Players on the “canon” of games. Researched opinions and observations on “school reading lists”
- February 18, 2021
- Dawid Zalewski
- BioShock Series – „the most ambitious FPS” [PEGI 18]
- Frostpunk – how far can one go to survive? [PEGI 16]
- Life Is Strange – about teens, for teens [PEGI 16]
- The Last Of Us – a mature and heavy tale [PEGI 18]
- Wiedźmin 3 – a collection of independent stories [PEGI 18]
- In the next episode…
- How did we research this?
In June 2020 the Polish Prime Minister declared that This War of Mine (11 bit studios) game is to be added to high school must reads as part of the program, which was notably recognized by the ISFE (Interactive Software Federation of Europe). The event was so interesting that we immediately organized a survey of experts and players at Try Evidence to determine which other titles would be suitable for the “gaming canon of reading”.
Still in June, twenty Try Evidence experts selected games that deserved entry into the canon. Then, we asked players who are not professionally involved in the gaming industry to rank the games proposed by experts from the most valuable to the least valuable from the perspective of the school reading canon. This resulted in the “gaming canon of readings 2020“ [PL only], which we presented in this post [PL only]. We promised then that we would come back to this topic with an extension and curiosities; so we are back.
In this and the following entries, we will describe the results of the discourse analysis of players and industry journalists around the titles selected for the canon. To begin with, we will discuss what the players wrote about the selected games on the Gram.pl, Steam, PPE.pl, Gry-Online.pl forums and in the comments to our parallel survey (390 players completed it).
In the statements analyses we focused only on topics relevant to the possible inclusion of a given game in the reading canon; we skipped technical issues, complaining about poor sound, praising great graphics, etc.
The results of the opinions analysis about the games selected by players and experts in our rankings are presented in alphabetical order.
BioShock Series – „the most ambitious FPS” [PEGI 18]
The BioShock series was rated very unevenly among players. Looking at all three parts simultaneously, the plot is what players like the most:
„Honestly, this is one of the best-told video game stories I’ve ever experiences. The amazing end-game twist is the best you can see in games.” ~ Hidarion
„At first, the inconspicuous story turns into a very ambitious story that you want to get to know further. In my opinion, one of the best story layers in the FPS genre.” ~ <Remember The Name>
However, players do not agree on which part of the game is best in this respect. The extreme opinion about the series can be seen very well on the example of BioShock: Infinite. The story presented in the title was undoubtedly assessed by players very positively and due to the subject matter – class divisions, barriers to humanity, slavery or racism – some said that it was one of the most ambitious FPS:
„The plot of BioShock Infinite is, in my opinion, one of the most interestingly constructed stories in the history of gaming. We are again dealing here with a utopian vision of a city separated from the rest of the world, built according to the thoughts of one man, but this time in the foreground is nationalism and religious fanaticism. The basis for the entire world of BioShock Infinite is the idea of “American uniqueness”. During the game, we explore various relationships between people linked to it, discovering relationships and internal conflicts thanks to voice recordings and other collectibles.” ~ Sztuka.
However, the final part of the series, according to some players, is very confusing. The critics of the title believed that the story presented in the game is irrational, banal, and its level of complexity forces players to reach out to analyses available on the Internet in order to be able to understand what it was really about.
„The story is immersive and is probably the brightest element of this title, although I must admit that I simply do not understand all the complexities, the more so that when I start to think about certain things, they do not make sense to me … although maybe I’m missing something?” ~ TrueVanDal
„The records in the Rapture, built the atmosphere and were not obligatory; you could either find everything or search the Internet for research, because you don’t know what’s going on.” ~ Jave
From the school reading lists perspective this does not have to be a disadvantage, rather an additional advantage of the game. After all, being able to interpret the work in a variety of ways and discuss ones doubts in class is part of the analysis of each reading material. And as players point out – the stories in the BioShock series are exciting, addictive and thought-provoking (maybe apart from BioShock 2, which in terms of the storyline is the worst according to players).
Unfortunately, it is not necessary to thoroughly familiarize yourself with the plot of the game to finish and enjoy it, which could pose challenges for teachers – how to verify that the students not only passed the game, but did it genuinely? Although the games are linear by design (as we mentioned in our blog on non-linearity), the experience of each player may be different to some extent, so a BioShock quiz might not solve the problem of ignorance of the story by some players.
The experience of the game is deepened by the atmosphere of both the Rapture underwater dystopia and the sky-high Columbia. Art deco stylistics and references to the United States of the 1960s provide an interesting background to the events and could be a basis for discussion on how the chosen artistic direction serves (or not) the story.
Unfortunately the game can frighten both in the level design of the underwater Raprutre, as well with its elements of gore.
„There are […]many scenes in the game straight from the classics of horror movies, such an impression is enhanced by well-chosen music, especially sound effects.”~ elte18
Although the players perceived this positively, it could also be an obstacle in the assimilation of the work among exceptionally sensitive students.
Frostpunk – how far can one go to survive? [PEGI 16]
Undoubtedly, the biggest advantage of the game according to the players is its “heavy” and “apocalyptic” atmosphere, which is evident in the audiovisual, narrative and setting layers of the game. These factors deepen the immersion of players and have a significant impact on the emotions evoked in players.
The players also positively assessed the moral dilemmas that make them think and evoke a sense of responsibility for the decisions they make. The game could be a field for discussion on ethical, philosophical and moral issues and the need for students to independently make decisions on important dilemmas could bring these considerations to a higher, more emotional, level.
By the way, it’s interesting how Frostpunk’s dilemmas would be perceived by players from collectivist cultures, e.g. from China.
„The atmosphere of the game is indescribable, you just feel it, and the choices and decisions that we will have to make during our game will have real and immediate consequences – and they will not be nice decisions, but they will decide about the life or death of your inhabitants.” ~ walas85
„The game makes us think about the morality of our choices, with which we try to cope with more and more difficult challenges.” ~ Niggelangelo
„Time and again it challenges the player, forcing them to make desperate moves and choose the lesser evil. Save the children found in the abandoned camp or leave them for dead? Let all refugees into the city or only the healthy ones? To heat flats or workplaces? Nutritious soup or food with sawdust? “~ kolafon
The players did complaint however, about the high difficulty level of the game.
„I set the lowest level for myself because I don’t like to stress myself out. I just wanted to play and enjoy the game. No way. Who is setting these difficulty levels? […] There is simply no way to win with the easiest settings.” ~ deborister
It is not a game which provides comfortable gameplay for occasional players, so it could be too difficult and frustrating for students who had nothing to do with games so far.
Life Is Strange – about teens, for teens [PEGI 16]
The core of Life is Strange id of course it’s narrative, which the players describe as mysterious, addictive and thought-provoking. A game set in school about growing up, friendship and responsibility for the decisions made, seems to be an ideal story for teenage audiences (which was also pointed out by the game’s critics, for whom the title was boring, overdone and pointless).
„In my opinion, children should play such games. Yes: if it triggered reflections and tears in me, I can assume that children will be careful in making every decision and will hurt others less.” ~ Kirialaa
„A beautiful, touching and warm story about friendship, the problems of modern teenagers with a criminal and paranormal plot in the background.” ~ Liduh
Often, difficult choices force players to predict their long-term consequences and always take these consequences into account (even if they ultimately do not affect the plot), and the intricately woven in trolley problem can form the basis for a discussion on ethics and philosophy.
„Playing Life is Strange requires a large dose of empathy and some emotional maturity, this is not an action game like Telltale titles.” ~ Warrir
The game shows references to other works of culture, such as The Butterfly Effect, Donnie Darko or, in the context of the action structure – Alfred Hitchcock’s films. This was not an advantage for everyone; some even accused the game developers of plagiarism.
„The game is strongly focused on the story, the action is captivating from the first second and the further one is, the better it gets. “A story constructed in the Hitchcock style: it starts with an earthquake and then the tension rises.” ~ 10 cent
Most players think the heroes are constructed very well and their “closeness” and “ordinaryness” allows you to connect with them. Although some accused the characters of being stereotyped and the main character’s relationship with her friend to be somewhat toxic, they could undoubtedly constitute the basis for school analysis – is their relationship toxic? If so, why? Lessons based on this game, conducted by a qualified person e.g. a psychologist, could be a substitute for the psychological education of young people.
Life is Strange is a game with very low barriers to entry. Although not everyone likes this type of game, undoubtedly, no student regardless of whether they play games themselves should have problems with completing the game for the purpose of the lesson.
The Last Of Us – a mature and heavy tale [PEGI 18]
The Last of Us owes its high scores due to its mature, ambitious and deep storyline and narrative that evokes emotions, move players and make them think. The game also owes great rankings to its heroes who are ambiguous and their motivations and relationships can be repeatedly analyzed and broken down into prime factors. The relationship that is built between the characters, resulting from their experiences and their path together, their emotions and feelings, do not leave the players indifferent. The overall experience related to the game is deepened by the heavy, depressing and gloomy atmosphere.
„At the very beginning, they destroy morality, sense of security, and set fear. I became so close to the characters in the prologue that the loss of a loved one was also felt by me” ~ snopy010
„I haven’t seen anything so bitter in a long time. Walking Dead smashed us with an emotional blow, the Naughty Dog title – with a philosophical, ethical and moral motivation. What should one do? Where does the line between the hero and the traitor of the species end? The life and happiness of an individual over the future of all the rest?” ~ Sephirothekdodano
The game loses marks due to its predictability in the eyes of some players and the brutal nature of the game gets more severely criticized …
„What I didn’t like was the story and how all people (or rather MEN, because women don’t) are psychopathic murderers who want to kill us at all costs.” ~ krontes
…and so does 14-year-old Ellies foul mouth:
„I don’t know about you, but I am so over swearing in games; as long as it occurs at some points in the game and spoken by men, it is still acceptable, not swearing all the time in 100% of the game and by a 14 year old girl; unacceptable.” ~ paul oren’s
„Elie cusses like she’s possessed and leaves a negative impression.” ~ Maverick0069
Although The Last of Us is undoubtedly not a game for children and what more, sensitive students could have a problem with it, the character’s vulgarity may be the basis for a discussion on social norms – what, who and why should do (or don’t do)? Do these standards make sense?
Wiedźmin 3 – a collection of independent stories [PEGI 18]
According to many, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of the best games of all time, both in terms of the story and the world design. Although the players rated the whole game highly, in their eyes the side stories (each of them being a small yet complete product) are much better than the main ones. Of course the theme of the Bloody Baron which is repeatedly described in positives stands out on the podium. According to the players, the tasks in the game are complex, ambitious and very often contain a moral lesson.
„Quests – main and side quests which were based on something more than the cliché “find the pan”, which often conveyed a moral.” ~ rafq4
Due to the length of the entire game (the main story and side quests – 127h according to howlongtobeat.com), this closure or “completed-ness” of the side quests is a very big advantage of the game. The possibility of choosing any fragment to analyze it in the lesson gives great opportunities (both for discussing the game itself and for other reading materials) without forcing students to finish the whole thing.
The game approaches the topics discussed in a serious and mature way and almost nothing is black or white in it. The topics themselves move players and do not leave them indifferent.
„A story that touches virtually every feeling, from anger to tears. From disgust to beauty. A story that is almost never white or black, where our actions have an impact.” ~ Gnoll
The Witcher also contains numerous references to culture and art, and the language used in the game not only adds to the game’s atmosphere (Old Polish or even Slavic), but can also be an example of the use of language stylizations, giving an interesting opportunity to discuss them in the lesson.
„This game has such a rich old Polish vocabulary, uses such wonderful verbal archaisms that just makes you want to listen to the dialogues. Moreover, each social group has a typical way of expressing itself. Peasants speak like typical simpletons, in a simple and submissive language. On the other hand, the soldiers and city guards are rude, they do not disguise themselves in cursing.” ~ [BORG] Karbulot [TN]
„Numerous references to literature, culture and art.” ~ Mathias007
However, it should be remembered that, among other things, due to the erotic scenes this is another title for adult players only.
Narration and plot – they are the largest field for school deliberations and interpretations. Although in the near future games will not replace books as “readings” (because this is not the purpose of introducing them to the school reading list), they offer much wider possibilities of influencing the recipient than books. History – always presented in the same objective way in a film or a book – can take on a completely different, yet always unique and personal overtone thanks to the form of a video game. The player is an active recipient, always shaping the story in some way. In non-linear games they take on the burden of making decisions. In those with one storyline they still direct their hero, regardless of whether the game pushes them in a direction consistent with their morality or not.
The power with which video games are able to arouse emotions in players was evident in the analyzed comments. Perhaps it is the emotional immersion that makes games have a great psychological impact on players and prompts them – as they said themselves – to think deeper than any book or movie.
In the next episode…
You will find out why the players think the reading list should include games such as Valiant Hearts, the Assassin’s Creed series or God of War. These are examples of titles so moving and valuable that they spontaneously added them to our predefined list as those that should be considered among the best of the best.
How did we research this?
We collected and analyzed almost 1,000 positive and negative comments from Gram.pl. PPE.pl, Gry-Online.pl and from Steam. Then from all the narratives we separated those fragments that in our opinion may indicate why a given game should be included in the school reading list. We therefore omitted the technical aspects of games as well as those purely designed for entertaining (quality of graphics, attractiveness of mechanics and systems, e.g. shooting, etc.)
During the analysis we distinguished the key aspects of games as seen through the prism of possibly discussing them in schools and we focused on those. These were, among others: the plot, moral dilemmas, (non) linearity, audio-video setting (the style used, not its quality), literary motifs, quality of dialogues, heroes or references to other works of culture.