80 Days and Breathing Room in the Classroom

In the most recent Centre Trail podcast episode, I talk a little about my decision to use 80 Days, a video game based on Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, as a reading (or “reading”, if you prefer) for my world history survey course. Specifically, I talked about how I used the game in our class meeting, the last before the Fall Break.

It’s not my first time using a video game in class. I teach a class based entirely on interpretation and discussion of video games as examples of popular history in my Centre Term class, “History and Video Games.” I have also started bringing video games in to some of my full semester classes. In the spring we played a game called The Curious Expedition, wherein which the player controls various nineteenth century figures from Marie Curie to Ada Lovelace while exploring various deserts and jungles of the world beyond the core of European civilization. Both this past spring and this semester, I encouraged students to play the game in groups in class and talk about it.

This worked well in the spring. The Curious Expedition brings up a lot of interesting stuff: at the end of each trip, you can trade in artifacts gathered for either “fame” or cash to a very proper looking British gentleman sitting in a well-upholstered chair in the finest private members club of the imperial metropole. It’s also a fun game: one of my groups set the jungle on fire and couldn’t make it stop. It made for a light moment in class.

My fall class was… particularly tired. Frankly I was right there with them. Whereas in the spring we brought everything back to some larger conversations, shared stories about jungles on fire and travels through the Antarctic, and looked to connect to our theme of exploration as discussed in class, last week… well, we kind of hung out and played the game. Rather than try and pull everyone back together, I went from group to group, asking how their adventures were going. We had some interesting conversations about Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout traveling across Siberia, or down from central Canada to New Orleans. We chatted about Passepartout’s unwavering loyalty to his employer and the class and gender politics implied by that relationship. In the end, I chose to just do that, walking from group to group, and invited students to share their comments in short essays the following week.

I bring all this up not so much to argue for the use of video games in this way, though if you hang around this site you’ll get plenty of that in the future, but to make a point: it is okay to use class time in different kinds of ways. Sometimes that means letting go of the idea that we will get a certain amount of work done in an hour, trying to let go of that deeply laid feeling of obligation.

I know this is a painfully obvious thing to say, but it is not something I was comfortable doing earlier in my teaching career. There’s a good reason for that of course: it is extremely important to use class time well and make it worth the students’ time. There is a lot to be said, though, for divorcing certain activities and conversations from the ongoing grind of read/listen/write/repeat. The assignment for 80 Days is intended as an easygoing piece of writing, a reflective piece. I am not asking the students to bring in outside readings or anything like that. I hope, though, that they might think a little bit about why their instructor had them play a video game one week, and why he got them to get together in groups to play it. It’s entirely possible a few of them did not think it was a successful experiment. That’s okay, too.

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