The video game industry is now the world’s most popular and profitable entertainment medium, ahead of television, and larger than both movies and music combined. Yet, video games typically get the short shrift in language arts courses, dismissed as a lesser art form when compared to traditional texts like books and movies.
Ontario’s English curriculum heavily promotes literacy and language education “for the twenty-first century” — and there’s nothing more 21st century than exploring the sweeping, complex and thrilling texts of video games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Final Fantasy VII and Red Dead Redemption 2.
Consider the case of Grand Theft Auto V. As of 2020, Grand Theft Auto V remains the fastest-selling entertainment product in history. Within the game’s first 24 hours of release back in 2013, it sold 11.21 million units, and within three days, it earned over $1 billion in sales. Beyond the game’s massive popularity, players invested a significant amount of time exploring the game’s open world, including its narrative which featured a rich, interweaving saga about three criminals as they plot heists and evade law enforcement and other criminals around the fictional city of San Andreas. This main storyline takes about 64.1 hours to complete — which is about four hours more than it takes to read the entire Harry Potter book series.
While Grand Theft Auto V may not be appropriate for high school classrooms, you can be certain almost every one of your high school students has heard of the game or has played it themselves.
Super Mario Bros. is the Hamlet of video games
Long before video games were the top media product, they were worthy to be critically analyzed as media texts. In the third generation of video game consoles, one of the most popular video games of all time is also one of the earliest examples of this critical relevance: 1985’s Super Mario Bros. The game, developed and published by the Japan-based Nintendo Co. Ltd., is the perfect example with which to teach reading, writing and communication skills, as well as media literacy, and the elements of video game design and storytelling.
Like Shakespeare and Hamlet are to literature, so Nintendo and Super Mario Bros. are to video games. Deceptively simple, Nintendo’s masterpiece tells the tale of a pair of plumbers who travel to a strange alternate world to rescue a princess from a turtle-like antagonist named Bowser and his minions. This defining “platform” video game — a genre which features a player-controlled character that jumps and climbs from point A to B while avoiding obstacles — remains one the greatest examples of elegant game design and is notable for reviving the video game industry after the 1983 crash, and establishing Nintendo as a leading entertainment producer and consumer electronics manufacturer.
When introducing the study of video games and video game design, there’s no better place to start than Super Mario Bros. and its iconic World 1-1. This level remains a masterclass of interactive design. After the player picks up a controller and presses start, within the very first seconds of the game, they are placed into a new environment. Intuitively, without any text appearing, or the need to read a manual, the player moves forward and is introduced to the basics of the game. Quickly, the player learns through play to successfully explore the level by running and jumping. Similar to the first chapter of a great book, Super Mario Bros. immediately immerses the player into a compellingly strange, fictional world.
Exploring World 1-1
World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. is literally poetry without words. Inspired by four-line structure of kishōtenketsu, all levels in the Super Mario series carefully follow a four-step level design philosophy:
- Introduce the player to a problem
- Develop this problem
- Create a twist on the problem
- Provide a satisfying conclusion to the problem.
Using this philosophy, it is easy to build connections between Super Mario Bros. level design and the traditional elements of plot (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution).
In addition to combining level design with traditional storytelling, Super Mario Bros. can also be understood grammatically. If you think of Mario’s jump as a verb — the concept of a verb is used an action descriptor in both writing and video game design — you can use the jump alongside literary elements to build simple action sequences like this:
There are a near-infinite amount of four-step levels and action sequences that can be created by understanding Super Mario Bros.’ core level creation concepts. By combining traditional writing skills with the language of interactive design, instructors can create writing tasks that allow students to construct and deconstruct and their own Super Mario levels.
Over the decades, the Super Mario series has expanded to include an overwhelming array of obstacles and foes. Nintendo’s deceptively simple, yet infinitely adaptable level design structure has remained constant nearly 35 years later. In recent years, Nintendo went meta and gamified their own game design in the Super Mario Maker series, which allows players to imagine, create, remix, and share their own custom Mario courses.
Naturally, if a pixelated, jumping plumber can invite deep academic scrutiny, so too can a vast library of games that came after it which prioritize storyline over programming.
As the modern classroom continues to build 21st century competencies, integrating the study of video games into language arts should be a key component of that evolution. Students need to build critical thinking skills around interactive design and the games that they play. Video games invite us all to consider increasingly complex messages and meanings in multiple dimensions, and to see them not just as electronic wizardry, but to consider the artists, designers and entrepreneurs behind these cultural products that “challenge, captivate and enlighten” millions of people around the world”.
6. Brown, M. (11 November 2016). Nintendo – Putting Play First. Game Maker’s Toolkit. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2u6HTG8LuXQ
7. Snead, J. & Bleszinski, C. (Producers), & Snead, J. (Director). (2014). Video Games: The Movie. US: Variance Films.