With Games for Change awarding Most Significant Impact and Game of the Year to Walden, a Game, there’s a lot of attention right now on the type of game that Walden represents - that is, narrative games, which fall more broadly into the category of English Language Arts (ELA) games. As a game named after a book and suffused with intertextuality, Walden is a straightforward example of how game-based learning can be applied to ELA. But what about the broader landscape of ELA games?
Math and Science lend themselves in obvious ways to game-based representation - dealing with systems-based, objective data provides a fairly seamless transition from concept to game mechanic. ELA, on the other hand, is a slightly more abstract challenge when designing a game with objectives like “understanding narrative” or “comprehending character development.” These types of learning goals introduce subjectivity to the subject matter.
With a narrative text, interpretations can be indirectly or even wholly contradictory and still remain equally valid. For example, many fans of the Lord of the Rings series have interpreted that story as an allegory for World War II, something that J.R.R. Tolkien denied. And yet, Tolkien himself acknowledged that "an author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience," a seeming admission that there is at least some truth to this interpretation. So what we have here is ambiguity, informed by historical context, the author’s own personal feelings and stated ambivalence, and the lens through which the readers view the text. You might even disagree with my interpretation of Tolkien’s statement! Needless to say, subjectivity complicates things.
Given this challenging fit for ELA and game-based learning, what’s a game-inclined ELA educator to do? I recommend thinking of ELA games in terms of three domains: narrative, mechanical, and generative. When I say narrative, I mean games that involve a lot of player choice, that are largely story-driven, and that act as a demonstration of plot, character, and structural elements like rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Mechanical ELA games are those that focus on those parts of ELA that are objective, like grammar, spelling, parts of speech, syntax, and so forth. Finally, with generative ELA games, I’m referring to games that afford the player the tools to create a story of their own. I’ve included some examples below for you to sample - let us know what we can add to this list!
Note: audiences vary for these games - when in doubt, check the ESRB rating for age-appropriateness.