Video Games Expanded My Ability to Teach During the Pandemic

As schools shut down, video games became an unexpected — and beneficial — part of the curriculum.

I panicked last year when my university announced that classes were moving online during the pandemic. Like most professors, I had never taught online before, and didn’t even know where to start. For days, I tried to design courses that felt engaging and worthwhile, but nothing stuck.

And then, one night while watching Twitch, I had an idea: What if I modeled my online teaching after my favorite streamers? I had been watching Apex Legends streamers like RubyAnnTTV and NoobKing during the pandemic and noticed a real sense of community amongst their followers. In the height of lockdowns, they created a virtual space where people connected with each other. 

I had also been playing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) nightly with the same group of friends for the past year. These bonds deepened during the pandemic and softened the loneliness of a socially distanced world. With a semester online looming, I wondered if streaming and gaming could provide my students with this same sense of community and connection, which in my experience is so crucial for a successful course.

I proposed using Twitch and gaming to my department chair the following day, half expecting my ideas to get shot down. While writing my email, I had flashbacks of being a kid who was obsessed with Street Fighter 2 and being told by teachers and pretty much everyone around me that games were a huge waste of time. I thought back to playing countless hours of Counterstrike in college, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in grad school, and more recently battle royale shooters like Apex Legends

I was pleasantly surprised to receive a green light from my department chair, who has allowed me to teach classes on hip-hop, serial killers, and martial arts. This is one of my favorite parts about teaching at the University of Toronto, which supports innovation. I was also excited to receive teaching funds to build a starter streaming setup.  Over the next week, I researched DIY stream setups on YouTube, bought a new mic and camera, and started thinking about how I could incorporate video games into my lesson plans. 

The semester started a few days later and students told me they enjoyed Twitch. Most were relieved to be off Zoom, where some professors were requiring them to have their cameras turned on. Many told me they liked Twitch’s interface, which is fun and easy to use. They also enjoyed watching lectures on their smartphones, which is how they consume media on other platforms. Those who couldn’t attend my livestreams liked being able to watch my VODs on replay. One student told me she often watched my streams while exercising at her gym. “It’s like watching a podcast,” she said in an email. 

The video games were also a big hit. In a class about violence, I streamed Friday the 13th on Twitch to highlight ideas by Randall Collins, a renowned sociological theorist. Collins’ central claim in Violence: A Microsociological Theory is that most people are overwhelmed with fear when confronted with violence. Despite what they might tell you, most folks are paralyzed by the jitters when it’s time to fight or defend themselves. This makes the average person incompetent at violence.  

Friday the 13th brings these ideas to life in a multiplayer game. Some players control camp counselors trying to escape from Crystal Lake alive, while the remaining player controls Jason, who is trying to kill them. Counselors become clumsier as Jason gets closer to killing them. The in-game music intensifies and they struggle to do basic defensive moves when Jason is nearby.  Students got to see my character stumble clumsily through the woods before getting killed. They also got to see my live reactions on stream while struggling to escape from or kill Jason. Students told me afterwards that the lecture was a lot of fun and helped bring dense theoretical ideas to life.

Video games also give students a chance to virtually experience history in an interactive format.  Educator Marc-André Éthier has shown this through a study with Montreal high school students who played Discovery Tour, an educational add-on for Assassin’s Creed. Éthier began by testing students on what they knew about the Royal Library of Alexandria in Egypt. On average, students answered 22 percent of the test questions correctly. After playing a self-guided tour in the game, these same students answered 41 percent of the test questions correctly; some were even able to triple the accuracy of their responses. These results showed how gaming can improve student knowledge about historical contexts that are otherwise inaccessible.

I saw similar benefits firsthand while playing L.A. Noire in my “Hollywood Homicide” course. In addition to other infamous homicide cases, students read about the murder of Elizabeth Short aka “The Black Dahlia.” L.A. Noire is set in the same post-WWII time period of Short’s murder and references the unsolved case during the “Red Lipstick Murder” investigation, which is inspired by the true story of Jeanne French, a 45-year old Army nurse who was brutally slain a few weeks after Elizabeth Short’s body was found by the LAPD. 

The game gave me an opportunity to talk about French’s murder and led to rich discussions about the challenges that detectives face in linking murders together. It also led to an interesting side discussion about copycat killers, which was also a theory amongst some police investigating Short’s murder. Not only did L.A. Noire provide an interactive way for students to learn about history, it also inspired students to continue reading up about the Black Dahlia case. This was music to my ears.

Understandably, some educators and administrators might be skeptical of video games. We live in a society that treats games as a leisurely activity that has no place in education. But the tide might be turning a little. There are a growing number of researchers who also see the power of gaming in higher education.

For instance, in 2020, Agnes Kukulska-Hulme and colleagues wrote a report for “The Innovating Pedagogy Report” praising Twitch’s potential for remote teaching and learning. They describe how people are already logging into the platform to learn things like cooking and painting from “Just Chatting” streamers. Unlike other massive open online courses (“MOOCS” for short), which are pre-recorded and lack spontaneous interaction, Twitch provides a platform where students can ask questions to educators on the fly. It’s already a great place to teach and learn, so why not extend this into higher education? 

Similarly, teachers have used video games to promote engagement and active learning amongst students. A 2011 case study by William Watson and colleagues examines how high school teachers used the game Making History to teach students about World War II. Their research found that student engagement went up with the inclusion of the game, and that the interactive experience encouraged student collaboration.

With cases rising for COVID-19’s Delta variant and a possible return online for many, this is the perfect time for educators to take a closer look at streaming and video games for teaching. It’s also a great moment for us to reimagine what higher education can look like in the post-pandemic world. Streaming and video games introduce fun in a remote context that can feel dull and monotonous. They also give us more tools to drive engagement and active learning. These are worthy goals for educators and it’s why I will continue using both in my teaching for the foreseeable future.

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Jooyoung Lee

Jooyoung Lee is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. He is the author of the book Blowin' Up: Rap Dreams in South Central and has bylines in the New York Times, CNN, VICE, and other publications.

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