Instructional Lessons Learned as an Emergent Video Gamer by Shannon Houghton

This summer, I’ve been spending some of my free time playing video games. I hesitate to call myself a gamer YET because I have so much to learn. I’m an emergent gamer, and I started noticing patterns in my emergence as a gamer that closely correlates to what I see in my students who are emergent readers and mathematicians.
Here are some of my initial findings as I review video of my gameplay in two very different games, Borderlands 2 and Crypt of the Necrodancer:
The silent period exists for Gaming Language Learners.
Our English Language Learners often go through a silent phase when they understand MUCH more than they speak. As a Gaming Language Learner, I watched streams of games like Counterstrike and The Binding of Isaac to get a sense of what gameplay was like before I ever joined. (Streams are live or recorded videos of folks playing games.)
Make the most of skills that transfer.
I had success playing Borderlands 2 because I had played Team Fortress 2 and Viscera Cleanup Detail, both of which are first-person shooters (or in the case of Viscera Cleanup, first-person moppers). The perspective was familiar to me, so I didn’t feel sick to my stomach like I did the very first time I played a first-person shooter. (In a first-person shooter game, what you see on your screen is what your character would see — your arms are in your peripheral vision, you can’t see behind you, etc)
Borderlands2 follows a storyline that advances as you achieve smaller tasks, which is similar to how gameplay happens in World of Warcraft and Wildstar, two games I was familiar with. Just like our kids don’t come to us as empty vessels, I was able to leverage my personal prior knowledge to help in a new situation.
I need time to explore.
Fifteen minutes into my first time playing Borderlands2, my husband needed to restart his system. I relished the chance to explore my surroundings and bump around a bit without having to worry about slowing my companions down.
That said, I need direct instruction, too.
Sometimes, it’s much more efficient to get information straight up, rather than through trial and error. Wikis and community forums provide a wealth of information. Originally, I was insistent on figuring things out myself. I then discovered that many forum posts are more like entire encyclopedias. Much like traditional encyclopedias, I’m not reading them cover-to-cover (although I could), and much like with direct instruction, they’re helpful in small, targeted amounts.
I need key vocabulary to get me started.
I wanted to be able to create cotton cloth in Wildstar, so I needed to find more of a plant called Bladeleaf. Maps exist that show where you can harvest bladeleaf, but in order to run a successful Google search, I needed to use the gaming-specific term “farming.” I mentioned “movement keys” above, but the term for that is keybindings. I could play games without having this vocabulary, but learning a few key words made a huge difference.
Positive reinforcement helps.
Less than ONE MINUTE after learning movement keys in Borderlands2, a helpful machine called Claptrap gave me positive (albeit slightly sarcastic) reinforcement, shown here.

See the video by clicking on the image above. (You may need to turn your volume up pretty far to hear Claptrap at the end.)

I can understand advantageous strategies before I’m actually able to use them. BUT knowing my mistakes doesn’t mean I can fix them right away.
After recording and watching myself playing Crypt of the Necrodancer, I noticed that I mention that I’m more vulnerable when the skeleton is coming at me with his arms up, as opposed to down at both the beginning and end of the video. I KNEW what I needed to fix (attack the skeleton when his arms are down), but I couldn’t execute the correction right away without practice.

Even when best-practice instructional strategies are used, the observer might not get a clear picture.
Conferring is a great opportunity to get to know our students better as readers and mathematicians. However, I’m often tempted to view what I’m seeing students do during our conference as THEIR TRUTH.
Well, if you took my videos as MY TRUTH as an emergent gamer, there would be TONS of things you would miss, and a bunch of other things that I’m sure could be misinterpreted. Using best practices like conferring with students might be one of the best ways to get to know our students, but we must remember that information doesn’t fully define them.
I need to play games at my instructional level.
Crypt of the Necrodancer is similar in structure to Zelda: Link to the Past and The Binding of Isaac (these are called “Roguelike” in gaming terms). However, I’m eager to return for another round with Necrodancer because I didn’t consistently die ten seconds into the game like I did in the other two.
I gravitate toward folks who look like me.
I originally wrote “I learn better from folks like me,” but I couldn’t confirm whether my learning was better or worse from other Lady Gamers. After I played Crypt of the Necrodancer, I tried to find some other folks streaming it so I could compare my experience to theirs. Out of all the folks streaming, I saw one girl and I went straight to her channel. It’s powerful to see someone who looks like you doing what you want to be doing. #WeNeedDiverseBooks, absolutely, but also, #WeNeedDiverseEverything.
We can’t analyze our work deeply while we’re in the middle of it.
I went back and took scripted notes on the first half hour or so of me playing Borderlands 2. It seems a bit excessive to be taking notes on video game plays. However, if I were to write this post with any semblance of understanding of what happened, I couldn’t just go based on what I experienced at the time, because my brain was full of in-game decisions. That’s why I like being videotaped teaching in class and why I’m looking forward to scripted observations from our school’s work with The Transparent Teacher.
That’s why it’s important for observers to script teachers during our teaching (and for us as teachers to make sure we review and reflect on our practice). That’s also why it’s critical that we’re taking high-quality anecdotal notes when we confer with our readers that we can return to later when we’re not in the moment of teaching.
My learning is never over.
Even when I choose to call myself a gamer instead of an emergent gamer, even if I were to achieve some level of proficiency at a given game, EVEN IF I were to emerge as a world-champion Major League Gamer, there would still be plenty of work for me to do. The great thing is, based on the positive experience I’ve been having, I relish the challenge. I highly recommend you join me!
Finally, some relevant books for the gamer in your life:
squish game on
Game On! (Squish #5), Matt & Jennifer Holm
attack boss
Attack! Boss! Cheat Code!, Chris Barton & Joey Spiotto
level up
Level Up! Gene Luen Yang & Thien Pham
Minecraft Handbooks, Various Authors, Scholastic
The Essential Handbook was a big hit at our bookfair, but I was pleased to discover there are Combat, Construction, and Redstone guides as well!
The Transparent Teacher, Trent Kaufman & Emily Grimm
Reading this book while teaching myself video games made me appreciate the benefit of reviewing our past performances.
DISCLAIMER: Not all of the games I mentioned are appropriate for young students!
Shannon Houghton is a National Board certified 2nd and 3rd grade teacher living in Seattle. Her current obsessions include math identity and its impact on math instructional practices.