Teaching with video games in a pandemic

Deep into the November lull that comes with most semesters of teaching high school, I was faced with a problem exacerbated by the pandemic: my students stopped talking. Teaching in a hybrid setting, I had the luxury of still having small groups of students in the classroom, but the trickle of voices I’d been getting during class discussions dwindled and soon died. To my students, masks had become muzzles, and turning and talking to their peers seemed just as risky as the pandemic itself.

The timing couldn’t have been any worse, as the next unit we were slated to dive into was rhetoric—the unit that ended in persuasive speeches, and was built up to by, you guessed it, a lot of talking. I was at an utter loss on how to proceed. This was usually such a fun unit to teach and the students would get so into arguing their points or making effective claims, but without open dialogue or a classroom they felt comfortable talking in, this was going to be a slog.

Inspiration, as it so often does, struck randomly. Class was interrupted by a fire drill, and the students in the building all filed out, leaving the students on a virtual Teams call sitting there essentially twiddling their thumbs. It was after this fire drill that I came back into a room raucous with noise—the Teams call had broken out into a full-on discussion about the legitimacy of the claim that Red was fixing the power generator and not biting off Orange’s head. In our absence, they’d started to play a game to fill the time, and just that brief debate between students trying to fill time was enough for the grand plan to hatch.

After a long talk with one of my colleagues, I came to a solution I was happy with: we were going to play that video game in class and use it as a rhetorical teaching tool. My goal was no longer to make it about the content, but to make it about just having fun, loosening up and talking again, and I’d sneak the content in along the way.

At this point, the Among Us craze was in full swing. Among Us is a mobile and PC game that tasks a team of up to 10 crewmates with repairing their damaged spaceship and completing simple tasks such as downloading a file or clearing leaves off an intake vent. The catch? One to two of these crewmates can be an  “imposter”, or someone bent on sabotaging the whole operation by destroying key components, and more importantly, eliminating other players. Imagine a more interactive game of Clue set in space. With monsters.

This elimination factor is where the rhetoric came in—any time a deceased crew member is found, players can hit an ‘Emergency Meeting’ button, and bring the remaining crew members in to have a chat about what happened. This forced the remaining students into a hot seat discussion about everyone’s location or last task.

Simple prompting questions like, “where was the body found?” quickly became a scramble of self-defense, “I couldn’t have killed them in electrical, I was doing tasks on the other side of the map in weapons!”

Boom! They were using rhetorical appeals to convince each other that they weren’t murderous space aliens. Better yet? They were talking! They were fired up, being put on the spot, and driven to prove that they weren’t the imposter or convince others that there was no reason to be suspicious of them so they could get back to their mischief. This was the key to their understanding of how to employ these rhetorical appeals, convincing others through logic, emotion and credibility.

In reaching out to students about this experience, I got some amazing feedback, especially from an exceptionally bright, but often quiet student. She sent me a thoughtful message, and included, “By telling the others where you were at the time of the ‘murder,’ utilizing logos and by gaining their trust, utilizing ethos, we tried to win the game. In addition, those who were not playing the game, were carefully listening for persuasive techniques that they could utilize themselves. Overall, by including the fun game of Among Us, our class was able to successfully polish our persuasive skills, which came in handy later on when we had to write persuasive speeches.”

Students I’d only known as quiet bubbles on a Teams meeting became passionate defenders of their honesty, or tricksters bent on deception. If they took anything from my English class in that semester, it was that rhetoric was just as important to surviving a hostile space invasion as a spacesuit.

Michael Morris is an English teacher at the Gloucester County Institute of Technology. He can be reached at mmorris@gcecnj.org.

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