Friday, April 9, 2010

How Gaming Survived the Gothic Renaissance

Have you noticed there is a surprising overlap between early epic (quest-based) video games and Victorian Gothic novels?

If you’re unfamiliar with the Gothic genre, think Dracula or Frankenstein. They usually involve some dark -- often supernatural -- force that lurks below the surface. They’re the stories that make you feel a little uneasy; they’re the stories where the world is just a little bit dark.

No, epic video games are not all about vampires or zombies (although they might be!). It’s not in the content that epic video games overlap with Gothic novels, it’s in their shared nostalgia for an idealized past.

You may not normally associate epic video games with nostalgia, but think about the opening sequences of popular games you’ve played -- particularly those from the 90’s or early 2000’s: the world is harmonious and verdant, and then a sinister darkness descends. Perhaps someone is kidnapped, or perhaps there is an impending cataclysmic disaster, but something occurs which throws this idyllic world off-kilter.

As John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade (authors of The Kids are Alright: How the Gamer Generation is Changing the Workplace) put it:

“The world portrayed to you in those moments of lush full-frame video needs to be saved.”

And in these early games, unlike in Gothic novels, you had the power to save it: you had the power to return the world to its pre-darkness state! 

So for a time a balance was struck: game designers could respond to the human tendency to long for an idyllic state, and players could satisfy their desire to restore balance to an unbalanced world.

Then along came the dark forces of multiplayer and online games and the world was thrown off-kilter...

How do you win World of Warcraft? What is the final goal of Farmville? How does Second Life end?

OK, multiplayer and online games are not actually “dark forces” (they are in fact incredibly innovative and exciting forces). But they have irrevocably changed gaming, and, consequently, they have changed the way we think about the world.

The growing number of these types of unending games indicates that we are increasingly shedding our need to return to an imagined past, that we’re shrugging off our desire for stability.

Our gaming habits reflect our growing comfort with change, unpredictability, fluctuating goals, and states of unknowing.

We now feel comfortable shaping games to meet our own changing needs: do you play World of Warcraft to accumulate points, explore the terrain, or meet new characters? Do you like Second Life because you get to re-imagine yourself, because you enjoy the games, or because you get to chat with different people?

It doesn’t matter how you answer. Any answer is “right”.

In other words, we’ve moved past Gothic novels into Choose Your Own Adventure.

Which is better?

Neither the Gothic novel nor the Choose Your Own Adventure approach to gaming is inherently better. Both bring their own unique challenges and strengths.

The point is not to advocate for one type to the exclusion of the other, but to be aware of the social and ideological implications behind each approach.

We need to be aware not only of the game’s content and objectives, but also the implications in the game’s structure – especially when it comes to game-based learning and using games in the classroom.

As with most things in life, balance is needed. Living in a state of constant flux with no vision of the future is as detrimental as being fixated on a need for stability and consistency.

So is Path of the Elders a Gothic novel or a Choose Your Own Adventure?

Both. Neither.

Yes, On the Path of the Elders has an end-goal.

Yes, it deals with a disruption to an established society (the encroachment of the settlers and developers on Mushkegowuk and Anishinaabe land).

No, “winning” does not equate with a return to a past state.

In my previous posts on winning in game-based learning and the issues surrounding online history games, I discussed some of the dilemmas we faced while deciding on the ending of On the Path of the Elders.

While we wanted the players to work towards an end-goal, we did not want to group Mushkegowuk and Anishinaabe culture with the non-existent, idyllic, past worlds of so many other games. Aboriginal culture continues to grow and thrive today; while colonization and European expansion has dramatically affected Aboriginal groups across the country, Aboriginal peoples continue to adapt and make their voices heard.

Any ending to On the Path of the Elders had to reflect this state of potential.

On the Path of the Elders ends with the renegotiation of Treaty No. 9. We want players to understand that the Elders negotiated the best agreement possible given the historical circumstances surrounding the treaty negotiations, but at the same time, we want players to think about what a more equitable treaty might look like, and what changes they might make to the treaty given the opportunity.

The goal of On the Path of the Elders is not to return to the past, but to envision the future.

How will it all End?

Of course, On the Path of the Elders is not the only game that bridges this gap between the Gothic and Choose Your Own Adventure, and there are many other non-epic games that defy both categories. 

However, as we plunge forward in our quest to either explore new and diverse forms of game-based learning, or else to return education to some imaginary pre-gaming state, it is worth considering what values are being communicated through the game’s format.

So which quest are you on?

Collette Jackson, Content and Marketing Specialist at BlackCherry Digital Media, is writing on behalf of On the Path of the Elders, a free online educational resource that explores Cree and Ojibway history and culture, and the signing of Treaty No. 9.

Check out On the Path of the Elders at

For more information, email us at

Created in partnership with BlackCherry Digital Media, Archives Deschâtelets, the Doug Ellis Collection at Carleton University, Our Incredible World (Pinegrove Productions), the Mushkegowuk Council, Neh Naak Ko, the Archives of St. Paul University, Carleton University, and Wendy Campbell, Educational Consultant (Learning Methods Group).

This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canadian Culture Online Strategy. Created with additional financial assistance from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the Inukshuk Fund.

No comments:

Post a Comment