The video clips provided in this lesson are from Thank You for Playing, a thought-provoking portrait of one family’s determination to respond to an impending tragedy through artistic expression. When Ryan Green, a video game programmer, learns that his young son Joel has cancer, he and his wife, Amy, begin documenting their emotional and faith-based journey with a poetic video game. Thank You for Playing follows Ryan and his family over two years creating “That Dragon, Cancer,” which evolves from a cathartic exercise into a critically acclaimed work of art that sets the gaming industry abuzz.
One 50-minute class period, plus homework
- Identify the draw and impact of video games
- Name socio-emotional, educational and non-cognitive uses of video games
- Create a design concept for a video game or other medium that invites users to experience/interact with a complex situation
- Film clips from Thank You for Playing and equipment on which to show them.
- Optional: “That Dragon, Cancer,” the video game featured in the film. Available to purchase for PC, Mac, iPad and iPhone at http://www.thatdragoncancer.com/purchase/.
Engage students in a “popcorn” brainstorming session (students speak out to share their answers as they come to them), asking for responses to these questions: What comes to mind when you think about video games? What are some of the video games you play? What are they about? Record students’ thoughts on chart paper, Smart Board or other medium.
Ask students to reflect on the different responses in order to come to conclusions about perceptions of video games. You might focus students on specific categories that emerge from the collection (topics such as types of games played, how they make people feel, how these games affect their players, why people play them and so on). Generate a list of the five most common conclusions.
Ask each student to pair up with a classmate. Probe with the class whether video games can be used for something more than enjoyment or competition. Discussion prompts might include whether games can explore a current event or teach a skill. Pairs then spend a few minutes listing possible uses for video games.
Invite one pair to share three ideas; repeat this with the remaining pairs, asking them to share ideas that have not yet been offered. Have the class briefly discuss the various choices to decide which seem the most probable in a video gaming context.
Invite students to consider whether a game centered on something that is not typically the basis for a game is playable. Who would want to play a game of that nature?
Tell students they are about to watch segments of a documentary about a video game of this very nature. Don’t share the title yet. Let students know that the documentary follows parents Ryan and Amy Green, whose young son Joel was diagnosed with cancer. Instruct students to jot down some of their initial thoughts about the clips as they watch them. Show Clips 1–4. (It might be helpful to show and briefly discuss each clip one at a time.)
Gauge students’ emotional responses to the clips, allowing them to share how the segments made them feel. (Some students might be sad, or highly moved. Make sure they feel safe expressing these emotions.) Share the name of the film. Discuss with students aspects of the clips, posing some or all of the following questions as discussion prompts:
- What is your thought about cancer as the topic of a video game? How does it jibe with the reasons people get into gaming? Does it fit into any of the categories you shared at the beginning of the lesson?
- How do Ryan and Amy use the creation of the game to negotiate Joel’s illness? What would you do to negotiate a tough situation? Would you do something similar to what Ryan and Amy do? Explain.
- What other “tools” do Ryan and Amy use to cope with their son’s illness and approaching death? Are these better methods than the creation of a video game? Discuss.
- Do you think a game designer would be able to create a game about a very personal issue in the way that Ryan does? Discuss. Could you do something similar, using any medium (such as writing a story, drawing a picture or taking a photo)? Explain.
- What are the different ways people interact with artistic mediums, and how does the way a person interacts with a medium affect how they experience the message the artist is trying to convey? For example, in a film you watch/observe a linear narrative; in a book you imagine what the writer is describing; with a sculpture, you might touch its surface to feel its texture. In a video game the player often has a number of options for how they choose to interact with the narrative. For example, the player can dictate the pace of the scene, what happens next, how they explore the space and so on.
- Is a video game a useful tool for educating gamers about important topics? If yes, how does a game on such issues need to be designed in order to get users interested in playing it?
- What does this documentary say about the use and impact of video games? How might people view the gaming industry if similar types of products were produced in greater numbers?
Homework: Have students come up with design concepts for video games or other media that invite users to experience/interact with complex situations and present their ideas as pitches that would excite potential gamers about playing the video game. If time allows, students can pitch their concepts to their classmates and/or create their games using free and simple video game creation tools such as Scratch (see Resources below) and present them to the class.
1. Coping with the Hard
Stuff People negotiate and cope with complex circumstances in different ways. Students can work in small groups to identify, briefly research and present on what influences an individual's coping mechanisms (i.e., religion, spirituality, family, creativity). Create a large spider web and have groups record their findings on it. Then have the class discuss how various coping strategies can be used to negotiate life’s challenges.
2. Documenting Life
Thank You for Playing presents two powerful storytelling tools: the documentary itself and the video game (an innovative approach). Everyone has a story to tell. Ask students to reflect on and write about moments in their lives that they would be comfortable sharing. Invite them to tell their stories through the mediums of their choice. Challenge students to think outside the box and try mediums they wouldn’t normally use or associate with their topics (i.e., a game, a script, a flip book). If time allows, use this as an opportunity to discuss how stories and mediums of expression are related. When and why might a certain medium be appropriate or inappropriate for a story?
Have students share their stories in a gallery-type presentation, with student projects placed around the room for peers to review and experience. The class discusses how these various projects expand the definition of storytelling and how they give stories more depth, meaning, feeling and so on.
3. The Evolution of Gaming
Students can research how video games have evolved over time, taking a close look at those games that focus more on socio-emotional development, teaching and learning, soft-skills development. They might consider creating a digital interactive timeline or a print timeline and using it to predict what games will be like in the future. Specifically, will they be designed to be more practical and integral to human development and behavior?