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This week, we take a pause from Mary Gross’ four-part series to feature a post from Dr. David Seelow, Professor of English at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. In addition to his role at Saint Rose, David Seelow is the founder of the website/blog Revolutionary Learning (http://www.revolutionarylearning.net) and the Editor of Lessons Drawn: Essays on the Pedagogy of Comics and Graphic Novels (McFarland 2019).
David’s post is intended for professors of literature and similar subjects but is equally applicable to a broader audience. As he writes, “My experience over the last 15 years has been that students read less now and that reading less, much less in many cases, results in a serious decline in skills. However, a decline can always be reversed and that’s one reason for my writing this blog.”
David’s ideas for treating video game walkthroughs and other alternative forms of content critique as close reading are certainly relevant to pedagogical practices in our changing society. His writing reminded me of a panel at New York Comic Con this past October, in which the presenters (educators and scholars themselves) encouraged the audience to consider comic books as primary sources in our teaching. Here, David suggests with video games what the panelists proposed with comic books: “Being able to closely analyze a text, whether a poem, a film, or now, a video game has clear relevance to a student’s ability to think critically in multiple contexts.”
Video Games in the English Classroom
David Seelow, Ph.D.
Why Close Reading?
One of the chief benefits of taking a literature class continues to be the development of deep reading skills. No discipline fosters deeper and more attentive reading than literature precisely because no form of writing represents more multilayered, complex and nuanced use of language than good literature. In an era where so many people, including students, read from the web, deep reading becomes an even more valuable skill than in my long past student days. As the skill becomes rarer its value increases.
Literary criticism is the art of close reading. One of my mentors, the late renowned theater critic Jan Kott, taught a graduate course called The Art of Interpretation, and criticism was one of the 5 areas of my oral examination, so I have a finely calibrated appreciation for the art and science of deep reading. A class steeped in reading great literature can be easily modeled for the study of video games. For avid gamers, stepping back from game play to examine what makes a game work gives the player a new appreciation and understanding of a game. At the same time, literature students can apply their skills to a form of new media that has increasing importance in students’ lives. I sometimes question the value of asking students to write term or research papers that rehash or regurgitate the research and reading of scholars and result in a very derivative essay cast in an academic style well removed from the context of most students’ future careers. Yes, there is value in learning proper research and research writing, but its prioritization needs to be placed in the context of 21st century media. On the other hand, being able to closely analyze a text, whether a poem, a film, or now, a video game has clear relevance to a student’s ability to think critically in multiple contexts.
In the game world, the idea of well-played, as in a journal of that name: Well Played: a journal of video games published by Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center Press. This journal’s mission clearly situates the concept of well-played in close relationship to what we in English might call well read:
The Well Played Journal is a forum for in-depth close readings of games that parse out the various meanings to be found in the experience of playing a game. It is a reviewed journal open to submissions that will be released on a regular basis.
Contributors are encouraged to analyze sequences in a game in detail to illustrate and interpret how the various components of a game can come together to create a fulfilling playing experience unique to this medium. Through contributors, the journal will provide a variety of perspectives on the value of games.
The goal of the journal is to continue developing and defining a literacy of games as well as a sense of their value as an experience. Games are a complex medium that merits careful interpretation and insightful analysis. By inviting contributors to look closely at games and the experience of playing them, we hope to expand the discussion and show how games are well played in a variety of ways.
The description perfectly fits the goals of many literature courses and programs. Even the journal’s name Well Played echoes the great Cleanth Brook’s text The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947). Brooks’ work can be considered the seminal work of new criticism and his close reading of richly textured, famous poems like John Donne’s “The Canonization” (a line in this dense poem offers the title for Brooks’ text) or W.B. Yeats’ “Among School Children.”
Close reading, of course, is only one of the many forms of literary interpretation, but I would argue students of literature, games, and film best learn first through “new criticism” because the other forms of interpretation begin where close reading ends, and, you need a good understanding of the text itself before applying more fanciful styles of interpretation. I say fanciful only to indicate readings that stray from the object of study itself as a self-contained unit; self-contained in that form and meaning are interdependent dimensions of the text and intrinsic to its language without reference to extra textual factors like the author’s biography or the social context at the time of the text’s creation. These are extremely important factors for appreciating the depth and breadth of great literature, but first read the text!
I pursued graduate study during the explosion of post structuralist thought and my first book (Seelow, 2005) used many contemporary theories in reading D.H. Lawrence; however, I started my inquiry with Lawrence’s prose and lyrics. I knew no critic writing about Lawrence could ever approximate the beauty and power of Lawrence’s own words (such critics commit what Cleanth Brooks would call “The Heresy of Paraphrase”). Oddly, during the 1980s I sometimes became disillusioned with English professors who would write and talk so intelligently and passionately about theory, but, ironically, seemed to have less passion and less understanding about the literature they were expounding upon. Perhaps literary theory needs to be considered independent of literary criticism, but criticism, which I advocate here, begins and ends with literature or the text proper. Close reading is primary.
In reading a video game, like reading a poem or short story, you look at all the interconnected parts: narrative, voice, setting, plot, characterization, symbols, themes, irony, meter, or music in the case of a game, imagery or game art, genre, and game mechanics or rules, which in literature can be thought of as conventions (a sonnet’s 14 lines, an ode’s elevated tone, etc.).
After close readings of a game, the students can move on to interpret video games through the same variegated lens that they would interpret a short story or film: psychoanalytic, Marxist, feminist, post structuralist, historicist, reception theory, queer theory, and race (Parker, 2008). Each theory will disclose something different and valuable about a game and any theory can be applied with value to any game, though some theoretical lens might be a better fit for certain games, say Grand Theft Auto and feminism, but such obvious applications, might not yield the originality of less obviously applications (maybe a Marxist reading of the GTA series and the class dynamics of urban America).
I have previously written about the value of using video games as replacements or alternatives to textbooks, and I extend that belief to urge the inclusion of video games in literature classes as an object of close reading. Further, in Game Design or Game Studies programs I would urge the inclusion of some literature for the same reasons as I would include a video game in a literature course. An aesthetic object demanding close attention to detail; the minutiae of the game or poem brings about a deeper appreciation for the object and a realization that the final poem or game is more than the sum of closely examined parts.
Student choice is always valuable if you provide some parameters and ask that the game be relevant to the course’s theme or field of inquiry. For my class on cyberculture, I ask students to analyze a game of their choice related to the theme of the course. Given how often the course addresses artificial intelligence, most students have no trouble selecting an interesting game. Choices included Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games/2K Games, 2013), which, though set in 1912, represents current and future class conflict, Fallout Vegas (Obsidian/Bethesda, 2010) a great post-apocalyptic survival game following about future war between nations or between man and robot, both being a key course themes, Xenogears (Squaresoft, 1998), a Japanese anime flavored role playing game with a strong religious/metaphysical foundation and strong machine-man theme, and an especially popular recently released game Fortnite (Epic Games, 2018), which seems to be an open world environment with strong zombie apocalyptic (in this case, following a massive world-wide storm) tones and themes.
Although I preferred a written analysis for this assignment, I still gave students an alternative whereby they could offer a close reading through a walkthrough or video blog. Walkthroughs are a form of close reading on the fly as the player comments during play, and they are perfect for millennials who can easily learn to make them. There are numerous examples at the website Game Anyone. One student did a walk through of Half Life 2 (Valve, 2004), and another student, a female, did a walkthrough of the cyberpunk side scrolling game Dex (Dreadlocks, Ltd., 2015). The latter provides an interesting perspective from the student’s focus on the protagonist’s sexuality. Given Dex is a cyberpunk heroine in a genre noted for its male protagonists, I found her perspective especially illuminating. Another female student offered a video blog commentary on gender in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I had shown the class examples of Anita Sarkeesian’s superb Feminist Frequency blog, which clearly made a positive impression on some of the students as indicated by this one student artifact.
Although this may seem obvious, I want to state the obvious here. Most close reading addresses poetry for practical reasons. You can manage to close read a lyric poem during a single class period. After all Brooks reads Wordsworth’s “Ode to Intimations of Immortality” not his epic poem “The Prelude.” Students can also manage to close read a short story during class, but close readings of a novel or drama are better confined to a single chapter or scene. Likewise, close readings of a game would best begin with a game or games that can be played within the duration of a class period. A second obvious point worth mentioning is that the professor or teacher should model a close reading of a poem or video game before asking students to do the same. Modeling gives students clear parameters on what to expect, what to look for, and how to perform a solid close reading. Reading an article by a professor or teacher is a fine supplement, but not a substitute for live modeling by an instructor.
A Note on Practice
One potentially illuminating activity would be to conduct a version of I.A. Richard’s (1929) early- proto practical criticism experiment on reading poetry, with reading video games. Richards, a professor of English at Cambridge University, would give his students (mostly honors students) sheets of anonymous poems to read over a one-week period and keep track of their close readings on note paper. Richards considered this a psychological experiment in that he was studying how students thought about poetry. It was as much about the reading process (what we now call reader response theory) as poetry interpretation. The anonymity allowed students to demonstrate their own thought process without relying on scholars’ critical readings. In the age of the Internet such original readings are important. Students first, almost automatic response, today is to look at Wikipedia or some other website and use the interpretations (often professional, though not always illuminating) they find there as the meat of their own readings, which then end up being highly derivative with little genuine critical thinking. Consequently, allow students to approach a text with fresh eyes and play a video game in class that they are unlikely to have played before hand and comment on the experience.
Let me pause momentarily to clarify common student misconceptions about opinions and correctness in close reading by briefly talking about what E.D. Hirsch, Jr. calls validity in interpretation (1973). Students must learn that not all interpretations are not equally valid. I.A. Richards argument maintains, as the subtitle of his book evidences, that interpretation is a judgment about distinguishing between good and bad, effective and ineffective writing. There are well wrought poems and there are ill wrought poems (more of the latter). The same can be said of video games, some are well designed, and many are not. Students need to know what makes one poem or game well wrought and another ill wrought. Part of being educated demands the ability to make clear judgments and evaluate artifacts and products with acumen. The ability to judge and value will extend across many domains in the student’s life, so poetry or games are perfectly good places to begin developing this ability.1
In learning what makes a well wrought poem or a well wrought video game a student will also learn the same degree of validity applies to their close readings. Interpreting is not just stating one’s “opinion” and not all readings are valid, “it’s just my opinion” (in Richards’ experiment only 30% of his honor students made what he considered valid readings of the poems). In describing a valid reading Richards does not therefore maintain that there is a single correct or true interpretation, which many students and some professionals continue to misunderstand. On the contrary, new critics argue that no correct or final interpretation of a poem is possible. Brooks emphasizes over and over that the “inner essence of a poem” (261) always eludes any single reading. A poem can never be reduced to a prose statement or translation. This is the nature of art. Learning this fact will help students both appreciate the art of art and the art of interpretation, i.e. deep reading at its best.
Richards’ experiment revealed some disconcerting evidence to the professor (Richards, by the way, was one of the greatest readers of poetry in the 20th century). Students at one of the world’s best universities, studying a major that featured poetry, produced miserable results. Richards’ book, based upon his classroom experiment (which we today we call action research), outlined ten problems (pp. 12-15) students seem to experience with reading poetry and he addressed each of these ten at length in his book. Richards’ overwhelming impression concerned his honor students’ “mental inertia.” If Richards was a touch distraught by the poor reading habits of honors students at Cambridge in the 1920s I suspect, he would have trouble finding words for what he might discover today. My experience over the last 15 years has been that students read less now and that reading less, much less in many cases, results in a serious decline in skills. However, a decline can always be reversed and that’s one reason for my writing this blog.
Richards used his findings to argue for the value of a course or program in the art of interpretation. He ends the book with a dire prognosis and a call for the value of Humanities by stating how technology (this well before the web was even imagined):
We defend ourselves from the chaos that threatens us by stereotyping and standardizing both our utterances and our interpretations. And this threat must be insisted, can only grow greater as world communication, through the wireless and otherwise improve (319).
I would argue we are on the verge of that chaos now and the lack of reading, especially attentive reading and attention to what we experience as both text and world can only have negative consequences. Stereotyping our response to poetry after all goes hand in hand with stereotyping the people and documents we encounter daily, and the strong tendency to “confirmation bias”. Our unwillingness to see beyond our own stock response to the world of the text closes off genuine interpretation, communication and dialogue. In the game world, the entire Gamergate nightmare, can be read as this inability to read well. If students learn to read well they will play well. A well-played game like a well-read poem makes all the difference as Robert Frost might have said.
- The need to evaluate is every present. Is the news report real or fake? If we are fortunate enough to dine at Nobu in Manhattan we expect a well-wrought, i.e. well-prepared meal, but grabbing a meal from the tray at McDonalds we expect no such careful preparation, and we will not receive it. If students don’t learn to make valid judgments they might wind up with a house of straw not a house of brick in very windy world.
Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. Harvest Books, 1947.
Hirsch, E.D., Jr. Validity in Interpretation. Yale University Press, 1973.
Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. Oxford University Press, 2008. This book discusses the major schools of literary theory. It is both descriptive and critical. Chapter two addresses “New Criticism” (pp. 9-39).
Richards, I.A. Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment. Harvest Books, 1929.
Seelow, David. Radical Modernism and Sexuality: Freud/Reich/D.H. Lawrence & Beyond. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
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