August Roundtable: Back to School

August Roundtable: Back to School

Welcome to August, Sidequest readers! We’re winding down the summer by thinking about school and being a student, because some of us (Melissa) would go to school forever if that was a practical life choice. We’ve talked about edutainment before here in this roundtable series, so this month, we’ll be talking more specifically about school, studying, and so on. Sharpen your pencils and open your notebooks, if those are things students still do and not artifacts of an analog age!

I know quite a few of us enjoy games set in high school, such as Monsterhearts or Persona. What’s the appeal of games like that?

Melissa Brinks: High school sucked and I don’t want to go back there. But at the same time, there’s something really fun about the idea of high school. Everything is the most important thing that has ever happened to you (and probably to anybody) as a teenager, and it can be really fun to indulge that feeling. It’s also fun to occasionally shed our adult concerns and focus on things like intense emotional experiences and how we construct ourselves without those pressures.

Cress: I guess it can be the idea of redoing that time as an adult. I definitely have chosen different ways of going about a game like Persona when I was in my late teens vs. now. Although I honestly don’t know how those kids manage to go to school, study, then fight in a dungeon for all hours of the night!!

I didn’t get to do a lot of stuff in high school, nor were there a bunch of clubs. So it’s fun to see my character engage in all of those things. Still don’t know where they get the energy though, geez…

Zainabb Hull: I neither went to high school nor like schools, full stop, so I find it fascinating to consider why I often enjoy games set at schools. I think there’s a huge element of fantasy for me—you don’t usually need to consider the systems of oppression that schools are designed to create and uphold, you don’t need to revisit your actual childhood, and look, there’s a reason why British secondary schools aren’t the vibes for most school-set games (so you can romanticise a grand teenage adventure with clubs and emotions, instead of just wanting to burn down the grey, linoleum-clad halls of your youth).

Why do you think so many games are set in high school as opposed to college?

Melissa: I haven’t played either of the games in the last question, but I have played Monster Prom and Ladykiller in a Bind, both of which are romance-based games set in high school or immediately post-high-school settings. The school connection in both games feels like it’s more for forced proximity, cliques, and shitty young person behavior than anything else—and because both games deal heavily with romance and sex, both are very clear about the characters being 18 or older. Ladykiller, much like We Know the Devil, is in part about deception and the forming of identities, which I think tracks really well with high school (ish) settings. All of these things could work in a college setting, but I think there’s other expectations for college narratives—they’re often about widening your social circle rather than exploring its limitations, there’s more of an expectation that you’re solidifying rather than finding yourself, that kind of thing.

Of course, that’s not set in stone. I think you could have Monster University (aside from the fact that Disney got there first), the characters of We Know the Devil as camp counselors rather than camp attendees, and the cruise of Ladykiller could be a cruise for a specific department or something. But setting it in or just after high school sort of taps into our memories of what that time in our life was like, whether to deepen our connection (something We Know the Devil excels at) or to make the experience more interesting (Ladykiller‘s dabbling in hedonism and taboo is probably not all that common an experience).

Cress: Partly I think it’s to hit that demographic, and partly I feel it’s a bit of laziness. Setting things in college would require writing more adult-oriented experiences and thinking about tackling problems as an adult. If it’s high school, kids live at home, maybe do part-time gigs and still haven’t figured out what they’ll do (not saying all kids, these games definitely don’t tend to explore working-class situations well). But in college, the person may have their own living space, have to find options for work, and be set in certain goals. I think you can still do the whole “figuring yourself out” in college for a game and I’d love that!

Who knows, maybe some of the developers feel college hits too close to home and want to romanticize their teenage years.

Zainabb: I agree with Cress that partly I think high school places limits on characters and the story in a way that university doesn’t. Sure, at uni you’re still attending classes, and maybe you live on a campus or a small university town somewhere, but there’s no mandatory attendance, and now you’re suddenly figuring life out on your own. School settings can be useful for exploring specific themes because they—and their characters—are bound in a way that others aren’t. I also think that Melissa’s right in saying that people use high school settings to tap into feelings of nostalgia or heightened emotions. I am not someone who relates to coming-of-age or YA narratives basically ever, so those aren’t reasons I play games set in schools, but I’d expect games creators to feel that way!

Some games require a lot of learning about their world, essentially asking you to study before you can play them effectively. How do you feel about this as a player or as a GM? Do you enjoy the studying part?

Melissa: I’m a person who learns by doing and by watching. That will never stop me from buying sourcebooks, though! I often GM, so it’s practical for me to own sourcebooks and study them, but I also just like having them and flipping through them. I could probably play (not GM) games without them, but even when I’m not GMing, I like to have at least a bit of a handle on mechanics. Maybe it’s the critic in me, but I like to see how a game works so I can either play it to its finest or break it for fun.

When it comes to video games with a bunch of codex entries… I’m sorry, I can’t do it. If the information is delivered in an interesting format, such as letters, I’m all for it. If I literally have to read encyclopedia entries to get a handle on the lore, I simply won’t do it. My eyes glaze over if I read too many unfamiliar words—not in another earth language, but in fantasy- or space-speak, a la Mass Effect or Dragon Age. I will try my best, but I likely won’t succeed. Control‘s redacted documents are more my speed.

Cress: It depends, but for the most part, I do. The little tests in Persona were fun! I would get a bonus to my stats for doing well! I like how games can be good tools for applying knowledge. Pokémon starts you off learning about types, and that has gotten more complex over the years while still building on previous entries. In Elden Ring, the game really doesn’t hold your hand and expects you to remember plot points or NPC objectives. FromSoftware games tend to reward you for being curious. Some hidden paths or quests can only happen if you’ve bothered to read certain item descriptions and use them appropriately. Though sometimes I need to cheat, haha!

Zainabb: I’m the opposite to Melissa—I love poring over codex entries in video games. I don’t want to have to do a bunch of reading at the start of a game or all at once, though. I want to be shown why I should care about the world first (because the game’s interesting or what I’ve seen of the world so far is captivating) and I much prefer tutorials over reading to get to grips with mechanics. I appreciate the way that the codex entries in Dragon Age or Mass Effect are spread out and provided in manageable chunks, while I don’t bother with the books from Elder Scrolls.

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