This is part 2 of my thoughts about how BioShock could be taught as a text in a college-level comparative literature course (although on reflection, I think it could really work in a general English course as well). Part 1 is here.

The details of exactly how to teach BioShock will of course vary from teacher to teacher—as they should. Still, I can offer some general guidelines/best practices. These are based on the work of other researchers and theorists (Jonathan Alexander, Mike Carbonaro et al, Judy Robertson and Judith Good, and Dennis Charsky and Clif Mims among them), on my experiences as a console and PC game player, and on my firsthand observations of how non-gamers react to complex games.

Teaching a game means teaching game mechanics

You can use a novel in a college literature course without first teaching students how to read, because it’s reasonable to expect that they already possess this skill. That’s basic literacy. However, there are literacies in gaming as well: cultural literacies, gameplay literacies and technological literacies, to name just a few.

There is no need to delve deep into the history of griefing if you want to use BioShock in your class, but definitely offer an introduction to the first-person shooter and role-playing game mechanics that players need to succeed in the game. Things like moving, managing inventory and ability slots, thinking tactically, identifying objectives and reading maps. Do this in class, and while you’re at it, why not offer a student who is a good gamer a few points of extra credit to tutor those who want extra help?

Show why BioShock is a significant work in its medium

You wouldn’t teach On the Waterfront without talking about Elia Kazan and HUAC, would you? Or C.S. Lewis without discussing Christianity? Well, you can’t teach BioShock without touching on subjects that will enhance students’ understanding of it, either.

The two most important topics, in my opinion, are Randian Objectivism (which has a historical, a philosophical, a political, a literary and a biographical component—so go hog wild with that, you can approach it usefully from any of those directions) and the conventions of linear video game narratives. This also has several facets. Get students thinking about the tools available to storytellers in other mediums, and about whether those tools are effective when used in games. Listen to the outstanding class sessions from Jay Clayton and Matthew Jett Hall’s Worlds of Wordcraft English class for ideas about how to do this. Showcase different approaches that can be taken to game story, contrasting the wide-open approach of something like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion with the more restrictive design of a traditional Final Fantasy. Briefly introduce science fiction, Hollywood film and comic books as examples of genres and mediums that have evolved from “low” roots to something capable of telling more complex stories. Incidentally, situating video games on the historical spectrum from “kid’s stuff” to “adult stuff” (in the best sense of the word) is a great essay assignment for the BioShock module.

Other relevant topics you could touch on: Art Deco; the concept of utopia; the history of literary dystopias; the start of the Cold War; the robber barons of the industrial age.

Give students an idea of what to expect

BioShock‘s story is told in a fragmented way, and players need to hunt down and listen to a series of audio logs scattered around the game world in order to piece together the big picture. In many cases, these audio logs are narrated by minor characters who themselves have little idea what’s happening or why, so there is some detective work and some critical analysis involved. Class discussions would be a useful place for students to suss out the facts of the story, and share their own interpretations. The BioShock Wiki is a great site for students to consult if they can’t find every audio log, or want to refer to a written transcript of game events.

BioShock is also a violent game that features foul language, horrific situations and badly disfigured characters (most both physically and mentally). Frankly, I don’t think that this stuff serves some higher literary purpose in every case—sometimes it’s there because horror and violence are part of what is entertaining about the game. I think it’s still worth teaching in spite of these off-putting elements, but let your students know they’re in there and offer them an alternative text on the off chance that they’re not interested in hitting crazy people with wrenches (Atlas Shrugged would make for some interesting classroom conversations).

Don’t worry about how to grade student work

As a text, BioShock is more than capable of supporting a traditional analytical essay on any number of subjects. You’re not going to run into any headaches trying to evaluate the quality of the student work inspired by the game. Some suggested essay topics:

  • The city of Rapture is in many ways a monument to the ideals of its founder. Was the city’s fall also an inevitable result of those ideals? If so, why? If not, what led to Rapture’s demise? (One answer. Another answer (scroll down to 3.5).
  • How is the storytelling in BioShock different than the storytelling in the films and books we have read this year? Identify specific differences that you feel make the game’s story more or less effective, and explain why.
  • The player in BioShock has control over how to proceed through specific encounters in the game, but the overall structure of the plot is predetermined. The game’s major plot twist centers on the player character’s inability to choose what we do in the game. Is this an effective technique? Is it “fair” to the player?
  • The protagonist of BioShock is the player’s avatar, Jack. Based on your play-through of the game, is Jack also the hero of the story? If not, who is? Who is the game’s villain? Explain your answers using quotes from radio messages, audio logs and other sources.

If you’re interested in reading my proposal of a pilot study implementing this approach to BioShock in a college-level English class, it’s embedded below and available on SlideShare.