Legend of Zelda Tears of the Kingdom
Stories & Ideas

Thu 17 Aug 2023

Playing and studying games from a critical perspective

Education Videogames
Alex B

Alexander Bacalja

Senior Lecturer in Language & Literacy, Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Videogame worlds can be incredibly immersive, sometimes to the detriment of the player's critical eye. But we can help students remain critical players if we rethink our approach.

There is a lot to admire about a well-designed immersive gameworld. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is the latest game to win praise for creating such a world for gamers to explore. A rich story, cinematic cut-scenes, an expansive map, and an amazing soundtrack. These features are often lauded as part of what makes games such productive sites for interaction and learning.

However, gameworlds can be so well designed that it is easy to lose oneself in them, and this can be a problem.

Legend of Zelda Tears of the Kingdom

The 2023 release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a timely reminder of the expansive storyworlds that have become central to contemporary digital games.

Immersive and engaging game experiences are double-edged swords. On the one hand, they encourage us to spend hours in these spaces learning all manner of things without feeling like we are doing any mental work. On the other hand, these worlds can take on a naturalness that shrouds how they work. Our time in the social and cultural world of digital games can be so engrossing that we start to take for granted the kinds of knowledge and representations upon which these worlds are built.

Broadly speaking, we there are three approaches to the use of digital games in classrooms, namely: instructional, constructivist, and critical.

Instructional approaches tend to see digital games as tools for learning. This involves shifting the responsibility for teaching from the teacher to the game. In this approach, students are often re-positioned as passive recipients of the content that has been coded into the games being deployed.

Constructivist approaches lean towards games that allow student to be active makers of meaning. Experiences are structured so that students ‘construct’ knowledge. One common example of this is evident in the use of games for design, such as Minecraft, Scratch, or Lego Worlds. What is absent from both these approaches is time dedicated to the ‘critical’.

Lego Worlds

Games that allow players to build their own gameworld are popular. Lego Worlds (2017) is one such game which incorporate design and construction concepts from the original non-digital Lego brick construction sets.

The use of the word ‘critical’ in education is common and often lacking in detail, making it challenging to determine what exactly is meant by the term. I use the word critical here in the way that educationalists like Paolo Freire, Henry Giroux, bell hooks and Peter Mclaren develop the concept of critical literacies. The critical in critical literacies refers to practices built on a number of principles, including:

  • All texts are constructions. What is written is the product of many decisions and determining factors.
  • All texts contain belief and value messages which reflect the biases and opinions of their authors/creators.
  • Each person interprets messages differently.
  • Texts serve different interests. These interests can be commercial, ideological or political.
  • Each medium develops its own “language” in order to position readers/viewers in certain ways. (Ontario Education Capacity Building Series, Critical Literacy, #9)

To build a game-centred curriculum based on these principles is to go beyond the temptation of trusting that instructional and constructivist approaches are enough. If we want students to also be able to critique and challenge the games that are used in schools, they will need opportunities to develop critical knowledge about games and the hidden work of game designers’ messages.

Three teaching strategies can help us get there.

Interrogating representations of the world

Fundamental to critical literacy education is the notion that learners need to be scaffolded into understanding that texts are not neutral. They do not simply reflect the world back to their audiences. Digital games contain ideologies and beliefs about the world that are embedded in their characters, stories and even the actions that gamers can take as they play. The representations of people in games are figurative. They stand in for and take the place of something else. The tropes incorporated into game characters go unchallenged unless students are taught to recognise and resist them.

Metal Gear Solid Yevgeny Volgin

It is not uncommon for videogame villains to be associated with perceived enemies of the ‘West’. Metal Gear Solid V’s (2015) villain Yevgeny Volgin, portrayed as a Soviet Russian, is one such example. A critical perspective towards games would ask difficult questions about why game designers are so prone to these kinds of representations.


In the context of the digital game classroom, redesigning can take on both digital and non-digital forms. Many game protagonists contain problematic stereotypes and representations that reflect broader issues of power and domination from the world outside the game. We can centre these protagonists for redesign in our classrooms. A range of multimodal resources can be deployed to challenge these representations (linguistic, visual, audio). Through drawings and written analysis students can redesign these characters to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about their characteristics.

Likewise, many games give players the option of choosing their own avatars from a selection, or even customising their avatars using a range of visual tools (race, skin/hair color, tattoos, height, sex, etc). Using customisation tools built into games, or bespoke game-authoring software, students can redesign game characters and combine this with reflective dialogue to engage in their own worldbuilding, in the same way authors have for centuries.

Animal Crossings

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020) shows how many games allow the player to customise their avatar. Decisions about skin color, sex, as well as a wide range of physical characteristics can be explored with students to provoke discussion about stereotypes and identity.

Critical play

When we engage in forms of play that resist or reorientate game characters and game stories, we are engaged in critical play. Elsewhere, I have written about the diversity of play practices that Language Arts teachers integrate into their digital game classrooms (Bacalja & Clark, 2021). From free to structured play, solitary to group play, in-class to at-home play; teachers’ ideas about the value of play and its relationships to learning at school manifests in their decisions around play. It is through critical play that students develop conceptual tools that support critical ways of seeing the world.


Games like Sims 4 (2014) give the player enormous choice over the game world and play. Rather than engaging with this world for pleasure, teachers might consider how such games can be used for raising critical questions about the individual, society, and the role that digital games play in influencing both.

Critical play involves iterations of reading (viewing) and creating. Following the development of knowledge about how features of digital games represent the world, students can be scaffolded into playful literacies that allow them to read and play the game through a particular lens. In a game that allows players to select and customise their own avatars, students could be encouraged to privilege or marginalise specific characters based on race, sex, age, class, etc. Games that encourage players to make their own story-arcs through decision trees might be combined with reflective questions that interrogate the player’s decisions. Open-world games that include tools for almost infinite digital world-building could be offered as a space for students to literally create their own ‘ideal’ communities, and through self and peer-assessment, challenge the norms that underpin their creations. Central to all of these activities is a belief that play is intricately tied to ways of seeing and being in the world.

3 screen grabs from Florence game

More a graphic novel than digital game, Florence (2018) provides the kind of interactive narrative that can be used to explore concepts of choice and illusion in game design.

When educators shift the way they use digital games in schools, from learning through games to learning about games, they push at the boundaries of what counts as knowledge worthy of study. The horse has bolted on embracing digital games as tools for formal learning. However, there are plenty of opportunities to ensure that young people have the knowledge necessary to be critical producers and not just passive consumers of the messages and experiences that underpin this media.


The author has handpicked the following relevant lesson plans:

ACMI’s ‘Dystopian narratives and ‘Papers, Please’ unit explores how the design of a game can impact the narrative that emerges and the experience of play.

The ACMI Game Lessons unit Soundscapes and ‘The Fish Market’ shows how students can use the redesign of game music to create new moods and meanings for gameplay.

ACMI’s Game Lesson ‘Interactive narratives and ‘Florence’ shows how students can be supported to respond to choices during gameplay in ways that reflect critical play.


Bacalja, A., & Clark, K. (2021). Playing with Digital Game Pedagogies. In M. Peterson, K. Yamazaki, & M. Thomas (Eds.), Digital games and language learning: Theory, Development and Implementation (pp. 113-136). London, UK: Bloomsbury.