We are the impossible boss battle

Out past the printed word are dozens of modes of expression available to our students. Just as school devalues play, it devalues the accumulation of unsanctioned knowledge and “critical” thought. Standards and scores are deck chairs. Moreover, reading and writing – perhaps, one day, even as embodied by coding – will all be done through interfaces and languages we are beginning to pull up our of our subconsciousness through the power of imagination. The biggest problem with school is that it has no long view – it has neither a critical appreciation of its own history, nor any capacity to acknowledge that it needs to function differently in the future. It is entirely caught up in the present. It is a reptile. A haunted house. An amygdala. An indoctrination into a litany of fear.

Clearly, I’ve been hitting the science fiction again. Also, the gaming.

Last night I finished a pretty stellar game – one advertised as the last in a series, if not the last in a setting.

It ended much as I thought it would, but it also bugged me in ways I hoped it would not.

First, let’s talk narrative. Each of us lives a narrative. It takes a significant amount of self-knowledge and work to shift narratives in our lives. Sometimes events jar our narratives and cause us to reconsider how and why we’re living. Sometimes events jar our narratives and just piss us off; enter the unduly unfair boss battle.

Scant moments away from the culmination of this series I played, I got caught in a boss battle I could not win without adjusting the difficulty of the game downward. I’m not really a casual gamer so much as a gamer who is aware of his tastes and limitations. In some genres, I am the equivalent of a grognard; in others, I am a tourist looking for adventure. Regardless of genre, I hate situations in games that are made impossible to “win” by a sudden ramping up of difficulty matched with my own mediocre mechanical skill. I played my character really well; my difficulty in passing this portion of the game did not come from my portrayal of the character or from the decisions I made during the course of the series – which are, ostensibly, the engine of the narrative – narrative being the engine of the franchise. I think it’s a bad design decision to make a gamer feel mechanically inept minutes before the end of a series in which that player has survived dozens of appropriately leveled challenges. The narrative pay off – the big picture, connection-making a-ha moment of the endgame – was, in my mind, needlessly delayed for me by a slog of a battle I reloaded half a dozen times before ratcheting down the difficulty of the game.

So, how many big picture, connection-making a-ha moments do we deny kids because they cannot defeat the inappropriately leveled boss battles we set in front of them? What could our non-readers learn from and do with all that time we confront them with impossible situations? How do we acknowledge that some kids – even our most “successful” readers and writers – could be creating amazing narratives for themselves without the undue influence of “rigor” (code for developmentally inappropriate), which, in our school system, is a kind of insensate systems intelligence unable to adapt itself away from the belief that some things are best left for the kids who read and write and sit still on time, dammit.

First, we acknowledge that critical thinking, imagination, playfulness, composition, design, and iteration are interdisciplinary skills that students can evidence in a variety of ways – even in ways we can’t imagine. Then we acknowledge that reading and writing carry some unique flavors of these skills, but that every other mode of expression does, also. You talk about word choice in creating imagery and symbolism in a novel; you talk about color and line in doing the same in a graphic novel; you talk about graphics, writing, voice-acting, and player choice in doing the same in a video game. Finally, we start building learning spaces rich with all sorts of texts and authoring tools in which it is easy and joyful to create a community and share connections, insights, and strengths between people, projects, and genres.

What else bothered me about the game?

Although many people have complained about the lack of choice at the very end of the game, I thought the options I had were fitting. They were choices that involved sacrifice. They were in line with the mood of the game and what had to happen; I’m not sure what others were expecting. I do, however, dislike games in which there are no consequences for players’ choices. This reminds me too much of school wherein differentiation becomes a matter of picking a teacher’s idea out of many of that teacher’s ideas. Not a lot of room for democracy, emergent behavior, or self-directed learning there.

What really bothered me is the presence of narrative elements held hostage in the code as unlockable downloadable content (buy a license) and bonus content that is released for playing other products from the company that published the game. The message here is that no matter how well you play the game – no matter which decisions you make or how much feeling you invest in the characters and story – you just can’t have some things until you behave the way we, the gatekeepers, want you to behave (as a consumer).

That is school. We will withhold access to the learning you want to pursue, dear student, until you pay us what we say we deserve.

Do game companies have a right to make a profit? Sure. Can gamers be critical about their purchases. Sure. Does school have to be a capitalist, transactional marketplace? No.

What we expect from our kids is unconditional compliance – which we blithely confuse with unconditional learning.

What we should be offering our children is unconditional teaching.

Except to maintain a culture of privilege, there is no advantage to learning in using reading and writing to limit students’ access to authentic and engaging learning. In fact, it’s inequitable to do so. Some kids arrive ready and able to pay their dues because when they enter school they enter an affirming, tautological feedback loop. Because they fit into the stories we at school tell ourselves about successful students, these kids get the teaching and learning all kids deserve – the independent work; the inquiry-based work; the collaborative work; the arts. For them, is “reading and writing” part of the place, or is it the place? The answer is different for kids who arrive at school with different skill sets. It shouldn’t be.

It makes no sense to me to use reading and writing to further disadvantage students who come to school without the cultural, mechanical, and neurological affordances that belong to the kids for whom we really run our schools. Reading and writing – where these kids are – should be part of the awesome learning available to them, not a teacher-imposed prerequisite to it. Call it the instruction or pedagogy gap. It’s endemic. I wonder if it can be excised from the system without killing the system.

At school, we hold the most motivating, student-negotiated learning hostage behind a firewall of reading and writing codes that require students to pay up with unreciprocated “respect,” hollow scores, and blind compliance.

Why are we here? That’s the question. The game question. The science fiction question. The school question. The teacher question. The life question.

Is it to make sure that all students can read and write in isolation?

Is it to make sure all students find ways to learn and express themselves in community?

Is it to accommodate a willful systemic blindness to those of our needs that school did not meet and that school cannot meet for our students and their children?

At the end of the world, I want everyone together fighting to turn the tide – not just the people who can read and write – because there will be problems we cannot solve, solutions we cannot see, and stories we cannot tell.

It is the principal failing and limitation of my teaching that I am so fundamentally invested in the story of myself as a reader and writer (and one easily susceptible to Western archetypes, at that).

I want to hear all of my students’ stories. I need to listen to kids who tell their stories differently the most. These kids aren’t invited to speak up or act out in traditional spaces, both literal and metaphorical. That’s why it’s so important to meet them where they are, no matter the odds, no matter how far out or alien the planet seems to us.

We think we are the heroes; in reality, for students fighting the hardest to hold on to their worlds, we are the impossible boss battle; we are the firewall to learning.