’m just gonna slump back into my slovenly, gibbering ways that you all know and mildly like just enough to read this blog sometimes when you’re really bored.

So, as I mentioned in last year’s Annual Summary Rant, I’ve been doing some graduate work to be certified as a teacher. High School English, specifically. It’s a fairly rigorous program (or it’s not, and I’m just not very good at it), so matters of the classroom have been going through my mind quite a lot during this past year. And of course, with my head already so full of all the RPG stuff that I overthink, it was really only a matter of time before a Teacher thought would collide with an RPG thought, and so we come to the question of today’s rant:

Can an RPG be a suitable text for the classroom?

First of all, let’s briefly define what a classroom text even is. We tend to think of texts in school as being things like novels, textbooks, short stories, articles, plays, reports, and various other typed, readable examples of fiction and nonfiction. Which makes sense, of course, as these are all things that communicate their ideas via, y’know, text. In the program within which I am enrolled, however, “text” takes on a broader meaning, associated with any outside work introduced for study in the classroom, regardless of its format. Under this definition, a text could certainly be a physical copy of The Great Gatsby or an online posting of an Emily Dickinson poem, as you’d expect, but a movie adaptation of Hamlet, a picture of one of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, or an audio recording of a speech by the Dalai Lama, would also each be considered texts if used in the classroom.

So, then, if we allow that any work that can be studied is a text, and so long as we also allow that avenues of fictional storytelling are even something that we believe worth studying to begin with,* it is as possible that an RPG can be a text as it is possible that anything else can be. But can an RPG be a suitable text?

Well, the answer to that, of course, is subjective, and also quite dependant on what RPG you’re looking at. Certainly not all RPGs are worthy of study in a classroom. In fact, I’d say most of them aren’t. But that doesn’t really prove much by itself; I daresay even most books don’t warrant focused study. But are there at least some RPGs that have something to offer to a program of study, that are worth the effort of teaching?


As an example: A great many classrooms study Fahrenheit 451, 1984, or some other book that covers the dangers of totalitarian societies, how they are perpetuated and the ways of fighting back against them--or the hopelessness of trying to do so. Some enlightened schools have started incorporating The Hunger Games into this study of dystopias, which I heartily applaud, and hope to do so myself. It’s a good genre to have students study, at least a little. First of all, by directly encountering, studying, and coming to understand this concept of an overbearing, freedom-restricting, anti-intellectual society, the students can come to have a better understanding of important aspects of other works, such as Animal Farm or The Scarlet Letter (the Puritans needed to chill out, man), or even nuances of parts of their history class (such as why it was so important for the institution of slavery that slaves be forbidden to learn to read). Secondly and far more important, learning about this idea of a society which uses meaningless distractions, propaganda, and the destruction and alteration of idea exchange is important in teaching students to look critically at their own society, and recognize dangerous similarities between real life and the dystopias they have read about when they encounter them. Studying dystopias can make students better, more vigilant guardians of their society and their freedom.

Would not the RPG Deus Ex 1 fit into such a unit perfectly? It is, after all, all about dystopia, how it might come to be enacted in our world, the questions of when government goes too far and the means through which it does so, the dangers of propaganda, the questions of total surveillance, and so on and so forth. In fact, while I do think the primary text of a dystopia unit should remain 1984, The Hunger Games trilogy, or Fahrenheit 451, I would say that the second most important text in such a unit would be Deus Ex 1, rather than a second book chosen from that list. Why? Because those three books I mentioned, and most other dystopian works I’ve encountered, all describe to us a dystopia that is already in place. They describe the incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible, struggle to overcome a dystopia once it is a fact of life. The cautions they offer to the reader on how to stop a dystopia from coming to be are all general, non-specific advice--don’t let authority ban or destroy literature or any other free exchange of ideas, don’t let yourself be tricked by doublespeak and meaningless wars, be critical of what you see and read, don’t let yourself be put at odds against those as oppressed as you are by the people causing the oppression, and so on. All very good pieces of advice, of course, but in some ways harder to put into practice because of how unspecific they are.

Deus Ex 1, on the other hand, shows us the moment at which an oppressive authority takes the final step to become a dystopia, and it details to us the methods that evil authority uses--the kinds of agencies, the kinds of propaganda, the kinds of tools, and the reasons these things work. The books I’ve mentioned give you the grim caution of what could happen, but Deus Ex 1 shows you how it could happen, and so better forearms its audience with the knowledge of specific warning signs of the dangers that the books could only give generalized cautions against. Providing a practical example of how a dystopia could be enacted is a GREAT way to support your primary dystopia text, and DE1 would be able to do that with its level of specific detail.**

...Okay, wow, I didn’t mean to make this one example long enough to be its own rant. Sorry. I’ll try to be less long-winded on these other points.

DE1 isn’t the only RPG that could be used as a great supplemental text, of course. In a unit which examines, for example, the question of Man against God, a number of RPGs could be used as supplements--Grandia 2, some Shin Megami Tensei titles if you want to be literal about the issue, Okage: Shadow King, Star Ocean 3 (if you could really, really abridge the game’s first half), Wild Arms 3...wow, this is a really, really frequent theme in JRPGs, now that I think about it.

Fill in the blank: It would be _______________ to follow Ahab in his journey in Moby Dick to destroy the white whale and prove he has free will, while playing Tales of the Abyss at the same time, watching Van Grants set forth in his own machinations to break the world free of destiny’s cage, the Score of Lorelei, and draw comparisons between them in class discussions.

If your answer was “Pretty Cool,” give yourself a gold star. If not, see me after class.

You could do a lot with some of the richer intellectual western RPGs in a unit about teaching effective reading--Planescape: Torment would be ideal for it. Any unit involving a look at religion and how it shapes us and our society could be benefited greatly by a number of Shin Megami Tensei titles, or Final Fantasy 10. In a unit that covers the theme of a young adult seeking to find themselves and their place in life, I can see far worse companions to Paper Towns, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Catcher in the Rye than the games Wild Arms 3 or Final Fantasy 9.*** Surely any unit that uses works like The Great Gatsby, Our Town, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to speak about the social history and personal essence of the United States would benefit from a great deal of the stories and events, both direct and allegorical, found within the Fallout series. And so on and so forth--I daresay there are few typical High School English units (and even fewer college-level ones, for that matter) that I couldn’t associate with at least 1 RPG that could add thoughtful, worthwhile insights into the matter.

And so, coming back to the question of this rant, can an RPG be a suitable text for a classroom? Well, in my reasonably expert opinion, the answer is...no.

“Oh COME ON, The RPGenius, you inimitable, self-important asshole!” you grumble now, as your mouse cursor hovers dangerously close over the X button in the corner of your browser. “Did you seriously just waste all that time convincing us that RPGs have as much to offer a thoughtful curriculum as any other method of expression, only to turn around and tell us it can’t be done anyway?”

Of course I did. I’m a total jackass. I thought you guys would’ve figured that out by now. Really, you have only yourselves to blame.

See, here’s the thing. I do believe wholeheartedly in what I’ve been saying here. As methods of storytelling and expressing higher thought, RPGs are no less capable and worthy than any other narrative art form, be it books, television, movies, comics, visual art, theater, or what have you. Obviously those other forms have a huge head start on video games, but I’d nonetheless place the likes of Planescape: Torment, Deus Ex 1, Final Fantasy 7, Wild Arms 3, Mother 3, and many more RPGs at the same level of worth and intellect as the average classic work of literature.****

Here, however, is the “but” that makes that opinion meaningless: Many RPGs are worthy of academic study, but, it is, logistically speaking, impossible to make them a part of any school’s curriculum, for a number of reasons:

A: The time. Even reading a full novel from start to finish, a task that a class unit gives its students a time of about 1 - 4 weeks to complete, is never a task that’s going to take more than 20 hours of a student’s time altogether, and as far as I can tell, most assigned books take considerably less time than that. Heck according to this site, you can read the entire Hunger Games trilogy in less than 17 hours. Obviously the mileage of high school students is going to vary greatly, but still, you get the idea.

Now consider the fact that RPGs average anywhere between 25 to 60 hours to complete. If it takes 2 to 3 weeks to have students read and learn about The Great Gatsby, which averages in at less than 3 hours to read, or To Kill a Mockingbird, which clocks in at less than 6 hours to finish, how the hell would you ever find a way to include, say, Grandia 2, which takes, according to How Long to Beat, about 35 hours? You’d basically have to be including it in your curriculum for an entire term, and probably be well past whatever unit it was meant to coincide with before you even got to the relevant details in the game.

Even Deus Ex 1, a short RPG, takes 20 to 25 hours to complete, which would translate to, what, a month in class? You could maybe make your unit on dystopian fiction last a full month, but you wouldn’t be able to fit in anything but DE1, and while I think it’s an ideal supplementary text, it can’t be the anchor for the unit--you really just need to have Orwell, Bradbury, or Collins serving as the unit’s foundation.

I can’t really see it being possible to effectively teach an RPG as a text in parts, either. While you can take excerpts from some books and such to teach with, RPGs are typically a very linear story that really requires that you’ve witnessed all of what’s come before each scene in order to get what’s going on. Context and background knowledge is too vital for almost any RPG’s significant scenes and dialogues to be able to work effectively with excerpts from the game.

B: The cost. School budgets in the USA are pretty meager. Honestly, most of them are outright pathetic. It is flabbergasting, honestly, the expectations that this country has of an education system that it staunchly refuses to adequately fund at any level of government. There are a lot of reasons for why so little (sometimes even none) of a high school’s English class literature comes from any time more recent than the 1960s, all of them bad, but one of the big reasons is simply that books cost money. Even with the discounts that publishers give schools, it’s a lot easier to pay for a few replacements each year of an older book that the school already has a few hundred copies of, than it is to buy a few hundred copies of a new book that the school’s never taught before. Especially considering that newer books are priced higher.

So really, how would you be able to fit RPGs into the budget? If you have to get enough copies for every student in each classroom, there’s no possible way, even if we assume that you magically always have access to a PC version of the game and don’t have to outright buy the game systems that run the RPG to begin with. You could try to do a school account at GOG, purchase the game once, and have the students download it from that account, but that’s definitely not ethical, particularly when you consider how easy it would be for the student to just keep it for themselves even after the class was done with it. And even if you were unethical enough not to care, I’m fairly sure that the unusual number of downloads would be noticed by the retailer before too long, and they’d take steps to prevent it from happening again.

C: The Inequity. Even assuming, again, that you’re only using computer-based RPGs in a curriculum, not every student has regular access to a computer for the length of time it would take to play the game through to its end. Public-use computers in the library or a school computer lab are great for writing a paper or doing some research, but they certainly aren’t going to do it for something that takes 20+ hours to experience, saved games or no. Not every family can afford a reliable PC, and not every family can accommodate their household computer being tied up for that long on just a single assignment.

D. The Disparity. Plenty of RPGs are completely linear, which would be fine for teaching, but a lot of others provide experiences that vary greatly depending on what decisions the player makes. A player who plays Planescape: Torment without putting a single point in the Wisdom stat is going to have a significantly different (and poorer) experience from the game than a player who properly prioritizes that particular stat, which is all-important to the game’s storytelling. A player who doesn’t bother with the Social Links in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 in his/her haste to forward the game’s plot will have less than half as enriching an experience as the player who does. Trying to teach a class on the significant stuff in an RPG where player input has any influence on that content would be an exercise in futility.

E: The Teaching. Yeah, it’s easy enough to have everyone look in their books during class to examine a specific passage, or watch a video on a TV or a projector at the front of the classroom, but a game and its console isn’t exactly something you can easily have everyone bring into class and just go to specific scenes within it the same way you flip a page or pause and rewind a video. I mean, it’s not the hardest logistical problem of these, but the teacher would still have to go to extra trouble to hunt down a Let’s Play of the game to show the desired scenes to the class for whatever examination is part of the day’s lesson, then go to further extra trouble to find a Let’s Play that doesn’t involve an awkwardly-voiced idiot chattering nonstop as he plays as though it’s his dull witticisms, inept musings, and garbled mumbling that you’re watching the video for. And if a suitable Let’s Play can’t be found, then you’d need to make videos of the gameplay yourself, which of course adds heaven only knows how much extra time to your class prep.

F: The Administration. Video games as a respectable medium of art is an idea that is new, and not going to take hold of the culture for a long, long time. We might not even live to see the day where games are recognized by the common person as such. I mean, graphic novels and comic books as we recognize them have been around, what, about 100 years now, and there’s still a LOT of people who would scoff at the idea that they can express ideas as well and as worthy as books or theater. Parents and administrators may not question a teacher’s decision to include a movie or recorded play in the curriculum now and then, but even if you could get all your other logistical ducks in a row, actually convincing the people in charge of your department, your school, your students, and your very employment that there’s anything worthwhile to be taught in a video game is a tall order at best. Hell, I don’t even know if I’ve even convinced you of that, and you already came here specifically to read about RPGs!

So in the end, do I think RPGs are worthy of study, as any other form of expression? Yes.

Do I think they are so, to the extent that they are as deserving of academic focus as many accepted novels, plays, and so on? Also yes.

Do I think there is any way at all that you could make an academic study of them work in school? Nope. Not a chance in hell. It’s too bad, but that’s the way it is, from any angle I look at it: it’s a nice idea, but it just can’t be done. If you think otherwise, please do tell me how you’d get around all the problems I’ve listed, because I’d love to be able to make this work.

And finally, am I self-aware enough to realize that no one beyond myself actually cares about this to begin with, and that I have wasted everyone’s time with this rant? Of course. Hell, I just assume that’s true for every rant I post here.

* Apparently a number of high schools across the country are moving to curtail or even altogether eliminate their English programs. It’s quite a frightening social trend.

** You might worry that being more specific could also mean that DE1 would be more dated, given it came out over 15 years ago. After all, the more specific something is in its use of real world details, the more easily it becomes dated as those details change. Well, no worries there. I’m pleased and utterly terrified to assure you that DE1’s portrayal of governmental and private movements to disempower the world’s citizens and restrict freedoms is more relevantly accurate today than ever before!

*** In fact, if you ask me, one of those worse companions for such a unit IS Catcher in the Rye. Yeah, I’m an aspiring English Teacher that doesn’t like Salinger’s most famous work. Bite me.

**** Maybe even above that level, in fact, if you count Kurt Vonnegut’s works as part of the classics canon. Yeah, I’m an aspiring English Teacher that doesn’t like Vonnegut. Again, bite me.


  1. There's a new blog called "Literary Gaming" that attempts to analyse interactive fiction. http://www.literarygaming.com/ but I think you only played Undertale and Mother 3 out of those.

    Also I thought that Final Fantasy 7 had more in common with Moby Dick than most other RPGs. Cloud and Ahab are both motivated to defeat someone because they lost something dear to them (Aeries/leg). Both are devoted to beating Sephiroth/the whale to an insane point. Maybe I'm stretching this a bit thin though.

    1. Thanks for the link; I'll be sure to check that out. It looks promising.

      Wow, FF7's ties to Moby Dick...you just reminded me of my very, very first RPG rant, essentially the gateway ramblings that led this blog to exist. I had forgotten all about it! It was hosted at my internet place of birth, Icy Brian's RPG Page, and everything. I need to see if it's still there somewhere...anyway, to put a point to this, you're not the only one who's made that connection.

    2. Here we go. Published back in 2002...old thing's still up there, amazingly. I've come so far with these rants since then...well, not that far, actually. But at least I make fewer linguistic errors now.


  2. Transcribing the plot of an RPG to some sort of text format that's more convenient for a classroom setting might allow the class to consume the material in a standardized setting, allowing you to make some reasonable assumptions as to what they took in. The frustration of learning gameplay you may not be familiar with - remember, there are people who've utterly blown at playing FF7 and have never let the rest of us forget it. However much it may betray the nature and structure the story was written for, this may be the easiest way to "sneak" it into a classroom.

    There's a wealth of foundations, expectations, trends, themes, and stylistic choices that are inherent to RPGs that would survive the migration to text, even when it comes to discussing the appearance of characters. As much as I cringe when people fail to compartmentalize their interests and insist on and sharing it with "normies", I think this idea has promise.

    If absolutely nothing else, you'd have a handful of competent stories that could be reformatted to mostly text with some multimedia assets, and you have what could very well be a solid piece of classwork.

    Oh wow, that Moby Dick essay takes me back. Those Freezer articles are what convinced me to give up my intense fear of the ten billion pedophiles on the internet and register for the forums. Good times.

    1. I am concerned that you would allow an essay that crappy to sway your mind on ANYTHING, sir. Nonetheless, your poor past judgment allowed your presence to enrich my RPG life, so I'm pleased all the same.

      Funny you should make this suggestion! Someone else emailed me with virtually the same idea shortly after this rant was thrown up here, and I have to say that it has a lot of potential. In a couple years, when I am (God willing) an established teacher, I'll use a summer to look over the text of Deus Ex 1 or perhaps SMT Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2 and see what could be done with such games in text format. I think it could be a pretty neat thing--and I never would have thought of it without you guys.