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  • Writer's pictureZack

I Taught With Tacoma

What's going on everyone?

This post is long over due. I taught with a number of video games last year in my ELA class, but I never really found the time to write about how those lessons went. Over the next few months I'm going to try and debrief each of those lessons to better support any of you who may interested in teaching with video games yourself.

One of the units I taught last year was about the different types of storytelling found in video games. We played three different games that each utilized a different storytelling format. We looked at visual storytelling in the game Journey, dialogue choices in Life is Strange 2, and non-linear storytelling in Tacoma. This unit is actually the premise of my book, "Teaching With Video Games: An English Language Arts Unit" which can be bought on Amazon. While the student handouts you will see in this post are from that book, I do have a different lesson plan on non-linear storytelling in Tacoma that you can access here for free. While the handouts are different, the basic premise is the same.

Tacoma falls into the walking simulator genre. A walking simulator is an adventure game that consists of gradual exploration and discovery through observation, with little gameplay focused on action. Instead, the game seeks to tell a story. Tacoma is a sci-fi narrative adventure set aboard a high-tech space station in the year 2088. The story takes place on the Tacoma, a lunar transfer station owned by the Venturis corporation. Small meteors hit the station and damage Tacoma's oxygen tanks and communications devices, leaving only fifty hours worth of oxygen and no means of sending a distress signal. You explore every detail of how the station’s crew lived and worked after the accident and ultimately, you must learn the fate of the crew.

You travel through various sections of this space station watching augmented reality recordings of what had previously transpired. You can pause, fast forward, and rewind every conversation that has taken place. The game lets the player choose the order in which the events are revealed. The crew may all be talking together at one moment, but then scatter across the ship a minute later. You get to decide which crew members to follow around and who to eavesdrop on during their conversations. Once you are all caught up, you can reset the recording back to the beginning to learn about the other characters. Each new recording also notes how many days have passed since it was captured. It's the player's job to keep chronological track of each moment in the game. I had never encountered this specific game mechanic before and I believe that this unique experience should be played in order to fully understand.

Telling a story nonlinearly can be tricky. When I think of the concept I am brought to movies like Memento, TV shows like Westworld, and video games like Her Story. While all three are fantastic, they can often be difficult to follow. I have taught with Her Story before and it was more challenging than I anticipated for my students to keep track of everything that was transpiring. Tacoma does not seem to have these issues. You can pause every recording and replay it as needed. It is super accessible, especially for my English Language Learner population.

A single play-through of Tacoma will come out to be around three hours (5 hours including work and discussion). It's a quick story with likable characters and could serve as a great addition to any classroom. The mechanics are very unique while also being very simple. It's a game that could easily be played together as a class instead of each student needing their own copy, although I may try to obtain several copies of the game in the future so some students can play at their own pace.

Now I'm going to break down how the game went and include students samples from some of the handouts (just a reminder that these specific handouts can be found in my book). A lot of the time when I teach with a game, I will front load by having my students initially read a review of the game. I find this helps with comprehension since my students are all English Language Learners. After reading a review, I had my students play through the opening of the game to learn about each of the characters. There are six people and one artificial intelligence in the game, and they all serve different roles on the Tacoma space station. We also discussed the manner in which the game utilizes non-linear storytelling through the use of recordings.

While the focus of the game is discussion on non-linear storytelling, that is not the only thing we discuss while playing the game. I spent the second day teaching about setting, mood, and tone. Literary elements and rhetorical devices are a staple in any English Language Arts class, so I make sure to reinforce these concepts during any game we play in class. It is during this lesson that students start to get an actual feel of the game and the story being told. They've witnessed a number of character interactions at this point and they can grasp that the people on the station are in a dire situation. Students quickly grasped the meaning of setting and mood, but tone is always a more challenging concept to teach. It wasn't until towards the ending of the game that the students really became aware of the developers' and writers' attitude towards the subject matter of the game.

The next two days we talked about characterization and point of view. The game includes a diverse set of characters, but they are only ever seen as a single colored silhouette projected in augmented reality. Before beginning this game, I was wondering if students would be able to connect with the characters. While we see their silhouettes and hear their voices, we never get the chance to see facial expressions. Luckily the students liked the augmented reality and generally thought it was a unique and fun way to tell a story. They always like when they are exposed to something new, and I think the augmented reality aspects of the game were novel enough to keep them interested in the characters. The students also analyzed the chosen point of view in the game. The student in the handout felt that by setting the game in the first person, it makes the story more immersive and more personal. I also checked in on what they thought about the non-linear storytelling at this point in the game and again, they liked the novelty of it. They felt it helped make the story more interesting and suspenseful.

Conflict is a central aspect of most stories. It is a literary element that ELA teachers cover in many of their units. Tacoma is no different. We started by discussing different types of conflict (Person v Person, Person v Self, Person v Environment, etc), and then the students identified where these different types of conflict were present in the story. A big point of conversation this day was about Person v Society, since it was due to the many regulations set forth by the company that ended up causing many of the issues the crew faced on board. While the other forms of conflict were present, the root of the crew's problems originated with their superiors.

For the final two days we discussed the themes and morals of the game. Tacoma is quite clearly an indictment on the many ways that companies and corporations take advantage of their employees. This student wrote, "The game is trying to tell you that capitalism is bad. We see how the company use the people and don't care about them." The company in question abandoned rescue efforts because of its high financial cost. The working conditions for the crew weren't safe to begin with and they did not have access to the necessary resources to repair the station. Basically, OSHA would have issued a thousand different citations. We finished this conversation by reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and discussed whether or not the human rights of the Tacoma crew were violated. The class was pretty unanimously in agreement that the crews' rights had been violated by the Venturis corporation.

The final day of the unit consisted of a Socratic Seminar where the students discussed whether or not the non-linear storytelling in Tacoma was an effective way to tell a story. They mostly liked the ability to fast forward and rewind the augmented reality recordings. We also compared the storytelling in Tacoma with Journey, and Life is Strange 2. While most of the students ended up liking Life is Strange 2 more, none of them disliked the manner in which Tacoma's story was told. In fact, most of them preferred it to Journey, which is one of the most positively received games out there. Only one student mentioned they didn't really like Tacoma all that much, which is fine. You're never going to find a book, movie, or game that every student in your class is going to vibe with.

Overall, this unit was definitely a success and I'm looking forward to teaching with this game again sometime this year. And like I said, I'll probably buy several copies for my class so that we can actually see if each student plays in a different order from each other. I think that dynamic is a missing piece that will strengthen the lesson.

Thanks for reading,


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