You Died: An Academic and Life Lesson Kindled in Dark Souls
Note: This article is intended for educators and students, as well as those new and familiar with the Dark Souls Series. It is a consideration of the use of games like Dark Souls in the context of an academic setting by exploring a basic set of concepts surrounding the series, as well as drawing on broad, overarching concepts focused on in classrooms.
It’s been over two months since the successful launch of From Software’s latest installment in the to Dark Souls series, Dark Souls III. And although I have yet to finish the Miyazaki masterpiece, I am relished to reflect on how I might use it, or games like it within my classroom. Before you scoff, or perhaps jump for joy at the idea of seeing You Died repeatedly in a classroom projected on a screen, take a moment to consider the power behind those words. Yes, they are ominous, and yes, if you are an academic with no knowledge of the game’s mechanics or lore you might be shouting from your Ivory Tower This is not academic, nor classroom appropriate!
Yet, much like any good literary work, the symbolism behind these words carries more weight for its players than any academic droning on about literature might (ask my students, they would assure you You Died might as well be written as a response to taking my exams). For players within the realm of Dark Souls those words conjure a critical examination of their failure. It’s a failure that reminds them that for progress to continue in a game, they must accept failure, evaluate their mistakes based on the feedback of the game, adjust their strategy, and attempt to achieve their goal through 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 9th, or more tries. Only after achieving this success can they then progress.
Isn’t this the same lesson we learn in life? The same one we want to instill in high school and college level students about academic and personal failures?
The average high school student is hurdled into a complex, driven, competitive environment influenced by academic, socioeconomic, political, and cultural factors. They weave a complex tapestry inside and outside the environment of academic settings with their personal and social life. Parents are expected to help them navigate this complex array of emotional and physical duress. Yet, so are educators who spend 8 hours a day with them 180 days a year or more. The realty of this situation has influenced China’s aggressive marketing strategy to hire more male teachers to influence their male youth.
With this influence so prevalent it becomes increasingly important teachers drive students toward success. Educators must build students who are not only able to compete academically in a global market, but emotionally in a shifting, evolving culture infatuated with scientific and technological advancement. The emotional element of this has not roots in science or technology however, as those are viewed as calculated, logic based fields. It is within literature students find that human beings learn to exist within complex worlds built upon relationships and belief systems. It is in those same classrooms where literature is taught that students learn the mechanics of critical thinking, interpretation, deduction, and collaboration.
So why not teach students literature? What does Dark Souls have to do with any of this?
I do teach students literature. I also recognize that each student is diverse and for some, reading is passé. I also know that students live in a visual, electronic, feedback driven culture. Literature can be appreciated, and any academic will indicate that lessons learned come from immersion in literature. Characters are relatable, characters teach lessons, characters educate. Plotlines align with life, and even the most fictitious plot relates to an innate desire within humanity to see and learn about the world through the word as Friere might say.
Video games also achieve these things now. And for the modern student, may open an avenue that leads to literature. Dark Souls I believe is capable of this, and is one of many examples I intend to incorporate into a week-long examination of the influence of Literature and History on the game later this year to students. This will examine the way a medium can lead to an interest in academic pursuits, and demonstrate that the way for academics to bring back the love of learning is approach students and ask them to turn from the mirror to the window and become “’ half sick of shadows’ “ (see “The Lady of Shalott”).
Thus, Dark Souls. It would be amiss to introduce the series to those unfamiliar without first acknowledging that the overview I intend to give is not by any means thorough. The lore and subtleties of the game are complex, and beyond the scope of my intention here. Instead, it is important to focus on and show what I believe is the right way to kindle (see what I did there? Well, ok, maybe not yet, but you will) student’s and academics understanding of how the series invites academic use.
Dark Souls foremost feature is the now infamous You Died screen, which players see after each death. It is this screen from which I believe derives the most fundamental appeal of Dark Souls: the desire to succeed and the drive to continue playing. Death is inescapable in Dark Souls and occurs very early in the game. The majority of players will not make it past the first fifteen minutes without experiencing this screen at least once, if not multiple times. In a game with minimal directives and instructions, this is the most imperative lesson: Death will be frequent, but it will always be at the fault of the player. In this way, Dark Souls teaches its students that failure is often the result of a misstep, but failure is acceptable if you are willing to learn from it.
As a side note, anyone familiar with gaming culture can expound on this, but death in gaming often is “cheap.” The deaths in certain games may be the result of faulty mechanics, poor level design, or numerous glitches, bugs, or failure by the games designers to achieve a balance between fair and difficult. In these cases death teaches the player little, except how to exploit a system to avoid it. Dark Souls as a series rarely suffers from these issues. It would be amiss to say they never exist, but on a scale much lower than most games that artificially strive to create challenges for the player.
These challenges and failures lead to one of the most fundamental lessons incorporated into the classroom: thinking. Players (students) begin to critically think about their mistakes. They begin to analyze movement sets, search for, recognize, and memorize patterns, determine their own strengths, improve or lessen their weaknesses. In other words, they think and adapt. They problem solve. They learn from failure. They also learn from success. They integrate and apply prior knowledge from each encounter in the next. These are the same objectives we strive for in literature, in writing, in math, science, or historical endeavors within a classroom.
This is the surface level of the Souls series. The game mechanics train and educate players in a given system, and ask them to utilize it in every encounter and scenario in the game. Repeatedly. Most importantly, it asks them to fail. Repeatedly. Every failure brings that player back to a bonfire. At that bonfire the world is reset, enemies respawn, and every success, as well as failure is eradicated and the player begins again. In fact, these are the only checkpoints the game provides, and they are often spread far enough apart that the player learns a second lesson: Proceed with caution. Sprinting through, racing to the next checkpoint to mark off the box often leads to failure. It is only with time, patience, and diligence that the player can often succeed in reaching the next checkpoint.
An example of this in action is IGN’s recent series Prepare to Try: A series of YouTube videos that took a “noob” (someone new to the world or experience) and asked him to complete the game. Yes, he had guidance, but he learned the systems as well. The game taught him to do all this through failure. Failure over 137 times. How many students would be willing to fail the same extended project that many times while making progress toward its end? My guess is not many. Yet, the reward of completion was enough for him, as it is for many players who enter the Souls series.
Part of success and failure in the series also derives from its complex, intricate, evolving PvP and co-op PvE system (Player vs. Player and Player(s) vs. Everyone). In the first two Dark Souls games a player had to return to the bonfire, kindle the fire by the offering of humanity, and then offer a second humanity (called “reverse hollowing”, you turn from undead into a human) to partake in the system. This meant the Humanity items a player picked up were spent and lost forever. As a result, players must choose when to do this carefully, as Humanity was sparse throughout areas, or cost the game’s currency, souls, to purchase from a vendor. The system sounds more complex than it is, but it is an economy players learn to spend wisely. As a result, students (players of the game) learn economic lessons about sacrifice, hardship, and budgeting for such moments.
Once in human form, players may summon other players. The PvE system rewards other players who opt to assist their players in defeating the AI, particularly the larger, more difficult bosses who inhabit each area of the game. It provides a community of friendship and fellowship, even if fleeting (the co op partner is “sent” back to their world after defeating the boss of an area) and allows players to volunteer their time to those struggling through an area. It also benefits those who may struggle to see the mechanics, patterns, or concepts at work, and through co-op allows them to seek guided assistance in working through the learning curve before them. Here, both sides benefit from communication, and although wordless, the language of victory unites them in a collaborative effort. Collaboration is key, and failure can still result in You Died appearing on the screen, forcing both players to start over. However, success is a reminder of how sometimes a group of people is needed to learn, even if there are setbacks along the way.
As for the PvP system. Although it encourages hostility, and two players battle until death is bestowed upon one of them, the world is not without its opportunity for rules. In fact, the Dark Souls series is unique in that many of the PvP players who engage in it also recognize a code of conduct among its participants. They attempt to educate other players about this through in game actions as well as dedicated message boards and online tutorials. These include but are not limited to: bowing in respect to your opponent before a fight begins, not healing during battle by drinking the game’s health potion (known as an Estus Flask), saluting a fallen, defeated opponent, letting your opponent defeat the AI enemies in an area before beginning the fight, and of course, learning areas where invasions (as they are called) for PvP take place as appropriate fighting spots. There are also larger, complex pieces in place, such as “fight clubs” where groups gather to watch two opponents duel and ensure fairness of a fight by stepping in if someone breaks the rules. All of these of course, are subject to be broken, as in any academic setting when students try to break rules, or find shortcuts, but both in classroom and the Souls series these are frowned upon.
Players ganging up on other players in fight clubs who break the rules are not the only ones who have begun punishing players. FromSoftware, Dark Souls parent company, has begun issuing bans on PC players who hack the game’s source code to increase weapon capabilities, armor strength, or other issues as well. These bans remove players from the community. Although cheating in a classroom will not remove a student from the population, it can affect their grade and set an example for others. Yet, most of my students do not see the consequences of cheating in a high school classroom as a serious consequence as it has no consequences across their entire academic career. Yet, I believe this is where DS as a series helps illustrate that one time cheating can affect an entire experience. Players are effectively removed from something they have worked hard to achieve, and forced to accept what amount to a lifelong (or server long) ban from an experience. How many students would accept cheating in class as a ban from the rest of high school or college, or even a job setting? DS reminds students that even in a fictional realm the consequences are lasting. Most importantly, that consequences as a piece of a world can shape or alter the complete landscape of how you approach an experience or live in it.
The complexity of Dark Souls moves beyond this though. In what is another significant element of the game that shares an important, crucial connection to how high school students can consider their education, Dark Souls carries a rich, meticulously detailed lore. Where it differs from many of its contemporaries in the gaming community is its insistence on minimal narrative driven, cut-scene crafted storytelling. Instead, Dark Souls provides players with item descriptions, cryptic dialogue, minimal cut-scenes, and requires players to then weave these together to craft a narrative. These items, unlike other games (i.e. Uncharted, who sometimes leaves items in plain sight) are not always easily found nor earned by players on their first attempt through the game, nor required to complete the game. Dark Souls prides itself on this obtuseness, inviting players to simultaneously create, dissect, construct, and even deconstruct its world to discover its plot, subplots, and its lore. This is intentional design done by Miyazaki, and one that has another unintended effect: it creates a community.
Before discussing community, however, it is important to recognize what this scarcity of story does for players. It requires research, deduction, analytical thinking, and speculating based on evidence and information found within the world. It asks players to become students of research, exploration, and invites them to draw conclusions based on that work. Any classroom with open-ended questions, with an approach to student based learning requires the same fundamental skills of its students. Although they are not always eager, and do not see the practical “real world” application of these skills, they (as Souls players) have opportunities to practice these skills in a way masked by technology and labeled as “entertainment.”
Dark Souls lore is also responsible for one of the most dedicated communities of any game in the current eco-system. Visit any of the Souls Reddits and you will find communal discussions about every aspect of lore, tips and advice for the game itself, and lengthy (upwards of 20 pages) writings on the entirety of the lore. Videos detailing elements of the lore (some also upwards of 30 minutes or more) have been created with the sole task of detailing the entire story of each of the three games in the series. It is the passion and the desire to craft this information, along with cooperation and collaboration by numerous parties that allows this community to exist. It is this same passion I believe Dark Souls can create among students who share the experience. Their opportunity to collaborate, to collect knowledge that is not found on the internet, but within the confines of a text, which should fuel their desire to craft written and oral responses. Much of what the Souls community has gathered about the game is strictly from their own “reading” of the game, as the director and producers of the game have remained largely silent as a way to encourage the community to craft their own understanding of the game as a ”text.” The concept of bringing a “video game” into the classroom is the worst nightmare of many educators. It does nothing but welcome a strong distraction for students from academic work, by the default of its medium it also suggests there is little or no educational value in any form, but games have come a long way since the days of Pong and Mario Brothers. The development teams, the writers, and the directors and producers of these games continue to push the artistic boundaries for games. Find any academic who is well versed in media and they will tell you the novel suffered from the same public outcry in its formative years, that film too and even television, fought the same struggle to be taken as a tool that could educate and expand the minds of public consciousness. Video Games are relatively young, and fighting this battle now. Yet, college, and even high schools now offer film courses to critique the social and philosophical discourses found within movies. Literature in the form of the novel is a staple that no English classroom would exist without. There are a few courses across the country that are daring to do the same with games (a recent college course at one university explores the Norse Mythology connections to Skyrim).
As for Dark Souls, it may appear as an unlikely candidate when lined up against other games whose narrative, historical, and social commentaries provide stronger evidence for study (Dragon Has Cancer comes to mind). Yet, I believe the hands off approach Miyazaki’s franchise takes toward its gamer speaks volumes to the current classroom exploration occurring with student-led or student driven education models. Both kindle a relationship with self-discovery, and both foster a lot of real world skills students need to be successful. After all, isn’t that what successful education strives to do? Kindle the flame within.