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Exploring Common Core’s Informational Text… with Violent Video Games

Admittedly, Black Ops II and CCSS might make for an odd pairing, almost as if I wanted to create my own little perfect storm of controversy: there are already plenty of librarians and teachers anxious about a steady, CCSS-mandated diet of informational text, so why not stir things up by throwing the year’s best-selling “first-person shooter” into the mix…?

But let’s hold up for a minute. Take a deep breath. And check out the following standard taken directly from the Common Core at middle school:

Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.

The first thing that hits me when I read this is transliteracy. I’ll hazard that many of us don’t immediately think games when we think of this term, but why not? Obviously players need to combine what they learn experientially with the information contained in the pages of books like the one shown above, which has been produced (there is no author named) by strategy guide leader Brady Games in conjunction with games publisher Activision. But there are actual texts at play as well. Indeed, the book explicitly states that its content is not intended to “replace the in-game tutorials and user manual” but to “expand on the information those sources already provide.”

But none of those other texts, I’m guessing, are as thorough, challenging, extensive, and, yes, as complex as this one. Amazingly, though, these traits don’t slow down a motivated reader one bit. In fact, want to see a teen who mostly consumes comics and fantasy novels devour non-fiction in record time? Hand him—or her—this book, and watch the rest of the world slowly fade into the background as attention lasers in on reading and shuts out everything else. Yes, the game itself is rated M, meaning it’s for those 17 and older. And, yes, the “reading level” specified on Amazon matches that, but possibly because of that “mature” content alone, not because someone actually performed a readability test on the text. Indeed, skimming through the book I’m confident it falls squarely in the “zone of proximal development” for most teens.

More importantly, its value as informational text is evident throughout: it’s obviously a reference book, and a thoughtful, well-structured one at that. In the course of these 300+ oversized pages are there some images of violence? Sure, but I’m guessing they don’t occur on 95% of those pages. That’s just not its selling point. Instead, its job is to provide practical data, clearly and comprehensively, and it employs a vast range of text features and visual aids to this end. In short, any student who tackles this book needs to:

  • locate desired information in a “global” way, meaning grasp how the book is organized and use its TOC as needed
  • make connections between information from different parts of the book and from outside sources (as mentioned above)
  • navigate pages and spreads by using headings, design elements, and other consistent textual/visual signals
  • follow instructions: sequence is a big skill here (as is numeracy), and understanding chronology and cause-and-effect are critical
  • interpret copious text features. Remember how the standard said students should be able to “integrate information…visually, quantitatively”? Well, this book has that in spades–captions, illustrations, icons, tables, chart, graphs, maps… you name it.

So what might stop us from teaching with such a book? And by “teaching” I mean something as simple as okaying it for independent reading and adding a dash of “assessment”: a five-minute recap and discussion in a book circle, or maybe just a brief book review for the school paper.

Should Black Ops II itself be part of curriculum, the noise of its gameplay actually echoing in school hallways? Doubt it, especially at lower grade levels. In small clips, though, as part of instruction in media, critical thinking or technology, sure.

And does teaching about “violent video games” such as Black Ops II belong in media literacy education? Yes, although again there might be some sensitivity in terms of actually showing screen shots and gameplay.

Yet, completely apart from such questions, do books such as the one I’ve discussed here belong in libraries so that youth can access them? Without doubt. If you’d like to argue that placing such books in easy reach in any context is irresponsible because it somehow encourages the playing of games of which you don’t approve, then we’ll have to disagree. But know that you’re disagreeing with many others as well, including the editorial powers of this publication; here, for example, is a fine piece about video game tie-ins that I think is useful for librarians… and which happens to include the Assassin’s Creed franchise, which I personally find far more violent than the games I’m familiar with in the “Call of Duty” series (such as Black Ops II).

By the way, I should explain in closing that this is the first in a sporadic series about engaging students with informational text around atypical subjects and formats. Future installments will probably be less controversial, but that’s no guarantee that you’ll like them any more than this one.

About Peter Gutierrez


  1. Great, intriguing post … sure to be controversial. But I think the concept here of using video games as text does not have to the “violent” games you suggest, either, Peter. Other immersive games could be used and could be considered text, as well as the documentation. (Read Extra Lives by Tom Bissell for a great look at how story infuses game design — )