Using Games to Create Shared Experiences – Alison Fecher

Alison Fecher
Cooperative Education Advisor
Clemson University

With distance learning becoming more and more popular and now with social distancing being a health imperative, it’s time to get creative. Possible resources that often go underutilized – or overlooked all together – are videogames. That said, videogames are an excellent vehicle for fostering student engagement in scenarios that they can then take to an online discussion.

Why videogames? Why not podcasts, TV shows, or movies? I agree that those are all excellent forms of media with instructional value. As a podcast junkie myself, I keep a running list of all the episodes I think would generate good discussion in a classroom. However, those are passive mediums; in videogames the player takes on the role of the protagonist and actively engages in the game world making decisions and performing actions.

A student gets the chance not only to witness the story but also affect it, which can make for a deeper and more meaningful experience. Steinkuehler and Williams (2006) posited that digital games create a “third space” where individuals have a shared experience in a game. They are referring to multiplayer online games, but the same concept can be applied to single player games that are later discussed in groups. The third space is still the game, but the shared experience is asynchronous to allow for more flexible schedules. This allows participants to access the same game space but to perceive and engage in that space differently, which creates the potential for rich examination and dialogue.

To provide examples, I will focus on two different games that have potential to be used as experiences and then as discussion topics in classrooms. Both of these games are available via the Steam client ( These games may also be available on other platforms, but I will stick to Steam since it is a free service and only requires a computer as the games are available on both Windows and Mac. Steam is to video games as Amazon is to movies and TV shows. It has almost everything based on one platform, but you must purchase the games to play them. You have access to your games on any computer as long as you are logged in to your Steam account (the account itself is free). On that note, it is possible to have a department or office Steam account so that each individual would not have to purchase the game if they do not wish to. If used for a class, students might purchase the game the same way they would buy a textbook for class. If the user has the correct username and password, they can download and play the games using the shared Steam account.

Night in the Woods

“Night in the Woods” is about Mae Borowski, a first-generation college student who drops out and returns to her small town in the midst of an economic crisis. In our current context there could be similarities in some ways to what our students are going through – compelled to leave campus, many of them returning home despite their wishes. The game was inspired by the 2008 recession and is based on the writers’ own experiences of that time. While “Night in the Woods” has its own story to tell about friendships and what might be out there in the woods, much of the game is focused on Mae walking about town and talking to her friends and family. These conversations lend themselves to reflections on faith, mental health, small town America, and growing up.

As a student affairs professional, as I played, I enjoyed the story, but couldn’t stop thinking about how Mae’s college let her down and how she is processing this failure. What is affecting her and what could have been done differently to support her? The game has a rich story and there are a lot of complexities to Mae’s situation to generate rich discussion.

Another aspect of the game is that in 2019, one of the developers (the programmer and musician) was accused of sexual assault and then died by suicide after the company separated themselves from him. Does this change the game in any way for the players? Can we separate the game from one of its creators? Should we? I had to grapple with these same questions when this news came out. I found “Night in the Woods” to be an excellent game covering a variety of topics worthy of reflection, but I had to reconcile that with some of the repugnant personal choices of one of the creators. In our current “cancel culture” this is an example of the issues our students – and, in fact, all of us wrestle with as we navigate the complexities of life and the individuals around us.

Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor

While “Night in the Woods” is connected more directly to higher education there are learning opportunities that can fit in the context of teaching and training – particularly as they relate to student affairs – in other games, as well.  One excellent example is “Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor” – an anti-adventure game that is really a poverty simulator in a sci-fi setting. The player is a janitor in a spaceport living hand to mouth and trying to break a curse so that they can escape and live a better life somewhere else As the titular Janitor, you incinerate trash for pennies per day but can’t go to sleep until you have eaten. Thus, you need to decide between expensive food from vendors or canned food that can make you sick.

Every so often you must take medication or your vision blurs and you can’t work. You can also get sick out of the blue and must purchase medicine, which can wreak havoc on the small amount of savings that you’ve built up. The Janitor deals with enforcers who threaten and spaceport patrons who make inappropriate propositions.

It sounds extremely depressing, and yet I found myself drawn in with the charming, pixel art of the ever-changing spaceport and every ninth day there is a little celebration with adorable music. Each night the Janitor is required to write in her diary, which builds reflection of the experience into the game itself. Eventually, the player can “win” and escape the spaceport for good, but it does take a bit of work!  Discussions could include reflections on money and resource management and feelings of control versus powerlessness. Is the Janitor an “other” in the spaceport or is she a part of the system? What was each player’s path to making the most out of the Janitor’s situation? The game touches on a variety of other topics our students struggle with – often in silence and isolation.

Applications to Student Affairs

Either of these games can be used in student affairs training or staff development activities. By using these platforms, staff can discuss a variety of student-related topics, first generation status, food insecurity, mental / physical wellness, socioeconomic status, etc. The experiential aspects of the games combined with group discussion can surface specific issues for individual offices, campuses, or communities. Each department or campus community would find different aspects of the games salient and worthy of reflection and each player’s lived experiences brings even more complexity to the discussion.

Additionally, either of these games are suitable for classroom settings. Courses on first year student transition could benefit from discussions using Mae as a case study. “Diaries” could be integrated into classes as a catalyst for reflection on how students from different socioeconomic statuses might engage with college coursework and campus life differently. Administration or retention courses could focus on what programs or policies could have helped Mae maintain her enrollment. Classes designed to train residence life student staff might engage in dialogue related to the food insecurity and otherness experienced by the Janitor. They could also focus on Mae’s experiences related to violence and mental illness and how student affairs professionals could engage with students experiencing these issues. Inclusion and equity courses could use either game to have students experience a reality different from their own and reflect on how they felt, what surprised them, and how they were challenged by the game realities.


Studies regarding game-based learning (often abbreviated to GBL) suggest that it is just as or more effective than traditional teaching techniques. Ahmed and Sutton (2017) posited this is because feedback from games is immediate (p. 80). For example, when watching a video for class, a student cannot get feedback from the video but must wait until class begins. A videogame has no such buffer because it is a fully encapsulated experience and whatever choice the player makes will result in consequences immediately. Hamari et al. (2016) found that educational games increase learner engagement (p. 175). Heightened investment corresponds to the engagement piece since the is player acting as the protagonist and all in-game choices affect the protagonist and thus the experience of the player.

“Night in the Woods” and “Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor” are not the only games of their kind. Independent developers are pushing the limits of how we define and engage with videogames. “Papers, Please” is a simulation and story of an immigration agent trying to support his family in a Cold-War era, communist state. “Celeste” is a challenging 2D platformer where a girl is forced to face her insecurities as she climbs the titular mountain. The developers of “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” spent time with leading neuroscientists to portray the protagonist’s psychosis accurately. Videogames today are a far cry from “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Super Mario Brothers” (wonderful as those games are) and have more to offer than just entertainment; there are games out there with complex narratives that have a place in classrooms and training exercises.

In this era of connecting digitally, we are challenged with finding new ways to share knowledge and experiences. Videogames are not only a low-cost avenue to create immersive experiences, but an educationally effective one as well. They won’t work for every topic or every class, but they have something unique to offer that is worth considering as we plan trainings, courses, and professional development experiences. We are in a changing environment which compels us to reexamine methods of learning and connecting and videogames can help us engage separately and learn together.


Ahmed, A., & Sutton, M. J. D. (2017). Gamification, serious games, simulation, and immersive learning environments in knowledge management initiatives. World Journal of Science, Technology and Sustainable Development, 14, 23, 78-83. http://doi:10.1108/WJSTSD-02-2017-0005

Hamari, J., Shernoff, D. J., Rowe, E., Coller, B., Asbell-Clarke, J., & Edwards, T. (2016). Challenging games help students learn: An empirical study on engagement, flow and immersion in game-based learning. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 170-179.

Infinite Fall. (2017). Night in the woods [Steam video game]. Finji.

Steinkuehler, C. A., & Williams, D. (2006). Where everybody knows your (screen) name: Online games as ‘‘third places.’’ Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11, 885-909. http://doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2006.00300.x

Sundae Month. (2016). Diaries of a spaceport janitor [Steam video game]. tinyBuild.