Video Games in the Literature Classroom

Recently, Playing History 2-Slave Trade has received attention here in the U.S. for its depiction of the Middle Passage and the slave trade. The game, developed by Danish company Serious Game drew attention because of section of the game that people have dubbed “Slave Tetris.” Essentially, players must stack Africans into a ship’s hull in preparation for the Middle Passage in a manner similar to the classic game Tetris. Playing History 2-Slave Trade originally appeared in Europe in 2013, and now, it can be downloaded on Steam in the states. I have not played the game, and I cannot speak to is educational merits. (The game is designed as an education tool for elementary and middle school students to show the horrors of the slave trade.) There are articles online by people who have played the game, and I would suggest looking at Dexter Thomas’s piece in the Los Angeles Times if you are interested in learning more about this game and the debates surrounding it. 


Rather than examine whether or not the game mentioned above should be used in the classroom, I want to take the opportunity to pinpoint a couple of games that could possibly be used in the classroom to help students understand certain themes and periods in American Literature. These games are Red Dead Redemption, Assassin’s Creed III, and Grand Theft Auto IV. I am not saying that these games provide students with a complete image of themes that I discuss in my American Literature classes. Instead, I think they provide an excellent starting point for studentes to explore and question topics such as the close of the frontier, the Revolution and slavery, and the American Dream. Each of these topics appear at some point during the semester, and clips from these games help to illuminate points of discussion in the classroom. 

Red Dead Redemption tells the story of John Marston and the close of the frontier. Typically, I share with students the opening cinematic of the game where Marston boards a train for the west. During the scene, we see the proliferation of technology in the form of the locomotive and cars. Plus, we overhear passengers talking about how converting the “heathens” will make them “civilized.” Passengers also discuss technological advancements such as flight and how some people move to the frontier to escape who they may have been in other regions. All of the images and conversations in the opening sequence provide a starting point to discuss the frontier, American expansion, and Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis.”  The game provides other opportunities as well in regards to speaking about the treatment of Native Americans, Mexico during the first part of the twentieth century, and other topics related to the period. Finally, it presents students with an image of the cowboy and outlaw archetypes that populated mass culture at the time. Below, you will find all of the cinematics for the game. The opening scene is about 6:00 minutes and there are clips of just that scene on Youtube. 


While Red Dead Redemption takes place in 1911, Assassin’s Creed III takes the Revolutionary War as its setting. The game centers around a half-Mohwak, half-English character: Ratonhnhaké:ton (Connor is his English name). What makes this game useful in an American Literature course, apart from its focus on the Revolutionary Period, is two fold. For one, the development team at Ubisoft took the time to research the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) Nation’s language. To do this, they enlisted experts to help them make sure the language and other aspects remained accurate. Michael Venablas’s article and interview in Forbes does a good job of showing the meticulous attention to detail that the team adhered to. Another issue that the game tackles is that of slavery in the Northern states.  Most students do not think about slavery in relation to the North, and the game puts players in the midst of the slave trade in New England at a time when America was becoming its own nation. The video below shows our first introduction to Ratonhnhaké:ton in his own community. It must be noted, as well, that the player controls both Ratonhnhaké:ton and his English father Haytham Kenway at various points in the game, but the game mainly focuses on Ratonhnhaké:ton. 


For all of the debates surrounding the Grand Theft Auto franchise, the series presents a spot-on satiric look at modern culture and specifically the culture of America. Grand Theft Auto IV tells the story of Nico Bellic, a former soldier from an Eastern European country who comes to America seeking . He comes to America to find something important. Upon arriving, via boat I might add, he encounters his cousin Roman. Roman regales Nico with tales of the success he has become in America, only to show that these stories do not hold any truth. When thinking about the American Dream in literature, the opening sequence of Grand Theft Auto IV shows students the belief, and deception, of that dream on a character like Roman. It also provides the opportunity to discuss the arrival of immigrants in America, Nico arrives on a freighter. Finally, it presents a place to discuss what America means to not only those who live here but to those who seek to come here and succeed. Nico arrives in Liberty City, a name that carries with its own connotations of the American Dream. The clip below is the opening cinematic where Roam greets Nico at the docks. 
If you would use these scenes in your classroom, what texts would you pair them with? How would you incorporate them into the course? What aspects would you want students to take away from the scenes? Let em know in the comments below. 
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