Transcript by Anne Meuser
[Captions in Video by Rachel Mazique]
Video games. Online games. Digital games.
As a teacher, you may have heard of gaming. Especially because, as of 2011, 91 percent of kids, ages 2-17, are gaming in the U.S.
And in 2014, the American Psychological Association reported that video game play may provide great benefit in mood, motivation, creativity, and problem solving.
You may have heard of gaming, but have you heard it in the classroom? Why not? What would that sound like?
The game Thomas was Alone, created by Mike Bithell, poses puzzles in which players must move various rectangles across a stage and over to a portal that corresponds to their shapes.
Players start with one personified rectangle, Thomas, and gain control over many others, all of which posses unique characteristics—not only in ability to jump higher or cross water, but also in personality.
Throughout the course of this game, you become attached to your group of polygons.
Thomas Was Alone conveys strong tones of friendship, struggle, and sacrifice, not merely through an omniscient narrator, but through the gameplay itself.
Thomas and his companions are programming errors who are trapped, moving through an uncontrollable, digital space.
Thomas realizes that he cannot control his surroundings as he and the player reach new portals after each puzzle.
Thomas Was Alone Narrator 01:33-01:38
Thomas wondered if the portals were actually taking him anywhere
We must ask of the game, “Why keep going,” yet Thomas and his companions strive forward to reach an impossible, invisible fate.
Thomas believes in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before him. It eludes him, but that’s no matter—to-morrow he will run faster, stretch out his arms farther.
In the classroom, Thomas Was Alone might act as a companion to a work like The Great Gatsby. Is Gatsby’s pursuit of the past like Thomas’ pursuit of progress?
Comparing the running and stretching of both Gatsby and Thomas offers students a chance to reflect on determination and desire.
Thomas and his companions sacrifice themselves to pass on their abilities to others like them trying to escape the digital world. Gatsby forfeits his life as he takes the fall for Daisy’s car accident. For desire of a far-off future, Thomas and Gatsby run and stretch and lose themselves for a dream they never experience. Drawing this parallel encourages deeper reading. It asks of both the game and the novel if our determination and desire bring any good. Can efforts in one life, for Gatsby, Thomas, and ourselves, affect those who come after we’re gone?
Or how does this sound?
Thomas and his friends understand that they are programming errors. Artificial intelligences. Monsters born of technology gone too far. In this way, is Thomas like Frankenstein’s monster? Is either character truly alone?
Students explore such themes of loneliness hands-on during play as an evil pixel cloud “eats” the quadrilateral characters one by one. When down to the last two, John and Claire, players hear John, the yellow rectangle:
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John hoped that he would be the next to get eaten. He didn’t want to be alone.
Players then watch as the pixel cloud eats Claire, and must play as only John, experiencing the lack of collaboration present and familiar from previous levels.
The gameplay in Thomas Was Alone constantly exemplifies literary concepts and compels students to ask questions about life and purpose and humanity. Thomas Was Alone stands as an excellent text for teachers not simply because it illustrates literary concepts and themes, but because it does so in a way not wholly accessible through traditional classroom media.
It is the aspect of play that sets this game apart as an exemplary classroom text. As students engage with the controls and narrative of the game, they experience the motions and motivations and struggles of game characters.
Thomas Was Alone immerses students in a world of vibrant quadrilaterals
When the orange square Chris first meets Thomas, he complains
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Who the hell did this Thomas think he was? Chris had been doing fine. He wasn’t the highest jumper, but he’d held his own.
During this time, players can feel Chris’ frustration, both as they hear Chris’ words and as they must tediously switch between Thomas and Chris to reach the end of levels.
This close relation between narration, characterization, and experience is essential to the game and illustrates very clearly, concepts and ideas of struggle, collaboration, and eventual friendship.
In this game, you are the characters. All these simple, quadrilateral character forms allow players to see themselves as this diverse cast: Thomas the reflector, Chris the foil, Clair the hero, John the athlete, Laura the romantic, James the outcast, Sarah the adventurer. Students play in each of these roles, and experience their findings of hope, sacrifice, responsibility, collaboration, and self-discovery.
And because students are interacting with the game’s literary aspects through hands on play, they learn about them while tapping into the benefits of gaming. Video games have unique power to motivate students and spark their creative, problem solving drive. Directing that level of engagement toward classroom learning goals through playing a game like Thomas Was Alone has the potential to push students further in making connections to texts and ideas.
Thomas Was Alone holds literary merit. But Thomas is not alone. He, and countless other games, have a place in the classroom as tools for collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, creation, and, ultimately, learning.