There's something strange about Jeff Clark's classroom.
Every student at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Cheektowaga, N.Y. knows what goes on in his classes, but only his students — sixth graders learning English — experience the weirdness firsthand.
This unremarkable school in an underprivileged first-ring suburb of Buffalo is trying something new.
The kids in Jeff Clark's class learn English ... by playing video games.
In the classes, among the posters spouting inspirational quotes and the faded infographics and the tattered copies of The Life of Frederick Douglass, there sits a column of shiny game consoles and TV rigs, lined up on a table.
These aren't educational games hatched by well-meaning progressives. They are commercial games played on games consoles. Nor is this a clever use of games to motivate and reward students, as in Chicago International Charter Schools' ChicagoQuest.
This is English literature, as in narrative curves and emotional resonance and character motivation, taught through the direct medium of video games.
Ni no Kuni is on the same syllabus as To Kill a Mockingbird.
Clark says that teachers have long sought to reach their students through the books they are likely to enjoy, the adventures and yarns that grip the imaginations of young minds, from Narnia and The Hobbit to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. But many kids today experience their fictional narratives through video games, not through books.
"Once kids realize that the games that they play and love so much, the ones with strong campaigns, have strong writers behind them," he says, "I think there's a powerful hook right there."
A teaching-kids-through-games initiative sounds like the preserve of liberal privilege, the kind of snazzy move you'd expect from a school in, say, Santa Clara, Calif., a place located in sight of the shimmering certainties of Google's new-technology aspirations.
But Cheektowaga is a blue-collar place, where the factories have skipped town and the service economy somehow missed its incoming connection. Half the kids at John F. Kennedy Middle School rely on economic assistance and/or live in single-parent homes. Many of their parents work multiple jobs in order to make the rent, to give their kids small luxuries.
"Who's talking to these kids about the decisions they make in these games and how they feel about it?"
"It's a moderately economically depressed area, but we still manage to have pretty good attendance rates," Clark says. "We have a strongly knit group of families. It's a great group of kids."
The point is not so much to get the kids up to speed with education, but to get education up to speed with the kids.
Clark says that his students are at their most animated, their most interesting and engaged, when they talk about the experiences within video games. They'll talk about exciting moments and scary surprises that they found inside these worlds.
"A lot of times, the detail that they can pour into a story is more vivid than what they can tell us about their favorite novel they read," he says. "Whether you think that's right or wrong, I'm sure everyone has their own opinions. But I think that's just a sign of the changing culture."
So how does this actually work in the classroom?
Clark explains, "You might be looking at a game and doing a character analysis. Maybe you read a review of that game and compare your own notes to that. You might have to write a walkthrough or reflect on decisions you had to make in the game and the emotions that go into some of these games."
The classroom still uses books, computers, films and other traditional tools. Console games are simply being woven into the curriculum.
"Obviously we're never getting rid of the books," says Clark. "I'm a big young-adult novel advocate. We're going to tie that into some of the video games that we use."
Clark says that the connections he can make with his students through video games help him to increase their understanding of how fiction works, how language can be used to create ideas, worlds, emotions.
"Who's talking to these kids about the decisions they make in these games and how they feel about it? I think it's a conversation that should be had," he says.
The gaming teacher
Jeff Clark is no wide-eyed idealist, straight out of teacher-training and thrust into some modern Blackboard Jungle. He's a family man in his 30s. He served with the U.S. National Guard in Baghdad.
He has been teaching for 10 years, and is well respected by students, parents and colleagues.
He enjoys video games, like BioShock Infinite, and plays them in his spare time. Some years ago, he organized an after-school club to play Madden. Kids at school know that he will speak knowledgeably about games.
He recently became interested in the idea of gamification in education, of layering achievements into the learning process. Many companies are selling ways to use games to teach specific lessons, and there's even crossover with commercial game companies. Minecraft and Portal 2 both have educational programs. However, these are geared more towards the teaching of math and sciences than English and liberal arts.
"I'm a sixth grade English teacher," says Clark, "so I was thinking, 'How can I tie in language with these video games?' I started to look at games that have really potent narratives and that aren't ultra-violent, that I could bring into the classroom to teach kids that video games today hire professional writers to write the story elements of these games."
He understood that trying to fund his idea through school budgets would be problematic, budgets being tight at the best of times, and so he went onto Kickstarter, made a modest proposition, picked up some media coverage and raised the necessary money, $4,250.
The games he has purchased for his lessons include Braid, Eternal Sonata, Ni no Kuni, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Journey and Okami. Many would agree, this selection displays excellent taste.
The kids are excited. At first, when the consoles arrived in the classroom, the novelty was almost a distraction. Clark says, "You can imagine how hard it was for them to concentrate on Fractured Fairy Tales while all that new tech is in the back of the room staring at them.
"They have these consoles at home. That's the funny thing. When you think of school and the traditional classroom, and then you put games in there, that's what really shocks kids, and in a good way."
When Clark pitched the Kickstarter, he mentioned that games like the Uncharted series offer rich characters and interesting relationships. But the Uncharted games are shooters with ESRB Teen ratings, and this raised some questions.
He says that he'll only use cutscenes that he knows are appropriate for his students' age range, and that the games he has bought are appropriate for his group of children.
Whenever games and children are mentioned together, the topic of violence is never far away. In fact, instead of being an obstacle, Clark says it's been part of the inspiration behind his program.
He recalls talking to students about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which many were playing despite its Mature rating. He had personally found the infamous "airport scene" troubling, and had opted against playing it through. He asked the students about whether they had chosen to play the optional level, which involves gunning down innocents. All of them had chosen to play it.
"I kept thinking, in the back of my head, about all the young kids that were playing this game," he says. "What's going through their head when they're playing this? We had a really interesting, intelligent, mature conversation about it. It wasn't a negative debate or anything, but we had an open conversation about it.
"A lot of parents probably don't let their kids play that game, but the ones that did, they may never have talked to anybody about doing something like that. That was a profound conversation to me. It opened my eyes to some of the impact that adults and peers that students respect can have in conversations like that. It might be impactful on how they view video games and the content."
The view from gaming
Games today tackle complex human issues. They are sometimes layered with believable characters engaged in emotional relationships.
The populace as a whole is comfortable with games. We play them and relax while our kids play them. They are no longer seen as alien.
But despite their positives, do they work as a medium for teaching English?
Austin Grossman is a writer and game designer, the author of recently published novel You. He says, "There's something about games that offers kids ownership, in a way that literature does not. Books as capital-L Literature can be intimidating, but kids lose their intellectual timidity around games — they'll reason about a game, analyze it, tear it to shreds."
"I see a lot of educational games fail because they try to tackle the problem directly."
He adds, "Games offer literal ownership over the story — players are put directly in charge of some part of what happens, so they feel more able to put themselves in the protagonist's place, speculate about a character's motives, talk about what the outcome[s] of various choices were and why. They get a hybrid space that's both experiencing a story and experimenting with authorship, a place to reason actively about the aesthetic and ethical issues narratives raise so well."
But kids already have access to a huge world of literature, through novels and movies. Does literature need help from works that generally use narrative and dialogue to move the player from one action hotspot to another?
Chelsea Howe has worked as a game designer at commercial outfits like Zynga, and as an educator, teaching kids game design and computer science. She says Jeff Clark's initiative is "kind of brilliant."
"I see a lot of educational games fail because they try to tackle the problem directly," she says. "You think about the most successful exercise game. It wasn't any game designed to get people healthy. It was Dance Dance Revolution. Educational games that are designed to teach you math are probably slightly less successful than, say, [real-time strategy] games where you have to calculate your units and your unit strengths. So the idea of putting kids into this environment where knowing English and understanding English will optimize their gameplay, to me that seems like the best way to get people to learn English."
Here's what the kids say
Kayla is one of Jeff Clark's sixth-grade students. She enjoys Skyrim, Minecraft and Assassin's Creed. "I like to build, explore and do what I think is the right thing to do," she says. "I relate to any game where you can control the character and do what you want."
She is aware that, to some extent, the future of games in the classroom is on her and her classmates. She says, "If [the children] can't behave, they shouldn't be able to play. If they aren't doing what they are supposed to do, they shouldn't get to play."
Chase very much enjoys the kinds of games that boys like — Minecraft, Call of Duty, NHL 13 and Madden. He says, "I like the idea because it makes me feel more engaged in class. Instead of just sitting there reading or doing worksheets all the time, you actually have games and quests to do while you are having fun and at the same time learning. It's a better way to teach instead of the teachers just saying 'Open the textbook to page 139'."
Skylar's favorite games include Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong. She enjoys the sense of progress and earning achievements. How does she think games will impact education in the future? "In the future games will be used more for teaching kids," she says. "I don't think that it will be exactly the same, though, because schools won't be the same in the future. In the future there will be a lot more electronics and games."
The advantage games have over books or video is that they are "intrinsic," she says. "When students play games, they are having fun doing something just for the joy of doing it. They're intrinsically, inherently enjoyable. If your teacher just tells you to watch Shakespeare, that's not you doing it because you want to. It's not intrinsically rewarding. You're being told. Whereas with games: 'OK, I'm going to engage in this. I'm going to go after this goal. I know that I can master this.' They have all the right ingredients that you need to have this optimal experience."
On June 17 this year, the 10th annual Games For Change conference took place in New York City, a six-hour drive from Cheektowaga. Its remit was to extend the usefulness of games in making our lives richer and better.
The event's senior producer, Emily Treat, says that games can offer something new because the creation of games can be itself a game. "The opportunity that seems wide open is in the space of allowing kids to create their own games, using games as a tool for learning dialogue, for learning writing and literature."
She has worked with youngsters on creating games and found them immensely invested in their creations.
"One of the reasons why dialogue and narrative is so important in games is because a lot of what we do in games is wrapped around psychology," she says. "The whole idea of reward systems, the whole idea of giving people motivations and building in a sense of progression; a lot of that then revolves around the writing. The character development, the things that motivate the characters to make their choices in the game, the things that are going to inspire a player to respond to them, it's all around the psychology. But the way that gets delivered is through writing. You have to have that meaningful experience depicted through the language, through the interactions with those characters."
None of this detracts from the value of linear forms of literature, from the valued works of books, plays, poems and films. Just as Jeff Clark will never set down his books, so does Austin Grossman value their unique contribution.
He says, "I stop short of saying that games are more relevant than other narrative forms — I think we've all gotten over the idea that interactive narratives are somehow better than what books or films can offer — they go alongside those forms, with their own strengths and weaknesses. But it's wonderful that they're starting to be included."
The devil's advocate
But how powerful are games really, in teaching a subject like literature? How do they stand up against those formidable works in the canon that are used to educate and edify the young — Shakespeare, Dickens, Steinbeck and Lee?
John Stinneford teaches older children at the school, and is a friend of Clark's. He's decided to play devil's advocate, if not entirely against video games, at least for those who question their value alongside the greatest works of literature.
He says, "I think that Jeff will do a fantastic job with it. My question is, how do you segue, or how do you transition from games as an instructional tool into a full appreciation for language and for literature, for the things that can only be experienced by delving into a novel or a poem?"
Clark believes that the process of moving between art forms is natural for children, that interest in game stories leads to other forms. "Children today don't really make distinctions," he says. "If they are interested in something, they follow it up, without worrying too much about the delivery format."
"If you don't give it a try, how do you find out what could work and what can't?"
Stinneford admits to a certain intellectual playfulness with this line of thinking. Since he was a rookie teacher 18 years ago, he's used lyrics from contemporary pop songs to teach poetry. Something that seemed like an innovation in the early 1990s is now mainstream, an extremely useful way of connecting with students.
He agrees that games will likely be a bigger part of the classroom in years to come.
Stinneford isn't planning on using console games in his classes any time soon, but he says that it's usually a bad idea to ignore popular entertainment. "Kids aren't raised with a book in their hands," he says. "It's usually either an iPhone or a tablet or some form of gadget. That's their world. If we separate ourselves, we're going to do more harm than good. We're going to distance ourselves."
Some of the most irksome obstacles to teachers today are the demands of national and state-level administrators who have imposed structures and formulae on classrooms that restrict the individualism of teachers and their students.
Clark shows a student Ni no Kuni.
For John F. Kennedy Middle School's principal Gretchen Cercone, the Kickstarter's success and the notion of video games as agents of English-teaching shows that inspiration can come from unusual places, from the particular passions of one teacher.
"Lessons are scripted and dictated," she says, "especially in something like English and language arts, where there's so much room for exploration. Jeff's idea is exciting."
She says people trust Clark, and this has eased the passage of his new initiative. Parents have offered broad support to the plan. "I was expecting some resistance, or at least some questioning," she says. "I haven't experienced any of it. People know what he's trying to do with students and they believe that he'll use this to do what's best for them."
She adds, "If you just put video games in a classroom, without the right approach, without the right philosophy, without the right person, I might not support that, in the same way that I wouldn't hand certain books to certain students."
Stinneford may have questions about the plan to teach English through games, but he won't get in its way. "We're here for the kids first and foremost. Why wouldn't you want to take that step and at least give it a try? If you don't give it a try, how do you find out what could work and what can't?"
Clark says he doesn't want the kids to remember him as the English teacher who blotted their stories with red pen. He's here, he says, to inspire their imaginations, to connect with them and draw out their opinions and their personalities. And games can do that, just as books and poems and movies and songs can.
"There are books that I loved as a kid and there are games I loved as a kid," he says. "It's the same with these kids. There's so much more to video games than kids just staying up too late playing Call of Duty. These kids are spending a lot of time developing characters. They could tell you about the storylines and the different missions and quests. I think that's a pretty impressive thing."
Editing: Matt Leone, Chris Grant
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan