Gone Home: A Video Game as a Tool for Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

A screen grab from the Gone Home trailer.
A screen grab of a clue found in the Gone Home trailer.

By Matthew Farber

Educators are held responsible for several aspects of English-language arts competency with their students: critical thinking, writing, assessing narrative structures, thinking about how characters develop and how setting affects character. Teachers have a variety of vehicles for conveying those lessons, but a new tool has emerged for learning with digital games.

Books have a linear format; films have an arc; art has a focal point; stanzas in a poem are read in order. But a recently published game called "Gone Home" is testing the traditional progression of learning by flattening the story. Players have questioned whether it qualifies as a game since it doesn't include traditional points, prizes and leveling up (the game is self-titled as "a story exploration video game"). Critics have praised "Gone Home" as a new way of storytelling, and it’s beginning to make its way into the classroom, as a viable substitute for traditional text. The game is non-linear and players have a great deal of agency for filling in the gaps to arrive at their conclusions.*

Solving a Mystery

The game begins with a typical opening of suspense and mystery. The main character, Kaitlin "Katie" Greenbriar, comes home on a dark and stormy night to her family’s house in Oregon after a year abroad. She discovers that no one is home, and it appears her family has left in a hurry. Signs of the suspended life appear in notes, food in the refrigerator, messages on an answering machine -- and all of those pieces serve as clues for discovering what happened to Katie's family.

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The mind veers to the obvious. Were they harmed? Are they still alive? There are notes from parents, tidbits of information about “psycho” relatives, a journal and secret rooms that reveal clues about what’s happened in Katie’s yearlong absence. And it’s the space between the clues and the possible conclusions that make the game a valuable teaching tool for educators. (Note: spoilers are easily found online)

“The story isn’t going to exist without the player’s participation and interpretation of the individual pieces they find,” explained Steve Gaynor, the game’s lead writer.

In order to give his students the opportunity to interpret the experience for themselves, Toronto-based teacher Paul Darvasi (who also writes about games for MindShift) sought a volume discount on game licenses. That way each student in his all-boys English class had his own login when Darvasi began using "Gone Home" in the classroom in 2013.

In order to offer some sense of structure to his students’ experience, he created objectives for students around characters and themes. The house in "Gone Home" is filled with nods to the genre of games that inspired it; one subtopic challenged students to collect the hidden references. Others conducted “1995 Archeology” -- the year "Gone Home" was set. The goal was to find objects from the time period, from telephone books to VCR tapes to audiocassettes. “Riot Grrrl” subculture from the 1990s -- especially as it pertained to the protagonist’s character development in the story -- was another topic. The findings of each subtopic were presented to the class as a “visual museum,” via PowerPoint. Students were ultimately assessed on their presentations.

“I wanted it to become a more deliberate process than just running around,” he said. “ 'Gone Home' is a game in which you have to invest yourself. You have time to look through the documents and examine the artifacts. You have to be fairly methodical when you go through the house.”

The next challenge pertained to individualized assessments. Measuring how well one plays a game is tricky. The assessment shouldn’t be perceived as an added obstacle to the experience, nor should it be based on whether the student wins. “The beauty of  'Gone Home' is the agency you enjoy as a player, freedom to move around freely,” Darvasi explained. “The single greatest mechanic is exploration -- the thrill of finding something new while snooping around somebody’s house. I didn’t want to impair that in any way.”

A review submitted by a student to a games website.
A review submitted by a student to a games website.

As a result, Darvasi kept the assessments close to the genre of gaming, specifically the participatory cultures that exist outside virtual environments. Each student was required to write a review, similar to those posted on community forums like Metacritic and IGN. The second assessment piece gave students choices. He created subtopics that could be tracked using screen shots and notes as each moved about the empty house.

“Whenever they stumbled upon or discovered something that related to their topic, they pulled that evidence out and kept it,” Darvasi said.

The learning outcomes intentionally correlated to the Common Core State Standards relating to English-language arts. “In a sense, it played out similar to a typical literature unit -- except that you are substituting written text with a game’s text,” Darvasi explained.

International Collaboration

Putting a game at the center of a close-reading exercise can depend on the teaching style of the specific educator. In the spring of 2014, Aleksander Husøy, an English teacher at Nordahl Grieg Secondary School in Bergen, Norway, came across Darvasi’s blog posts about his use of "Gone Home" in the classroom. “There are plenty of different games that can be effective when used by the right teacher for the right group of students,” Husøy explained. “When I look for games to put in the classroom, I use the same approach as any other media. Start with objectives that you want students to cover.” Following that approach, Darvasi and Husøy connected and decided to co-deliver the unit in the fall of 2014.

A student explores objects found in the house of "Gone Home." (Courtesy  of Paul Darvasi)
A student explores objects found in the house of "Gone Home." (Courtesy of Paul Darvasi)

Students in each school collaborated using asynchronous tools, such as posting to blogs and commenting to a private Facebook group page. Two of the student groups decided to go further, collaborating with Google Hangout to create their final project assessment.

When the reader is put in the role of investigator, story details can become even more compelling. “Players paint the final picture of what those individual pieces mean and then discuss it with other people,” Gaynor said. “We are really proud that there are classrooms where 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or 'Catcher in the Rye' are taught alongside 'Gone Home' as texts about young people and the issues they face.”

Several of "Gone Home’s" designers had previously written blockbuster games, including "Bioshock 2" and "Bioshock: Infinite." In those titles, the story unfolded as the player discovered audio recording and messages between violent action sequences. Several members of the design team eventually left the publisher to create the Fullbright Company, an independent game studio. They decided to make a game in which piecing together a non-linear story would be a central mechanic of the game. “ 'Gone Home' is a clear demonstration of how much the narrative process happens in your head, as opposed to on the page or on the screen,” Gaynor stated.

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*Note: An earlier version of this post suggested that players can alter the game's story based on the decisions they make throughout the game. The game's narrative and ending can not be changed. Every player encounters the story differently depending on the choices they make while playing.

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