Video Games in the English Classroom

By Stephen V. Kiss

I remember spending countless hours during my childhood playing video games with my friends. Besides their sheer entertainment, games like Halo and Mario Kart were a way for my friends and me to collaborate, problem solve, interpret complex storylines, and compete with one another. But video games were for after school, on the weekends, and during summer, and therefore my perception growing up was that because video games were fun, they were not acceptable in school. Consequently, I did not realize the skills I was building while playing video games with my friends. But what if that did not have to be the case? What if more people began to view video games as a learning tool? 

Fast forward to my time in college studying to be a teacher.  My education professors stressed the importance of implementing an engaging curriculum that promoted collaboration and real life connections.  This sounded good, but when I started my first year teaching, this thought process went out the window. The fear that students would not be able to handle the independence of a hands-on, collaborative curriculum while still learning the prescribed standards was very real. My years of teaching in Mississippi and North Carolina have helped me realize the importance of giving students the opportunity to collaborate with one another and connect the school curriculum to their own lives.  

This is where using video games as a type of literacy comes in. I thought if it was possible to get funding (and it is), then completing a video game-based unit could help my students practice some of the necessary literacy skills needed for secondary English while also building their problem solving and communication skills. Imagine if students were having so much fun at school that it carried over to their lives outside of and beyond school – even weekends and summers.

Video Games in the English Classroom

As literacy becomes more multimodal, students often need not only to read traditional texts but also interpret audio, still images, and videos. If educators only teach traditional texts in their classrooms, they are not preparing students for the 21st century world in which we live. The modern-day workforce and education system is changing dramatically and computers and other forms of technology that include audio, image, and video are becoming the norm. Video games combine all the different types of technology listed above and require users to be knowledgeable in how to use them simultaneously.

The article “Games as Text, Games as Action: Video Games in the English Classroom” describes how video games employ a type of multimodal literacy. In short, these games require their players to take active roles in the creation of the game’s narrative. This means that decisions, such as completing a mission in a certain way, shapes how the plot unfolds. This article also discusses how video games require the gamer to interpret multiple forms of text, such as pictures, sounds, and color. (Beavis 435).

Authentic learning can also be promoted through the use of video games in the classroom. Some games can help students further their literacy skills by asking them to collaborate, problem solve, and think critically.

Researchers James Paul Gee and Elisabeth R. Hayes advocate for video games in the classroom in their book Language and Learning in the Digital Age. They discuss the ways in which video games help gamers develop literacy skills and argue that these are the very skills “we hope people develop in school . . . that are central to work and life in the global, high-tech, complex-system-ridden twenty-first century” (85). Gee also published an article in Wired that discusses how video games are teaching teenagers how to think. Gee asserts that schools are primarily teaching memorization and other rote skills, while games, on the other hand, are teaching students how to train their brains to think critically. 

Student Example

This section describes the video game unit I created, and it contains hyperlinks to samples of student work. The unit revolves around a guided notes assignment where students interpret a video game as a form of literacy. Students are then required to complete a post-game reflection where they consider the different types of literary elements they noticed while playing. These student examples revolve around an Xbox One game titled Rise of the Tomb Raider. I chose this game because its use of rich dialogue shapes the gamer’s decision-making process. Not only that, but the game features a strong female protagonist who defies the traditional gender roles that still permeate our society. 

Here is a student example and template of a guided notes assignment I used with this game. The guided notes assignment template can be used on any video game. My students greatly benefit from guided notes when we read an array of texts. As you can see in the student work sample, the student was able to focus and break down various parts of the game that connected it to literacy. By giving this student the guided notes handout, they were reading (playing) with a purpose. The guided notes contain open ended questions that students will respond to while they are playing the game for this unit. 

Guided notes also help establish learning objectives for students. For example, this assignment’s main goal is for my students to be able to both distinguish between and analyze the different types of literary elements found in the video game as well as in other forms of text. The six components found in the guided notes template (see below) blend traditional literary elements with multimodal elements, and this can further students’ critical thinking skills. In other words, this activity blends traditional literary terminology with multimodal terminology that students can then transfer to an array of texts.

The guided notes are split into the following sections:

Part I- Introduction: Students watch an IGN (American video game and entertainment media website) review of the video game they intend to study. This serves as an anticipatory set for students.

Part II- Characterization: Students analyze the protagonist of the story. Character analysis is focused on dialogue, facial expressions, actions, relationships, etc. 

Part III- Setting: Students describe screenshots of the setting and how it impacts the plot. Video games are unique in the sense that you can stop and observe your surroundings.  

Part IV- Reader Decision Making: Students write about how they, in the role of  reader/gamer, have to make decisions and how those decisions impact the trajectory of the story.  

Part V- Identity: Students give real-life examples of how they connect to the game’s protagonist in order to reinforce the importance of text-to-self connections. 

Part VI- Game Manual: Students use a Wiki Guide as a game manual. Essentially a play-by-play guide of the video game utilizing both video and written text, these manuals can help develop students’ literacy due to their multimodal nature. Students subsequently write about in which part of the game they needed to use the manual, why they used it, and how it helped them. Here is an Example Wiki Guide from the Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Student Reflection

Reflecting on their literacy practices helps students synthesize important points, such as the themes they noticed in the game they played and what specifically enabled them to recognize those themes. Reflection also develops students’ metacognitive skills, helping them consider the ways in which their viewpoints have evolved. Here is a reflection template and a student example reflection.

Student Assessment

The Guided Notes and Student Reflection activities serve as unit assessments. If students complete these activities in a Google Doc, feedback can be provided using the comments feature. This will encourage students to make recommended improvements, and this can ultimately be used to track student growth. Here is an example of a rubric that can be used as a final assessment for the unit.

In closing, video games are a viable way to facilitate critical thinking and collaboration within the ELA classroom. Their use also prepares students for real-world tasks by combining multiple forms of multimodal literacy in fun and interactive ways. No longer should video games be viewed as frivolous activities with little educational value. Used thoughtfully in the classroom, video games can leverage students’ existing literacies to help them become more sophisticated readers of the range of texts they will encounter in their lives beyond the school day.


Stephen Kiss is a high school English teacher who has taught grades 9-12 at a standard, honors, and IB level. Mr. Kiss is a gamer himself that is learning about how to integrate video games in the classroom as a form of multimodal literacy.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.


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