• Zack

Why You Should Teach With Night In the Woods

What's going on everyone?


I know, it's the summer and you probably do not want to be thinking about the upcoming school year just yet, but this is about video games so maybe you'll make an exception just this once. I started making some curriculum for a wonderful little game Night in the Woods after discussing Game Based Learning with the Esports Edu Lab. Big shout out to them for providing me with a copy of the game. This game, developed by Infinite Fall, is one of the more unique games out there. It is about college dropout, Mae Borowski who returns home to the crumbling former mining town of Possum Springs. How many games feature a college dropout as the protagonist? It is a game about growing up and is perfect for a lesson in Social Emotional Learning (SEL). You can find the lesson plan for Night in the Woods here.


Night in the Woods is a unique experience. It is as if a graphic novel and a video game were mashed together. Gameplay, while fun at times, takes a back seat to telling a strong narrative with believable characters. It is a game that does an amazing job of showing us what it means to become an adult. Spoilers: Age is not what defines you as an adult. We are presented with a wonderfully diverse cast of characters with unique personalities. Anyone from a small suburban town will instantly connect with the entire cast. There is love and care put into not only the characters' personalities, but into each person's transition into becoming an adult. Is it okay to still smash lightbulbs with a bat when you are in your twenties? Run along power lines? Go shoplifting? Or to drop out of college and continue to live with your parents with no future plan? Well, Mae and her friends do all of this. It is a real look at different forms of inner struggle like depression, contempt, self image, mental health, and dissatisfaction that most video games never attempt to shed a light on. Playing this game will offer students the chance to analyze all of these factors while also reflecting on their own lives, struggles, and hopes.


This game can easily be used in an English Language Arts class, but I really think it shines more as an examination of human nature than as a piece of literature. This is why the lesson is designated as an SEL one. The Aim of the lesson is, "What does it mean to become an adult?"The story focuses on a group of high school best friends set two years after their graduation. All of the characters in the game are presented as animals, although they are all very human. Each of the cast comes with an enormous amount of emotional and mental baggage that they must reconcile with as the game progresses. The core cast is as follows. . .

  • Mae Borowski, a pansexual cat and the protagonist, has dropped out of college because of depression, anxiety, and issues with self image. This has caused her to have a troubled past in which she has had many anger issues. She was even instructed to "repress" these issues by her doctor and to journal as a means of coping. She only gets along with a select few people in town as most find her to be very rude. She has moved back into her parents home with a somewhat judgemental mother and a father who works a minimum wage job at the grocery store because all of the manufacturing jobs left town.

  • Her best friend Bea Santello is a crocodile and was the valedictorian of her graduating class. She was on track to go to college, but her mother died of cancer in her senior year of high school. The costs of her mom's medical care and funeral forced Bea and her father to sell the family home and move into a less than ideal apartment. Her father ending up having a mental breakdown, forcing Bea to sacrifice her dreams of going to college and remain in Possum Springs in order to help him recover and to take over the family business. She is seen smoking constantly throughout the game as a means of dealing with the stress of working a dead end job.

  • Gregg Lee, a canine, is another one of Mae's really good friends. He is very talkative and is always wearing a punk leather jacket. He also LOVES to commit petty crimes. Nothing too illegal, just the fun stuff like breaking into abandoned buildings and smashing stuff in a junk yard. He always seems to be in a good mood, but he will bring up that how he presents himself does not always match how he feels. He has his up days and down days an he states that he tends to lie awake at night while thinking about what he dislikes about himself. He always wants to make others happy and is constantly afraid of ruining his relationship with his boyfriend Angus whom he lives with.

  • Angus Delaney, the bear is Gregg's boyfriend. He is much more quiet and reserved than the rest of the crew. He is shy and often disinterested in some of the antics that the other three get into. He mostly tags along because he loves Gregg. He loves to cook and bake food for others, partly because his parents withheld food from him when he was younger. He is not very prideful and he mentions that he sometimes feels like a failure. He and Gregg are saving up money to move out of Possum Springs because they are uncomfortable being the only queer couple in town. Not everyone is as open minded as their friends.


Does this sound like any other game you've played before? It was a completely new experience for me to play and watch as each of these four people grappled with the struggles of adulthood. It touches on problems that many students are dealing with themselves. The idea of going to college is based into our students from the moment they into school; and here we have a protagonist who quit before the end of her second year. The conversations this can lead to about why this happens to so many people is absolutely necessary to have with our students. Only about 60% of students finish their four year degrees over the course of six years. A lot of people head to college and never finish. It's an unfortunate normal aspect of life that our students need to know. I would love for each and every one of my students to graduate and attend a great post secondary school, but the reality is that more schooling is not for everyone. And like Bea, not every student that wants to go to college will even be able to.


All of this subject matter is where the game shines. The narrative thread in Night in the Woods is actually about the mysterious disappearances of a number of townspeople. Hence the reason why Mae and her friends will eventually end up spending a night in the woods, trying to solve the mystery. The game can get a bit repetitive at times and drags here and there, but your time with the game is absolutely worth it. This is actually one of the few times where I believe it would be a better experience for each student to have their own copy of the game. Obviously that's not exactly realistic so it can also easily be played together as a class if it is projected in the front of the room. Then you can have students rotate as the player.


One of the classes I teach at my school is an Advisory class. I meet with my students twice a week and basically just check in with them. Sometimes that means giving them extra time to finish homework and other times it means checking in social emotionally to make sure that everything is okay. Often it is about teaching and discussing various aspects of life in general. We as educators are natural role models and our students look to us as sources of more than just content. They thrive on advice and guidance (usually). This is probably even more true post COVID-19 as many students are left isolated at home. It is in this class that I intend on using this game. It will however, fit in any high school ELA classroom as well. It is rated 13+, but it may be a tad too mature for some middle school classrooms.


Thanks for reading,

Zack


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