People have once again taken to the streets to demand justice and reaffirm that Black Lives Matter. Beginning in the U.S. city of Minneapolis, marches have spread throughout the world as people demand social change. During such events, educators may wonder how to address such critical issues in their classroom in a way that is both meaningful and approachable for ESL/EFL learners.
Video games can be a powerful platform for understanding the situations of others and the often hidden dynamics that create inequality. Where books, movies, or music may describe the experiences of others, video games serve as models of experiences and allow players to enact choices that make them an active participant in those experiences. The following games can assist educators seeking to provide space in their classroom for students to understand current events and how systemic inequality has prompted such as strong calls for change.
Fair Play, created at the University of Wisconsin, places players in the role of a fictional student named Jamal Davis. As a student at the start of his graduate career, Jamal must navigate the world of higher education while the player comes to terms with how bias can undermine Jamal’s efforts. Fair Play has been developed with an extensive amount of resource materials, which educators can use to create a series of lesson plans or units around the game.
Fair Play is strongly rooted in the edutainment-style of educational games. As a result, the game is rather straightforward and players’ choices often result in the same outcome so a lesson can be taught. Still, the clarity with which the game explains and demonstrates bias make it an effective tool for discussing it in a language classroom.
We Are Chicago
We Are Chicago is a prime example of how video games can envelop players into the perspectives and worldviews of others. In this game, players assume the role of Aaron, a fictional resident of Chicago’s South Side. As Aaron works toward graduating high-school and life beyond, he must struggle with the challenges associated with his neighborhood, such as crime and gang violence.
We Are Chicago strives to tell the tale of one young man’s attempt to do what is right in the face of overwhelming obstacles, but the game struggles to tackle the more systemic issues that give rise to Aaron’s challenges. Educators could pair We Are Chicago along with interviews and statements of community advocates from the same area, such as Ja’Mal Green, to foster and encourage debate in their classroom on where change can most effectively be found: through the actions of individuals such as Aaron, or in calls for more comprehensive reform such as those championed by Ja’Mal.
Parable of the Polygons
Nicky Case is one of the most talented individuals working in video games today. Case has a gift for using games to teach complex topics and encouraging players to learn through interaction and decision-making, like in Parable of the Polygons.
Paragon of the Polygons hinges on a simple rule: Move the shapes around the board until the unhappy shapes are happy. With this simple mechanic, Case demonstrates how neighborhoods can become increasingly segregated. Case then presents the players with a variety of scenarios where they can set the parameters of the polygons’ needs and wants and then watch the complex simulation play out.
Pairing this game with readings on how segregation is still prevalent in American cities can help students begin to understand how, as Case states, “though every individual only has a slight bias, the entire shape of society cracks and splits.”
Cities: Skylines may seem an unusual choice to include in this list, but this city builder holds potential as an exploration of systemic inequality and how small decisions can lead to large scale inequality. City: Skylines could be paired with readings on the complex topic of how large-scale infrastructure projects, such as highway systems, overwhelmingly harm diverse and/or minority neighborhoods.
Players of Cities: Skylines can zone their city into individual neighborhoods and apply specific ordinances to that neighborhood. Once neighborhoods are zoned, players can set policies for each district. Areas can be set with no smoking policies, mandatory recycling, or educational priorities. What makes the game intriguing is that these can be set at the local level—should the educational priority be policy across the entire city or should neighborhoods near industry place a priority on work? These decisions can compound, resulting in a city of haves and have-nots. For the classroom, getting a chance to see how inequality can grow out of abstract policy decisions is a powerful learning opportunity.
As a classroom exercise, students could run for city council to represent a district to shape its future for the better. Students could also form lobbyist groups to argue for or against policies in each district, such as a heavy industry ban or a no-smoking policy, in order to benefit a specific interest group. This is what games do so well: demonstrate real issues played out in low-consequence environments.
I hope this month’s blog has provided some insight into how games can be a tool for covering social justice in your classroom. What is key to remember is to be intentional in how these games are played and consider how they can be used to support readings or video on the same topic. Finally, always consider the lived experiences of your students and how these games may be viewed by students who have lived similar experiences.
Until next month, fight the good fight!