Twitter is flooded with amazing educators and content, so it’s difficult to stand out in a sea of great resources. However, while reading through my own feed, I came across Zack Hartzman’s @heylistengames_. It wasn’t the witty posts or the candid look at the classroom that got my attention, but how he leveraged video games in his English and social studies classes. I haven’t seen many people use “walking sims” to create units that teach social-emotional learning, historical views, and literary concepts. For example, instead of reading through a book with the class, students play deeply immersive games and learn through that experience, something quite unique and engaging. After visiting his website, www.heylistengames.org, I dove into the lessons that are basically turnkey - and free - for any interested teacher. I knew I had to learn more, so I reached out and Zack was very kind and receptive toward working with us.
Can you start by telling us a little about yourself and how you got into education?
I studied history at Binghamton University and, during an internship where I mentored a middle schooler, I learned that I really liked working in a school. I pursued my master’s degree in the teaching of social studies, and I was placed at a school dedicated to teaching newly-arrived immigrants while I finished my program. I have been teaching there ever since.
What was the turning point where you decided to use video games to teach topics and themes based on core classes such as English and history?
When I started teaching, I knew I wanted to incorporate some of my passions into my classroom; I was always told that teachers are better when they are passionate about the content they are discussing in class. I originally, too much success, started incorporating movies and comic books into my curriculum. After a couple of years, I realized that video games could also be a fun way to learn. I started off with smaller-scale games and my students were really receptive, so I started bringing in bigger and more ambitious titles as I became more comfortable with the medium. Something to note is that I tend to stay away from educational games. I tend to use entertainment games with educational value.
What were some of the challenges you faced when making this transition?
Figuring out the best way to group students based on access to appropriate technology is probably the biggest challenge. Some games are best played as a class, while others should be played in smaller groups or even individually. My favorite way to play is as a class with one copy of the game projected in the front of the room. This way everyone experiences it together like a movie, and you can have full class conversations about the topic.
Did you have any moments where you questioned if you were going to be successful with your new idea?
Absolutely, for a number of reasons. When I was first interested in teaching with video games, I tirelessly looked online for any lesson plans or materials other teachers may have made. I only ever found recommendations for games that could be useful when teaching but never found an actual lesson plan that details, step by step, how to teach with a video game. I had to make these materials from scratch. I was really unsure if these lessons would work with no reference point.
Then comes my website Hey Listen Games. After a couple of years of making my own lesson plans and materials, I wanted to share them with other educators who may be interested in teaching with video games. I personally know many people who are curious but unsure where to start, how I was when I first tried. I wanted to create a site where I could access my lesson plans, blog about my experiences when teaching with video games and provide a space for educators to discuss game-based learning together. Learning how to put a website together was challenging, and I was probably just working on the website for a year before I launched it. I didn’t even have an idea of how I would get the word out to let other educators know the website exists. Imposter syndrome is real but, luckily, people seem to really love the site so I’ll continue to do my best to provide these resources. They are all free for anyone who is interested.
Where do you see gamification education going in the future?
I definitely think it will grow in popularity, just as teaching with movies and comic books have increased in popularity. I especially think to educate through games will show up more in elective classes or after-school programs. While I do incorporate games into my normal social studies class, I also teach an elective class where we analyze video games as a storytelling medium.
What is your view on video game-based education and STEM careers?
I definitely think game-based education will become increasingly popular, especially as an elective course and as an after-school program. While I love game-based learning, it is not the end-all-be-all of education; it is a wonderful supplement to the million other great things teachers are already doing in the classroom. Teaching and preparing for STEM careers is a must. That market is only going to get bigger and our students need to be prepared to fill those roles.
What would be your suggestions or top tips for a teacher wanting to do something with gaming and education?
Don’t be afraid to try and don’t worry about technology. Not every student needs a copy of the game. I usually play with just one copy projected in front of the room and have one student play at a time per class period. Just set the expectations beforehand so the students know not everyone always gets a chance to play.
What are some of the games you are currently playing or want to play
when you have free time?
I just finished Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order and Pokémon Sword. The next games on my list are 1979 Revolution: Black Friday and then Ori and the Blind Forest.
Of all the lessons you’ve created on Hey Listen Games, what is your
favorite and why?
My favorite is probably a unit I built around the two video games Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch. I use these games to teach about literary techniques and rhetorical devices. They both really resonated with my students, who have yet to have a bad experience with either game.
What is in store for the future of Zack Hartzman?
I am currently working on creating a new curriculum around various
perspectives of war as told through video games. We will play several games that tell the stories of the soldiers, refugees, or border patrol agents in a neighboring country. Each game has a unique narrative that I hope will show the varying consequences of war on people. I also try to put up a new lesson on Hey Listen Games every month or two. Subscribing to the site is free and you are notified whenever new teaching material is added by visiting www.heylistengames.com.