Our student volunteers were this week asked to play the first episode of Telltale’s critically-acclaimed The Walking Dead game.
An adaptation of the comic book by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, The Walking Dead is a narrative-driven game that asks the player to decide how to respond to a series of character interactions and in-game events by choosing from up to four possible dialogue options. The time allowed to make a decision is limited and the implications of each choice affect – to a greater or lesser degree – how the story unfolds. Much has been made of the game’s emphasis on moral or ethical choices: some of your decisions will have serious implications for the characters around you, and those choices are often difficult to make in the zombie-infested heat of the moment.
While The Walking Dead is a single-player affair, students played in pairs and were left to decide between them how control of the game should be meted out. As with Minecraft last week, an attempt was made to pair players with differing levels of experience of the game. Such is the popularity of The Walking Dead, however, that most of our volunteers had played the game before. Luckily, this did not seem to matter. The learning curve for the games is relatively shallow and, with just a few controls to master, first-time players were not at a loss if they wished to control the game. Meanwhile, those who had played it previously seemed to enjoy the experience of making decisions collaboratively or simply observing (and discussing) the choices made by their partner.
From a practical point of view, this was a very straightforward exercise. A very minimal worksheet was all that was required and the only technical issue related to having two instances of the game being played in the same room, meaning that one pair could potentially overhear dialogue and other ‘spoilers’ from the other pair’s game, if they were at different points in the story.
Unlike last week’s session, play was stopped a little before the end to allow time for group discussion. We began by asking how each pair determined who should take control of the game, and if any negotiation of roles took place. For our small group, the sharing of control was not a contentious issue, with each pair dividing into controller and observer roles quite naturally, and without acrimony. Generally, the less experienced player was given the controller, although one such player was content to pass control to their more seasoned partner when faced with certain, challenging action-oriented portions of the game.
Asked whether The Walking Dead provided a “means to explore themes of society, despair, survival and morality”, there was widespread consent that the game was certainly capable of conveying (and, perhaps, instilling) despair. More usefully, perhaps, there was also discussion about the nature of the society in which the game was set – most of the first season of the game takes place in rural Georgia – and whether events may have unfolded differently in, say, a suburb of a metropolitan city where guns might be (somewhat) less prevalent.
The significant moral choice in the chapter we played this week, which sees players choose between saving one of two characters, was the source of much discussion and disagreement. Broadly speaking, this choice might be reduced to one between a conventional ‘moral’ decision to save a child and a more pragmatic decision to save a character that may prove more useful in terms of survival. There was no consensus within our group about which to save, but all were happy with the decision they made. This sort of shared experience did appear to provide a useful starting point for meaningful discussion, albeit in largely hypothetical terms: the game, it was felt, provided a framework within which the player might explore moral choice, but the choices made did not necessarily reflect those which each player would make in an equivalent* real-life situation.
The discussion also provided some evidence that players were thinking critically about the motives of the characters they encountered and the conflicting, incomplete information the game provides about the characters’ backgrounds. Lee, arguably the main protagonist in this season, is first seen handcuffed in the back of a police car, but his moral standing remains, for this chapter, at least, somewhat ambiguous.
There seems little doubt that even this short experiment with The Walking Dead reveals games’ potential for providing rich, shared experiences that may form the basis of useful, reflective discussion of moral and ethical issues in a classroom environment (albeit one in which all of the students are over the age of 18, in the case of this particular game!)
Questions remain, however, about the effectiveness of such an approach. First, one must ask if playing a game offers any advantages over having a group of students read a novel or watch a film and discussing these texts. I would argue that games such as The Walking Dead do offer something more in terms of the shared experience and the way in which the responsibility for every decision is placed firmly on the shoulders of the player(s). It is hardly novel to suggest that interactivity is one of the medium’s most salient features but the decision-making basis of the gameplay in The Walking Dead does result in a series of rapid-fire debates about moral and ethical choices that is not characteristic of other media. Further, despite its single-player nature, The Walking Dead offers myriad opportunities for collaboration and debate between multiple players (or ‘player-observers’). And, as the lively group discussion here suggests, decisions made within pairs of player-observers may subsequently be challenged and debated at group level as each pair has partaken in a shared, but subtly different, experience.
A further issue to consider is one of scale and, thus, cost. Games and, more significantly, games consoles on which to play them are generally more expensive than copies of classic novels, for example. Even if resources are shared, the logistical challenge of having a large class play games such as this in pairs is not trivial. Add to this the commonly-cited concerns about the use of technology in learning (technological obsolescence; maintenance and repair; accessibility) and the use of video games to teach ethical and social awareness is not a straightforward solution. However, the glimpse of potential seen here in this brief experiment suggests that games could provide an exciting (and, yes, fun) means of exercising skills that, if we’re honest, traditional didactic teaching methods don’t always address well.
So, my question this week is: could playing games such as The Walking Dead provide a means of exploring (and, perhaps, developing) our ethical and social awareness?
* Zombies aren’t real.